SERMON It May or May Not Be Okay, But I Have Hope

A reading from the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29:

1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:1–14 ESV)

I want to tell you things are going to be okay.

But I can’t. Because I don’t know if they are.

I don’t know what okay means with the election of Donald Trump. I know that many of my queer friends, many of my friends in mixed-race marriages with with mixed-race children, are terrified, and many with disabled kids are as well. They fear for the future, and rightly so. Because it isn’t just Trump himself, it’s many of the people he brings into office with him — Chris Christie, Rudi Giuliani, Newt Gingrich could only best be described as callous and indifferent — who are also short-tempered, petty, vindictive, and intolerant of dissent. Sheriff David Clarke, who may find himself tabbed to head a department like Homeland Security, has for months now called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist movement” and predicted a BLM alliance with the Islamic State to topple the U.S. Government.

And what do we do with terrorists? What has Trump said we should do with terrorists? Arrest them. Torture them. Kill them and their families.

These may just be words, but words mean something. Trump’s 2005 boast that he grabs women “by the pussy” has a terrifying resonance given the ministry I do. Words set actions into motion. We’ve had a little taste of what life in Trump’s America looks like, and I suspect Trump and his regime, if they are magnanimous at all in victory, won’t be for very long. We have every reason to believe his government will be a punitive, authoritarian one eager to arrest and brutalize and condemn people.

Alex Jones may yet see FEMA Camps at work.

So no, I have no idea if it will be okay. At best — at best — the American Greatness Trump supporters seek hearkens back to an era which did not welcome and did not include many of the people I love and care about. I have no idea how this will end, whether this will be a bumbling and incompetent government or merciless and brutal. I have no idea. None at all. There is no future to discern here1.

When God spoke through Jeremiah to the exiles of Israel, he didn’t promise them things would be okay either. Consider where Israel was. They had been invaded, subdued, Jerusalem the holy city besieged. Judah was defeated, conquered, and carried into exile, told by their captors to sing and dance and entertain them with their strange new stories. “By the waters of Babylon, there was sat down and wept, and we remembered Zion.” Zion was gone. Not just far away, but reduced to rubble.

There were prophets telling them “soon and very soon now,” that within two years God will break Babylon and the exiles will go home to live and rebuild. And to someone in a strange place, frightened, traumatized by war and conquest and dislocation, living admidst hostile captors and conquerors, that seems good news! Just hang on a few months, all will be reversed! We will be going home! Our defeat will be undone! We can hope again!

But God is having none of it. Because that is not what real hope looks like here.

Build houses and plant gardens, God says. Marry and have children, and give them in marriage. Seek the welfare of the city — this strange city, this foreign city, this enemy city, this home of your conquerors — where I have sent you into exile. Pray for it. It’s success will be your success.

You’re going to be here for a while, God tells exiled Israel, amidst your enemies and your conquerors. So build, plant, beget.

In face of hopelessness and fear, in the face of uncertainty, humiliation, and defeat, God’s command to us is: build, plant, beget.

This is what hope looks like. Not “hang in there, everything is going to be okay,” but: build, plant, beget.

This is not an easy hope. It is not a happy hope. It does not promise quiet, easy, untroubled lives. And it is given to people who will never live to see it realized. It is little different that the promises given to Abraham — descendants, a land of his own, and a blessing to the world — promises he never saw during his lifetime but took hold of tight and believed anyway (though he wasn’t always entirely faithful in that either). We, my sisters and brothers, may never leave this place, this exile, this Tel Aviv — Summertime Hill — that we have cobbled together on the banks of the Euphrates.

We may never see Zion again. We may die here. Our children may die here. And their children may die here too.

None of that matters. We still have hope. We are still called to build, and plant, and beget.

Because we know something else. Babylon is judged. God has promised we will be delivered. We will not be here forever. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope,” God says. “I will bring you back to the place from which I have sent you into exile.”

Seventy years from now. A long fullness.

And so we wait. And live. In hope. We build, and plant, and beget.

Because Babylon has been judged, and she will fall. We have that promise too. Babylon has been judged, and been found wanting, a place of violence and brutality, of lecherous corruption, of immorality and debauchery. “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence and will be found no more … And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slain on the earth.” (Revelation 18:21b, 24)

Babylon has been judged. It has already happened, even as we weep in exile in its midst. Babylon has fallen, even though she stands tall and strong, her armies invisible, her treasury bursting.

And we have already been redeemed. One who was faithful and true lived and preached and healed and died and rose from the dead, facing down that very power which has carried us off, dying at its hands, and showing us that God’s response to faithfulness is not success, but resurrection. (Just as God’s response to sin is not damnation, but resurrection.) I’m certain in the Garden of Gathsemene, Jesus wanted it to be okay, to know it would be okay, and he realized — it wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be.

This is hard faith. And a difficult hope. It is sometimes a hope of bitter determination. I wish I could say no one will suffer and no one will perish and no one will have to resist great evil. But I don’t. I can’t. I have no idea how terrible things will get. I have no answers except the ones God gave to Israel in exile — build, plant, beget.

Build. Plant. Beget.

In a difficult and uncertain time, that is what hope looks like.

  1. With all the talk of Nazi Germany, Trump reminds me more of Mussolini or Napoleon III (who was the first real modern dictator), and their use of power on opponents and dissidents was real but fairly restrained. Both regimes ended badly, however, in war, conquest, and ruination because of wars they started or joined. Something that should also give pause. ↩︎

The Fatalism (and Hope) of the Doomed

Noah Millman over at The American Conservative laments what politics in America has become:

The sorts of people who show up for a Mitt Romney fundraiser want to hear that 47% of the country should be written off because they are not financially self-supporting for whatever reason. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

The sorts of people who show up for a Hillary Clinton fundraiser want to hear that 50% of their opponent’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” because they are racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

He goes on to note the alt-right supporters on Donald Trump see civilization at stake — in a way coup plotters like those in Salvador Allende’s Chile did in 1973 — and thus there is no room for conversation or even compromise.

We are no longer a nation of fellow citizens engaged in a common endeavor, even as we differ. We have become a nation of enemies and strangers, living side-by-side. Politics is about conquest and subjugation. About preventing those enemies next door from ruling.

By any means possible.

My fear is, soon, we will actually mean that.

Politics is always about winners and losing, excluding and including, competing visions for the polity, even lording it over those you have defeated. But I have long been afraid, ever since I was in graduate school at Georgetown, that the rhetoric (of the late 1990s!) was such that at some point, someone would be so unwilling to lose that they would consider drastic action. Extra legal, extra-constitutional action.

Violent action.

We are headed there. Anyone who thinks Donald Trump is the antidote to what ails America shares the same deluded line of thinking that prompted Soviet generals to arrest Mikhail Gorbachev in August, 1991, and a handful of confused Turkish military leaders to ineptly try and overthrow Recep Tayyep Erdogan earlier this year. Doomed attempts to save dying states, to preserve collapsing orders. The attempt to impose order simply accelerates the rot, and it will further collapse sclerotic institutions that only marginally function anyway.

I admit, I’m a fatalist. For several decades now, I’ve become convinced that dictatorship and violence are an inevitable outcome of our politics. We invest too many of our hopes, dreams, and identities in political acts, in state power, at a time when the state sprawls so widely that it cannot act quickly, effectively, or all that efficiently. At a time when the state itself is increasingly all we share in common — the only thing that links us to each other.

And we too easily constructs our identities ideologically, writing people out of the common, national story who do not believe what we believe.

It doesn’t help that we still seek an earthly paradise, and we still believe politics can and should give it to us. Such is the curse of modernity in an age when Democratic politics has begun to fail and elites can no longer think straight or govern with much wisdom.

This is what happens when you delude yourself into thinking you have abolished history merely because the notion of history you’ve lived with for nearly (and yet only) two centuries — ideological struggle — has gasped its last breath. It lets you forget history is not so much a struggle of ideas as it is of men and their competing and conflicting desires, their aspirations, their appetites, and their successes and failures. History is still happening, because sinful men still breathe, still want, still struggle, still yearn, and still fail.

The metaphor of a Flight 93 election is an interesting one, because once the hijackers took the cockpit of that plane, there was no saving it. The passengers of that plane only got to choose what purpose they died for, the reason they died, and the meaning of their deaths — they didn’t have any choice about death itself.

They were doomed.

And yet, even as polities rise and decline, as order and civilizations come and go, there are always people. Sinful, blessed, striving, caring, brutal, lost, noble, people. However this election ends, and whatever it brings (I’m not betting on renewal, but I never have), we — humanity — will still be here, still breathing, still begetting, still working and loving and praying and fighting and wondering.

So there is hope. There is always hope. Even among the doomed.

Receiving a Babylonian Pension

I was perusing the last few chapters of Jeremiah the other day (because I do that), and noticed that the very last chapter of Jeremiah — chapter 52, the chapter after all the all the curses against the nations, especially the long two chapter judgment of Babylon — is a fairly straight forward narrative. And it ends with this description of deposed King Jehoiachin’s life in Babylonian exile:

31 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-fifth day of the month, Evil-merodach (אֱוִ֣יל מְרֹדַךְ֩) king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah and brought him out of prison. 32 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 33 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 34 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, until the day of his death, as long as he lived. (Jeremiah 52:31–34 ESV)

Compare that with the end of 2 Kings 25:

27 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, Evil-merodach (אֱוִיל מְרֹדַךְ֩)king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. 28 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 30 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived. (2 Kings 25:27–30 ESV)

These are virtually identical passages. The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, who rebelled against Babylonian rule and brought this final destruction upon Judah and Jerusalem, suffers a particularly awful fate — both Jeremiah and 2 Kings relate that he is forced to watch the Babylonians slaughter his sons (with Jeremiah adding that the Babylonians kill all the officials of Judah), at which point the Babylonians gouge Zedekiah’s eyes out and haul him in chains back to Babylon, where he dies a miserable death in one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dungeons.

There’s no hope in this.

Which is why this last bit, about Jehoiachin finding room at Evil-merodach’s table, is so interesting. Chronicles ends with the conquest of Babylon at the hands of Persia — forecast by Jeremiah at the end of his book — and the proclamation of Cyrus that the exiles of Judah can go home to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. But 2 Kings and Jeremiah end with defeat and destruction. A burnt city, a destroyed temple, and a bloody and eyeless king cuffed and manacled and led to his death.

This is death. And nothing of the promise of God to restore his people can come of this. There’s nothing of David left.

But there is. Jehoiachin, king before Zedekiah, whose brief reign was marked by war and siege:

8 Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned three months in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Nehushta the daughter of Elnathan of Jerusalem. 9 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father had done. (2 Kings 24:8–9 ESV)

Jehoiachin (יְהֹויָכִין also known as Jeconiah) and his family surrender to the Babylonians, who carry them off — along with the spoils of the city — and Nebuchadnezzar makes his uncle Zedekiah king in his place.

Jehoiachin “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” He was an idolatrous king — by the point, idolatry has become the way Israel does business, so lost has the worship of the Lord become. Even with an intact temple in place in the center of the city. Jehoiachin follows the revelation of God given through Jeremiah to the people of Judah: “he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war.” (Jeremiah 21:9)

He surrenders. And saves his life. His wicked, godless, immoral life.

And yet here he is, later in life, dealing with a successor to Nebuchadnezzar, released, paroled, pensioned. He now has a place at the king’s table. And no doubt he enjoys all the king of Babylon has to offer him. I doubt he has changed his idolatrous and likely lustful and lascivious ways. After all, the king of Babylon probably lots of beautiful young women at his disposal for the use of “guests” like Jehoiachin/Jeconiah.

Jehoiachin the captive. The sinner. Not Zedekiah’s dismal, eyeless end. But not the thing of hope either.

Except … Jehoiachin shows up as Jeconiah in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:11–12). Viewed by itself, his is a sinful, dissolute, and probably somewhat pointless life. But viewed as part of the whole story, he is the bearer of the promise of God. A distant bearer of that promise, to be sure, but without Jehoiachin/Jeconiah, there will be no Joseph to be the husband of Mary and foster father to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and to Israel through the prophets.

It’s a reminder as we view lives we consider pointless, empty, and dissolute (our own, or the lives of others), that we may not live to see the promises they will bear, the hope they will give life to. That if we live with hope, then we must live with that hope too.

LENT Living in the Promise of God

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
(Psalms 126:1-6 ESV)

Oh, to live in the fulfillment of the promises of God!

To rejoice and know my exile has ended! That I home, in the place of promise, in the land of milk and honey, my land. Where the wadis — the dream streams and rivers that flow only when the seasonal rains come — flow clear and cool and fresh every day! To come back, knowing God has rescued me, redeemed me, given me a full harvest and done great things for me!

So that my sorrow is joy, my grief is celebration, and my nightmares become dreams. So that I can leave behind Springtime Hill (Tel Aviv), my exile home along the rivers of Babylon, and come back to the land — the place, the home — that I was given. That it is well and truly mine again.

Oh, to live in the fulfillment of the promise of God!

I don’t, though. I wake every morning in this אֶרֶץ נוֹד Eretz Nod, this land of wandering, knowing it isn’t my home, knowing I am not going anywhere soon, that the rivers may not flow and the grain may not grow this year because the rains may not come. My mouth may be dry and full of dust. All I have are seeds and sorrow. I weep, still, because I do not have the fulfillment of the promises of God, just the promises. So much warm, still, dry air.

I still have nightmares. And dreams … that are simply dreams.

And yet, I do hold something of the promise of God. I do live something akin to the resurrected life of Christ. Because I share in his life. He shares in mine. I am in him and he is in me. And so, this promise of God is not so empty a promise. It is already fulfilled. In the life of Christ, in his teaching, his healing, his feeding, his casting out of demons, in his proclamation of Good News to Israel and the world, in his life-giving death and in his death-destroying resurrection, I have the promise of God fulfilled.

Wherever I may be, I am home from Springtime Hill, from my mourning along side the rivers of Babylon, from my tireless roaming in the Land of Wandering. Whatever the climate, living waters drench the desert. Grain ripens in the fields, full stalks, golden underneath the late summer sun. There is no drought or famine or war here. The harvest is bountiful. My seeds have grown, and my sorrow is joy.

In Christ, I have a home. I am a blessing. I have descendants more than the stars in the sky. I have an abundance, more to share with all who come. The Lord has done great things for me.

In Christ, the Lord has done great things for me.

An Ash Wednesday Reflection

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
(Psalms 51:1-2 ESV)

I am late to mass. I am late because … because I am late. Because I have never been to this church before. Because I’m taking time out of work, a work schedule that is harried and hurried and busy. Because I had a hard time finding a place to park.

The church is Catholic, and priest wears a chasuble of deep purple, reflecting the color of the day. He is preaching — ten minutes and I’ve already missed the readings — a heavily accented South Asian English. It’s a simple sermon about the meaning of the Lent, about fasting and sacrifice and following Christ to the Cross.

Lent has begun.

And I need this place. This mass. These words. This forgiveness.

I’m a mess. A far bigger mess than usual. My job has left me … gasping for air. I have found yet one more thing I am not good at — the world seems to insist upon finding me things I cannot and should not do, seems to enjoy sticking me in places and among people I should not try to belong to — and I’m addled, desperate, sad, overwhelmed. I waver between a fragile confidence that I can, in fact, do this job, a tremendous desire to pack the car and go anywhere that isn’t here, and the urge to crawl under my desk, curl up in a ball, and weep.

I feel broken. Shattered. Like the glue that holds me together has stopped bonding. Or maybe the atoms inside me are about to fly apart, and I will simply disappear in a blinding white flash of atomic fission, replaced by a tiny mushroom cloud and a burst of lethal radiation. Or maybe — the quarks holding my particles together will simply go their own way, and I will become a naked singularity, benefit of mass, my presence marked solely by what isn’t there and what it destroys.

I’ve not felt like this in a long, long time. And I don’t like it.

So, I need words of forgiveness. Yes, it matters to me that the priest tells me

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

as he smudges a cross on my forehead. It reminds me that no matter how much of a failure I am — and oh, but I am a failure — I face the same end, the same fate, as any successful regional manager, author of books, or real estate speculator. I will die.

It matters that on the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread, and he broke it, and he gave it too to eat, and he told them: “This is my body. It’s yours, given for you, and you eat it when you gather and maybe you will remember me.” It matters that the priest hands me a piece of that broken body, a body no less human and no less broken and desperate than mine, and tells me, “The body of Christ broken for you.”

The saving body, broken for me.

And after mass, after the priest has awkwardly dismissed us all, I kneel before a giant crucifix and I weep. I grasp the nailed feet of Jesus and I weep. This is my Good Friday ritual, a few weeks early.

He knew failure too. Yes, he told everyone he would go to Jerusalem and be betrayed and would be killed and then rise again on the third day. But then … he had to actually face it. He had to actually face betrayal, feel the blows of his accusers, the lash of his torturers, and then … he had to die. Maybe he would rise and maybe … he wouldn’t. Jesus wouldn’t have been fully human if he wasn’t torn by doubt in those last several days.

No wonder, in the garden, he wanted it to end so very differently. Take this cup from me…

In the last several years I have dreamed big dreams. I followed the call of God. I wrote a book. And I failed. At everything.

I feel his feet. I grab hold. I do not want to let go of this dying man. He is dying, this man hanging here. He is dying so that I may live.

Yet he knows failure. He must have wondered, on the Cross, if this was all there would ever be. Pain and suffering and slow death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

He must have felt like he failed. Utterly. Completely. Spectacularly. For all the world to see.

Are you not the Christ? Then save yourself, and save us!

I want to say I have nothing to show for myself right now but panic attacks and bills I cannot pay. But that’s not true. Five people depend utterly on me. My wife Jennifer, who loved me into this and made it possible for me to meet this Jesus dying in front of me. My foster daughters Molly and Michaela, who both have looked me in the eye and told me, “I hate to think where I’d be if I hadn’t met you.” And “Bethany” and her brother “Adam,” who have started calling me “dad” even though they have good and proper adoptive parents of their own. (Please don’t hate me.)

I am not a failure in their eyes. Because they don’t judge my accomplishments, or my position, or my wealth, or my power. They just love me, because they know I love them. A love like that … cannot fail.

As I set out on the lenten journey with Jesus into what I’d rather was glory but is really the stunning failure of all sorts of hopes and dreams, I want to remember that God’s love is the kind of love that must die first. Must face fear and terror and uncertainty and not flinch. It must be willing to walk into death and not look back.

We dream of glory. I know I have. But Christ died first before there could be any glory.

And so … failure that I am, I go on. Out of love. Out of hope that from love comes resurrection. Because I know how it ends. Because I know what I have to go through to get there. That there is a cross I must bear. Suffering, and sorrow, and fear, and terror. And death.

But I am not forsaken. No matter how alone or lost I feel. Christ is with me. Christ suffered. That gives my life meaning.

And I remember the words of the other priest, the Indian priest, as his thumb traced ashen crosses on foreheads:

Repent, and believe the gospel.

SERMON — Nothing to be Afraid Of

I didn’t preach on Sunday — instead, I played some original songs for the folks of Payne AME Church in Chatham, New York — but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Advent 1 (Year C)

  • Jeremiah 33:14–16
  • Psalm 25:1–9
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
  • Luke 21:25–36

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 And he told them a parable:“Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25–36 ESV)

And there will be signs. In the sky. On the earth. The very creation of God will be in turmoil, the highest heavens and the sea itself bearing witness to what is happening. To what is coming.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples here of fear. Paralyzing fear. Conquering fear. Debilitating fear. Fear that leaves us incapable of moving, of acting, of thinking. Of even paying attention.

Fear in the midst of violence and terror. Fear in the midst of war. A war the Jesus says will befall Jerusalem, a war that will come in “the days of vengeance,” a war that will be wrath against the people of Jerusalem, and the city itself. And those people — God’s people, God’s stiff-necked, unfaithful, disobedient people — will, according the words of Jesus, fall by the sword, be led captive and scattered among the nations of the world, and will be trampled underfoot.

We’ve seen cities burn. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen cities burn. From war, terror attack, riot, and uprising. We’ve seen cities burn. Across the Middle East, cities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya smolder and crackle under the weight of siege and aerial bombardment. We fear terrorist who have so successfully — but very sporadically — unleashed violence in our midst, attacking us in our very own cities. Not quite laying waste to them, not quite surrounding them with armies, not quite leaving them desolate. But terrifying us anyway, leaving us uncertain about some of our neighbors — can we trust them? — and what the future holds in store.

Well, let me put you at ease. There will be more. More terror. More war. More death. More desolation. Lots more. The killing and the dying and violence will continue. Feel better now?

Do not be afraid. God speaks these words, or some version of them, more than any other in scripture. Do not be afraid. And God does this when Israel, when the people of God, are most afraid. And honestly, their fear is most warranted.

The time God says this the speaks to me most clearly is that moment when Israel, fleeing from their slavery in Egypt, is caught — water in front, Pharaoh’s army closing in fast. Nowhere to go. No forward, no backwards. Nothing is left. There is no future, just desolation, despair, and pending doom. “It is because there are no graves in Egypt that you, Moses, brought us out here to die in this desolate place?” Afraid, angry, desperate, Israel has lost all hope. There is nothing left to hope for.

This is when Moses speaks the words of God — “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. … The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

Fear not. Words spoken to a frightened people, a hopeless people, a people so overcome by fear that they have given up any sense they have a future.

This is when God speaks these words to us. Not on calm and peaceful mornings, not when life is secure and we are confident, but in those moments when we have lost all hope. In those moments when it seems most clear there is no hope to be had. Fear not.

Luke’s Gospel almost begins with this admonition, do not be afraid, spoken by an angel to Zechariah when his is told he and his wife Elizabeth — they had been long unable to conceive a child of their own — will have a son, John, who will become John the Baptist. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” And again, to the young Mary, betrothed to Joseph, who hears these very same words, “do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

Fear not, Jesus tells his tiny flock in chapter 12, for it is God’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. This after a long sermon telling his disciples not to be anxious, not to worry about their futures, about where their daily bread and their clothes will come from. God knows you need these things, Jesus says, and God’s got it. God has got you. God has got us. The kingdom is ours, and we who have been called to follow Jesus will have treasure that cannot be stolen and cannot rot or rust.

Fear not. Do not be afraid.

I know, this is easier said than done. I have been overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty, and sometimes I have been truly convinced I have no future. I don’t get excited much about current events anymore — about wars and rumors of wars, about signs in the skies — and I don’t do a lot fainting with foreboding over what is coming in the world. I do, however, sometimes wonder if God has led me all this way — through Islam, as a witness to the attacks of September 11, 2001, through seminary and the humiliating and painful mess that was candidacy for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — through all off this simply to die in some forgotten corner of the world, alone and unwanted. I wonder. I truly do. Because it has seemed, at times, like there is nothing left.

Nothing to hope for.

It’s in this moment Jesus tells us — stand up straight, raise your heads, look up. Your redemption is at hand. This is not the end. You do have a future! Walk and live with confidence in the midst of the violence and meaninglessness of the world. Your redemption — our redemption — is at hand.

Stand up. Walk confidently as men and women who know you — all of you — have lives that matter to God. All of you have futures. All of you have something to hope for. And someone to hope in. Jesus.

Do not be afraid. Stay awake, straighten up, and live. Like the redeemed people we are.

I Can Do All Things…

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been gaining a steady trickle of Twitter followers — not many, I’ve not topped 200 yet — and a fair number of them are Christian. Mostly conservatives, but a few of the inspirational, power-of-positive thinking school. (Not that these are mutually exclusive.)

Such thinking tends to give me hives. I’m not much of a positive thinker, though I have learned over the last few years (including a very intensive two-week tenure on Instapray) that often times, the people “thinking positive thoughts” are frequently those going through very difficult times. Me? I see a value in suffering and lament, and tend to view God more as a companion — one who suffers with us — than as one who solves all suffering or provides comfort. God’s presence with me in my suffering is comfort enough for me.

But I don’t challenge the faithfulness of people who publicly express these kinds of sentiments anymore. Because I don’t know what they are going through. Because I don’t know what they need to hear God telling them.

For example. A couple of weeks ago, when I was feeling a little anxious, I was futzing around on the guitar, a melody came to me, and pretty quickly wrote a song from bits and pieces of the Gospel of Mark. The main message was, “do not be afraid,” something I clearly needed to hear. Not just in that moment, but always.

At any rate, I do not know quite where they are.

But there is a bit of scripture I see quoted that still gives me hives. Someone I follow on Twitter, someone of the “think positive” school I suspect, recently posted the following:

Stop saying “I can’t.” #Philippians 4:13

And that’s okay, so far as it goes. But I keep seeing Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” — as a kind of incantation that says, “I can do anything so long as I have Jesus with me.” Leap tall buildings, get an A on that exam, close the deal, whatever.

This is where it’s important to read the whole passage. Because Paul isn’t quite saying that:

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13 ESV)

There is more, and Paul acknowledges in the following verses that the church at Philippi has shared “my trouble” with Paul, and has provisioned him with “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

But the point leading up to the verse is about circumstances, not accomplishment. “For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” This is worth learning — I haven’t learned it, as much of my whining on this blog attests to. Paul tells the Philippians that he has “learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” He has learned how to deal with his circumstances regardless of what they are.

Because he has the strength of Christ to see the gift and blessing in everything he has. Whether he has plenty or little, he knows he has the power to praise God for whatever he receives. More importantly, he knows that God provides for him. Everything is from God. He is utterly dependent upon the grace of God, and that grace expressed through the goodwill of those he visits, teaches, preaches, and writes to. And he knows this.

I sense in Paul a kind of a grateful presumption as he writes this. He is grateful for everything he has received. He truly is. But he also expects — no, he knows that God will provide for him. Because God promised, and God’s promises never fail.

This isn’t quite positive thinking, a cure for “I can’t.” This is bigger than defeating “no.” It’s living into the promise of God in difficult circumstances, knowing that God will provide. It says “yes” when I want to say “no, I cannot go on.” But it doesn’t say “yes” when I say, “no, I cannot jump that tall building” or “no, I will not get that job” or “no, I won’t win an award for my book.” I know Paul says all things πάντα, but this isn’t about magical or heroic accomplishments — it’s about endurance. It’s about knowing that whether you have much, or have little, whether you are held in high regard, or no regard at all, everything is from God, and each is a thing to be endured. Which means that neither is a natural condition. Neither is to be expected.

And neither is to be feared.

I wish I had this kind of faith. I know how dependent upon the goodwill of others Jennifer and I have been for the last couple of years. I don’t like this dependence, I don’t like being a perpetual guest. I don’t like daily bread, knowing that just about every difficult situation I’ve found myself in has gotten barely resolved for the good at the very last moment.

And yet, I’m slowly learning to live into this with what I call this faithful presumptiveness, that the provision of God will be there exactly when Jennifer and I need it most. It still doesn’t feel right. I still don’t feel like I’m earning any of this. And I so want to earn my bread by the sweat of my brow, and have a home of my own, so I can at some point be a host. And not a guest.

But as Paul has said, I know how to be brought low. Oh God, but I have been brought low. But that is not all there has been either. I know how to abound. I know how to see abundance is simple and meagre gifts. In fact, a big possibility is looming on the horizon — I will be appearing on TBN’s Praise The Lord show next week — that could make all that possible. I hope. I pray.

Once, long before seminary loomed on the horizon, I told my best friend Vince: Jennifer and I have been through so much together, I’m not sure if anything could tear us apart. We’re a good team.

Vince looked at me thoughtfully and said: success and prosperity. You’ve not experienced that yet. And that does strange things to people.

I’m not sure at this point what success and prosperity would look like for me. Likely not a $10 million house or a $60 million private jet. Abundance feels to us right now like a small place of our own and a comfy couch to cuddle on and drink coffee. (And at some point, someone’s abandoned kids to take care of.) That’s all we really need.

Whatever comes, though, I know — I can do all things through him who strengthens me.