Chaotic Lives

I have a confession to make.

Much of the time, I’m not sure how much of this online ministry I do with hurt kids is real and how much of it is someone putting me on, playing me a bit, just to see how far they can take me.

I got some confirmation this week that what I do is real, and I do it with real people.

But my doubts … emerge from the fact I deal with young people, children, and many of them with autism, in crisis, who seem to meet me just as some really awful things are about to happen in their lives. This isn’t to say awful things haven’t happened, but I’ve held hands through a staggering number of abductions, rapes, emergency room evaluations, and desperate situations where I’ve had to remind, over and over and over again, to call 911, have hope, be brave, and hold on.

Part of me wonders how real any of this is when it happens so often, with such a stunning sameness. Some months ago, I took to referring to something I called “The Rapists Union,” men who seemed to wander Stevens and Spokane Counties watching young women, luring them, abducting them, hurting them, all with a shocking impunity. But that was just a private shorthand, and although I have been told — again and again — this phenomenon is real, it’s still hard for me to believe sometimes.

Largely because I’m, at heart, a good bourgeois citizen — middle-class enough to believe that chaotic, unordered lives are largely the fault of the one in chaos, and not the society or community or even class they live in.

After my first pastoral internship went kablooey, and Jennifer and I were casting about, lost, unwanted, abandoned, hurt, I remember sitting with the director of field education at LSTC, Rosanne Swanson, and telling her, as Jennifer and I scrambled to find a place to live, “Don’t worry, we’re good at this.”

And she sighed.

“It would be nice to get you to a place where you don’t have to be,” she said.

Meaning, I think, there seemed to be a sense on her part that this scrambling, this knowing how to fall on our feet, was as much a product of our own choices and our own chaos as anything else. If I could just live the right kind of life, self-ordered and self-disciplined and properly attuned to social cues, I wouldn’t need to know how to land on my feet.

I wouldn’t lead a chaotic life.

And maybe, if that’s what she was saying, she’s right. Who knows? I suspect the ELCA, at its heart, sent me packing because they just understood I was not properly bourgeois enough. They couldn’t say that, or didn’t know how, or simply didn’t know that’s what they were concluding, but it’s why I’m not a candidate for theirs or anyone else’s ministry.

Because clergy, perhaps more than any other “profession” in our society, is aspirationally bourgeois. Calm and pious and self-disciplined and well ordered.

(And I have a whole blog entry scribbled down in my head on this.)

Few of the kids I deal with come from stable homes and lead stable lives. Even if they weren’t in foster care, most would likely not lead stable or peaceful lives. Based on my informal survey, most of the kids I deal with find their way into foster care because one parent dies and the other goes to prison — and sometimes one is the cause of the other. A lot of violence and a lot of drug use. I know this happens to the bourgeois too, but there is more room for error in a bourgeois family and a bourgeois community.

To be blunt — proletarians are rarely kind to each other, are often harsh toward their children, and frequently view violence as the only proper way to deal with problems. Proletarian life is visibly disordered in a way bourgeois life is not1.

And I am an emergency worker. Like a paramedic or a police officer, I deal with the wounded or the worst-off, in the worst neighborhoods or worst communities, the often times uncomprehending wounded who don’t entirely know how to explain what has happened. Only that someone is hurting them. And it needs to stop.

It is hard for me at times to believe a portion of the world is this callous, this brutal, this chaotic. I regularly ask myself, ask Jennifer, ask Kaylie, ask Bethany, “Is this real?” Because, even for me, cynical as I am, sometimes … I doubt.

It is the bourgeois in me who doubts. Whose experience of this world is almost entirely second hand, and whose understanding is filtered through those young people who have taken the time to stick with me and let me into their lives. I can’t tell a 14 year old sex slave to make better choices, because those choices aren’t hers to make, and needed to be made when she was 10, or four, or before she was even conceived.

But I don’t understand this world. It is too foreign to me. I don’t question it’s reality, at least not often, but I am past trying to make sense of how or why. I have never understood cruelty, organized or otherwise. It has never made sense to me. Not when I was subject to it, and not now that I am first on the scene to help.

I doubt sometimes. But only because … I believe.


  1. Note I say here visibly. ↩︎

ADVENT 12 / Tired of Waiting

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


The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

Oh yeah?

It feels like God is slow. It feels to me, right now, that God has forgotten his promise. To me. To others. That God has just simply walked away.

Last week, I learned a terrible thing. A young woman who had been texting this ministry, a teenage girl living in an abusive home, frightened of her dad, had contacted one of the people here. Not me. She read this blog, and then read my blog (I’m Charles, if you must know), devoured it, took some hope in all I’d written and said. And was beginning to get the courage to run away, to leave home, to find safety and protection.

It was too little, too late. Her father beat her to death.

Not slow? Not wishing any should perish? BUT SOME HAVE PERISHED! Many have perished, and many more will die, frightened and alone, at the hands of those who mean them nothing but harm.

There are days when I don’t want God to be patient with me. With the suffering of the world. I just want it all to be done with.

There are days when I do not care if I am delivered or redeemed. When I wish I had never been baptized, never heard Jesus speak of love in the midst of terror and death, when I wish I’d never heard a promise and never believed.

But I do believe. I cannot help it.

I am, however, tired of waiting.

JUDGES Life Amidst Thorns and Snares

A reading from Judges, the first and second chapters.

27 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 28 When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 1:27–28, 2:1–5 ESV)

Israel put its faith in its own strength. In its own means. As it faced its enemies, the Israelites no longer believed in the command of God — “I will drive them out before you” — and instead looked its arms and its numbers and its power and said, “we can control you, and we can oppress you, and we can deal with you.”

“We can deal with your gods.”

Again and again, Israel is told — make no covenant with the people of the land, make no deals, do net let their altars and their objects of worship stand, lest they “become a snare in your midst.” (Exodus 34:12) We are not told why their gods will be so attractive, why dealing with them and eating with them and making love to their daughters is so dangerous, except that their worship will be so much more attractive than that of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who called us and saved us and redeemed us.

We aren’t told why. Maybe the false idols of the Canaanites demand so little of us, demand only what we are happily willing to give. Maybe the worship of the Canaanites is so sensual, the food of the Canaanites is so delicious, the company of the Canaanites so pleasurable, that we cannot help ourselves.

And maybe we are so enamored of our power that we think, “We have the swords, we make the laws, we are in control, our God is powerful and has given them into our hands. Their labor makes our lives easier. We can bear their company.”

So now, God tells us we have to live with these people, in our unhappy relationship. In the kind of terrible closeness conqueror and oppressor have with those have they dispossesed and enslaved. That relationship changes us, turns us into a callous and brutal people, people who have little problem with the daily cruelties needed to keep others subordinate, to compel their labor, to deny them their humanity.

This will make us people who cannot love our neighbors. Who cannot love God. Who cannot love ourselves.

So we live with the smoldering resentments of those we have conquered and enslaved. We live with their desire for vengeance. It will overtake us a time or two.

We have to live with the consequences of what we have done, and failed to do, and who we have become. A people who trust our means, our abilities, our strength, to protect and save ourselves. And not God. This is our faithlessness, and our sin. Our doom has been set into motion. We have set it into motion. God has told us more than once what the consequences will be.

And so we weep.

How Long, O’ Lord?

A reading from Habakuk, the first chapter.

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
(Habakkuk 1:1-4 ESV)

How long, O’ Lord?

I suspect many of us have cried this, wondered this, whispered this. Words sent into the air, to evaporate, to decay, unheard.

How long, O’ Lord?

The world is full of violence. It is full of wickedness, and it goes unpunished. There is injustice everywhere. “Why do you make me see it?” This is our world.

This was also Habakkuk’s world. He is speaking to the later kings of Judah, kings who failed to follow the law and worship God, kings who put their trust in wealth and power and in the worship of false gods.

10 And the Lord said by his servants the prophets, 11 “Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, 12 therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 13 And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. (2 Kings 21:10–13 ESV)

Judgement is coming, and it’s coming because of Israel’s faithlessness. Because of Israel’s idolatry. Because of Israel’s sin. This is God’s message to Habakkuk too, as he stands and wonders how much longer he must see, must live with and bear, the violence and injustice of the world.

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
(Habakkuk 1:5-7 ESV)

Judgement is coming, in the form of Babylon, to to pluck up and destroy. “They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.” (Habakkuk 1:9) It is coming, and it is coming in God’s time.

To the question of “How long, O’ Lord,” God answers, soon and very soon.

It’s a judgment Habakkuk says he will wait quietly for.

But it is not a perfect justice that is coming. It is a rough justice, one of violence itself. It is justice because those who live in comfort and ease, who live and profit and get pleasure from brutality and violence, will themselves fall to the sword and will themselves become captives.

Babylon is the means, the hands doing God’s work, but Babylon is not free from that very same judgement. “Woe to him that builds a town with blood” God tells the prophet of the Chaldeans. The cup Babylon has made others drink will itself be passed to Babylon. And the Chaldeans shall be made to drink.

This is little comfort, however, when you live in the time of violence and injustice. When what you see all around will not stop. Cannot be made to stop. In which no one who wrongs you or anyone else will ever be held accountable. But perhaps knowing those who wrong you will themselves eventually fall by the sword — a sword which itself God will avenge himself upon — is enough.

… the righteous shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

We live by faith, in the promise of God, that this violence is not all there will be. Habakkuk did not live to see the promises of God fulfilled. But he trusted God. And waited “for the day of trouble” — knowing he would likely die waiting. Sometimes that is all we have.

It’s a terrible answer. To know that you may never be rescued, may never be redeemed. It is a terrible faith.

But the faith we have, the faith we confess, isn’t quite so hopeless. “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to the repentant thief dying with him. We believe in a redemption so real that we do not have to wait for it. We are saved, redeemed, right now, even if we can hold nothing in our hands and see nothing in our world that shows us we are redeemed.

We live, as Christ lived. We die, as Christ died. And we will rise, as Christ rose.

That is the only answer I have in the face of the violence and injustice of the world. It is the only hope I have. It is the only truth I can confess.

It is the only thing I know that’s real.

JOSHUA No Land for Levi

1 Now Joshua was old and advanced in years, and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to possess. 2 This is the land that yet remains: all the regions of the Philistines, and all those of the Geshurites … 6 … I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel. Only allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you. 7 Now therefore divide this land for an inheritance to the nine tribes and half the tribe of Manasseh.”

33 But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance, just as he said to them. (Joshua 13:1–2, 6–7, 33 ESV)

So, all Israel gets land. All Israel gets the ability to sustain and care and provide for themselves. All Israel gets an allotment in the land God long-promised to Abraham and his descendants. Even Simeon, who joined Levi in his brutal assault on Hamor’s people in Genesis after Hamor the Hivite seized their sister Dinah and “lay with her and humiliated her” (Genesis 34:3) — and paid for that assault by being disinherited when a dying Jacob blesses his sons at the end of Genesis. Simeon gets a big circle of land in the middle of — surrounded by — Judah.

All Israel gets land. Except Levi.

The sons of Levi (the tribe of Moses) had been set aside to carry the Ark of the Covenant and “to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless his name, to this day.” (Deuteronomy 10:8) They are Israel’s priests, and are utterly dependent on the gifts given to God for their own survival (Deuteronomy 18:1–8).

They will receive their own patrimony — cities and pastures — later in Joshua. But mostly, the Levites have to depend on the goodwill gifts of the rest of Israel. They eat of the sacrifices given to God. While the manna stopped falling for Israel once they crossed the Jordan, the Levites are still dependent upon God for their sustenance.

For their daily bread.

This is what it means to do the work of serving God, as the priests of God’s people, to carry the physical embodiment of the covenant God has with his people, to keep the incense fires lit, to keep and tell and transmit the story of God’s people.

I believe in tent-making ministry, because our professionalized clergy have become a bourgeois “helping profession” where we are somewhere between community organizers and social workers, just another career that helps maintain good order in a democratic capitalist society. There is a place for that, I suppose, but, it is not all we are. We do a strange work, this lighting fires of incense, this proclamation of grace over bread and wine, this leading of prayers, this being the presence of God in the midst of sorrow and joy, terror and suffering. It is an odd thing we lead, this worship of God. It is particular work, this, and the community of God’s people have an obligation to the Levites called out of their midst to lead those prayers, keep that story, and proclaim that presence.

Because they rely on the Lord for all they have. They have to trust in ways the rest of us do not. They have no sustenance of their own, and no inheritance, no patrimony, except the promise of God. They show the rest of us what it means to live on the ragged edge, and in the midst of God’s amazing blessing.

SERMON Workers For The Harvest

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked and sounded like this.

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • Isaiah 66:10–14
  • Psalm 66:1–9
  • Galatians 6:[1–6] 7–16
  • Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick in it and say to them, The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. 16 The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:1–20 ESV)

The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, but there are few workers to come harvest.

My question is: why?

My grandfather owned a farm and ranch southwest of Spokane, and in the summer — if it has been a good year — the hills of that farm would turn gold as the wheat and the barley ripened underneath a hot, dry, blue sky. And in a good year, that wheat would yield fifty-fold.

The harvest would be plentiful. Hills covered with grain, ready for reaping. Stalks of grain, ready for threshing.

Even though the work was largely done by machines, there was still a need for laborers. And my grandfather always had a few, at least when I was little. Young men, doing the hard work the older men could no longer easily do, bucking bails of hay and driving trucks full of harvested grain.

There were always laborers. Always men, ready, willing, able to work for the harvest.

Does anyone remember a few months ago, when some news agency mistakenly reported that the state of Hawaii was hiring anyone with a bachelor’s degree, certified or not, to teach at island schools. The state department of education was inundated with resumes from job seekers from across the world. (Truthfully, I almost sent them my resume!) Now, maybe there would have been equal interest if that state had been, say, North Dakota. Maybe. Hawaii had to make clear the following day that it had lowered standards for its teachers — certification was still required to teach in Hawaii, reports to the contrary notwithstanding.

We see it, from time to time, dozens, hundreds, thousands of applicants seeking work. People lined up around city blocks to submit applications for highly coveted positions — like teaching in Hawaii! All wanting the dignity that comes with steady employment, meaningful or not.

The harvest is, well, not so much. But the laborers are plentiful. We see that with our own eyes.

So … why does Jesus tell us the exact opposite? As he sends his disciples out two-by-two, not long after being shown no hospitality by a community of Samaritans, after calling and being followed by people he meets along the way to Jerusalem? Why is this harvest so plentiful and yet it attracts few laborers?

What is the harvest? And what does it mean to labor in this harvest?

Jesus shows us what it means to labor in his harvest. It means going out without what we consider proper preparations or provisions. Pack nothing, greet no one on the road. Do not let what you are supposed to carry distract you from your calling.

Who of us here have ever traveled anywhere without making proper preparations, without packing for the trip, without taking extra clothes and the money needed to cover basic needs and deal with emergencies? Who here has ever picked up and gone someplace new, amongst strangers, and trusted they would provide hospitality, care, food, protection, ears to listen to the good news the God’s kingdom is coming near?

It’s hard, what Jesus asks. Try it, sometime.

He even builds into this calling the expectation that some people, some places, will not welcome, will not accept you, will not care for you or provide for you. That too, is part of what it means to labor for the harvest. We will be unwelcome.

This too seems to be the kingdom drawing near. That some will refuse to welcome. They will pay the price, Jesus tells us, come the day of judgment. Kick the dust off your feet and move on.

For the harvest is plentiful. The hills are covered in ripening grain.

So, we must trust God. We must trust that somewhere, hands will provide. People will welcome, peace will be spoken, bread will broken, meals will be shared. All the power of Satan to temp and break and confuse and confound mean nothing in this kingdom growing near. We have power — life-restoring, death-defeating, resurrection power. That’s real power.

But it seeks no glory. It seeks no fame. Life everlasting is all it proclaims. So many who labor for the harvest labor alone, unseen, unsung, their names lost to history and their bones long turned to dust, awaiting that day when the trumpet will blast and the dead will rise, alive and remade, to the final judgment of Christ.

We want glory. I want glory. We want fame. I want fame. We want something more than complete reliance on welcoming strangers. I want something more. I want bread earned by the sweat of my brow, honest sweat, from honest labor. And we want something more than to have to kick the dust off our feet when we meet hostility and fear.

Sometimes, I want fire from heaven to devour those who have not welcomed or received me. To show them just who and what they have rejected.

This is thankless work, this calling Christ has given us. We do not know who these 70 (or 72) others are. They have no names, at least not in scripture. They go unremembered. We know they were called, given this commission, and came back rejoicing that even demons bowed down to the name of Jesus! But we don’t know who they are. We don’t know what became of them.

Let me suggest, sisters and brothers, that the reason Jesus tells us the laborers are few is because the work is hard, we have to trust complete strangers will provide for us, we have to heal the sick and cast out demons, and we have to move on when we find no welcome. We receive no pension, no salary, no titles, and likely no recognition.

We don’t even speak for ourselves. We speak only for the one who called us to this miserable, amazing, incredible, thankless work, who sent us out to proclaim his kingdom.

Who’d want that work? Not me.

Not me.

And yet … here I am. He called me. I followed.

I followed.

JOSHUA Ouch!

1 As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.

2 At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time.” 3 So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. 4 And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died in the wilderness on the way after they had come out of Egypt. 5 Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. 6 For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord; the Lord swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way.

8 When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. 9 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day. (Joshua 5:1–9 ESV)

I don’t know whether Israel is faithful or foolhardy here.

Or both.

This is a faithful act, renewing the covenant of circumcision with those born in the wilderness, who had apparently not been circumcised, becoming part of the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17:

9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you:Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:9–14 ESV)

So, Israel hadn’t kept the covenant, but it could be that Israel wasn’t really Israel as long as they were wandering in the wilderness, as the curse that none who were afraid of the Canaanites (Numbers 13–14) was in place. As River Tam said in an episode of Firely, “They weren’t really cows in the ship. Then they saw sky, and remembered what they were.”

Israel doesn’t really become Israel, doesn’t really shake the curse of wandering, isn’t fully a people of the covenant, until they are in the land.

In this, the reproach of Egypt, of slavery, of fear, is gone. Rolled away. Now they truly know who they are — God’s people, called to do God’s work.

But this circumcision is a foolhardy as well. For had the kings of the Canaanites but known, Israel was at its most vulnerable in the days following this mass cutting of foreskins. In Genesis 34, this is a ruse by the sons of Jacob to put the Hivites both at ease and make them easy prey. Which they are, Simeon and Levi kill every last Hivite man on the “third day” after their mass circumcision.

So, by doing this, Israel is defying the kings of Canaan, taunting them, and — more than anything else — trusting that God, who took the spirit out of the Canaanites with his miraculous act of stopping the Jordan and letting Israel cross dry shod, will protect them.

Sometimes the most faithful act we can do is to become utterly, completely, and totally vulnerable before our enemies. And trust that our God will protect us, and keep us safe.

Conquering Canaan With Joshua

Okay, so I’m giving myself an ambitious goal — a daily devotional reading through Joshua (and hopefully Judges, my favorite book). I have no idea what will come of this, but I’m going to give it a shot and see what happens.

Joshua was the successor to Moses as the leader of Israel, and we first meet him in Exodus 17 as Moses commands him to “choose for us men, and go out and fight Amalek.” In Numbers 11:28, Joshua is described as “the assistant of Moses from his youth” (a passage echoed in Exodus 33). Joshua was also one of the spies sent to scout Canaan in Numbers 13, one of the few who remained loyal to Moses when Israel rebelled in the following chapter. He’s a military leader, a fighter, and he is loyal to Moses and to God. His very name, Yehoshua ַיְהוֹשֻׁע means “he who saves” (from the verb ישׁע, “to be delivered or saved from external evils or troubles”), and it is the name later rendered into Greek as Ιησους, or Jesus.

The one who saves.

Martin Luther described Joshua this way:

Joshua, however, denotes Christ, because of his name and because of what he does. Although he was a servant of Moses, yet after his master’s death he leads the people and parcels out the inheritance of the Lord. Thus Christ, who was first made under the Law (Gal. 4:4), served it for us; then, when it was ended, He established another ministry, that of the Gospel, by which we are led through Him into the spiritual kingdom of a conscience joyful and seven in God, where we reign forever. (The Lutheran Study Bible, p.338)

God has told Moses he will not live to set foot in Israel’s patrimony (“For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” Deuteronomy 32:52), the land of promise. He is too old. He “broke faith” with God. Besides, to take the land of is a different task, and one requiring a different kind of leadership, a different kind of faithfulness, than mere wilderness wandering. Moses is not the man to lead Israel across the Jordan and into battle.

But Joshua is.

7 Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. 8 It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:7–8 ESV)

But it is not triumph that Joshua is leading Israel to, even as God prepares the way to take possession of the land.

16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? ’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.” (Deuteronomy 31:16–18 ESV)

God is leading Israel into his promise, and yet predicts that his people will “despise me and break my covenant.” He commands the writing of a song that predicts the future to come, of comfort and idolatry and disaster to come — war and conquest in which the Lord God of Israel exacts a terrible vengeance upon his very own people for deserting the covenant God made with them when he delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt. In fact, Moses tells Israel when he has finished with this dire prediction:

46 … ”Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:45–47 ESV)

What a terrible task Joshua is given, to lead the people of God in the taking of the promise of God, knowing that the words spoken by God and by Moses during his commissioning are words of impending failure and forthcoming doom.

Talk about a terrible setup. It’s a little like life. “Congrats on being born, you’re going to do some awesome stuff, some really shitty things will happen to you, oh, and by the way, you die. Whether you do well or not.”

And yet, before he died, Moses laid hands upon Joshua, and his young successor “was full of the spirit of wisdom.” Even knowing how it would turn out, Joshua possessed the courage and the strength to lead. Not because he was promised victory — though victories will come, and the land will be taken — but because he was faithful.

Because Joshua trusted God.

Cannot See People Anymore

I’ve written here before about the increasing difficulty we have in our Western world seeing and valuing “personality,” and especially differences in personality. The only kinds of diversity people within (and even outside of) institutions have been able to recognize in the last two decades or so are broad categories of human beings — particularly race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Anything else is inconvenient or irrelevant. This is one reason I believe “diverse and inclusive” communities and institutions are at least as conformist, if not more so, than those they seek to differentiate themselves from.

It doesn’t matter what people look like, so long as they think alike.

I’ve taken some heat for this view, and I’ve never really seen it articulated elsewhere. Which may mean I’m either observing something no one else is seeing (yay for me!), or I’m seeing something that simply is not there (because I’m a self-centered asshole). Take your pick.

Until today. I came across the most amazing blog, More Crows the Eagles, which I will read until my eyes hurt. The writing is sharp and visceral. I wish I wrote like this.

It’s in the author’s musings on what it takes to create a surveillance state. The author sets up this matter of personality in a short discussion of working as an EMT:

For instance, I can say that I have worked, generally, for two kinds of companies. In one, individuals may participate with varying degrees of attentiveness, or acquire various specific skills, but by and large there is enough slack in the system that people can be recognized for what they do well. For some, this is a certification, such as ACLS Instructor, or a skill, like fluency in Spanish that directly benefits the work. For others, this may be something useful but not directly related to EMS, like grantwriting or fixing truck engines. Some people may be notable for modifying uniforms (sewing in elastic expansion panels for pregnant EMTs is a good skill to have!) or barbecuing in the back parking lot or just being a funny person to hang out with.

In the other, this sort of individual personality, for lack of a better word, isn’t part of the plan—either people are swapped around so often that they never get to know each other, or all possible services are provided from outside the department, or else some other implicit hierarchy excludes the majority of the department from recognition. In these workplaces, look out—people write each other up for virtually any infraction. If people aren’t given the chance to differentiate themselves by achievements, they will differentiate themselves by turning everyone else in. [Author’s emphasis.]

Without the ability to distinguish ourselves — to be something resembling individuals within a community — people cannot develop social capital. (To paraphrase the Qur’an, God made us different so we could know each other.) “Without a strong sense of mutual recognition, people begin to mistrust and surveil each other, and use their knowledge of each other’s mistakes and shortcomings in place of social capital…” the author writes.

Which gets to the point that struck me:

In the seventies Bob Putnam began charting the connection between the arrival of television in a region and the collapse of social capital—the inability of individuals to recognize each other for their personalities, abilities, and individual narratives. [Emphasis mine–CHF] He reasoned that this was because the time people had once spent in clubs, churches and (famously) bowling leagues had been replaced by time sitting on a couch alone. That process has developed further with the arrival of new tech, yes, but it was probably underway throughout the twentieth century due to suburbanization, changes in the workplace, basically the whole industrial package. To an extent, what started the cycle is irrelevant now.

What I ascribed to ideology is really the product of mediation and isolation — that, increasingly, we have little contact with other flesh and blood human beings and more contact with mediated images of human beings, carefully controlled and entirely scripted, so they adhere to widely held narratives. (I do believe an ideology has taken hold that seeks to bend and shape the world into a particular shape, to remake humanity in its image.) We don’t so much meet and deal with human beings as the idea of what human beings should be like.

Not humanity, but an incredible simulation.

Because we no longer have much unplanned, unscripted, unprogrammed, and unmediated time with each other — time with no pre-determined purpose — we have to rely on the overarching and largely ideological narratives we have at hand. In neoliberal capitalism, those are utilitarian narratives — of human use, value, profitability. Our encounters all have pre-determined outcomes. We have to rely on shorthand to understand each other, to apprehend and make sense of each other. It’s the only way can do any of this successfully.

And for those human beings who can fit, or be effectively shaped into preconceived understandings of humanity, it works. How satisfying any of this is, I don’t know, being someone who doesn’t fit well. I know it’s horrific not fitting, and probably dangerous as well, since this is a utilitarian and profit-driven notion that increasingly sees no point to people who cannot be used effectively. We’re a long way from making soylent green out of the socially and economically useless, but growing up I often heard or read in the local newspaper people misunderstanding the wrought iron “Arbeit Macht Frei” over Nazi extermination camps as an honest sentiment about what needs to be done with the shiftless and the lazy.

This is something the Benedict Option church can and should do — recreate that space for the unplanned, the unscripted, the not-obviously useful encounters between human beings. Space where people commit to life together, whatever it means, stripped as much as possible of ideological meaning and purpose, and hanging in together for the long haul1, attuned to the rhythms of creation and of human life. Getting to know, and know how to accept, those things that make us different and therefore truly knowable.



  1. I suspect my wandering driven by inchoate ambition is as much a cause of my deep sense of alienation as anything else, never having found — or discerned — any place or people that it looked like I belonged to. Another thing I can wish I knew at 18 or 28 that I know now. I promise I’ll do it better next time. ↩︎

To the Church at Pergamum

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:‘The words of him who has the sharp two- edged sword.

13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” (Revelation 2:12–17 ESV)

To a church situated in the midst of Satan’s stronghold — where else would “Satan’s throne” be? — Jesus speaks some strange and hard words.

This is a faithful church, one that holds fast to the name of Christ, even in the face of death. But it is a church where some strange things are believed and taught.

I honestly do not understand the Balaam/Balak reference here. I know the story, from Numbers 22–24. Balak is the king of Moab, and he sees what Israel has done. He calls upon Balaam

“Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:5–6 ESV)

God, however, tells Balaam, “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12) And three times Balaam blesses Israel when Balak demands he sacrifice (each time seven bulls and seven rams upon seven altars!) and curse Israel. Balaam concludes by cursing Moab, and Amelek, and a handful of other peoples Israel has found troublesome and inhospitable. After which, “Balaam rose and went back to his place. Also Balak went his way.”

Balaam is again mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:4–5, as part of the reason neither Ammonites not Moabites are allowed to “enter the assembly of the Lord.” And again in Joshua 24, where the account echoes Deuteronomy — Balaam was hired to curse Israel, but would listen to Balaam. “Indeed, he blessed you. So I delivered you out of his hand,” God tells Israel in Joshua 24:10.

And there is a mysterious reference in 2 Peter to Balaam as Peter describes a group of believers who have “gone astray” to follow “the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.” (2 Peter 2:15) I find the Numbers account reasonably sympathetic to Balaam — he is not a bad guy, just some kind of priest for hire who God uses to bless Israel when he has been hired to curse the people of God. He ends badly, according to Joshua.

But clearly there is a “way of Balaam,” and it is not a good way. It is one that leads the followers of Jesus astray.

Repent, Jesus tells this church — as he tells nearly all the churches to which he dictates these letters to — or else Christ himself will come and deal with those who trust in the wrong things and work the wrong works within the church.

And to “the one who conquers” — a promise also made to each church, and again in Revelation 21 to all the followers of Jesus with the presentation of the New Heaven and New Earth — something secret will be given: hidden manna and a new name. Sustenance in the seemingly never-ending wilderness and a blessing after a long and brutal struggle with God.

These are the promises of our Lord to a church that lives where the very throne of Satan sits, that struggles with false and misleading teachings in its midst, that struggles with works that bear bad fruit.

Be faithful. Trust God. Even if no one else ever knows.