Sunday, December 30, 2012

Psalm 13

Psalm 13

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long shall I take counsel in my soul,
Having sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
And my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
And my adversaries will rejoice when I am shaken.

But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness;
My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
Because He has dealt bountifully with me.

This Psalm is the Psalm of the great “but” of faith; but I have trusted in Your lovingkindness. No matter what appearances may be, I have trusted in You. No matter what happens to me, I have trusted in You. This “but”, this insistence that I will trust in God, in His character, in His love and grace and mercy regardless of circumstances, regardless of the natural/fleshly outcome of the circumstances…this “but” is a watershed of faith, a continental divide – on one side of the divide the water flows toward “self” while on the other side it flows toward God. On one side of the divide self is the focus, its preservation, its comfort, its agenda; on the other side God is the focus, His glory, His holiness, His love and mercy and justice.

It may seem at times as if God has forgotten us: How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? It may seem as if death is our lot and victory the enemy’s prize; Paul wrote that he and his companions had a sentence of death in themselves, such was the despair they experienced. But Paul wrote in the same breath that this was in order that they should learn not to trust in themselves but in God who raises the dead (see 2 Corinthians Chapter 1).

On the God side of the divide we hear Job saying, “Though He slay me yet will I trust Him.” We witness Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego declaring, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand O king, But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” We read the words of Justin Martyr to the Emperor, “And if you also read these words in a hostile spirit, you can do no more, as I said before, than kill us; which indeed does no harm to us…”

Abraham believes in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into being what which does not exist” (Rom. 4:17); Paul doesn’t look at the things that are seen but those that are unseen (2 Cor. 4:18); Jesus looks beyond the Cross to the joy that is set before Him (Heb. 12:1-2).

When we cross the great divide from a self-oriented life to a Christ-oriented life we can rejoice in God’s salvation, we can sing to Him because He has dealt bountifully with us – no matter what appearances may be. How has He dealt bountifully with us in the midst of heartache, sorrow, and apparent defeat? By freely showering us with His love and mercy, by forgiving our sins, by dying and rising for us, by bringing us from spiritual death to spiritual life, by securing an eternal future for us with Himself and His saints; and so Paul writes in Romans Chapter 8:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Friday, December 28, 2012

Meditations on 1 John – X

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone love the world the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and its lust; but the one who does the will of God abides forever, 1 John 2:15-17.

I think this passage ranks among those Biblical passages that are often misappropriated, misunderstood, or ignored. There are those who know this passage well and who use it in their preaching and conversation without understanding it – their image of obedience to this passage is not always the Biblical understanding. Then there are those who explain away the passage so that it does not apply to them. I think a sign of spiritual life and growth is a life-long engagement with this passage, an engagement characterized by tension. This passage is particularly difficult to respond to (at least it should be difficult) in a society that has so much of everything; this is not to say that those who live in poverty are immune from the toxic temptations that John portrays because sin, like water, finds its own level – one can drown in a bathtub as well as in an ocean. I confess to being no farther along with this passage today than I was over forty years ago – unless progress can be measured by tension and an awareness of how utterly I fall short of obedience to its warnings.

Consider the parallel between 1 John 2:15 – 17 and Genesis 3:6; When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate, Genesis 3:6.

                        1 John                                                 Genesis

            the lust of the flesh                             the tree was good for food

            the lust of the eyes                            it was a delight to the eyes

            the pride of life                                   the tree was desirable to make
                                                                        one wise 

Those who ignore or explain away 1 John 2:15 – 17 ignore or explain away the portal by which sin entered humanity; that which was then our downfall continues to be our downfall, and the serpent’s words continue to be, “Has God really said?...You will not die!...You will be like God.” We witness the crescendo of our folly and of God’s grace in John’s book of Revelation – those who insist on living by the words of the serpent will die, those who repent of their sin, who trust in Jesus Christ, who learn to live by Him (the Tree of Life) will abide forever.

A third passage helpful to our interaction with John’s text is James 1:12 – 15: Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished it brings forth death.

The Apostle Paul equates covetousness and greed with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5) – the lust and pride of which John, James, and Paul speak is not sexual, though it can have sexual elements – these things are matters of the heart, they go to the root of who we are and who we worship and where we will spend eternity – to trivialize the Bible on these matters, whether by gross legalism, by “name it and claim it” libertarianism, by mainstream and respectable  materialism, or by outright rejection of the Biblical text is an act as foolish as Eve’s – indeed it is more foolish, for we have only to look around us to see the carnage such choices unleash, this is knowledge Eve did not have.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Psalm 12

They speak falsehood to one another; with flattering lips and with a double heart they speak.

It seems that is lying and deception is the coin of the realm. From the mundane to the critical we lie and not only think nothing of it, we pay people to help us lie, to teach us to lie. We don’t call it lying, we call it spin or white lies – we call it anything other than it is. We justify it to get what we want.

The label on a bottle of juice purchased at Kroger says in large bold letters, “100% Cranberry”, then in small letters it reads, “flavored”, and the list of ingredients indicates that grape juice is the dominate juice in the bottle. To deceive is to lie and to lie is to deceive and they have their roots in the evil one. We don’t seem to mind lying if it suits our agendas; in the political realm we may scrutinize statements of the other political party but we seldom seem to rigorously test statements of our own party – after all the point of the political process is to win elections and spin is no different than a quarterback hiding the football from the other team during a play (a bootleg) – spin is just a play in the political game. If we can rationalize lying then we think we can use it as a tool in our personal or professional “worthy” cause, we think we can use lying and deceit and spin – but we can’t, we can’t master it – but it can and will master us.

Lying can master us to the point where it becomes a way of life, it becomes the coin of the realm; we accept it to the point where we expect it – and even if we may not personally lie as a way of life we find that lying is so pervasive that we give up trying to go against the grain.

In business we lie for economic reasons; to close the deal, to entice the customer, to get the employee to do what we want. The “bottom line” justifies the spin, it justifies putting “100 % Cranberry” in large bold letters and then putting the truth in small letters – let the customer think that the product is 100% cranberry juice, what’s the harm?

We have a serving tray that on the bottom in tiny print says, “For decorative purposes only, not for use as a serving tray”. Now really, there aren’t many people who need a serving tray for simply decorative purposes – there is a reason it’s called a “serving tray”.

We may think the juice bottle and serving tray examples are small lies but they’re not because they illustrate that lying is a way of life in business. Generally speaking, if people or companies or political parties or governments lie about small things they lie about big things – we can never master lying and deceit, it masters us.

A disciple of Jesus Christ must fear to lie as he or she would fear to ingest rat poison; lying not only poisons our hearts and minds, it adopts the work of the evil one – we are people of the truth, not people of the lie – we must not forget who we are in Jesus Christ.

The words of Yahweh are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times.

God’s words, on the other hand, are pure; they are perfectly pure, hence the number seven in verse 6. There is no dross, no impurity, in the Word of God – this means that there is to be no impurity in our own words and actions, it means that our actions and words are to be tested and refined, but tested by what? They are to be tested by the Word and character of God. This is not a thing of paranoid legalism, it is a relationship with the Trinity in which we desire to do nothing to pollute the relationship; this also means that we understand that to sin by lying to another person is to pollute our relationship with God

While the primary image of verse 6 is the purity of God’s Word we can also consider the effect of God’s Word dwelling in the believer – that Word is not only pure, it purifies the person it lives within. James exhorts his readers to receive the engrafted word which is able to save your souls. When we respond in obedience to God’s Word we are changed from the earthly to the heavenly, conversely when we violate God’s Word we violate the holy. There are times we need to wait and allow God’s Word to have its work within us, we need to allow the furnace of our hearts and minds to be heated seven times so that His Word can do its work within us, we need to place the situation we are in before our heavenly Father and Lord Jesus and allow them to speak to us, to mold our will into their will – learning to submit to the Word of God is a daily element of our pilgrimage.

Jesus is the Truth and our lives are to be grounded in Him – if Jesus is our Way of life then Truth cannot but be our Way of life.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Revolutionary Small Group Resource

A few months ago I had two separate conversations with two friends who lead small groups; one group meets in a home, the other group is an adult Sunday school. Both friends asked me if I could recommend a small group study resource. I asked both, “Why not study a book of the Bible?”

One group had been using video-based topical material; the other had been using a combination of video-based material and topical books.

My suggestion seemed novel to both. The thoughts I shared with both were identical: Christians don’t know the Bible; I wished that each person knew even one book of the Bible well enough to call it his or her own; most people don’t know how to read the Bible; something wonderful happens when we read the Bible together, in Christ we learn from each other.

A few weeks ago one of my friends said, “We’re reading the book of James in Sunday school and it’s great. People are excited about reading the Bible. I thought we’d take five weeks for James but I think it will be more like ten.”

Yesterday the other friend called me and said, “Our small group has been reading the book of Daniel and everyone loves actually reading the Bible rather than getting together to watch a video and discuss the video. It has revitalized our group.”

Imagine that, Christians reading the Bible. I guess the Bible isn’t a bad small group resource – wish I’d thought of that before – kind of revolutionary.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Psalm 11

In Yahweh I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, “Flee as a bird to your mountain, for, behold, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string to shoot in darkness at the upright in heart. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

Yahweh is in His holy temple; Yahweh’s throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.

We live in a time when it appears as if the foundations are destroyed – what are we to do? Foundations of the recognition of objective transcendent truth, morality, ethics; as Isaiah writes: we call good evil and evil good. We look within the professing church as well as outside and it appears to some of us as if a tsunami has removed the old markers from the landscape. Of course we are not the first people to have this experience and it may be that we are not the last – for the times and seasons of this planet and its people are in God’s hands.

Having written the above I should point out that what is a tsunami to some is welcome relief to others and normative to still others. If you grow up in moral and ethical and spiritual chaos do you know it? If you grow up in amorality can you recognize the difference between the moral and the immoral? There is ample evidence that when the professing church practices amorality that it no longer sees morality in the Scriptures – simply witness within the professing church the prevalence of sex outside of marriage and engagement in entertainment with unholy sexual content. No doubt these words seem quaint to some and out-of-date to others while others may read them with some embarrassment that I would write them – my point is made.

Then there are those who think that they have no option but to flee as a bird, to get away from it all. There are many ways to run away. We can physically cloister ourselves within walls or on a mountain or in a desert. We can deny the reality around us, acting like everything is really okay. We can absolve ourselves of responsibility to the church and society – while we may interact with others it is on a superficial basis without serious involvement. How many closet Christians have I met in the business world; professing Christians who have worked alongside others all their lives and never shared Jesus? There have been many.

There are also those who go into attack mode and are less interested in providing light than in generating heat – they define themselves not by what they are for but by what they are against (a temptation that I myself have succumbed to more than once). They may be good at tearing down but they have nothing with which to build. Children with tempers tear down when things don’t go their way, we can fix their tantrums; it’s a bit more difficult to deal with adults on a rant.

This brings us back to David’s words, In Yahweh I take refuge; How can you say to my soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain…” What can the righteous do when the foundations are destroyed? They can look to the true and living God. They can affirm that Yahweh rules over all – despite temporal appearances. They can recall that their citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20) and that while they are physically in this world that they are not of this world (John 17:16) and that in Christ they are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37). In other words, as Hebrews Chapter 11 reminds us, we are people of faith – therefore let us live as people of faith, confident in God and making a difference in the church and in the world.

When we throw in our lot with the Creator of the universe, when we pick up our cross to follow Jesus, when we identify ourselves with the people of God across the ages, then we can affirm that God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, love, and a mind that thinks soundly. Then not only do we not need to consider running away, but we realize that we are called to go into all the world and share the Good News of Jesus Christ. The world begins next door, at the next desk, in the next conversation, in the next email, in the next Facebook posting, at the next ballgame, with the person sitting next to you on Sunday morning.

How can we even think of running away when God is our refuge?   

Monday, December 17, 2012

Meditations on 1 John – IX

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.

I have written to you, children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. 1 John 2:12-14.

The forgiveness of sins, knowing the Father, knowing Him who has been from the beginning (Christ – see 1:1), overcoming the evil one, being strong, the abiding word of God – these are all elements of verses 12 – 14.

As John moves toward his conclusion in Chapter 5 he writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life (5:13). John writes to affirm that his recipients have eternal life, he writes to say “Amen” to the life of Christ in them. In 2:12 – 14 John writes because sins are forgiven, because the Father and Christ are known, because the word of God abides, because the evil one is overcome.

It is tempting to read more into this passage than may be there, for example there are two different tenses, “I am writing” and “I have written”; we can be tempted to make much of them. We can also be tempted to speculative extrapolation of little children, fathers, and young men, developing hard and fast thinking about these roles and experiences which perhaps the author did not intend; after all, once we are familiar with John’s writings we realize he repeats himself to make his point, he gives us multiple camera angles. Do we notice that John is writing to a people? Do we notice that he is writing to a multi-generational people? Do we understand that John is writing to a family of believers? The fathers and young men and children are in relationship with one another, in koinonia; John writes that they may also have koinonia with himself (1:3), a koinonia with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.

The segregation of generations in Christian ministry is counter-Biblical; the Scriptures not only describe but prescribe inter-generational relationships, the older women teaching the younger women, the older men teaching the younger men – there can be no teaching in this context outside of relationships, relationships desperately needed in our generationally-fragmented culture. Do we see youth ministry that includes developing relationships with older Christians? Do we see “senior” ministry that focuses on pouring a lifetime of experience and wisdom into the lives of younger people? We treat seniors as if their lives were over, no longer challenging them with missions, outreach, evangelism, or pouring their lives into younger people – is this a Christian form of functional euthanasia?

While it is good and proper to know the joy of forgiveness, to remain centered on the forgiveness of sins throughout one’s life is to remain a child – alas that is where many of us remain, the idea of overcoming the evil one is a forlorn hope to many, the experience and knowledge of the indwelling Christ something that many never hear taught – and so only a portion of the Gospel is known in many churches – the new birth and justification.

Overcoming, of which we will hear more of in John’s letter, is linked to the word of God abiding in the Christian. This abiding is not a mere knowledge of data akin to being able to answer a game show question – the Pharisees could do that. Peter describes the word of God as living and enduring in 1 Peter 1:23. God’s word is not inanimate, it is living and when it lives in us it animates us, it is the source of our life, the word of God is to us what an air hose is to a deep-sea diver – without it we will die. The strength of the young men in our passage is not a natural strength, though we may naturally associate strength with young men, it is God’s strength in them (see 4:4), a strength generated by God’s word – but more on this later in the letter.

Then we have the fathers portrayed as knowing Christ and the children pictured as knowing the Father. Paul’s desire was that I may know Him and as we grow and are seasoned by the Holy Spirit and the word of God we see that knowing Him, loving Him, worshipping Him, is what we were created for, what we were redeemed for; we see that it is our destiny and our hearts yearn for the unfolding of that destiny. We know Him in the forgiveness of sins, we know Him in overcoming the evil one, but there is also a place where we simply know Him in that place that perhaps the Psalmist referred to when he wrote the words, the secret place of the Most High…under the shadow of His wings. The children receive the spirit of adoption and cry out Abba Father! The fathers come to a place of knowing.

A reminder that we probably should not adopt rigid images of the children, fathers, and young men – life in Christ is permeable and we are joined to His Body where every joint supplies the entire body. Throughout the letter John terms his readers children and little children and these terms throughout the letter encompass all of his readers – but in this passage, reading in context, we can consider the interplay of the terms children, fathers, and young men with profit.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hell Breaks Through

The earth’s crust has broken open and hell has risen, sometimes we see it, most times we don’t; yesterday we saw it in Newtown, CT. The earth’s crust has broken in fissures around the globe; in some places it has erupted, it erupted yesterday in Newtown. The eruptions are becoming more frequent close to home, the eruptions have reached home.

The image of Centralia, PA comes to mind; a landfill fire on May 27, 1962 ignited an exposed coal seam and ever since then fire has burned beneath the town, driving most residents away. But when the entire sphere of the planet burns beneath us, when flames and sulfur belch across earth’s surface, where can we go?

The waters of the Atlantic and Pacific have long shielded us – first from two world wars, then from eruptions in places like the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan, Cambodia and the Middle East. Children die in places like these in ones and twos and en masse but they are across the waters – those eruptions are far away…now the eruptions are at home. Atlantis is threatened – will it sink into the seas? Malignant cells are attacking a body with a sabotaged immune system – will the body survive?

The cancer patient is in denial, he says that he is only a bit under the weather. He says that this killer was mentally ill, that one should have been diagnosed, someone should have read that Facebook posting; the killers are one and all exceptions in our population. How many exceptions like this can a population afford to have?

We will look at Newtown as yet another dysfunction, the machine is not operating properly; as long as we are viewed as machines we need not engage in moral or ethical or spiritual critique – let’s keep the conversation framed in mechanics or biology or psychobabble. If we do engage in “faith talk” it will likely be in terms of a coping mechanism (there goes a mechanical word again).

Hell’s tentacles break through the earth’s surface wrapping themselves around our hearts and minds, depriving us of spiritual and moral and ethical oxygen…we are dying and don’t know it. In Dante’s Inferno the core of hell, the abode of Satan, is not pictured as a flaming cauldron but as deep frozen cold in which all has come to a standstill – those who have truly encountered evil know that evil is cold; it is not for nothing that we have the term “cold hearted”. Our land is freezing, the cold is numbing us – we cannot keep awake.

The cold has held our cities in its icy grip for decades, now it rises from beneath our malls and suburban schools, now it invades our churches and temples outside city boundaries; we cannot redline evil, there are no firewalls.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of a people who do not know the “way of peace” (Isaiah 59:8), and God is amazed that there is no intercessor among this people (Isaiah 59:16). Surely our nation does not know the way of peace, surely knowledge of that way has long departed from us (assuming we ever knew it). We may marvel at the brutality of the Roman Coliseum and assure ourselves that we would never countenance such violence; yet all the while language and images of violence drives our entertainment, our virtual reality games, our political speech, our business and economic thinking – violence is our sustenance and yet we are taken aback when it assumes “unacceptable” forms. We look for therapy in response to violence, we look to legislation, we look to education, we look to social programming and controls – we do not see ourselves as having colluded with hell.

Sad to say we cannot look to the church. The church is either wrapped up in itself looking for it’s best life now, interested in becoming a better you; or it is engaged in political rhetoric with a violent and disrespectful ethos; or it has eviscerated the Bible; or it has convinced itself that its expression of faith should be confined to the sphere of the private – we have locked the doors to our Christian ghetto. The church has sold its soul, it has sold that to which it does not have title...not if Jesus purchased her with His blood…we have thirty pieces of silver jingling in our pockets but unlike Judas we have no remorse.

Atlantis is sinking beneath the weight of sin and violence, the fissures of the earth are opening up, will no one show this world a better Way? Will not the church and the people of the church learn the way of the Prince of Peace, His way as He taught in the Sermon on the Mount, His way as He lived and died and rose again on this very planet? Will not we intercede with our lives, demonstrating a Kingdom of Peace in which the lion lies down with the lamb, where there is neither hurt nor destruction in all His holy mountain?

It takes more courage to turn the other cheek than to retaliate; it takes more faith to allow others to take advantage of us than to perpetrate violence on others. It takes more courage to lay our lives down than to take the lives of others. We are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5) and to sow the seeds of peace (James 3) in all the things we say and do. All of our Sunday morning peace huddles from 11:00 – noon mean nothing if we do not salt the world with peace.

For those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus let us consider how we can bring the peace of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, to our neighborhoods, our families, our workplaces, our churches, our political and social discourse, our conversations with those of other philosophical and religious persuasions, our places of play, our entertainments – let us seek to allow the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts (Colossians 3:15) as one people, for this is our calling.

Will we grieve with the people of Newtown to the point where it will make a difference in the way we live? Will we choose to live against the grain of the violence of society? Will we choose to join the Lamb on the altar of sacrifice?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Psalm 10

His [the wicked] mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression; under his tongue is mischief and wickedness. He sits in the lurking places of the villages; in the hiding places he kills the innocent; his eyes stealthily watch for the poor. He lurks in a hiding place as a lion in his lair; he lurks to catch the afflicted; he catches the afflicted when he draws him into his net…He says to himself, “God has forgotten; He has hidden His face; He will never see it, Psalm 10:7-9, 11.

The Psalm begins with, Why do You stand afar off, O Yahweh? Why do You hide yourself in times of trouble? The Psalm ends with, O Yahweh, You have heard the desire of the afflicted; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth will oppress no more. The Psalm begins with plea to God in the form of a question, it ends with an answer from God in the form of an affirmation; but in between is the apparent ascendance of the wicked and the oppression of the poor and afflicted – man oppressing man.

Where is the righteous intercessor in this Psalm? That is, where is the defender of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed? Ultimately God is the defender, but where are His agents in Psalm 10? More importantly, where are His agents today? Most importantly, are we His agents?

Oppression takes myriad forms and the closer we are to the nucleus of the forms the harder they are to identify. Members of an ascendant racial or ethnic group usually find it difficult to view conflict with another racial or ethnic group as oppression, they are more prone to view it as a natural state of affairs, as a higher culture improving a lower culture, as one group protecting the other, or even as “manifest destiny”. The fact that our own nation has its own Psalm 10 in a racial context ought to give us pause: How could professed “Christians” countenance the genocide of Indians and the slavery of Africans? If we could be that blind for most of our nation’s history (let’s not forget that lynchings occurred well into the 20th Century and that Jim Crow lived into the 70s) what are we blinded to today? (I can also argue that we have not repented of our genocide of Indians, otherwise we could not bear the living conditions many of them endure today – we would do something about it.)

On the economic front, I often read the credit card solicitations I receive to see the predatory practices of our nation’s banks – interest rates of 30% when the Federal Discount Rate is virtually 0%, penalties that are guaranteed to bury the borrower in a grave of debt from which he can never escape; many of the people who receive and respond to these solicitations do not read the small tiny print, nor do all the ones who read it understand it – to the banks it is a numbers game, it is just business as usual – many of these banks are supported by taxpayers (remember the bailouts?) and all of them are regulated (or not!) by our democratic government. But those of us who are close to the nucleus – those who can pay their own way – do not see this because it doesn’t affect us.

Our fellow citizens and their children go to bed hungry; and it is not because they are lazy, it is because they cannot make a living wage, because they cannot find a job; it is because we have walled off the poor – whether urban or rural – not only from the rest of society, but from our churches as well; the one place that should be a model of community is instead a model of racial, economic, and social segregation. Perhaps churches are more afraid of relational integration than our broader society because integration in churches would mean deep mutual give-and-take and a surrender of many preferences and traditions that have nothing to do with the Gospel. We might have to discover who we really are as the people of God and no longer define ourselves racially or ethnically or economically.

Money is the idol and arbiter of America and the American church, decisions are reduced to economics and justified by economics. It is not for nothing that Paul writes that the love of money is the root of all evil – we have been seduced and intoxicated by the dollar. The focus of the recently concluded presidential campaign was money, America’s greatness was defined as money, moral issues such as healthcare were often framed by money; and yet the Bible portrays God as being concerned about the poor and fatherless, about the widow and disenfranchised, and holding governments and peoples to account for oppression – whatever form oppression may take. Any pretence to a moral vision which America may have had in the past is long gone and not likely to return for it does not benefit our immediate self-interest.  

I do not write as a detached observer for my work takes me into areas where the economically and educationally enfranchised of our region do not go. I see predatory business practices in neighborhoods such as payday loan sharks, I see unsuspecting students caught in the tuitional web of for-profit training schools that promise education and jobs but often deliver only debt – and never once provide educational counseling to the prospective student. How do I know? I ask. To those critics who think others lazy, you need only look at the rolls of for-profit organizations that portray themselves as “institutes” or “colleges” and note the many inner-city students caught in the web of debt. How do I know? I review credit reports.

But this is a blog post and I need to conclude; here is what really scares me about the absence of a defender and advocate in Psalm 10 – I am not there, I do not see myself. O God help me to make a difference, help me to do what I can today.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Meditations on 1 John VIII

Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. Again, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. The one who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes. [1 John 2:7–11].

It’s an old commandment and it’s a new commandment, this commandment to love. From the plural “commandments” in verse 4 we move to a singular “commandment” in verses 7 and 8; for all the commandments are fulfilled in loving others. Jesus says that all men will know that we are His disciples by our love for one another, that we are to love as He loves, which brings us back to verse 6, “…the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk as He walked.” From the beginning of the Gospel the recipients of John’s letter had this commandment to love one another as Jesus loved them, so it is an old commandment. Yet it is an ever new commandment in that it lives today as it lived when they first heard it. It is a commandment which ushered them into a new age in Christ; as they crossed the threshold of relationship with Jesus Christ the darkness began passing away as the true light began shining in their hearts (2 Cor. 4:6).

John will expand on what it means to love our brother elsewhere in this letter, he will drive home the quality of love and he will tell us what love looks like in action – for love is a noun and a verb and for the Christian it must ever be simultaneously both – our love must be seen to be believed by others, to be validated; in fact Jesus gives the world permission to judge us by our love, “by this all men will know that you are My disciples.”

As we keep His commandments His love is matured in us (verse 5), as we love our brother we abide in the light (verse 10), we are to walk in the light as He is in the light (1:7).  In 1:5 John writes that, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” and in 2:11 we see that, “the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness.”  Throughout the letter we have point and counterpoint and to appreciate the tension of the letter we stand back and take in the interplay of light and darkness, love and hate, truth and lie, confession and sin, obedience and disobedience, righteousness and unrighteousness – all of this is found in the first 21 verses of John’s letter.

Just as John and his companions saw and touched and heard God incarnate in Jesus Christ (1:14); so should others see and touch and hear Jesus incarnate in His people.

“Hate” seems like a strong word in the context of Christian community, just as “lie” may seem like a strong word in 1:6 and “liar” a strong word in 2:4, after all we all sin. We may tend to think that because we don’t hate our brother that we are okay, but do we really love our brother? If we say we love our brother then the noun love which we say we have must be validated by the verb love which others can affirm that we have. Just as John touched and saw Jesus loving others so others should see us loving others, others should be able to touch our love and our love should touch them.

“Hate” is not too strong a word for those whose hearts have grown cold in their love-in-action, “hate” may even be a word that can save them from themselves if they will receive it. Hate’s partner is darkness; love’s partner is light. We will not stumble if we love for love walks hand-in-hand with light; we will walk blindly like drunks if we hate, falling down here and there, hurting ourselves and others, for hate extinguishes light.

“Hate” is a sobering word; it is akin to a warning on a high-voltage electrical box that means, “If you touch this you will die.” Hate is like the Chernobyl nuclear accident, it kills those at ground zero, it sickens and kills those farther away and it pollutes the land for years to come. Any movement of our hearts and actions toward hate should scare us; the fact that it often doesn’t frighten us should frighten us. We think we can cross the line from love and mercy toward hate with impunity, if we think this we are fools. We think we have self-righteous warrant to despise and harshly judge and disrespect and dishonor; we think that we are entitled to be the judge and executioner of others – even within our church community; we can be so arrogant about this that we never second guess ourselves because it has become a way of life. We define ourselves not by what we are for but by what we are against.

Oh the joy of living a life in Christ where the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining, oh the joy of seeing the daybreak of the New Jerusalem in our collective hearts, of living in a Place where there is no darkness and no need for the sun or moon or stars for light, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Light. The light rays from that City enlighten our eyes and draw us to Him as a navigational beacon draws an airplane to its destination. There is no temple in that City (Rev. 21:22) for the Father and the Lamb are its temple; as we live in Him today we live in Him then – we are home today in Him, we will be home tomorrow in Him and in the unfolding ages to come we will ever know the joy of Him as our source of light, life, and delight. The radiance of His glory enlightens our hearts today, opens our eyes, and burns a love in our hearts that we must guard and share with others no matter what the cost – He gave His all for us, we can do no less for others. We are not called to kill for Jesus; we are called to die for Him.

Oh to catch a glimpse of that City, for to see the City is to see the Lamb, to see the face of God; we have seen His face on earth, we will see it in that City; do others see His face in us? Will others see His face in us and journey with us to that City? We dare not carry the baggage of indifference toward others, anger toward others, hate toward others on our journey to that City – it will not be allowed in the City, not then and not now – for the City is unfolding in His people, in His Church, and we dare not pollute that which is holy.

Love toward others is our homing beacon; let us bring as many as we can on this journey. Let us bind up their wounds, pouring in oil and wine and cleansing and bandaging them, and let it be at our expense; Jesus Christ stretched out His hands to the world on the Cross – we can do no less.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Psalm 9

Yahweh also will be a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble; and those who know Your name will put their trust in You, for You, O Yahweh, have not forsaken those who seek You, (Psalm 9:9-10).

Psalm 9, as so many Psalms, wrestles with the justice and faithfulness of God in a world where it appears the wicked are having their way. The questions are good, the wrestling is good; evil and oppression and injustice are real, they are substantial, and we have to wonder where God is and how long He will allow these things. Trite answers to these questions trivialize the Gospel; perhaps we see the issue of evil raised again and again in Psalms because there are no simple answers and it is not a tension from which we can escape or should ignore.

Verses 9 and 10 are not always apparent to the observer; there are times when it appears that Yahweh has forsaken those who seek Him. God’s people are persecuted, they are killed, they unjustly lose their jobs, they have no place to live, no food to eat…and sometimes worse. There are times when God’s people think He has forsaken them, it happens, we are but human; joined to the Divine yes, but we are still human, and being human things get the better of us now and then – but thank God that He reminds us who He is and who we are in Him – His beloved children.

The Psalmist writes, “…and those who know Your name will put their trust in You…” There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved than the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12); the name of the covenant God addressed in this psalm, Yahweh, is the name the Psalmist directly refers to; those who know the Person named Yahweh have a refuge and stronghold; those who know the Person named Jesus (meaning “Yahweh saves”) have a Savior. Yahweh, the name (and Person) of the covenant-keeping God, is the focus of the Old Testament; Jesus, the name (and Person) of the saving God, is the focus of the New Testament. Through Jesus we know Yahweh as our Father. The I AM THAT I AM of the Burning Bush walks with us and talks with us in Jesus; the God who shows Moses a measure of His glory on Sinai is revealed to us in His Son Jesus Christ. The two are one and the one is two, and with the Holy Spirit the three are one and the one is three; the mystery which we term the Trinity is beyond us in comprehension but not in experience because He has condescended to us in His love that we may know Him.     

And so in the midst of injustice and evil those who know the name of Yahweh have a stronghold, a place where they see things clearly, a place of comfort, a place where they know that this world is not all there is, a place that serves as their heavenly observatory from which they see eternity.

Knowing the name of Yahweh is not simply knowing the word “Yahweh”, nor is it listing the characteristics of God, nor is it simply knowing His nature; yes, in the Bible names often speak to us of one’s nature, but God is not a plant or animal that we study to know characteristics or a nature; to know the name of Yahweh is to know Yahweh, and while knowing Yahweh is knowing (in some measure) His nature and His character and attributes it is more than that – it is knowing Him and knowing Him is never ending. How can we write or speak of knowing Him and not be dwarfed and overcome by Him? How can we not fall down to worship Him?

Knowing Him, knowing His name, is so much bigger than I am that I’ll close with Paul’s words in Philippians Chapter 3: More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.