Thursday, December 27, 2012

What Then Should We Do? Belief as a Radical Approach to Understanding

What then should we do?


In my last blog, I laid my Christian belief over top of the emotions so normal and so faithful to witnessing the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Now, I want to start with my Christian belief as a radical (in the sense of getting at the root of the issue) approach to speaking about the shooting.


We may want to take the psychological/sociological approach to understanding. There is some benefit to this approach. Coming at the conversation from a psychological approach aids us in naming and defining what was happening emotionally with the shooter. Perhaps, at a certain level, this approach will make the situation understandable by naming and defining what was "wrong with him." There is a long step to make, however, from understandable to acceptable.


We may want to take the political approach. As with the psychological approach, there is some benefit to looking at the situation politically. In this methodology, the problem is quickly identified and addressed. The conclusion from the shootings in Connecticut is that assualt weapons brought about this tragedy, so we address assault weapons. In the political system, identified problems are addressed by laws. Laws will most likely be placed on the book against this type of weapon. Yet, I ponder the reality that there is already a law against shooting and killing another, and yet, that law did not stop the shooting from happening. The power of the law is coercion. There is a threat imposed. If you perform this act, this will be the consequence. We call it a deterrent. There is a sentence set down if the law is broken. The power of the law is external to the person, and does not change a person's character or address a person's mental and emotional state.


We may want to take the religious approach. Unfortunately, religious life has been dminished to moralism. The shoulds, should nots, and oughts of life are as far as religion may go. On one extreme of this moralism, I will be told that I should love everybody and should not have enemies. The pitfall of this moralizing--we need to learn to recognize and address our enemies for our own safety and security. On the other extreme of this moralism, I will be told the root of the problem is the day we removed prayer and the 10 commandments from the schools. Yet, these children came from faith communities that prayed and believed. And, we have seen shootings, in the past, happen in churches.


Certainly, we can also consider the genetic conversation, the decline of the family, the lack of civility, and so forth. While we are unified on the horror of this event in Connecticut, we are divided on how to get at the root of the issue. In that division, we choose one discipline over another. This leads to a dis-integrated society, unable to be brought back to itself.


Perhaps it is this dis-intgration that is at the root of the issue. A dis-integrated society is reflective of dis-integrated people--broken, hurting, diminished, desperate, angry, darkness dwelling people.


At the root of the word "crisis" is the moment that a verdict is handed down, and a person has to live with himself, his actions, and the consequences of his actions. Those filled with pain, rage, and darkness--dis-integrated--have a diminished capacity  to cope with that verdict and are most susceptible to the power in this world that seeks to destroy and undo the goodness of creation. In the moment of crisis, a person's pain becomes more important to him than the lives of others. He violently violates the lives of other people.


By laying my belief in God over my emotions and starting my thinking from my faith, I have a truth, an authority, and axiom that has the capacity to bring life back to wholeness. This truth re-integrates humanity and restores humans to their fullest capacity for good. This truth re-integrates humanity and restores humans through a promise of a time when all is set right. Until that time, while we wait, we believe.

What Then Should We Do? Laying the Truth over Our Emotions

What then should we do?


Our feelings are normal and they are faithful. The emotions of horror, sadness, fear, and anger are signs within us that something is wrong. Feelings of sadness, fear, and anger stemming from the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School are normal and faithful for what happened to the children at the school was wrong.


Christians can allow room for the very real feelings of being a human. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, writes about the use of emotions in human community. He acknowledges the presence of emotions in human community, but cautions us about the workings of the heart. He writes that the essence of emotion is desire. These desires include "dark and impenetrable urges." Bonhoefer goes on to write about a spiritual community--at the core of which is truth. "The essence of spiritural community is light."


Over our emotions, we lay something larger than ourselves--the truth.


I believe that this world was created good and created for good. I believe that there is an order to this world that allows all that live within the world to thrive and flourish. I believe that all that lives in this world relates to all other living creatures. I believe that each part of this world has integrity in those relationships. And, most key, I believe that it is God who put this world into place and made the world for good.


I also believe that there is a force in this world that has at is core to work against the goodness of the world. This force strives in unpredicatable, uncontrollable, and horrifying ways to undo the order of the world. When this force has its way in the world, all that lives within the world cannot thrive but is destroyed. This force violates the integrity of other living creatures bringing about havoc, destruction, and despair.


This force can work through the natural processes, such as cancer cells. It can work through the natural processes, such as natural disasters. And, it can claim the heart of people whose lives are formless, void, and filled with darkness. This force can claim the heart of Adam, and bring about the death of so many people.


Foremost, I also believe this. Evil will not have the final word in life. The acts of violation, one person upon another, is not all there is. There is more. God will restore humanity and creation. This act of restoration is the work begun in Jesus Christ, and will be complete on the day of his coming. Death has no more dominion over us. This I truly believe.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Then Should We Do?

What then Should We Do?
Luke 3: 7-18

The question asked of John the Baptist in Luke is a question that comes easily from our mouths today.

If you were to take the story of John the Baptist from the gospel of Mark and from the gospel of Luke and lay them side by side, we would notice that Luke's account is greatly expanded. Luke includes the question, "What then should we do?" and John's answer to that question. Mark is writing to a community of believers who believed that the return of Jesus was not only imminent, but also immediate. Repentance is all that need be mentioned, for Jesus will return any minute. Luke is writing to a community of believers at least a decade later, who, while still believing in the imminent return of Jesus, do not see the return to be immediate. As a result, there is a need for an ethic. Out of that need comes the question, "What then should we do?"

The response to the question comes to people who have lived first hand the brokenness of human life. There are those who live in poverty. There are those who live under the power of extortion. There are those who are the victims of violence. The ethics that John puts in front of the listeners is one that counters the brokenness of society and brings healing.

What we do is shaped by our feelings.

As we sit horrified by the events in Newtown, Connecticut, we have strong feelings. They may be feelings of horror and deep sadness, feelings of fear, and feelings of anger. These feelings are normal and faithful. It is normal to be horrified by acts of violence such as this. It is normal to feel afraid for our own children following this act of violence. It is normal to be angry at the man who committed this crime and the situations that led to this act of violence. It is normal to have these feelings, and it is faithful to have these feelings.

The feelings of horror, fear, and anger are indicators that something is wrong. It is wrong for a man to enter an elementary school and shoot 20 children and 6 adults to death. It is wrong for parents to send their children off to school in the morning, not to see them again, but knowing their bodies are lying on the floor of the school without the sustenance of their love.

Our feelings are normal and faithful, for they tell us that there is something wrong. When we apply the question, "What then should we do?" I think we must consider this concept. Our feelings are normal and faithful, what we do with them, can make the situation better or the situation worse.

I can, right away, let you know one thing you can do. You can wrestle with God about this tragedy. Our ancestors in the faith, Abraham, Jacob, Job, the psalmists all wrestle with God. We even hear in the words of Jesus as he dies on the cross an echo of the words for Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Monday, December 10, 2012

Safe in Jerusalem--Humility, Courage, and Idols

Safe in Jerusalem--Humility, Courage, and Idols
Jeremiah 33:14-16

While we have the capacity to come to self-awareness, conversion happens through the power of the Word of God.

Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, asks his readers this question, "To whom do you show humility?" He goes on to write, "Get into the habit of examining fom God's perspective those things that sound so humble to men. You will be amazed at how unbelievably inappropriate and disrespectful they are to Him. We say things such as, 'Oh, I shouldn't claim to be sanctified; I'm not a saint.' But to say that before God means, 'No, Lord, it is impossible for You to save and sanctify me; there are opportunities I have not had and so many imperfections in my brain and body; no, Lord, it isn't possible.' That may sound wonderfully humble to others, but before God it is an attitude of defiance."

"Conversely, the things that sound humble before God may sound exactly the opposite to people...Never worry about whether what you say sounds humble before others or not. But always be humble before God, and allow him to be your all in all."

I want to consider the possibility that one can be humble and have courage at the same time. When our humility is directed toward God who has the power to change our hearts through the Word, we need not diminish ourselves or play ourselves down in the presence of people. In fact we may boast, as writes, Paul, but be sure that we boast in the Lord.

In the Lord, we have confidence and courage. It is that courage that allows us to discern when to say "Yes" and when to say "No." We can take the risk to claim what we believe, what we hope for, and how we choose to live in this in-between time.

We can take the risk to say "No" to that which is counter to the will of God. It is that courage that allows us to speak to the original concern raised in this series of blog entries-idols. We can say "No", at the risk of being offensive to others, to what runs counter to the will of God.

In our time, let us consider idols in this way: Idols are any expert, way of thinking, or practice that we believe will make everything work in our lives, give sense to all that happens, take away our fear and anxiety, and keep us from suffering or difficult moments.

Safe in Jersusalem--Can We Trust Our Hearts?

Safe in Jerusalem--Can We Trust Our Hearts?
Jeremiah 33:14-16

Jeremiah was a prophet. His prophecy--the problems God's people were encountering were a problem of the heart that led to a false trust in institutions and worship of idols. They did not have hearts turned to doing what was right.

In the previous blog, I explored the judgment of God which leads people to the opportunity to make things right. In this blog entry, I want to explore what keeps us from doing what is right.

Bernard Anderson, in his text on the Old Testament, writes that God's judgment comes "as a result of human recalcitrance, not as a result of the arbitrary, capricious wrath of the potter (God)...the imminent tragedy would be the consequences of their own actions."

Jeremiah tells us it is a problem of the heart, and speaks of the human heart in a number of ways:

In 4:18, we read "Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter; it has reached your very heart." However, we cannot quickly conclude that we will "feel the guilt" and want to make things right. For Jeremiah also teaches us this about the heart in 17:9. "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" [Both biblical quotes are from the RSV and used in Anderson's text.]

God's judgment is the examination of one's heart by the eyes of God who looks for truth (5:3). God is not one who exists in the sidelines, ready to be called upon when a need arises--a second or third string quarterback yearning for the coach's eye. God is transcendent and the judge of human motives and actions (23:23-24). We are seen by the all seeing eyes of God for whom we are, what we think, what we do, and what we let happen around us. Can we stand under the power of that gaze? I would say not. We cannot stand under the power of that gaze until God changes our heart. With a changed heart, we acknowledge our sin, repent of it, and set a course for a new way of living.

This new way of living rarely stands a chance in our time. The failure is that we have supplanted the judgment of God--which leads to repentance and a change of heart--with self-awareness.

There is a story of a man who had an ongoing problem of bed-wetting--nocturnal enuresis if you want the medical condition. He went through a long series of therapy, and happily announced to his best friend, "Good news! I have learned why I wet the bed." His friend, happy for the revelation made this conclusion, "Wow. So you are not wetting the bed any more." To which the response came, "No, I am still wetting the bed, but I now know why I am."

Self awareness may, or may not, lead to humility. Or, more spiritually difficult, self-awareness may lead to humility directed to the wrong person.  Humility, diected in the wrong way keeps us from doing what is right. We will look at humility in my next blog.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Safe in Jerusalem--God's Judgment

Safe in Jerusalem--God's Judgment

Jeremiah 33:14-16



Jeremiah was a prophet (as opposed to a bullfrog). His prophecy…the problems God's people were encountering were the result of a problem of the heart that led to a false trust in institutions and worship of idols. They did not have hearts turned to doing what was right.


Today, in part 2, we explore, God's judgment that makes doing what is right possible.


Using Bernard Anderson's text on the Old Testament, we read that for Jeremiah, God's people have an incurable sickness for which there is no healing ointment—no balm in Gilead (Jeremiah 8:22). The people have stubborn and rebellious hearts. Symptoms of this heart disease include:


-They put their trust in institutions such as the Ark, rites such as circumcision, teaching such as the Torah, sacrifice, and the temple.


-The social fabric of the day was torn.


-No one could be trusted. Jeremiah portrays people in 5:8 as well-fed stallions neighing for neighbor's wives.


-There was no concern for the defenseless victims of society.


-Blind nationalism.


-And, the practice of idolatry, sacrificing to false gods and in some places even sacrificing their children.


These are all outward signs of the sickness of the heart, which in the days of antiquity, was the seat of human loyalty and devotion.


God is to judge the people for this sin. Judgment. Now here is where we, in our time of emotional community instead of spiritual community (see Bonheoffer in Life Together) have a problem. In the faith lives of the people of antiquity, there was room to believe in a God who judges.


To further grasp this concept of the judgment of God, we must understand that God is righteous, and that God will not go against the divine nature. God is always true to himself. In the divine nature, we have both justice--reward for what is right and punishment for what is wrong--and we have mercy. These two opposites come together in the nature of God. When the two come together, we can catch a glimpse of the judgment of God. God judges to set things right. Judgment is the action of God that gives people the opportunity to set things right--for God will not accept the world in any other way.


In judgment, a person is truthfully confronted with what he or she has done wrong and shown the outcome (what the person has caused to happen) and the consequences (what the societal group such as family, employer, county has imposed as a result of the decision). The hoped for result is repentance, a change of heart with the chance to make things right. The heart, changed like this, is called righteous, in that it leads a person to fulfill the obligations of his or her relationships.


For Trinity Church, this notion of judgment is at the heart of our Criminal Justice System Ministry. In criminal cases, we have a person who has made a decision that had led to certain outcomes. At times, such as in the case of murder, those decisions have tragic outcomes. The person is confronted with what he has done wrong, shown the outcome (death of another person for example) and the consequences (life in prison for example). This judgment puts into place the opportunity for the person to make things right. We are also challenged, as members of society, to see that those coming out of prison are given the opportunity to make things right with places to live, jobs, a spot in worship on Sunday morning.


This process of correcting the heart appears to be too good to be true. Perhaps it is, as Jeremiah will teach us. Tomorrow, we will look at the deceit of the heart.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Safe in Jerusalem

Safe in Jerusalem
Jeremiah 33:14-16

My brother reached between the seat and the wall of the school bus. When he withdrew his hand, he had 40 dollars. Sitting next to him, I witnessed this miracle of abundance. Immediately, I began to plan how I would spend my portion of the money--an interesting assumption in itself. In my revelry, I was startled as my brother shoved his way by me, and to my horror, walked to the bus driver, handed the money to her, and announced that he had found the money between the seat and the wall.

The next morning, once again on the bus, we were sitting outside Newville Elementary School waiting for the bell. A young woman, impressive, because she was a high school student, boarded the bus. We watched as she spoke to the bus driver. After a brief conversation, the bus driver pointed to my brother. This young woman walked back the aisle of the bus, said "Hi" to my brother, and said "thank you" to him for finding her money and giving it to the bus driver. Then, she handed my brother a 5 dollar bill. The smile on my brother's face was huge.

There is great joy in doing the right thing and receiving both a thank you for that action, but also to get a reward. Would we, however, consider doing the right thing without a reward, and not even a word of appreciation from the other person? It would take, I think, a heart committed to and naturally inclined to do what is right.

Bernard Anderson, in his text on the Old Testament, captures the moment for Jeremiah. The king of Judah, Josiah, was bringing about great reforms among the people. These reforms were being carried on a wave of nationalism. The people believed themselves to be on the threshold of a new time, similar in scope to that of King David.

The people, however, are shocked b a series of event: King Josiah dies. The nation of Judah falls. Close to half the population is led in to exile. Into this moment, many prophets were flourishing among the people as they promised comfort, peach, and that soon all would go back to the good old days.

Jeremiah was not one of those prophets. His prophecy, the problems the people were encountering were a problem of the heart that has led to false trust in institutions and worship of idols. They did not have hearts turned to doing what is right. The situation in which they found themselves was a result of false hearts.

This week, we will explore:
            1. God's judgment that makes doing what is right possible.
            2. Deceitful hearts and the need for more than self-awareness.
            3. Humility and courage in the face of head wrestling.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause--Faithful Presence

Voting for a Lost Cause--Faithful Presence


"You are not far from the kingdom of God." These are the words of Jesus to the Scribe who asked him about the greatest commandment. Not far would seem to indicate close, but not quite. In this series of blogs, I have asked the question, "What are the stumbling blocks to presence in the kingdom of God?" I looked at three stumbling blocks that could be gleaned from the earlier verses of Mark 12. These stumling blocks are highlighted by Clifton Black in his commentary on Mark printed by Abingdon Press.



The stumbling blocks were:

            1. Religious ritual that leads to exclusion of others from the faith community.

            2. Trusting in government to change the world.

            3. Claiming that political parties and ideologies are holders of truth.



Earlier in Mark, Jesus affirms the Scribe by saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." When we come to the end of Mark, we hear Jesus caution his listeners to beware of the Scribes who engage in religious practices in which the outcome is the exploitation of those most vulnerable. In this case, the vulnerable one is the widow. Following these words of caution, Jesus calls attention to a widow who is giving all her financial resources to the temple treasury. Counter to his caution of the presence of the scribes, Jesus lifts up the widow as one who embodies faithfulness--one who is in the kingdom of God.


The widow is reminiscent of the widow of Zarapheth. The prophet Elijah puts her life and that of her son in jeopardy by asking for a share of their final meal. In an act of faith, she concedes. From that day on, we read in the story of our people, her jar of grain never ran out and her jar of oil never went dry. We have the presence of one who embodies faithfulness whose life impacts the lives of others, unlike the scribes whose presence devours others.


Oswald Chambers writes, "One of the hardest lessons to learn comes from our stubborn refusal to refrain from interfering in other people's lives. It take a long time to realize the danger of being an amateur providence, that is, interfering with God's plan for others." Chambers speaks of acts of heroism which are momentary and bring public attention to the hero. He writes, "It's one thing to go through a crisis grandly, yet quite another to go through every day glorifying God when there is no witness, no limelight, and no one paying even the remotest attention to us...If you are properly devoted to the Lord Jesus, you have reached the lofty height where no one would ever notice you personally. All that is noticed is the power of God coming through you all the time."


Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, "Spiritual love...will not seek to agitate another by exerting all too personal, direct influence or by crudely interfering in one's life. It will not take pleasure in pious, emotional fervor and excitement. Rather, it will encounter the other with the clear word of God and be prepared to leave the other alone with this word for a long time. It will be willing to release others again so that Christ may deal with them. It will respect the other as the boundary tht Christ establishes between us; and it will find full community with the other in the Christ who alone binds us together."


The presence of one person, through the kingdom of God, who embodies faithfulness will have transformative power on those around them, without controlling, manipulating, rescuing, and consuming the other person.


This emobodied faithfulness has transformative impact on marriage relationships, parenting, work places, neighborhoods, churches, and governments.