Revisiting Hope via Jeremiah

No need to rehearse all of the calamities, natural disasters, protests, tweets, counter-tweets, job-suspensions, failures to care for the humanity of our own citizens living in distress, and the proverbial “drumbeats of war.” Just scroll through the news or turn on your TV: any of those can be found, often in located in the same geography. It’s really impressive in many respects, and I do not mean that as though there is a splendor, or beauty to all of it. I can hardly step back and callously disregard how these persons and events have literally extinguished lives.

Typically, I can look out my window to the south and look across a small valley, and see the sunrise cast early morning light on the homes of thousands of residents in the Inland Empire. Today, I see a thick, white haze of smoke, the sign and faint smell of the Anaheim Hills fire, and it covers the valley. People have lost homes and memories, and lives are now displaced. This fires in No. California amplified this experience in ways that simply do not make sense: entire neighborhoods scorched. Gone.

In September, back-to-back hurricanes devastated the Texas Gulf Coast and Florida. Family and friends in Houston were displaced from either flooding or storm damage to their homes; the toll on lives continues to demand payment in human misery in so many ways. Puerto Rico was hammered in succession by hurricanes: friends there tell of a nightmarish situation, one that is easily confirmed by the media. Meanwhile, the Tweeter-In-Chief assures that he’s great when it comes to alleviating the problems of these natural disasters. His lack of empathy for the humanity of the citizens he purporting serves stares back at the world as a black hole.

So, I’ve wondered, “What’s our future, Lord? Will this get any better anytime soon?” I let this question come to surface often these days in my morning office. Last week, my BCP app, in the midst of the horror of Las Vegas, does what it often does: just presents the reading for meditation and prayer, with apparent disregard for the context that we find ourselves.

Jeremiah 38 narrates the political backlash that lead to dumping Jeremiah into muddy cistern, the subsequent rescue initiated by Zedekiah, and the private conversation between the king and the prophet. I’ll leave it to you to read the text, but what becomes apparent in the second half of the chapter involves the two men negotiating through distrust of each other, a breathtaking assessment of the current political season and the treacherous relations with Jerusalem officials, and a robust affirmation by the prophet: obedience to YHWH will unexpectedly lead to life while everything else, literally, burns down.

And this is our hope: That God calls us, in and through Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, raised to life, ascendant, exalted: to a faithfulness that produces life. All this is promised, but not upward social mobility, not suburbia, not contentment, not freedom from natural disaster: certainly not prosperity, as though that were the Kingdom of God. No, hope, on-the-ground hope in Jesus Christ gets received through this matter of obedience. And, here’s where such gets unfamiliar.

We’re in a season of weirdness, politically speaking. Any veneer of civility has been shed, and this cannot be limited to 45. Just take a look anywhere, throughout the many levels of government, and our elected officials have simply lost it. Far easier for them to play the blame game, and, thus, execute the “look-away” from their transgressions and avarice, both of which only add to the misery of those suffering (see Puerto Rico), than to obey the Lord (for those officials who think themselves Christian and others from the Judeo-Christian tradition) and take what follows. It’s weird, and most of that weirdness has its catalysis from the November 2016 election. But, I digress.

What Jeremiah and other biblical prophets summon Christians into—not only politicians— involves new terrain: an obedience that involves unvarnished truth-telling and a resonant clarity regarding the human condition. This obedience recognizes that our hearts are in big trouble—sin is the best noun here—and that only a two-fold response of confession of Jesus as the crucified Lord and to walk in his ways offers a life-giving path. For some Christians, historically and in a contemporary practice, this way has always acknowledged the both-and: our hearts are in trouble—our very lives—and creative faithfulness for the context demands speaking up—resisting—the political powers that would exacerbate our mutual troubles for all human persons.

Yes, this is an unfamiliar obedience: for many of my evangelical group (in using “evangelical,” I feel like when I first heard the new name of “the artist formerly known as Prince”: awkward), the preferred division of labor involves: preach to the heart problem, then, address matters of the world: if at all. This splitting leaves one with a version of the “sweet-by-and-by”, a theological call to distant-after-you-die “heaven”, and no genuine responsibility to the Lord or to others who share our humanity to participate in a mission which is in continuity with the crossing of the Red Sea and Calvary.

So, there is an unfamiliar obedience in Jeremiah: “Obey the Lord by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared.” One should assume—and test while in progress—that the reprieve aims for inclusion and participation in God’s mission. It is not a leniency that sections us off from harm, maladies, and injustice: suffering is still part and parcel of the human experience. Yet, this obedience proposes that God’s mission is one of life, of justice, and of flourishing: for all of creation. That is what we hope for, and, in Jesus Christ, God calls us by his Word and Holy Spirit into that very hope.

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Howard Thurman quote; #DACA

“In the year 6 Judea was annexed to Syria; in the year 70 Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. Between these two dates Jesus preached and was crucified on Golgotha. During all that time the life of the little nation was a terrific drama; its patriotic emotions were aroused to the highest pitch and then still more inflamed by the identification of national politics with a national religion. Is it reasonable to assume that what was going on before Jesus’ eyes was a closed book, that the agonizing problems of his people were a matter of indifference to him, that he had given them no consideration, that he was not taking a definite attitude toward the great and all-absorbing problem of the very people whom he taught?”

Howard Thurman, quoting Vladimir Simkhovitch (1921)

Jesus and the Disinherited

#DACA, Truth-Telling, & Ethnic Cleansing: A unique season for spiritual formation

An acquaintance of mine made the following observation: The OT (for that matter, some of the NT) persisted in reminding the Israelites of the Exodus. The whole point was to get their attention upon YHWH, his great call to covenant, and his graciousness in bringing liberation from Egypt. The status of the people of God included a description of them as immigrants, sojourners, and a people in transit from a political environment of oppression to a development of a community that thrives in “a land of milk and honey.” (Ex. 3:8) This community is further enjoined to welcome other immigrants who will likely be ethnically different and host a variety of religious commitments. (Lev. 19:33-34).

Notice: the attention here is upon YHWH, and his aim for liberation of all peoples. This, of course, is a subset of his larger mission to heal, renew, and glory in his creation. This reminder goes throughout the OT. In contrast, the OT doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on creation, or whether that text describing a remarkable, beautiful, one-off event occurred over a 7-day period or intended to narrate the majesty and power of YHWH. There is not a lot of time spent determining whether one should get saved, and then work out the implications of the lordship of YWHW. No: the attention is not on me. Or you. The reminder indicates that the people of God should pay attention, remember, and trust in their God, the one who initiated, empowered, and fulfilled the Exodus. That’s the truth of the matter. Few people would disagree, and I want to make room for those who demur: but the burden is upon them to demonstrate otherwise. The bulk of the OT continually calls Israel to remember YHWH in the Exodus event.

Today, we learned by way of the spokesman, AG Jeff (“I did not meet with the Russians”) Sessions, and the spokeswoman, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that the President—who was elected by the Electoral College vote— would no longer uphold and sustain DACA. Often, even frequently, when we hear words coming out of the mouths of those who serve the President, we doubt the veracity of those statements. Today, however, we have good reason to believe that these words have action. But, we have the following to trust this egregious use of executive power, and not necessarily because of campaign promises. Please consider the following.

On 8/12, following a horrific display of vitriol and violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, the President affirmed these people and their racist hatred with a simple inclusion of “many sides, many sides.”

On 8/25, while the mother of all storms hammered the Texas Gulf Coast, the President pardoned a known violent criminal with a publicly explicit commitment to racism, cruelty toward immigrants, indifference to sexual assault, and the torture of incarcerated persons in jail: the former Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff, Joe Arpaio.

And, today, 9/5, the President (only through a victory by the Electoral College) rescinded DACA: which affects 800,000 persons who were under the age of 31 in 2012, along with a list of other qualifying items. These are men and women who have lived peacefully, harmoniously, and socially-productive all of their lives in the US. A remarkably minuscule fraction of these people have ethnic/racial status as “white” persons.

In a span of 24 days, the President (by virtue of the process of the Electoral College) has revealed his contempt, antipathy, and revulsion for people who are not white. His words, even by way of his messengers, have action: and that action aims to eradicate non-white people from the US: it’s called ethnic cleansing. There can be no equivocation here.

So, there is truth-telling. As Charles M. Blow observed yesterday,

“There a strong impulse, I believe, in each of us struggling against fatigue, to register the pattern and manage expectations. We begin to build into our processing of politics the caveat: Yes, the “president” lies. That’s not new. That’s just what he does.

But we must resist that impulse. It makes normal, or at least rational, something that is neither normal nor rational.”

How does one resist? Blow makes a great observation: In our fatigue, we normalize lying by the executive. But, over the last 24 days, we cannot look away or presume that his utterances do not communicate truth: Resistance to this racist program must be done, and it will take remarkable personal energy to see it through. So: How does one resist? I propose the following question needs inclusion to get at that previous question.

Make no mistake, Christian people, we are continually being spiritually formed. The question, if I may ask, is: “What spirit is forming us?” If there are any people who need to routinely, avidly, and energetically traffic in truth and truth-telling, it must be us. To do so summons us to consider: by what Spirit will we engage in this truth-telling task that resists: ethnic cleansing, lying, and the disregard for the humanity of people no matter what their ethnicity or religious commitments?

I am among you: I get blessedly tired at the end of each day from the sheer volume of lies, cravenness, and cruelty issuing from the White House. I know you do, too. Join me in paying attention to, remembering, and trusting the God of the Exodus who has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ, who loves us and has promised and sent his Holy Spirit upon the ascension of the Son of God. That truth, that YHWH has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ, will endure, energize, and prepare us for sustained truth-telling and resistance to the powers of ethnic cleansing.

Finally, this process of attentiveness in spiritual formation is not and cannot be one in which we get up to the mountaintop and then come down and do the business of resistance. (Although I certainly observe the merits of such.) Rather, so much of this spiritual formation will happen, on the ground, in collaboration, and in the groundswell of people practicing truth-telling to the President. Our spiritual formation will be and must be gathered up with the very people that the President intends to exclude from the US.

My biannual reflections on the PCUSA

CORRECTED! HT: AMG!!!

 

Today, I received an email from an executive presbyter (EP) of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) that attempted a brief summary of the preceding General Assembly that met in Portland. Comments made celebrated the efforts of a delegate, who was also a pastor from the same presbytery, on to turn aside divestment from fossil fuel companies as a church. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Martin Niemöller

Today is the 121st anniversary of the birth of Martin Niemöller. He was a Lutheran pastor and theologian, and lived richly ambiguous life during the reign of Hitler. Initially, Niemöller was a supporter of the Nazis, and made many anti-Semitic remarks in the early days of The Nazis. His comments were of the kind that were made of fear.

Niemöller came to his senses, and began to preach and speak out against Hitler. The consequences were swift: Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1938-1945. He narrowly missed execution, and was liberated by the US Army after the Nazis abandoned the concentration camp.

After leaving Dachau, Niemöller admitted his guilt, and became a pacifist. The following quote is attributed to Niemöller, which has contributed to his renown and ill fame:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I’m mindful that Niemöller underwent the kind of conversion in prison that few of us will ever experience. If hindsight is indeed 20-20, he received an acuity coupled to his repentance that focused his being a recipient of grace and his share in humanity.

It’s an interesting season, in that you’re probably aware that Louie Giglio removed himself from the upcoming presidential inauguration, as the news made the rounds that he voiced his objections to the organizing efforts by various LGBQT groups to influence the government. It’s not his objections or the supposed objections of PIC to Giglio’s remarks I’m concerned with here.

It’s the responses of the evangelical leaders of various ministries and institutions that I’d draw your attention to. Google Andrew Marin, and you’ll find in his blog a list of names with links. The responses are the kind Niemöller made before he was imprisoned. Lots of fear expressed about what the world is coming to.

Parenthetically, I’m in favor people speaking up, and Giglio’s comments weren’t, as far I can discern, made out of fear: but commended practices of organization and policy to other Christians. Even if you disagree with him, the practice of making those comments needs to be endorsed by everyone.

The remarks of the evangelical leaders were from a different tone. It’s too bad, as these responses represent a bunker mentality, that somehow our evangelical identity has separated our humanity from the rest of the human race and that our experience with the human condition privileges us from the rest of the people on the planet.

It’s part of our evangelical heritage of late to presume we’re the stewards of culture and morality, and instead of perceiving circumstances as these as an opportunity for mission, fears get expressed as the prevailing motivation of at least one segment of the church.

It’s the later Niemöller that these leaders need to consider and emulate: as do all of us from the church.

Happy Belated 104th Birthday, Lesslie Newbigin!

My internet connection was down over the weekend so this is a delayed post.

Leslie Newbigin (1909-1998) is the premier contemporary missiologist of the 20th and 21st centuries. Newbigin’s passionate reflection upon the Gospel and Christian mission remain unparalleled in our time. His writings have yet to be fathomed; his preaching, lectures, and publications are regularly read by pastors, missionaries, and routinely challenge theologians and missiologists. Newbigin served 40 years in missionary service in India, and in service to the worldwide church; his subtle influence upon Vatican II is only now becoming public. Upon retirement, Newbigin began serving as a pastor in London to an inner-city church. In honor of what would have been Newbigin’s 104th birthday, I post the following:

“When we speak of finding in Jesus the clue to the meaning of the whole human story, we are not speaking of a mere cognitive exercise. We’re speaking of that act of atonement wrought in Jesus through which we are brought into a loving obedience to the will of God as it is exercised through all human and cosmic history. It is not merely a matter of illumination, of new understanding; it is a matter of reconciliation, of rescue from alienation, of obedient response to the divine initiative of love. It is illumination and new understanding only because it is first a divine action of reconciliation through which we are brought to that state in which we can say and know that God works all things together for good to those who love him. It is only through this act of atonement that Jesus becomes for us a clue to history.” (Truth and Authority in Modernity, 1996:39-40.)

New Discoveries on Personal Power: New Students Coming to Campus & Our Response

Last week and this week, thousands of first-year students are getting dropped off by their parents at their new dormitory, in anticipation of beginning classes that will lead to earning a bachelor’s degree. Having served as a campus minister, I’ve observed my fair share of tearful good-byes, most of which are shed by the parents, and the students feign sincere comfort for their parents during the farewell. Once the parents depart/drive away, the students turn a 180, and in some cases, sprint, toward their new companions in the dormitory: and the dream of and the question of what to do with their new and unrestrained power is now realized…

So, if you’re a parent, an auntie, an uncle, a grandparent, a youth worker, a pastor, or an affectionate lay leader who knows a young woman or young man heading off to the university: perhaps you’ll be surprised by what follows, but know that I won’t diminish the realities that exist on campus. So, let’s get to those first.

Everything you’ve heard about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll is true. Also true: professors with an axe to grind against Christianity and Christian students. (Although, it should be quickly added: those faculty have, at best, limited influence, and I will explain why below.) Unrestrained access to degrading pornography and divergent politics: also true. Late nights wasted and late nights wasted: both true. Discovery of new truths that contradict and confront “what we’ve been taught”: true. Also true: Cute, attractive, and intelligent women and men who are repugnant. Unattractive, intelligent women and men who are friendly. Women and men of different ethnicities, different cultures, different religions, and different political nations: who are unexpectedly cute, attractive, and intelligent: and civil, peaceable people. People who think differently from “us”: but turn out to be civil and friendly. People who think just like “us” but repel everyone with their lack of civility and abundance of antagonism. All true: and more. And I haven’t even cited reading lists, expected classes, and degree requirements.

And, I would suggest that rather than fear such social phenomena, you routinely peform at least three actions:

1) Pray for your student to increasingly know that they are loved by Jesus. Plenty of the above can be and is threatening to you and me: imagine what it must be like for your student, who perhaps has less life experience than we do, less experience in making mistakes and even less accumulated wisdom from such mistakes…that they would go about their days, in a decidedly cross-cultural context, without others they know and trust, knowing that they are loved by Jesus: that is perhaps the greatest experience they can have- one of the Holy Spirit- while becoming responsible students and adults simultaneously in the university.

2) Practice listening in an open-ended fashion to your student. This is where you may need some prayer and some need to call upon the strength and wisdom of the Holy Spirit!!! The first time you hear about some words/thoughts/activities you do not approve of that your student reports to you- often they are testing you, by the way- the immediate, unfiltered response can be one of criticism…no?

Instead, do your best to recapitulate what you heard to your student, and such includes trying to keep from yelling into the phone. (Trust me: I’ve been there.) In this complex movement from adolescence to adulthood, listening will empower your student in ways that often in the university they are not receiving. And such ways I am thinking of here regard the gracious love of Jesus.

3) I want you to reflect upon the resurrection with me for a moment. Is the resurrection only about God’s victory over death for you and me, that proves we are forgiven of our sins through the death of God’s Son? Or is it the unique event in history, of which there is no other parallel except the creation of the world, and further confirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ? God addresses us in such a unique event so as to welcome our participation into his reign, and participate in a new life- yes, with our sins forgiven- that contributes to God’s mission throughout creation: a new creation. And this is where your student comes in.

There’s nothing special per se about the university. However, it is a unique social context in which students begin making decisions with real, unrestrained power. To be sure, they likely depend upon Mom and Dad (and others); but that experience of dependency becomes inverted and diminished. It’s not lost on me that many college graduates do move back home: but the experience of making one’s own decisions, to pursue what Margaret Archer calls “personal projects of ultimate concern”, and enacting such decisions into some kind of mission will continue to happen in some continuity with the college experience. So, we need to be aware of this fresh, inexperienced use of power. And, be wise about when you jump in with advice about how to use such power: it’s not just the university that is new, but all of creation.

Which brings me to the caricatures of “flaming, Marxist professors who eat Christian freshmen for snacks in their lectures.” As is true of so many people, students will decide how much power from the above faculty member will constrain and enable them. It’s not about the power of the faculty member, draping his/her will over the student, even if they ultimately report course grades to the registrar. It’s really about the student deciding to what degree their power will activate the power of the faculty member. Ditto sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and all of the other items I listed above.

Plenty of people will argue against that perspective: but, there’s too much experience and reporting by college freshmen building up for that perspective: that in the midst of seeking fulfillment of their personal projects of ultimate concern, students will make choices about how to appropriate the powers of others and social structures (like coursework) as constraints and enablements. This also includes decisions regarding dating, friendships, selection of a major for a degree, voluntary student organizations, and more.

And what we can pray for is that our students will increasingly know they are loved, listened to, and begin the life-long exploration of participating within the new creation that has Jesus as Lord. Such an exploration will be performed imperfectly and fallibly; such an exploration will include decisions made faithfully and with the endowed power that God grants to all of his creatures made in his image. And, for so many of the freshmen students arriving this week on campuses throughout the US, this exploration begins in earnest with the fresh discovery of new and unrestrained power. Pray that they will follow Jesus as they use such power in coordination with his mission throughout the new creation: the same Jesus…

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Phil. 2:6-11