No Savior no saves

A Facebook friend posted,

This would be a great time for someone close to Harvey Weinstein to share the gospel with him.

Some will flame up, and probably from all kinds of hot spots.  For some, sexual harassment will be a kind of unforgivable sin and the idea of hearing about mercy in Jesus will be pious treacle.

Others will call the Christian notion of forgiveness through Jesus too easy, and insist that Mr. Weinstein “balance the scales” by giving gazillions to virtue signaling causes.

Some will take the cynical tack – He just did what everybody does in that vile business.  Repentance is meaningless because… well, it isn’t necessary when you accept the idea that everybody is trashy so we don’t need to change.  Or something like that.

I think that my friend’s post is deceptively deep.  Because he is announcing that we need saving and that only the Savior can accomplish it.

Think about Mr. Weinstein’s behavior and maybe your own.  We all set in motion ripples of evil that keep going out in the world.  We have no metrics for how many people are impacted when we abuse another person.  If you have two minutes of life experience, you know that wounded people go out and wound others, who wound others, who wound others.

If a lover dumps you, you go out and look for any easy mark to use and discard to restore your ego.  Or you put up walls and deny affection to those who do love and need you later, when you pretend that things are “normal” again.

How do we “make restitution” or atone on our own?  Sure, we can seek out those we recognize that we hurt and apologize or, in the case of some offenses, make material restitution.  And that’s good and right.  But by the time we get to that our victims have probably worked out some of their hurt on others.  We have no way to catch up with it all.

And just how does one atone for Mr. Weinstein’s particular behaviors?  How do you “ungrope” someone?  How do you remove the image after you unzip and expose yourself to unwilling eyes, minds and hearts?

The answer is, You don’t.  You can’t.  Because even your most sincere apology can’t undo all the damage.

If it is some kind of moral balancing act, we are all headed for a fall.  Our rebellion against God is such that we traipse through life inflicting all kinds of hurt, most trivial, some significant, all enough to send ripples of evil through the world.

Because when we are hurting, we go out and hurt others.

And so the gospel says that God was willing to be hurt to save us.  The perfectly innocent victim suffered the greatest cosmic injustice and indignity on behalf of all of us, who justly deserve wrath – not only from our human victims but from the Creator whose order we deface with our evil antics.  We can’t clean up the mess, but we can be made clean in the midst of it.

We need saving, and we can’t save ourselves.  No Savior, no saves.

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  (Romans 5:8-9)

El Greco Christ Healing the Blind
Jesus Healing the Blind, El Greco, c. 1570.  Notice that many in the crowd are unimpressed.
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More field, less fence

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  (Matthew 21:43-46, part of the Gospel heard from the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8, 2017)

Jesus angers the chief priests and the wider religious movement known as Pharisees.  Their emphasis was the strict application of laws governing every aspect of life.  They were so zealous for this approach that they created what they called “a fence around the law,” that is, make more and more rules to prevent people from even getting close to the rule you don’t want them to break.

In contemporary Israel, this found expression in ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars driven on the sabbath.  It wasn’t that driving the car was forbidden work  – it was that the car might get a flat tire and tempt you to fix it, or tempt you to tempt a tow truck driver to come and fix it.  (Still not sure how gathering and throwing rocks didn’t count as work).

The problem with this approach, according to Jesus, is that makes it harder and harder for sinners to experience and respond to the mercy that God wants to show.  The legal system builds fence upon fence to keep sinners away, treating them as disposable rather than souls of such great value that God would suffer to save them.

Jesus warns that the kingdom of heaven will not be achieved by rigorous laws and systems built by human beings.  He says that the kingdom will be given (that is, by God, the only one who can create the kingdom) to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  Jesus calls for the fruit of the field more than for a fence to contain it.  What does that mean?

First, it means repentance.  In Matthew 3:8, it is recorded that John the Baptist prepared people for the coming kingdom with the warning to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Repentance is to turn from one way of life into a new way.  Christianity calls people to turn from current priorities to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).  This is to place any identity or agenda to which we cling on the chopping block and be baptized instead into the identity and agenda of Jesus Christ, who IS the righteousness of God.

(That Jesus is himself the righteousness of God is why he speaks of himself as the rock that breaks and crushes – he is the final judge of what is right).

Then, after this rebirth into the life of Christ, bearing fruit is to let our life flourish with Christ-like qualities planted and nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Christ, the fences fall and the field flourishes.  Humans live together in loving commitment, voluntarily tempering private passions and desires so that all can grow toward the kingdom’s light.

The contrast between field and fence is obvious in our national outpouring of horror at the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Enough Americans to be significant have made politics their faith, and so there are calls for laws and for public demonization of various groups of people we should see as neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In an editorial in the Washington Post,  researcher Leah Libresco explains how her research on gun violence led her from a legal approach, advocating various forms of “gun control,” to a different set of insights.

What she found was that American gun violence would be most effectively reduced by attention to three groups of suffering neighbors:

The suicidal.  Two thirds of annual America gun deaths are suicides.  We know this is an affliction here on South Dakota’s Reservations; it’s also becoming a disturbing trend among middle aged white guys like me as our familiar cultural expectations fade.  I have a friend on the East Coast whose church is managing to engage very troubled neighbors.  It is exhausting and not always successful work – he’s done over 100 funerals in the last three years.  But his church is tearing down fences to connect with suffering neighbors as souls precious to God.

Young men in drug and gang subcultures.  They account for 1 in 5 annual gun deaths.  This statistic gets into our uncomfortable American racial divides.  The Pew Research Foundation stats on gun crime, filtered for race, show that this kind of gun violence is disproportionately high in the Black community.  How do we cross longstanding fence lines together to bring life where death has so much power?  What in our own attitudes might have to be confronted and repented of to help that happen?

Domestic abuse victims, predominantly women.  Again, a shameful reality which most of us would rather ignore.  Again, an aspect of life that might expose some of our own sinful attitudes or hardness of heart.   How do we pull down fences so that what is hidden is brought into view for both justice and healing?

It’s easier to build a fence.  It’s easier to pass a law and pretend, with great conceit, that it is necessary only to control “those” people over there with “their” problems.

But in our Gospel, Jesus warns that that kind of thinking is what can cost us the kingdom.  Our fences can trap us in our own wasteland of sin and keep us out of the flourishing field that is the prophesied kingdom of heaven,

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.  (Ezekiel 47:12)

 

Sticks and stones

This morning I read a parent’s rebuttal to “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” The mom’s daughter committed suicide over relentless verbal bullying at school and via internet. Words hurt.

Words have power. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV) If that is possible, then so is the opposite. We can discourage and tear one another down.

The “sticks and stones” thing is one of those sayings that has wide acceptance while actually contradicting God’s Word: And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (James 3:6 ESV)

A counselor friend told me that in her work with women who’ve been abused, she hears things like, My physical injuries healed. But the stuff he said still cripples me.

I think the sticks and stones saying must have been invented by someone who verbally beat on people and wanted to minimize responsibility for the damage done.

Indict Geraldo?

Well, maybe there’s a statute of limitations so Geraldo Rivera is free and clear on his 1972 ambush interview at New York’s Willowbrook institution, where people we would now define as living with special needs were warehoused in appalling conditions.

At about 3:15 of the video, Rivera says that he and his camera crew showed up at Willowbrook “unannounced and unexpected by the school administration.”

Ambushes and “stings” used to be seen as harsh but important exercises of freedom of the press, necessary checks on the power of the state and special interests.

Now comes the news that a Grand Jury in Houston will let the District Attorney bring legal action against those who stung a powerful, state entangled interest group.  The DA is going after videographers who exposed Planned Parenthood’s flippant money making on body parts from aborted people harvested for “research.”  David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt could face up to 2o years in prison for “tampering with a governmental record,”  apparently based upon fake or altered drivers’ licenses they used to gain entrance and interview the abortionists and profiteers.

It’s as if the Willowbrook Institution were shielded from reforming its treatment of people with special needs by having Geraldo Rivera indicted for trespassing.

Evil like this is not new.  In the time when God allowed Babylon to conquer corrupt Jerusalem, the Prophet Habakkuk announced,

So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:4 ESV)

The institutions become more corrupt as they grow in power.  And a state and it’s funded interest groups are at a zenith of power and nadir of corruption when they assert their authority over life and death, punishing all who question their pretension to divinity.

 

 

 

The best revenge

One of the most uncomfortable verses in the entire Bible is the end of Psalm 137.  It’s often omitted from public reading or recitation in prayer:

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock!  (Book of Common Prayer 1979 USA)

The Psalm is a lament by God’s Chosen People.  After years of neglecting their covenant with God and ignoring the warnings of His Prophets – in particular Jeremiah – they were left without God’s protection and conquered by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BC.

JewsInExileThe Babylonians marched the leaders and the most skilled people of the city off to serve in Babylon.  Psalm 137, in less than ten verses, evokes the bitterness of that experience; the longing for home, the captors’ mockery of the exiles, the passion to preserve identity, and, in that horrific final verse,  desire for justice veering off into revenge.

We all feel it at some point – probably more than one point – in our lives.  We are hurt and our perception, right or wrong, is that what was done to us was so bad that the only satisfaction we can imagine is equal or greater suffering falling on the one(s) who afflicted us.

Psalm 137 puts us in touch with the whole reality of “exile.”  We are living in the fallen world, separated from our heavenly home, and our emotions and even our prayers suffer that separation.  In the Kingdom of Heaven Christ intercedes for sinners; on earth we wish them agony.

The verse’s honesty is so raw that we recoil from it.  As I said above, it’s often edited out of the readings for church services.  There are attempts to spiritualize it, as the great Saint Benedict did in the Prologue of his Rule, where “little ones” symbolize nascent evil thoughts and “dashing them against the rock” is to refute them with the teaching of Christ.

We deny it with secular platitudes like living well is the best revenge.  We won’t hurt anybody and we’re certainly above any ugly thoughts.  We’ll just get on with our lives.  But this ignores the power of our Babylonian captors – the forces of the exilic realm in which we live – to define living well.  We start to sing their tunes and forget the music of our true homeland.  We intone denial of our bitterness while playing out our hurt over and over in discordant emotions and behaviors we cease to control.

Tonight I read A romance on the Psalm By the Waters of Babylon (137) by St. John of the Cross.  I wondered what this mystical poet, who suffered kidnapping and nine months of squalid imprisonment by his rivals, might do with the last verse of the Psalm.

He offers the Psalm in first person, and ends it

O Daughter of Babylon,

miserable and wretched!

Blessed is he in whom I have trusted,

for he will punish you as you have me;

and he will gather his little ones

and me, who wept because of you,

at the rock who is Christ,

for whom I abandoned you.

(Kavanaugh/Rodriguez translation)

angel-bringing-news-taht-babylon-is-fallen-apocalypse-dc-1250-english
Angel announcing the fall of Babylon (Revelation 14:8).  England, 13th cent.

The “revenge” is that Babylon – any realm or situation run by the world, the flesh and the devil – doesn’t get to keep us.  As “Babylon’s” lifetime of distractions and deceptions separated us from the perfect peace that Christ gives us, so Christ will separate us from Babylon’s outwardly gloating yet inwardly miserable “power.”

As Babylon sought to enmesh us in a wretched “life” that is simply prolonged dying, we are dashed on the rock that is Christ, our old life put to death so that we can rise up and walk with Christ into life eternal.

We, the little ones that Babylon delighted to abuse, need not imagine – let alone inflict – any disaster on that sad, decaying realm.  It is its own catastrophe.

Living well – whatever that means – is not the best revenge.  Living is.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m so ashamed

I recently heard some efforts to distinguish between guilt and shame.

Guilt is a function of an healthy conscience – I do wrong, I feel badly about the wrong, and I can do something corrective and move on.

Shame is heavier – I do wrong and conclude that I am a ‘bad person,’ and will continue to condemn myself as ‘not _____ enough.’

The awful permanence of shame, as well as it’s antidote, is expressed in a verse from the New Testament,

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2 ESV)

The Permanence of Shame

The cross points to permanent condemnation.  The Romans crucified people and posted the victims’ crimes on signs as an epitaph of irrevocable judgment.

In the religion of Jesus’ earthly time and place, execution by crucifixion was considered a form of hanging, defined in the Scriptures as a final proof that the victim was – talk about shame – cursed in the eyes of God and a stain upon the land and people,

…his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:23 ESV)

On the cross, Jesus shared the death of the uncounted and unnamed multitude who die bearing a label.  No way to do anything about it; no way to atone for the offense if guilty or to clear one’s name if unjustly condemned.

That’s how shame works, There’s nothing you can do about it.  You’ll never be _____ enough.  You’ll always be _____.

ShameShame reflects an external voice that we internalize. The voice is often that of a parent but can come from some other impactful person or group in our lives.  The Greek noun for shame used in Hebrews 12:2 appears in the Gospel of Luke to express public humiliation, and in Paul’s Second Letter to Corinth about the secrecy that shame engenders – the desire to hide ourselves from what we’ve come to perceive as an accusing world.

The Antidote for Shame

However shame enters our makeup, the antidote involves putting it in its place.

Jesus despised the shame with which the Roman government and the Temple Priests alike labelled him via the cross.  The Greek verb translated “despise” is an intriguing compound of “down” and a complex word connoting “thought, feeling, understanding” – key inner qualities that can guide our behavior.

That is, Jesus thought down upon the effort to humiliate him.  He belittled it by enduring it and going on toward the joy set before him.  He founded and perfected faith, knowing that ultimate worth, validation and reward are with God and not the fleeting opinions and indignities inflicted by people.  Jesus rose from the finality of the world’s shaming verdict and sits gloriously at the right hand of the throne of God.

The antidote for shame is to internalize a stronger voice than the one(s) that condemn(s) us.  By this voice we endure the world’s judgments, fair or not, and carry on in the assurance of our value to God.

It is the voice of God in Jesus Christ, speaking through the Holy Spirit,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  (Romans 5:1-5 NRSV)

Put That Down

It seems pretty easy to put down affluent college students who protest “microaggressions” and want “trigger warnings” so they don’t have to so much as hear words that bother them.

The Church of England is gobsmacked (learned that word from a Brit, I did) because theaters in the UK are refusing to run a church ad in which the Lord’s Prayer is heard – because the theater owners think it might offend some people.  Seems pretty easy to put down the theater owners (or the potentially offended patrons) for their putting down of the ad.

Some are pushing back against the cult of sensitivity with put downs like this meme:

offended

OK, that’s funny.

But words are powerful and they can build up or tear down.  Or so the Apostles of Jesus taught in the first churches:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)

Some survivors of abuse report that while physical injuries heal, the sustained verbal lashings leave lasting marks.  The Bible recognizes this reality as well:

As with a deadly wound in my bones,
    my adversaries taunt me… (Psalm 42:10 ESV)

It shatters my bones, when my adversaries reproach me… (42:11 NAB)

We need to put verses like that down on paper and memorize them as warnings to keep abusive words from our lips.

We need to put down our egos so we can build up our neighbors.

This is not to exalt a wimpy lifestyle.  As I’ve pointed out before, powerful figures like Elijah and Jesus could handle the hostile words thrown their way.  Yet even they suffered times of fatigue and temptation to despair as their enemies hounded them, an experience given voice through the Psalm Jesus began to quote as he was crucified,

Everyone who sees me mocks me.
    They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
 “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
    Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
    let the Lord rescue him!” (Psalm 22:8 NLT)

 

Verbal abuse is profoundly evil, because it insults the image of God in which we are made.  Abuse is one more symptom of a world that’s fallen away from God.

Because when the universe is in order, it pours forth praise to its Creator.  This is called “doxology,” from Graeco-Roman roots meaning “good word.”  We are meant for “good words.”

Put that down in your notes.  Even better, put it into practice in what you say of others and in what you’ll accept in what’s said of you.