Leaf me alone

A friend from my Army days hails from New Mexico.  He used to mock ethnic stereotypes by adopting a hyper-Spanglish accent that sounded like a white guy trying to sound barrio.

One of my favorite such phrases was when he was annoyed:

Leaf me alone, esay.

It came to mind when I read John 6:15 this morning:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:15 ESV)

Jesus had just fed a large crowd, and they were down for some bread and circuses.

20160817_102837
Tell it to the hand.

So Jesus, sent into the world to save it, temporarily steps away from its tumult to pray, turning his back on the crowd in a prophetic enactment of leaf me alone, esay.

The ancient prophets, picked by God to speak in tumultuous times, sometimes reached a limit at which words, even divinely supplied words, seemed useless or even counterproductive.

The faithful have vanished from the earth, no mortal is just! They all lie in wait to shed blood, each one ensnares the other.  Their hands succeed at evil; the prince makes demands, The judge is bought for a price, the powerful speak as they please.  The best of them is like a brier, the most honest like a thorn hedge.  The day announced by your sentinels!  Your punishment has come; now is the time of your confusion.  Put no faith in a friend, do not trust a companion;  With her who lies in your embrace watch what you say.  (Micah 7:2-5 NAB)

Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;  for it is an evil time.  (Amos 5:13, NRSV)

My gut instinct is that we are in an evil time.  Of course I could be wrong.  But I sense the church (at least here in the U.S.) in a crazy making situation where people want it to stay out of their business on the one hand but fault it for not coming up with “statements” on this, that and the other thing on the other hand.  People want a theocracy but only for their particular issues.  They will “come by force to make us regents” but only with their hands up our backs as their puppets.

Hence we hear about the Benedict Option, which might be one expression of leaf me alone, esay.  To save our words for God and for those already drawn to him, ignoring all the social media about 10 Things the Church MUST do to attract absolutely everybody all the time.

In Elijah’s day, the crowd was hunting down and killing the prophets.  Godly people hid them in caves to weather the persecution and survive as God’s witnesses for a better day.

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You’re no better.

The name of this blog comes from the Bible passage recording the one written document attributed to the Prophet Elijah.

The passage might be summarized as You’re no better.  The King and people of Judah believed themselves to be entitled to God’s favor, even as they behaved in ways no better than neighboring nations.  Elijah warns them of God’s disfavor, and the prophecy comes to pass as the kingdom is devastated by those it considered lesser people.

You’re no better runs through my head as the American political reality show plays on in the two major party conventions, and in the news and social media surrounding them.  There is a whiff of perception in people saying I don’t think I can vote for either one.  But that avoids any recognition of how we might might enable both.

This morning I saw this well done video about the rise of Hitler.  Comments on it, as you might guess, tend to be Yeah that’s exactly what the other side is like.  Which cries out for the warning, You’re no better.  Both “sides” play to our resentments and real and imagined problems; we behave in ways that allow them to grab and maintain power.

You’re no better.  We’re no better.  We need that kind of humility  and realism to stop ceding more and more power to Caesar to slay our bogeymen, who are all to often just flesh and blood neighbors.

But even from the religious or spiritual community, which should carry the prophetic voice, we hear Wait, yes, we are better.  There’s an opinion piece trending, in which the writer condemns a key penitential prayer and demands that Pope Francis abolish it.  Yes, some kind of cosmic peace and love is to be attained by appealing to an authority figure to ban what bugs you, never mind what it means to others.

Which is to say to the author, You’re no better.  

Confession of sin is a great equalizer and can be a source of peace.  It asks us to stop and question what we’re feeling, thinking and doing.  It is to hold up the constant possibility and probability that we’re no better and to restrain action based on the false narrative that we are.  It is to admit that we all stand in need of mercy and, as we receive it, are all obligated to offer it.

I’m no better for sure.  I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to saying There oughtta be a law.  But most laws beyond a few big ones that value and protect all people equally – You shall not commit murder, for example – are just one group of people considering themselves entitled to impose themselves upon others.

Watching the Hitler video can be a good spiritual exercise.  If you can watch and say, Yeah, that’s those other guys.  Glad I wouldn’t have been part of that, it is worthwhile to ponder what Jesus says in Matthew 23:29-30,

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’

Because the odds are we’re no better.

The real “welfare state”

This piece will start out like a political rant, but I’m coming to a moral point.  Or at least the first stirrings of a moral point.

A physician friend shared an analysis/opinion piece about the surging bureaucratic population of the medical field.  Here’s the graphic from the piece, lifted from government data:

Admins in Medicine

By now some of you will have clicked away, harumphing about “conservative” anti government propaganda.  But here’s the evidence of how the ostensibly “private” sector gets government dole (small snip of a very long list):

Bailouts
Column 4 = total government handout; Column 5 = amount for which taxpayers are still on the hook (red shading = increased public liability because company failed to turn a profit)

How about what President Eisenhower dubbed the “military-industrial complex” (relevant video preceded by advertising, of course)?

How about a so called “women’s health” provider that fights for government funding (and contributes to campaigns to keep it coming)?

PP salaries
Read more about this.

“Conservatives” in particular grouse about “welfare,” but take aim at programs for the poor, marginal and vulnerable.  It seems to me that the real “welfare,” in the pejorative sense of that word, is the gazillions of dollars taken from working people and transferred to educated, affluent and powerful people in both private and public sectors.

More and more, I wonder if big government, the bureaucratic state and cronyism (the doling of public money to favor private interests) isn’t just extravagant welfare for people who have the intelligence, energy and gifts to make a living, but choose instead to have their hobbies, ideologies and vices subsidized by the rest of us.

St. John Chrysostom, who wound up dying in exile in a labor camp for criticizing the elites of his day, challenged people to use their resources to help the truly vulnerable poor:

Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs.

His moral point is based in his theology; all that we have is given by God so that we can share in God’s revealed work.  Simply put: we have money so that we can care for others who are in need.

But the bloated state takes this money to make high paying, protected positions for people who have the resources (human and material) to make their own way.

That’s the “welfare state” that we should protest.  That’s the elitism upon which Elijah declared God’s curse when the governors of his time were self-enriching at the expense of the people:

  As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money, for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” And as soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab arose to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.  Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”’ And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’” (1 Kings 21:15-19 ESV)

 

A lust to punish and correct

I’ve been reading some Tolstoy lately.  Here’s a bit from Resurrection,

The thought that seemed strange at first and paradoxical or even to be only a joke, being confirmed more and more often by life’s experience, suddenly appeared as the simplest, truest certainty. In this way the idea that the only certain means of salvation from the terrible evil from which human beings were suffering was that they should always acknowledge themselves to be sinning against God, and therefore unable to punish or correct others, because they were dear to him. It became clear to him that all the dreadful evil he had been witnessing in prisons and jails and the quiet self-satisfaction of the perpetrators of this evil were the consequences of people trying to do what was impossible; trying to correct evil while being evil themselves; vicious men were trying to correct other vicious men, and thought they could do it by using mechanical means, and the only consequence of all this was that the needs and the cupidity of some people induced them to take up this so-called punishment and correction as a profession, and have themselves become utterly corrupt, and go on unceasingly depraving those whom they torment. Now he saw clearly what all the terrors he had seen came from, and what ought to be done to put to put a stop to them. The answer he could not find was the same that Christ gave to Peter. It was that we should forgive always an infinite number of times because there are none who have not sinned themselves, and therefore none can punish or correct others.

The “culture wars” have coincided with Christianity’s massive rout from the public square.  The church went to war, but not for its foundational assumptions, such as the fallen nature of all humanity and the futility of building righteousness by works.  The church went to war, but not to inspire others to mercy, the cause of Christ.

Instead, the church sought to claim status as a chaplaincy to groups “trying to correct evil while being evil themselves.”

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Planned Parenthood, ordering the culture through violence.
Highway of death
The “Highway of Death,” ordering the world through violence.

If you’re an American, it is likely that you will be grieved by one of these pictures and offended by the other.  One of them will resonate with you as a record of great evil that the church should resist; the other an expression of justice that the church should support (or at least refrain from criticizing).  Some of that will be driven by your affinity with (or desire for affinity with) this or that social group.

A few Americans will be grieved by both.

God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. (Romans 11:2-5 ESV)

 

Traffic Jam

An incident in Jesus’ ministry is reported uniquely and briefly in the Gospel of Luke:

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17 ESV)

It is one of three passages in the Gospels in which Jesus previewed his resurrection power by raising someone from the dead (the others were Lazarus, recorded at length in John 11 and a preteen girl brought back in Mark 5.  In the Book of Acts Jesus’ apostles use his name and power to raise the dead as well ).*

solomonic gate
Solomonic gates excavated at Beer Sheva and Dan, diagrammed by Biblical Archaeological Society

Part of the power of Luke’s description is a traffic jam.  The text mentions a gate, indicating a walled city.  For defensive purposes, such cities often featured a “Solomonic gate” which constricted movement and forced attackers to squeeze through in small numbers under flank attacks from the defenders.

 

Exiting through this gate is a procession of death.  The residents of Nain are trekking out to bury a dead body.  This procession exudes not only the sadness of death, but the affliction of life as a widow has lost her only son and, with no male to establish her standing and well being in the culture, faces impoverishment and the real risk of being exploited in order to survive.

Coming the other way is a procession of life.  Jesus is heading toward the gate, accompanied by a great crowd inspired by his recent preaching and awed by his power to heal.

The opposing traffic meets in a jam near the gate. One group is going to have to give way.

Jesus wades into the funeral procession, going against traffic, and seeks to comfort the widow.  Then he stops the group entirely, halting the “hearse” and, with a word, restoring life to the dead man.  With both processions stuck, the only movement is Jesus bringing the son back to his mother, restoring not just physical life but a family’s hope for the future.

The two processions now unite in an outburst of praise to God, and, we assume, join in the same direction into the city to celebrate the miracle and hear the teaching of the one who ended the traffic jam by asserting life against death.

May Jesus come against the procession of sins, errant thoughts, wounded emotions, damaging situations, spiritual foes and all other forces that would waddle you toward eternal death.  May His compassion stop the traffic and turn it all around, parading you to a joyous welcome in the heavenly city.

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* The Prophet Elijah prefigured Jesus’ ministry and resurrection hope in a miracle with affinities to what happened in Nain.

Raindrops keep falling on my head*

*It’s a song released in – gasp – 1969.  Not going to link to it as it’s not really the point.

Sanford SlendermanWhy do the raindrops fall on my head?  How I answer that reveals my ideas about God.  Is rain part of understandable natural phenomena that God designed, or phenomena that came into being by chance because no God exists, or a sign of God’s (or the gods’) pleasure or displeasure?

When we meet the Prophet Elijah, he announces that the God of Israel has let him in on a significant weather forecast: no rain for several years.  (I Kings 17:1).  Ahab is King of Israel, and has the people dabbling in the religion of his Sidonian wife Jezebel – the cult of the storm god Ba’al (I Kings 16:29 and following).  So Yahweh, the God of Israel, claims the power over nature that some ascribe to Ba’al, and also sets up validation of Elijah as a true prophet, with a message that will prove out.

God’s purposes are clear enough.  He’s upstaging the pagan weather god, showing his displeasure with the people’s apostasy, and establishing a prophet to speak for Him.  But Yahweh’s actions are broad.  There are no particular events tied to the start or end of the drought (I Kings 18:1) and there’s no moral outline in place.  God doesn’t say, “I am withholding the rain until Ahab repents.” The timing of the drought and the rain are not tied to human action, but they are essential to establishing Elijah as a human witness to God’s authority over and purpose for His people.

The Bible isn’t always tidy about moral cause and effect.  Things are much broader, especially from a Christian point of view.  Morally, we’re all deficient, yet, as Jesus tells us, the rain is one of many signs that God deals with us patiently and mercifully,

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)

God’s justice lacks mechanical precision, and we don’t like that because we can’t control or manipulate it any more than we can control the weather.  So we tend to revert to aspects of paganism.

In 1993, Juergen Moltmann released his Theology of Hope.  I find his distinction between God as revealed in the Bible and the gods of preceding cultures helpful.  The God of the Bible – of Israel and of the Christ – is the God of “promise and fulfillment.”  This God announces promises to human messengers, and people are gathered in faith to proclaim the promise until it is fulfilled.  This goes on over long periods of time and through good and bad situations.

Moltmann calls preceding cults (he doesn’t fancy the word pagan but that’s what I’m using) “epiphany religions”  (Theology of Hope 2.1),

It is here important to see that these epiphanies have their point in themselves, in their coming about. For where they come about, there comes the hallowing of place, of time and of men in that act in which man’s ever-threatened culture is granted correspondence with, and participation in, the eternal divine cosmos. The threat to human existence from the forces of chaos and of annihilation is overcome through the epiphany of the eternal present. Man’s being comes into congruence with eternal being, understands itself in correspondence and participation as protected by the presence of the eternal.

That is to say, “If the rain comes at the right time for our crops, the gods are with us; if not, we better toss an extra virgin in the volcano.”  Sorry to be flippant, but theologians are dense writers (you can parse that as you like).

The Bible presents God fully and, to our limited minds, as somewhat maddening: yes, personally invested in each of us; yes, mysterious and inscrutable; yes, holding power over nature and history; yes, letting nature and history operate apart from His direct intervention.

This tempts us to explain raindrops in pagan terms.  Christians today grapple with the “Prosperity Gospel,” which turns the God of the Bible into an epiphany god who reacts to our efforts.  Church historian Kate Bowler has studied this branch of the church with some respect and sympathy, and says

Prosperity gospel makes God into a kind of monster. It creates the problem that it tries to solve. It says we can always know the will of God because God has given us a special kind of faith which we can use to act. What that means is every single thing in your life becomes your fault or your reward. That’s a terrifying place to be.

Here’s an example from prosperity preacher Joel Osteen.  Note the rain imagery.  You can also skip to Osteen’s message, intoned at 1:30 of the video.

More terrifying than that is the world’s dominant strain of Islam.  Robert R. Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind is, like Bowler’s look at Prosperity Christianity, respectful and sympathetic.  It is dedicated to

…the courageous men and women throughout the Islamic world, here nameless for reasons of their own security, who are struggling for a reopening of the Muslim mind.

Reilly uses primary sources, looks to Islamic scholars, and has familiarity with Arabic.  He details how dominant Sunni Islam went through an internal struggle between adherents who were able to engage surrounding cultures and philosophies and those who rejected them.  The latter won out, and are driving much of the conflict we experience today.

The dominant view, so foreign to Westerners,  includes assumptions that Allah is a humanly inscrutable will rather than a personality acting out of love; that every moment is in fact an epiphany in which God alone destroys and reconstructs reality rather than part of a meaningful continuum; and that there is no real cause and effect except the will of God in which we have no active part.

Now that’s plenty to chew on and the book does so with detail and clarity, so I’ll leave it to your reading.  What struck me is that the dominant strain of Islam rejects other cultures in favor of a perception of god created by the harsh desert environment in which the religion originated.  While displacing pagan polytheism, Islam’s one God is capricious like the desert, where the natural forces can turn in an instant and show no regard for human well being.  Here’s a telling quote, featuring, you guessed it, rain:

It is in (Allah’s) power to pour down torrents upon mankind and if he were to do it, his justice would not be arraigned.  There is nothing he can be tied to, to perform, nor can any injustice be supposed of him, nor can He be under obligation to any person whatever.  (Abu Al-Ghazali, Iran, d. 1111, from his work The Incoherence of the Philosophers)

Allah is posited in desert terms.  Long hot months with no rain, and/or freezing nights, and/or abrupt downpours that temporarily fill the wadis, and/or sandstorms, and/or scorching winds.  One big Whatev.  A god not unlike the capricious figures of the Graeco-Roman mythologies that Islam would claim to reject.  Humanity has no purpose but to submit.

Prosperity Christianity and dominant Sunni Islam become two sides of the same pagan coin.  The former posits a god whose epiphanies are contingent upon our “sacrifices,” like the pagan weather and fertility gods of the ancient Near East.  The latter pronounces an impersonal deity who does what he wants, shaped by the desert environment in which Muhammad preached but ironically similar to the pagan deities of classical mythology in other cultures.

All of us, on a day when the rain clouds seem to follow us around, can lapse into pagan thinking.  Faith doesn’t run between the raindrops, but walks between the extremes of assuming that the rain is all our fault on the one hand or that there’s no God who cares that we’re all wet on the other.

 

Poked awake

“Sleep” is busy.

Dreams, now and again pleasant but usually not so much.  Thoughts, the agitated kind, creep in and pile up extra misery to go with the eventual alarm clock.  (How is it that we shift from childhood’s anxious anticipation of Santa to adulthood’s dreads?)  Loneliness, it’s crushing pressure increased by immersion in darkness.

Sometimes I receive something else – a door that shuts on the intruders.

It might be the Lord’s Prayer, or mental wandering among the Beatitudes. Sometimes my heart and mind fill with tender thoughts of other people and their needs, and I find myself in a rich time of intercession.

I wish that I could boast in this.  I would love to tell you that I keep late night vigils because I am a disciplined champion of prayer.

But these are moments that John of the Cross calls dichosa ventura – “happy chance” or, in more pious translations, “sheer grace.”  They are God’s doing, not mine.  They come without my effort.

Instead of raising my hands to the music of angels, I am more like Elijah, passed out from the day’s worries and exertions, only to be poked awake for a divine feeding.

The Psalmist starts out with a claim of active effort, but when all is said and done recognizes that it is God doing the heavy lifting through the night,

I think of you upon my bed, I remember you through the watches of the night

You indeed are my savior, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.

My soul clings fast to you; your right hand upholds me.

Psalm 63:7-9 NAB

I pray this morning for all who suffer theft of rest by the world, the flesh and the devil.  I pray that God will fill your soul with more than comforting thoughts and will set you to his life giving work – praising God, extolling his Word and lifting up other people – even as you sleep.