Strike yer colors (please)

I’ve never seen so many Nazi flags, not even on the History Channel.

No, I don’t mean at the alt-right/old fascist whatev rally in Virginia.  I mean in the social media posts by people objecting to that rally.

It brings up a persistent question.  Do we do better by making active shows of resistance to shut down a crazy movement, or do we disempower it by depriving it of publicity?  I think there are examples and arguments to support both positions, and I’m not going to be so vain as to assert one or the other as universally useful.  It is an important question and one that deserves constant asking if great evils are to be headed off.

It is easy to condemn some “bad guys,” especially when our cultural virtue signalling declares open season on them.  You can concoct international neo-fascist villains in movies about terrorism and that won’t cause the uproar you get with an Islamic terrorist as the antagonist.  When it came to executing White male mass murderer Timothy McVeigh, the usually vocal anti-death penalty crowd went pretty much mum.  We have a natural inclination – which you can blame on sin, biology, social psychology or (d) all of the above – to identify and chase away a threatening “out group.”  That’s not a solution, because we’ve been doing it forever and the same problems persist.

Praying about it and seeking wisdom in the Scriptures of my faith, I was given memory of Jude 1:23,

Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives. (NLT)

It isn’t loving to let others, up to and including the hateful and oppressive, perish in their sin.  To resist their bad ideas and actions can be the most loving possible response.  It is to attempt to rescue them from ultimate destruction, just as much as it is to protect other people from the harm they might inflict.

But this must be done without being “contaminated” by their evil, that is, by getting sucked into participation in the very thing we claim to protest.

The resistance has to manifest something different.  As one observer points out, that wasn’t exactly what happened in Virginia,

Mutually antagonistic flag waving.  Not a call to something better, just a colorful assertion of my superiority to you.

I was at a protest some years ago.  Two groups were demonstrating on opposing sides of a foreign policy issue.  We were both marching in circles, brandishing our witty placards and bellowing our slogans.

At some point, someone in our circle challenged us to shut up and pray.  So we did – we went silent and dropped to our knees on the sidewalk.  The other group kept chanting for a few minutes, then fizzled into silence and dispersed.

Again, I’m not saying that this is some universal solution – it might just as well have happened that some nut jumped into his car and ran over us while we prayed.

What I’m saying is that the real resistance is that which manifests something better, even if risky, than the facts on the ground.  I really don’t see any substantial difference between alt-right and antifa “demonstrations.”  I don’t see substantial difference between alt-right and SJW social media histrionics.

Jesus sets a tall order before us.  He calls us to represent a kingdom that is different from any order on earth, in fact, it’s pretty much upside down from what we call normal most of the time.

This kingdom waves a flag, but not a symbolic piece of fabric.  The Old Covenant presented it as a new kingdom of peace and justice: the New Testament proclaims it in the person of Jesus, the heir of ancient King David’s line and Son of God, a living signal/banner/flag of peace and justice to the whole world,

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear; 
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them. 
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea. 

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. 

He will raise a signal for the nations,
   and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
   from the four corners of the earth.

(Isaiah 11:1-12, NRSV)

So let’s strike our earthly colors, and ask God to unfurl us as that living banner of a better kingdom, even if we must suffer losses in this life to live in it.

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Don’t miss the miracle

 My footThis coming Sunday’s Gospel has more than one miracle.  Sure, it has the obvious suspension of natural law when flesh-and-blood walks on water toward the end.  But don’t miss the much greater miracle launching right off the top of the lesson,

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

The divine Son of God who can walk on water and calm storms and raise the dead and such has to find privacy to pray.

The great miracle is the Incarnation, best described in John 1:14,

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Son of God – the Word – was not subject to confusion, weakness, exhaustion, rejection, pain, death, or any of the other afflictions known by mortal creatures.

But in the miracle of the Incarnation, the perfection of God is suspended, and the Son of God is clothed with our finite flesh and all that comes with it.

Matthew discloses the miracle in what seems like simple narration of events,

Jesus dismissed the crowds – while in the flesh, the Word who created all things can find his creatures overwhelming and distracting.

he went up on the mountain – while in the flesh, the Son who was in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18) must resort to the primitive human practice of closing the distance to heaven by going to a high place.

by himself – while in the flesh, the One who in the Holy Spirit shares perfect unity with the Father experiences the human reality of separation and isolation.

to pray – while in the flesh, the instantaneous and perpetual love of Father, Son and Spirit is interfered with and the Son must reach out with words of prayer like any mortal.

But these limits under which Jesus operates are only one aspect of the miracle.  Even greater is the love for us that it reveals.

Imagine for a moment that you received the power to live without anything unpleasant ever intruding.  No pain.  No losses.  No disappointments.  No rejections.  Just a constant state of love and joy.

Would you waive that power, once it was yours?

That’s what God does in the miracle of the Incarnation.  The state of perfect love and joy is waived for a season in the flesh, up to and including death, so that those who are in the flesh can come to perfect love and joy with God.

Now wait a minute, you might say, we all sacrifice for those we love.  And you would be right to an extent.  We’re all made in the image of God, and so we can do some miniature imitation of Him.  Our love for others can be sacrificial as we occasionally set aside our pleasures and preferences in order to care for them.

But the fact remains that even at our best, we are not free from the pains of the flesh.  We get sick and tired and we die.  Jesus did not have to endure any of it – he chose it.  He chose us in a great miracle of love, and with us he chose his own suffering and limitation.

So don’t miss the miracle when you hear this Sunday’s Gospel.  Jesus walks on water, but that’s just to highlight the supernatural suspension of glory when he later muddles along alone, lugging the instrument of his execution, screaming of abandonment and dying in the flesh like all of us.

It is his loving choice to do so, and that love is the power through which He, as if pulling sinking Peter out of the lake, will reach into our death and raise us to new and everlasting love and joy.

Setting our minds on the Spirit

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  (From Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary Epistle, Romans 8:1-11 NRSV)

So the wrong way to preach this is as a moral exhortation:  All of you, right now, get your minds off the flesh and back onto the Spirit!  That message actually surrenders the mind to the flesh.

WHAT?!?!?!?!?

Well, let’s start with the fact that we are all familiar with the New Testament idea of flesh as our self-centered, aggressive and pleasure seeking animal nature.  Paul captures this in a number of important verses, such as

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)

But in Romans, I think he’s warning us about a religious exercise of the flesh.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

When a sermon or other teaching shouts at us to STOP WALKING IN THE FLESH we instinctively (carnally) respond by trying harder to be good.  We try to do lots of pious stuff like going to all of the church programs we can and saying darn instead of, you know, d@#n, and switching from the metal station to the Christian station on the car radio, at least when the kids are with us.

That is, we try to save ourselves by keeping all the rules.

Which, the lesson from Romans warns us, is hopeless because keeping the law is a strategy under the weakening influence of the flesh.

The antidote is setting our mind on the Spirit, which first and foremost means to receive the Spirit’s perpetual witness: Jesus himself condemned sin in the flesh AND fulfilled the just requirement of the law by suffering death on the cross.

This is not to say that putting our mind on the Spirit is to reject the law and practice a touchy-feely Christian form of amorality.  Having our minds on the Spirit generates two primary actions for our practice of discipleship,

First, we are to affirm with the Spirit that Jesus Christ alone is our righteousness.  As Jesus taught of the Spirit’s work,

And when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged.  (John 16:8-11 NLT)

The second action is to read and/or hear Holy Scripture, which gives us the language by which the Spirit can guide us.  If we spend our day memorizing the Bible as a list of laws to be carried out, we inevitably walk according to the flesh, even if we dress the flesh up in religious ceremonies, jargon and habits.  Instead, our knowledge of the Bible allows the Spirit to teach and guide us in accord with God’s priorities and timing,

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:25-26, ESV)

The Holy Spirit is not a mere feeling (thus Paul tells us to set our minds on the Spirit), but God present within us to help us understand the Scripture He’s breathed, all of which bears witness to His righteousness fulfilled for us in Jesus and now being completed in us as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Understanding that the work of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is primary and that our piety and power to do good are outward signs of God’s continued and continuous inner work in our lives is what allows us to enjoy the radical truth that launches the lesson from Romans,

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In the flesh we are our own false gods and justly condemned; in the Spirit we share the life of Christ who is the righteous one, the beloved at the Father’s right hand.

 

 

 

If anybody says anything…

…it’ll probably be this,

Hey, buddy, you got dirt on your head.  Yuck yuck yuck.

20170228_172409

To which I’ll reply, Yep.  Glad you can’t see into my heart and mind, too.  Pretty much a total mess except what Jesus is making with it.

Or maybe some people will just ask, So, what’s that thing on your head mean?

To which I’ll answer, Dust is what I am and all I’ll finally be on my own. But Jesus has marked me as HIS own, and so I’ll be much more.

Hopefully, that will invite more comments and questions.  But about Him, not me.

Can’t we just be friends?

Ah, Valentine’s Day. Remember when romantic rejection – somebody didn’t “like” you – felt like a fatal injury? I guess I’m getting old enough to look back and… OK, not laugh, but not cringe with as much gravity. “Can’t we just be friends?” is funny now; it used to be injurious to my soul.

Rejection. I prayed Psalm 71 this morning and the word came to mind.

For you are my hope, O LORD God, my confidence since I was young. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born; from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you. I have become a portent to many; but you are my refuge and my strength. (Verses 5-7)

The Psalms, according to Jesus himself, point to him. With that understanding, these verses are so painful; the eternal Son who dwelt in eternal glory spent his 33-ish years from conception to crucifixion on the bad end of rejection.  His fidelity to his divine nature and mission were things the world wanted to keep at arm’s length, to say the least.

The Prophets saw it coming,

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces3d render of red broken heart om white background
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (Isaiah 53:3 NRSV)

The Evangelists recorded the fulfillment,

 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.  He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  (John 1:10-11)

Wow, at least those we court try to let us down easy.  They offer a cool (in temperature, not social standing) friendship.  Jesus gave his heart and got the cross.

Makes today’s shenanigans seem a bit less urgent, I hope.

 

 

Maybe, just possibly, good news?

My thoughts this morning were on refreshment, renewal and other such happy life passages.  I was in the perky place because of my dog.  I’d shared the following on Facebook,

Our Black Lab is aging, but last night she had a shining moment of reclaimed youth.

Because it’s so cold, I stand in the garage and let her go out on a 25′ training leash (which never seemed to train her back in the day).

All of a sudden she growls, barks and just about drags me out the door and across the yard.

She’d spotted a deer in the shadows across the street and wanted to go after it. Needless to say, I didn’t let that happen in the subzero night. I restrained her with some effort and we just watched the deer bound away.

But I gave Lily a lot of praise and a treat back in the warm house.

I’m sure she had a great hunting tale to tell the cat.

We have these flashes of the good times now and then.  I was getting ready for Morning Prayer and the Biblical passage about “getting back to your first love” ran through my mind.  Last year, in the midst of some struggles and changes, I got back to my old habit of reading Morning and Evening Prayer (I’ll let the italics do the talking), using a schedule that offers the entire Book of Psalms every month.

It was a return to first love – the privilege and pleasure of time with God instead of capitulation to all of each day’s passing urgencies.  I began to linger in prayer instead of “getting it done.”  I was blessed to wander back into adoration, enjoying the reality and presence of God without any agenda of stuff to fix or fret over.

So what comes up as the New Testament reading this morning?

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  (Revelation 2:4-5)

Now, being who and what I am, I read that with a momentary thought of Wow!  Cool!  but then got down to stressing and straining over what me, myself and I needed to do.  What was it I had abandoned and needed to rediscover?  How could I please God again after falling so far from… from…?

A gentle but terribly subversive awareness intruded.  What if that passage coming up just after I’d been thinking about it (rather, having thoughts about it just before it came up) was an affirmation from God?  What if it was good news via the Holy Spirit from the One who sent his Son into the world to save it?  What if (No!  Stop!  Perish the thought!  Vanity of vanities!) it was God expressing pleasure in me for having accepted His invitation to spend more conscious time with Him?

I realized that my self accusing thoughts were most likely The Accuser’s (that’s what the title Satan – in Hebrew The Satan – means) blather and lies, urging me to seek the good in me, myself and I rather than in the free gift of God.

That 30-day Psalm cycle came to the rescue, as a verse I took with me to bed came back into my mind:

I sought the LORD and he answered me and delivered me from all my terror. Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. Psalm 34:4-5

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Look upon Him indeed.

Be delivered.

Be radiant.

Be refreshed and renewed.

And don’t be ashamed.

Unresolved

I’m not alone in questioning the utility of New Year’s Resolutions.  Here’s a good piece by a rising Evangelical star.  

I had some blessed quiet time to read this weekend and found this among piles of jewels from perceptive, expressive souls,

A life is seen now not as the story of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, but as a story of God’s mercy. (John Welch, O. Carm., in The Carmelite Way)

20170101_112849New Year’s Resolutions shift the focus back onto the clashing power and paucity of me, myself and I.  And magical thinking is lurking there in the idea that the flip of a calendar page releases glittering pixie dust to change our hardened habits.

The Christian proclamation, in almost all of its fragmented expressions claiming the title church, always comes back to the centrality of what God has done, is doing and will do.

I fight that with the best of resolution makers, wanting to take up my lance and attack windmills in hopes of – validating?  requalifying for?  earning? maybe even replacing? – God’s favor poured over and into my life.

Lately I’ve had some living reminders to drop the lance, the projection of my own wishes and fantasies, and take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I have an active and elaborate prayer life, but I’ve noticed my wife progressing and changing with a simple recollection of Psalm 51:11, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

I think the power there is in the Hebrew verb for create, which in that verse is the same as in Genesis 1:1, a verb reserved for actions of which only God is capable.  Resolve what we might, there is change that only God can accomplish.

20170101_103502Lately I’ve been assisting (not leading – they lead themselves quite well) a Dinka (South Sudanese) congregation here.  Their Deacon came to the house yesterday to help me learn some of their hymns.  He was gloriously patient – it must have been like teaching a child new words but he stuck with it and now I can throw my heart, mind and voice into verses like Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty in Dinka.  (And like Hebrew having a verb for creation reserved to God, Dinka expresses God’s might via a combination of singular and plural nouns something like “power greater than any other powers”).

I had to get out of my own way to learn from Deacon John, gracious as he was.  My head was filled with thoughts of “performing well,” getting praise for my ability to learn and providing paternalistic proof of my cross cultural munificence, etc.

So I prayed to God, extolling him as the Lord of language, the one who spoke all into existence, confounded vanity at Babel and sent power to preach Good News at Pentecost.  I prayed to get out of the way so I could learn the words and tunes to the extent that they brought Him glory and blessed His people.

The Dinka liturgy is about 2 hours from now.  I’m practicing and all that, but it’s less about my nervous and ego saturated resolve to sing in a new language then about loving God and neighbor in worship.  And before and after worship.

Which I won’t resolve to do because it’s beyond my doing.