Thursday, December 8, 2016

Advent, Day 12: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him.

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers,
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone;
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

For evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait upon the Lord shall possess the land.

In a little while the wicked shall be no more;
you shall search out their place, but they will not be there.

But the lowly shall possess the land;
they will delight in abundance of peace.

- Psalm 37:7-12

I've been calling my senators quite a bit over the past few weeks to suggest that perhaps it's not a good thing that a man who has bragged about enabling and empowering white supremacists is the president-elect's chief strategist. I've suggested that they organize with senators from both parties and refuse to confirm any of the next president's cabinet until he fires Steve Bannon from his staff. I don't see this as a partisan issue, but an issue of basic human decency.

This is work we can all be doing, and it's important work. But it's also Advent, and I have to remind myself every day that we can't all do everything.

Today I'm going to make time simply to sit quietly. I won't dwell on things I've done or haven't done. I'm going to "be still before the Lord and wait patiently."

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Advent, Day 11: Pray Your Gods

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

- 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10

It's passages like these that cause many people to turn away from Christianity entirely. How can we square the notion of an eternally loving God with descriptions of "punishment of eternal destruction"? It just doesn't make sense.

On the other hand, we also bristle at the notion that everyone will be forgiven for all the evil they have done. Deep down, we really want those who have wronged us to suffer for it. Maybe not eternally ... well, except in a few cases ... we can think of a few people ...

Do you see the problem? We think we have the capability to judge who deserves what. We would rather decide on their fate than to allow God to do so. We also read today from John's gospel:

Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ - John 7:10-11

In both cases, the underdog is protected from the persecutor. But Jesus doesn't punish the men who want to stone the woman to death. So which is it? Are we punished for our sins or not?

I think it's enough just to notice our tendency to want to punish. And this can even extend to ourselves. We might take the opportunity not to be punished, but in that event, will we desist from punishing ourselves? Will we accept the dignity God grants us, or will we always be wondering whether there's still a score to settle?

I'll go on the record and say that I don't believe God wants eternal punishment for anyone. It might have been comforting to the Thessalonians to hear that they would not suffer in vain, but I think it's a mistake to place the torments of hell anywhere near the center of our theology. Vengeance is not Good News.

Today, examine your understandings of justice, judgment, mercy, and forgiveness. When you look at the ways you have hurt others, how do you think God feels about them? How does God judge you? And if you trust that God loves you far more than any other human being you have ever known, what does that mean for you?

Here's a tune for today, a meditation on the gods we construct and worship--the gods that are not God. "I feel my body weakened by the years/ As people turn to gods of cruel design./ Is it that they fear the pain of death?/ Or could it be they fear the joy of life?"

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Advent, Day 10: All You Zombies

Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
   and opened its mouth beyond measure;
the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down,
   her throng and all who exult in her.
People are bowed down, everyone is brought low,
   and the eyes of the haughty are humbled.
But the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice,
   and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.
Then the lambs shall graze as in their pasture,
   fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins. 

- Isaiah 5:14-17

Isaiah refers to the Babylonian exile, an event you won't read about in a typical book of children's Bible stories, but certainly one of the two or three most crucial events in the Old Testament. Where the parting of the Red Sea stands as a sign of God's ability to free the people from slavery, the exile stands as a sign of God's ability to punish the people for their sins.

Most of the Old Testament was first written down on the other side of this event, with the knowledge eating at the people that God had not allowed the Kingdom of Israel to continue forever as an earthly kingdom. The various prophets and scribes dealt with it in different ways, but it is always there under the surface of all but the oldest sacred stories.

Does God punish individuals? Does God punish collective groups of people? Or does God simply allow consequences to occur? These are some of the thorniest theological questions, thorny enough to make some people throw up their hands and stop believing in God altogether. And obviously, they can't be solved or even adequately tackled in a blog post.

The prophets' words address real situations of suffering, and yet they always end on a note of hope: "Fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins." Today, enjoy a song from the 1980s that presents some (admittedly simplistic versions of) Bible stories and then urges us: "All you zombies, show your faces." There shall be a reversal. "All you sitting in high places, the pieces gonna fall on you." Justice will come.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Advent, Day 9: Stay Awake

But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

- 1 Thessalonians 5:4-8

Keep awake. Stay awake. Pay attention, because important things are happening.

Paul urges us to stay awake in this letter, and Jesus urges us to stay awake in some of his later parables. In the earliest days of the church, it seems that most Christians believed that the world was about to come to an end. It turns out they were wrong about that, but this doesn't nullify the command. Staying awake leads to hope. Paying attention prepares us to step up when our gifts are called for. We are not just to sleep through this life, but engage with it as citizens of God's Kingdom, keeping the priorities of God's Kingdom always in mind: justice, mercy, grace, love.

Are you wearing a safety pin? Don't be one of those who stand by idly when bullying occurs. Pay attention. Use nonviolent direct action. Engage the targeted person rather than the bully. Change the game. Ask the targeted person what she or he needs. And then disengage if that's what the person wants. Be ready to sacrifice for the sake of another person's well-being. Stay awake. Those who would celebrate a political victory by seeking out targets to bully aren't sleeping.

Yesterday the Army Corps of Engineers refused to allow work to continue on the Dakota Access Pipeline. There was a further announcement that there would be an environmental impact study for a potential reroute. It was cause for rejoicing, for the hard work and sacrifices of the water protectors had paid off. I watched as a number of my clergy colleagues visited Standing Rock and prayed with the protesters there over the past couple months. Nonviolent direct action works.

But that doesn't mean it's time to stop paying attention to Standing Rock. Who's to say that they won't just pick up the work again under the new administration? Stay awake. Those who put money above treaties aren't sleeping.

A few years ago I enjoyed creating this mashup. Remember Mary Poppins singing Jane and Michael to sleep with the delightful and ironic lullaby "Stay Awake"? By adding an echo effect and layering it over Sufjan Stevens' weird instrumental "Year of the Sheep," I think I've managed to suck all the irony out of it. Stay awake, my friends.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent, Day 8: Hallelujah

Praise God in his holy temple;
praise him in the firmament of his power.

Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him for his excellent greatness.

Praise him with the blast of the ram's-horn;
Praise him with lyre and harp.

Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe.

Praise him with resounding cymbals;
praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.

Let everything that has breath
praise the Lord.

- Psalm 150

I was griping on Facebook yesterday that Pentatonix has covered Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and put it on their Christmas album. "This is not a Christmas song!" I complained. And then a fellow priest pointed out that it could very well be an Advent song. Too true, I had to admit, looking at my Advent playlist on Spotify and seeing the Jeff Buckley version sitting right there. The secular world doesn't draw a distinction between Advent and Christmas, so it could certainly be called a holiday song.

The final psalm in the Bible is all about the word "Hallelujah," which is a form of the Hebrew verb halal, "to praise." Leonard Cohen's song--which I think found its finest form in Buckley's 1995 cover--deepens this word tremendously. And my one gripe with Buckley's version is that it leaves out this verse:

And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but "hallelujah"

This is what the world feels like to me right now. Have you felt similarly? We don't praise God because things are going well. We praise God because God is God.

Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken "hallelujah"

We don't love because it makes us feel good. We love because love is the only worthwhile choice--even when all else fails.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent, Day 7: Fire

On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgement and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed, over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.

- Isaiah 4:2-6

What does fire do? What is its job?

We might think of fire primarily as a destroyer. It can ravage a house or a community or a large forest very quickly. We have an entire department in each of our cities and towns dedicated to preventing this sort of thing. We might burn letters so that they can never be read again. At various times in our past, we have burned human beings in order to be rid of them.

Fire destroys, yes, but in a scientific sense, its primary job is to change things from one form to another. We burn candles and wood to produce heat. We burn incense to produce a rich smell. Fire changes matter to energy.

Fire purifies. We can hold a metal object in a flame in order to kill any germs that might be living there, so as to make it safe for medical use.

But what is people's dominant image of fire in the area of religion? "Burn in hell." This is unfortunate.

Fire is an image of judgment in the Bible, but this is not judgment with the intent to destroy. Change and purification are far more accurate connotations. The destruction of "chaff" and all else that is not helpful is a part of it, but the greater metaphor is that fire clears the way to begin something new. Fire destroys what is not working so that new possibilities may begin.

Meditate on images of fire today. How might God be clearing the brush from your life in order to make room for growth? Are there parts of you that God intends to burn anyway? Understand that this burning will not destroy you but is intended for your benefit. As the hymn goes: "The flame will not hurt thee/ I only design thy dross to consume/ And thy gold to refine."

Meditate on these things, yes ... but then also make time to enjoy this crazy hit song from 1968.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Advent, Day 6: Anything

Tell the innocent how fortunate they are,
   for they shall eat the fruit of their labours.
Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are,
   for what their hands have done shall be done to them. 

- Isaiah 3:10-11

I think Jesus was thinking of this passage from Isaiah when he preached the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49): "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied ... But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry."

Prophetic and eschatological writings from the Bible aren't about predicting the future (though sometimes they may turn out to have done so). I was just telling this someone the other day, a not-so-religious person who was musing about whether Donald Trump might be the Antichrist. I replied that Antichrist might be a helpful metaphor, but that the biblical writers were not fortune-tellers. It really doesn't need to matter to us how the world will end, whether it's all of a sudden in a total upsetting of the laws of physics, or very slowly as our species dies out for the lack of a conducive environment in which to thrive. Either way, someday we won't be here. But we are here now.

Writings like this are intended to give comfort, to promise that in some way there will eventually be a great reversal. Those who suffer now will no longer suffer. Those who persecute now will be put in their place. What that looks like is probably beyond us.

Above all, these passages are put here to remind us that we don't accomplish that great reversal on our own steam. God is doing this work through us and even apart from us. One thing at a time.

It's easy to grow impatient for such a time. But these writings help us keep our focus. A couple days ago I posted the song "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," and when I sang it to my daughter that night, she said, "I don't think that will ever happen." I said, "Maybe not, but it's so important to keep in mind what we want to happen, or we'll never even move in that direction."

So here's another song that echoes that focus and that impatience. "Yes, we should like to see a burning bush-type sign/ But anything would be fine."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Advent, Day 5: People Get Ready

The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
   and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
   and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.
The idols shall utterly pass away.
Turn away from mortals,
   who have only breath in their nostrils,
   for of what account are they? 

- Isaiah 2:17-18, 22

What are your idols? You'll have to give them up, you know. All the things that you place between yourself and God ... they'll all have to go.

Many people idolize money and possessions, thinking that storing up enough material things will protect us from discomfort. We might give more honor to those who are rich, figuring that somehow they deserve it.

Others idolize safety and security. If we can just keep the bad people at bay with our guns and razor wire and home security systems, we won't have to suffer. If we can just keep bad nations in subservience to us, we can build a greater nation than all the others. How about the safety and security of our emotions? Don't hurt my pride or question my competence!

Perhaps you idolize fame and honor. You may want people to hear your voice in particular and recognize the knowledge and expertise you possess. Tied to this is the idol of authority and authoritarianism. Humans who have the most power are able to tell us what to do, so we won't have to think about it too hard.

Sexual gratification can also be an idol. People who have affairs or who get hooked on pornography fall into this trap, and it can be an addictive one. A related trap is that of fine food and fancy restaurants. Or how about thrilling experiences of novelty in general, as if expensive new experiences will entertain us into a joyful life?

Sometimes I idolize technology, and I guess that's a form of possession worship. I'm typing this on a brand-new laptop that I'll be spending a lot of time with. It's wonderful and amazing. And often it's a distraction from spending time with God.

That's what all of these really are, you know: distractions. They are for the purpose of numbing. We do these things to protect ourselves from the full realization that God is at the center of our lives. True joy is to be found not in any of these things above (though many of them are helpful or actually wonderful in moderation), but in loving God and loving each other. We are not to live somber lives, but joyful lives. And so often we are blind to the places where true joys may be found.

Here are two versions of a great song--the original by Curtis Mayfield, and a great cover from the 1980s by Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent, Day 4: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

- Isaiah 2:3b-4

My mother used to sing me a lullaby, and I, in turn, sing it to my daughter. It's this Simon & Garfunkel song. Sure, it comes from the days of hippies and anti-war sit-ins. Does that make it politically partisan or overly idealistic? Only if you insist on limiting its scope. When people joke scornfully about the people of the world just holding hands and singing together, the implication is that blithe optimism does nobody any good. In this they are correct.

I don't believe that there will ever be a time of world peace. I don't think humans are built for it. Nevertheless, this is the vision that prophets like Isaiah give us. True, the prophet Joel at one point gives us the reverse image of turning ploughshares into swords, but this is not an image of the ultimate aim of God's universe. God wants world peace, whether we ever get it or not.

Furthermore, I don't believe that world peace is something that just breaks out suddenly. We work for peace wherever we can, and we work hard for it. Peace does not mean the absence of conflict, but its transformation in the context of real relationship. Peace means learning how to deal constructively with disagreements. There is no such thing as "peace through strength"; that is just domination. That was the kind of "peace" put forth by the Roman Empire, and American politicians espouse nothing different from that. "Peace through strength" tends to make other nations angry and resentful. By contrast, real peace involves a refusal of violence on all sides, including the violence of strong-arming into submission. It involves the sharing of power.

You might see why I'm saying that I don't believe we'll ever achieve this peace. Humans can't get there. Instead we say, "Work for justice; pray for peace." There is no peace without justice, so our first step is clear. And justice doesn't mean mere punishment, as when politicians say, "We will bring the terrorists to justice." It's much bigger than that. Godly justice is about restoration of right relationship. We can do a lot in this area, but for justice too, we need to pray as well as work.

Did you know that there is less violence in the world right now than there has ever been before in all of human history? It doesn't feel like it because we are so digitally interconnected. And there is certainly plenty of hate and resentment to go around, always threatening to break out in violence. But maybe we really are learning a thing or two about peace--very, very slowly.

And when all else fails, there is still the kind of peace that Jesus brings us: not the kind of peace we work for in the world, but the kind that comes to us unbidden at moments when we most need it. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent, Day 3: Praying for Time

Then the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.’

When they heard this, they said, ‘Heaven forbid!’ But he looked at them and said, ‘What then does this text mean:

“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone”?

Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 

- Luke 20:13-18

Yesterday we talked about love, but love without adequate judgment helps nobody. Love isn't just a warm fuzzy feeling. Love is fierce when there are people who need defending.

Jesus' parables get harsher as they go. We might imagine that early on he wondered whether the people in power might actually come around to his way of thinking. But in Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly life, Jesus' parables turned very dark indeed.

Here's the thing, though, as I first heard pointed out by author Robert Farrar Capon in his book The Parables of Judgment: Nobody is excluded from the Kingdom who wasn't first included. It's not the notorious sinners who get the raw end of this deal; it's those who have always been considered upright and righteous. It's those who have always thought that they could arrange a heavenly place for themselves on their own steam who are in trouble. God has no use for them because they have no use for God. It's the great reversal.

When I'm honest, I have to admit that I, well fed and content, am far more likely to land in this category than in the other. Or as George Michael put it: "I may have too much, but I'll take my chances, 'cause God's stopped keeping score."

We are not saved by our actions, but we are judged by them. It's a crucial distinction. And those who truly understand that their actions cannot save them--that they are judged and found wanting--are far more likely to relax into the arms of their rescuer. As for the rest of us, well, "maybe we should all be praying for time."