Category Archives: A life in the Spirit

Emergence: New discoveries and new books enrich how we see the work of God

When you are feeling good, like after being in the park last Wednesday or Thursday (!), you probably feel like something good is “emerging.” Maybe you feel like Tony singing “something’s coming” in Westside Story.

Emergence is a constant we feel inside and experience coming at us. It is like catching a wave rippling through the universe and finding yourself moved to a new place. One of my clients said their therapy process led them to a new place of peace and understanding —  and they had no idea how they got there. But they felt, finally, like something new was possible. It is likely that something will “emerge” tomorrow. It will seem to come from out of no where.

President Garfield

The three books I’ve been reading (not always a good idea) have each encouraged me to think about “emergence” in one way or another. The first one moved me because it seems like the United States is never going to emerge out of the dreadful sin of racism and all the other hatred which laid in wait to be stirred up by Trump and his cronies. The book is President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier (2023).

Garfield colorized

I did not know how much I would relate to Garfield’s life! How he ran away from and ran into racism and hate during and after the Civil War sounds like a replay of what’s been happening since 9/11! Can the United States possibly be tempted to disenfranchise and otherize entire classes of people in the old name of white supremacy? This week it is a debate about Venezuelans.

In 2019, I thought we might actually emerge into new territory. People seemed to be susceptible to enlightenment in new ways. I hoped that white people, mainly, would repent of our sin and we’d come to new reconciliation. But the exact same thing happened as it did in 1876 when tired out, threatened men, tabled the issue in honor of profit protection and their own power – and those were the nice ones. The mean ones planned violence – and don’t imagine a new KKK is not possible! It seems like we periodically push the boundaries like the alien in John Hurt’s body, but some things never quite emerge.

I think James Garfield felt discouraged, too. He could feel the possibilities. He road a wave quite a way from his log cabin, preaching and teaching in the Ohio Reserve, clear to the Congress and then to the White House.

In 1878 Garfield quoted Junius Brutus from Coriolanus in his diary, “Let’s carry with us eyes and ears for the time / But hearts for the event.” The “event” was the emergence of something better. Coriolanus represents the arrogant old guard hurtling to a fall, and Garfield the plebian, idealistically undermining their surety. Ironically, the man who assassinated President Garfield three years later was angry with him for not rewarding him with a job from the spoils system Garfield had spent most of his career trying to eradicate. I picked up this book because I often wondered what it might have been like if he had not been killed. What was trying to emerge?

Nancy Abrams

A much more profound book is by a philosopher of science married to the famous cosmologist Joel R. Primack: A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet (2015) by Nancy Abrams.  Abrams essentially made a god for herself out of “emergence.”

Mysteries abound and are simplified for public consumption when Abrams and Primack get a hold of them. I won’t even try to summarize their science-shattering revelations. But this video will help you (below). I hardly ever watch a long video, but this one is engaging and enlightening, especially if you want to keep up with the revolution of understanding our new space telescopes have provided.

Their exciting new theory is that stars are about 1% of the 99% of the universe we cannot see. “Cold dark matter” is interacting with “dark energy” creating something that looks like a web or like a picture of a cell in our bodies.

Abrams and Primack

Nancy was not troubled by the lack of God in their groundbreaking models until she entered a 12-step program for eating disorders and realized that, as an atheist, she had no way to connect with the “higher power” that was supposed to help her with her struggle. That got her thinking, “I had this sinking feeling that I had never really tried to understand God.”  Her book answers her question, “Can anything actually exist in the universe as science understands it that is worthy of being called God?”

What she comes up with is “emergence.” She describes it as something “new and radically unpredictable” which arises out of a collective. One example of emergence is the complex global economy that arose from local buying and selling. Another example is the way a swarm of ants can build an anthill even as no individual ant can understand how that might be done. She sees the universe working that way and that is her higher power.

For humans, God, she believes, is a phenomenon that emerges from our collective human aspirations. “We need to redefine God,” she said. “The emerging God is not king of the universe; it’s humanity’s bridge to understanding the universe.”

Boiling down her thoughts this way does not do them justice and does not describe the wonder of seeing how the universe has “emerged.” As she was teaching, my thoughts turned to questions about how slavery and the Civil War “emerged.” And how in 2019 a wave of power struggle upended my church and so many other collectives and institutions. Now we are all worrying about what will emerge from the wonder of A.I. I’m not known for focusing on the dark side of the dark matter. But I do admit it is there. If you are James Garfield or Nancy Abrams, you are expecting goodness and development or at least inevitability to emerge. I would like to be a point of light, myself.

Ray Anderson

Ray Anderson

The third book comes from a professor I knew of when I attended his seminary, Fuller. Ray Anderson died in 2009, but I am just getting to one of his last books: An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (2006). I never thought of the church we planted as an “emerging” church, but I think Anderson would have.  His ideas sort of bring Garfield and Abrams into the ongoing work of God I have experienced, as I think they experienced too. We all looked out into the stars and felt a shiver of wonder at what is coming, what seems to be moving, and how we are caught up in life.

Anderson loved the emergence he saw in the church. But he wanted to write a book to supply some underpinnings he thought the movement was missing. Beware, I’m going to boil down another philosopher; here goes. He saw the emerging church of the 2000’s as another expression of the Spirit, like we see the energy of the first church of Antioch escaping the gravitational pull of the mother church in Jerusalem. Here is how Brian McClaren asked his question in the intro:

Are we going to follow an Athens-based faith, where our message is domesticated and diluted by new cultures it encounters? Are we going to follow a Jerusalem-based faith, where our message is tamed and contained by a dominant culture from the past? Or are we going to follow an Antioch-based faith, where our message never loses its wild, untamed essence (flames of fie, rushing wind), but like a spring of living water or vibrant new wine, it always flows and is never contained in new forms?

The aspiration of the last sentence sounds like Garfield’s Disciples of Christ heart and Abrams’ brilliant insight: emergence.

Anderson distinguishes between what is “emergent” and what is “emerging.” When Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate what was going on, he was caught up in the emerging church that represented the newness their faith represented. The powers in Jerusalem rejected the Church’s “emergent” message of resurrection life and scattered the believers all over the world. Antioch was the fertile place an “anthill” formed, and soon ants were in every kitchen of the Roman Empire. To the honor of the Jerusalem elders, when Paul and Barnabas came back to report, they blessed them even if they did not become them.

That “untamed essence” is what Garfield, Abrams and Anderson all see and want to move with. Me too. I can see emergence in the past and I want to move with like-minded aspirants to see the best of the future.

I think it is a bit ironic for Abrams’ to rest her new faith in the latest discovery of science, which always thinks its latest revolution is the last one.  But what she is feeling about what she is seeing resonates with me. From the detritus of the last few years, I keep seeing “ants” aspiring together and bringing forth new things. Dare I say that the aspirations of David Hogg and his fellow survivors of the Stoneman High shooting finally resulted in the Office of Gun Violence Protection President Biden announced last week? Is my energetic local pastor, committed to the emergent gospel, going to build an emerging church on the crumbling foundation of the old? Something’s coming! I hope to move with that “dark energy” that makes for starshine.

The common emotion wheels need unpacking

Not too long ago, a client was consulting the “emotions wheel” I asked him to find online. It was useful. When we were discussing the options he might choose, I asked him if “disappointed” was on his wheel. It was not. I was surprised, since what young child is not severely disappointed at some point — like with the authority figure who denies her a cookie? Or who hasn’t felt disappointing after a failure or after being criticized? I considered disappointment to be a basic feeling.

After our session was over, I took a look at all the emotion wheels in my resources folder which I often passed out. I could not find “wonder” on them. There was no “tenderness” or “betrayal.” I realized, “These wheels are all different!” They must have some philosophy behind them.

I started researching. I needed to do some thinking because I, like you, have some assumptions about how my emotions work. And maybe like you, I realized my assumptions were not  examined very well, even though most of what I do all day deals with emotions!

Thanks to Google, I found this scholarly article by Maria Gendron and Lisa Barret about the history of emotion in psychology; then I found an overview for a less-scholarly summary by Tchiki Davis. Those  women taught me I should be careful about what I pass out. The emotion wheels do have some thinking behind them.

Base emotions

There are many theories of emotion which try to organize the feelings we often have difficulty naming. The theories help us understand where emotions come from, how they relate to each other and what they mean in our culture. The most well-known of these theories is the “discrete” (or basic) theory of emotion. This was the theory used in the movie Inside Out.  Pixar’s goal in that popular movie  was to encourage children, in particular, to welcome the full spectrum of emotions because they all matter; there is nothing wrong with feeling sad.  That’s nice.

The movie also made an indelible impression that feelings have an “identity” that is unlikely to change. So our emotions should just learn to get along. We should be inclusive of all our feelings. That’s an extension of the basic premise that emotions are separate, discrete things, that they are basic elements of all humans because they originate from having to deal with fundamental life tasks like running away from a predator or getting food when you are hungry.

Another well-known chart of emotions is Plutchik’s wheel, above. This wheel suggests there are primary, secondary, and tertiary emotions. Each of the basic emotions in his wheel are amplified and can be combined to create new emotions.  Both the charts above are based on the theory of evolution, which assumes survival instincts are imprinted on our species; there are  immutable feelings in us all. What Robert Plutchik adds is how the emotions keep adapting. They not only have a complexity born of a long evolutionary history, they keep combining into new and relevant forms. His chart  has a movement to it; the feeling states are all part of a process involving both cognition and behavior and containing several feedback loops.

Dialogue about emotion is broad

The theorizing already feels complex, right? Part of the reason for that is the question that kicks off the dialogue: “What is an emotion, anyway?” More than ninety definitions have been offered over the past century. There must be almost as many theories. English, in particular, continues to add to a complex array of overlapping words to describe them.

My psychotherapy clients are mostly men and it often helps to have a list of words from which they can select their feeling. They understand they are angry and sometimes anxious, but some of the other feelings are harder to name. Emotions are complex. What’s more, they are amplified, daily, on the screen. Add on the demand for idealized versions of emotion from partners and a man can feel overwhelmed (and women, too, of course). They might feel like everyone is supposed to have the kind of emotion that’s on the chart or explained by Pixar and they are afraid to choose wrongly.

My research into the history of how the present sense of emotion  in the U.S. developed taught me the argument is rather broad. Darwin‘s musings lead to the idea of “basic” emotions. Then philosophers and scientists tried to prove those few emotions were either innate or were caused by reactions to typical external forces. A lot of thinking in the past 200 years, really, has been about “is it this or that?”  As is usual for modern thinkers, the researchers came up with “dichotomies that define modern ideas about emotion — basic emotion vs. appraisal, evolutionary vs. social constructionist, dimensional vs. discrete, experience vs. expression.” (Gundren and Barrett)

The “basic” emotions people were met by the “appraisal” theorists, who said emotions are mainly a matter of humans making meaning.  The higher thinking of humans is twinned with higher feelings. We feel and think about what we think and feel. We are not merely reactions to what is happening to us, we also happen to ourselves and consult with others. This theory was a corrective to the assertion that emotions are derived from reactions along the rocky road of learning how to kill a mastodon and survive the ice age. On the contrary, the appraisal people said, the emotions came into consciousness by firelight when people were painting the hunt on the cave wall and naming what they felt.

My main problem with the emotions wheels I have been distributing is that they might lead clients in the wrong direction. Most clients are in therapy because they want to adapt better to how they feel and learn things that will make them happier and more lovable. They are experiencing a very complex “chart” of themselves and realizing how responsible and capable they can be. What’s more, once they get comfortable with themselves and their often-unrealized capacity, they sometimes uncover an even deeper ability to relate spiritually. They feel things , both inside and out, that are fearsome and joyous mysteries, not reducible to five pieces of pie on a chart.

The constructionist view and God

In a further article, Lisa Barrett goes on to assert her “psychological constructionist” view of emotion, which I think appropriately considers how emotions are not just inside out, as the appraisal people imply, they are also outside in like the discreet people imply, and they are more. Emotions are formed by and deal with all the ways our brains, bodies and relationships contribute to what we feel. She asks, “What if psychological facts are not physical facts? What if the phenomena we want to explain—emotions, cognitions, the self, behaviors—are not just the subject matter of the human mind, but are also the creations of that mind? What if the boundaries for these categories are not respected in the very brain that creates them?”

The discussion about emotions is as complex as the formation of them.  That statement may give you comfort and cause you to take a deep breath and listen to what is going on, trusting the process, so to speak.  Or the discussion may add to your distress and cause you to wonder how you will ever figure yourself out if the experts are all arguing! I think you should take the breath. One of the great things about us is we never know or feel everything we can imagine we should already understand. But that discomfort forms us.

A big creation, inside and out

One of the best things about the postmodern thinking which deconstructs the binary arguments and assumptions of the past is that it leaves room (like Barrett’s quote does) for mystery. There are still plenty of scientists who think they have it all figured out, or who believe their next experiment will solve the problem. But, more and more, people are a bit more content that they may never know enough. The advances in brain science lead some researchers to think that psychology as a science might be dispensed with. But the phenomenon of emotions is one of the realities that prove our experience is much larger than how the neurons are firing.

The constructionist view includes the full breadth of human experience in the formation of emotions. If you look for it, this view can be seen lurking, unacknowledged, in most of the binary arguments of the past. You can also see the view in the Bible, as just these few verses from Proverbs 14 show. These wisdom sayings are full of the mystery of being human but deeply appreciate our capacity to discern what we feel and what is good in the moment within all the competing stimuli:

Only the heart can know its own resentment;
    likewise no stranger can experience its joy.
Before every person lies a road that seems to be right,
    but the end of that road is death and destruction.
Laughter can mask heartache,
    and joy often gives way to grief.
A disloyal heart has its fill of disloyal ways,
    but a good person will be satisfied from above.
The gullible believe anything they are told,
    but clever people know to question every step. (The Voice)

The constructionist view of emotion asserts all the multitudinous ingredients the brain creates 24/7 are involved the phenomena psychology explains: emotions, cognitions, the self, and behaviors. From elements we might see as inside or outside of us, the mental states called “feeling” and “thinking” are created.

I may lose the emotion wheels

When I took a new look at my emotional wheel charts, I was not sure I could correct the ones devoted to “basic emotions.” They might need a warning label: “too simplistic.” As the constructionists imply, the process of forming emotions is bigger than a chart. Emotions may appear to be discreet, nameable, even universal things, but the whole creation is having a dialogue and coming up with something next right now.

I thought it would at least help if I put a little circle in the middle of a “basic emotions” wheel with “truth/love” at the center. That would give it some movement and an appropriate mystery. I think our experiences and meaning-making are generated from our godlike dialogue between mind/brain and heart/body, heaven and earth — speaking and hearing the truth in love.

The emotion wheel charts imply emotions just happen in us, they are built in, “it is what it is.” I not only think we make meaning of our thoughts and feelings, I think we make choices that create them and heal them. Unfortunately, the charts are studiously devoid of anything outside their immanent frame. In their estimation, no one would never feel “godly” or “soulful” or “virtuous” or “kindly” or “convicted” or “blessed” or even “thankful” — any number of feelings that are precious to us all, the kind we feel when we are most deeply alive.

I wish I could retract all the wheels I have passed out over the years. I am chastened to resist going with the flow when it comes to psychology. From now on I will pass out a list of words to help someone give a name to what is happening in them and to them — no colors, no charts to impose a theory.  I may need to add a few words that are missing! A person looking over the list may need to add some of their own. A list allows us to imagine our own process, not just conform to someone else’s idea of who were are or are supposed to be. We’ve probably done enough of that conforming already, which is why we can’t figure out what we feel!

I hope we grow to feel comfortable with “good” and “bad” feelings and thoughts, free to welcome them as part of a human life. If that life is lived in grace, even the worst feeling has meaning and the other side of it has hope.

Bonus track:


Is more anxiety in the air? Or do we measure it better?

Is this really the Age of Anxiety? Maybe it is. On the Trinity Broadcasting Network a few days ago, former pastor and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee opened his most recent episode by saying if former president Trump loses the 2024 election because of the many indictments grand juries have handed down concerning his behavior, “it is going to be the last American election that will be decided by ballots rather than bullets.” That makes me anxious!

Maybe the “spirit of the air” right now is named Anxiety and the media spreads it like a virus. It seems like therapists, teachers, parents and all sorts of authorities are moving with this zeitgeist. They may being seeing and naming anxiety where little is actually present. They might proactively drug anxious-looking behavior when it is not really necessary. They might be creating the atmosphere they fear by overdefending against it.

Even though there is plenty to be anxious about right now, maybe our better-therapized society is only slightly more anxious than usual. Maybe we are just more aware and more prepared to talk about how we feel.

Alpha-Stim® AID is a handheld medical device that is proven safe and effective for the treatment of anxiety and insomnia. Alpha-Stim uses cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) to deliver a patented waveform via two earclip electrodes.

Are you monitoring your anxiety?

A junior college professor in Utah starts his class each day by having students open up a Canvas page where they give themselves an anonymous mental health rating. The poll is a 10-point scale—modeled loosely after health care’s 10-point pain scale—with a 10 being the best and one being “I’m just pressing buttons today.”

The professor has a conviction. He says, “At the end of the day, the student who is coming out of the pandemic and coming back to our institutions just wants to know they matter, just wants to know that somebody knows their name and just wants to know that somebody will genuinely ask them how they’re doing.” He sounds like a great professor to have.

It also sounds like he is training his students to monitor and rate their anxiety (and everything else) every day. His attempt to pay attention might backfire. Back in the 2010’s it became popular to attend to “key performance indicators.” The saying goes “What gets measured gets done.” Managers wanted regular measurement and reporting to keep workers focused. The use of the idea expanded. For instance, a client who is successful in business took tracking indicators to heart. He had charts to rate his anxiety from 1-10 every day. Once he had a solid month of no “over 3 days” and found it miraculous. I was ambivalent about his technique, but I rejoiced in his improvement. He needed to wean himself from the anxiety indicators and start measuring positive things until he could stop measuring so much altogether.

Do we all have a report due?

As school gets rolling it is good to know that someone is attending to the possible epidemic of anxiety infecting the student body. I’m not sure all those authority figures have good solutions to the problems, but at least people are being inspected. One survey in 2021 reported 72% of female students and 51% of male students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. 59%/48% reported feeling things were hopeless. Those are astounding percentages! I meet those people in my office and online. It does seem like the overwhelm is making it hard to settle down these days.

Haidt’s controversial book

But it is possible that some of these statistics are being created by survey makers who imply you might be out of the mainstream if you aren’t anxious or hopeless. One inspector, Vicki Phillips,  pushed back on Jonathan Haidt’s criticism of Gen Z stats. He called the generation “too soft” and “coddled.” As a result, he said they were unable to stand up to the challenges they face. On the contrary, Phillips says, “Gen Z is drinking lesslearning more, and embracing a spirit of global agency and impact that prior generations could not even imagine. Which raises the question: what were later Boomers and Gen-Xers of Haidt’s cohort doing when they were 15, 16 and 17?” I think it makes a lot of sense to assume, like she does, the younger generation reports a higher percentage of anxiety than previous generations because they recognize and admit they have mental health issues.

They tell you about their mental health issues on TikTok. I am not much of a TikTok user. I deleted it because it soaked up so much time and offered so much misinformation. But I took a cursory look to see what creators were saying about anxiety. They are admitting it. There is a lot of mental health tok to find! I especially appreciated the young man who made a small song about his anxiety and the what ifs.

It is always time for development

Jumping into the argument the media is having about mental health can be confusing. Experiencing what the social media producers share about their health can be discouraging. Therapists could be swayed by it all to assume that most people entering therapy fit the stereotypes being passed around about whole generations. We could unwittingly conform the clients to an untested fad, to the latest temporary solution, or to a medical solution that promises more than it delivers (as this TikTokker reported).

Therapy clients are likely to resemble the general ways of humanity and the trends of the zeitgeist, of course. There may even be “best practices” that apply to them. But rather than assisting them to acclimate to the present atmosphere, or just teaching them to cope better, we all could help one another to be conformed less and enabled to form more. How my therapist sees me can shape me. A teacher’s survey also instructs as it collects info. A parent’s lens can tell a child how to view themselves. Love discerns the best in someone and nurtures it.

Each of us is on a unique journey. It is not singular, since we are in relationships with other people and with God, and those relationships and systems shape us. But in the therapy dyad, especially, we are given a unique chance to explore our own story, experience deeper attention, and make actionable decisions and goals. Teachers, relatives and spouses can all give similar attention.

It may be an age of anxiety, but each of us comes of age into whatever developmental stage we are entering in our own time and way. No matter what is happening, it is hard to keep us from growing. It is a privilege to witness, affirm and encourage healthy development. And if things aren’t moving along as desired, it is an even deeper privilege to come alongside with hope. If what gets measured gets done, let’s measure our love.

Should I pay taxes? Yes. No. Maybe.

In 2007 our church was growing fast and many of our new members were relatively unacquainted with Jesus and His ways. Here is one of the “frequently asking questions” on which we spent the summer. 


We have just a few more weeks to answer frequently asked questions. Thanks to everyone who has been submitting them. We’ve had such a good time, we decided to sprinkle some time all year to answer questions that are submitted. So keep your thoughts coming. Tonight it is “Should I Pay Taxes?’ As you will see, the answer is clearly, No, Yes, Maybe.

No, Yes, Maybe

Marian Franz (1930-2006)

In November of 2006 Marian Franz died. She had been the director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund for 24 years. I met her and her husband a few times on trips to Washington DC to visit our lobbyists. Her conviction was that hard-won provisions for conscientious objection to war in our laws, should be extended to people who not only don’t want to fight wars, but don’t want to pay for them. She convinced quite a few lawmakers that the Peace Tax Fund should be set up so individuals could redirect the taxes they would normally pay for military expenditures to a designated fund which would only be used for non-military purposes.

In a tribute after her death, Daryl Byler, former director of the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office, described Marian Franz as “a pastor-prophet to the U.S. Congress, combining gifts of compassionate listening with passionate advocacy. Her vision and energy were contagious, and her life’s work was a powerful illustration of Paul’s words to the church at Galatia: ‘So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.’ ”

Ms. Franz believed that war taxes have enormous consequences. She said “They kill twice. First, they directly enable war . . . particularly paying for weapons. Second, taxes allocated for war represent a distortion of priorities. Money is taken away from the important work of healing and is spent to destroy and kill.”

So should one pay taxes? I think Marian gave a Jesus kind of answer.

  • Specifically, no, if the ways the taxes are used violate God’s will or violates your conscience before God. No!
  • But generally, yes, since government has a place and needs money, since you’re a citizen, and since it is rare that anyone needs to be a lawbreaker for some noble purpose. So let’s change the laws! Specifically, No. Generally yes.
  • And Usually, maybe —  I think she’d say, “I reserve the right to decide what I need to do. I’m not going to give up until things work the way they ought to work. So I can’t give you a yes or no until everything gets sorted out.”

That maybe is the hard place of faith. People prefer yes or no. You always hear the lawyers forcing people on Law and Order, “Just give me a yes or no.” People love to have the good news from the Prince of Peace turned into a Jesus-book of rules and regulations that can apply to every situation so we don’t have to think, or love, or learn anymore. I can tell you that such a book does not rightfully exist and Jesus won’t be calling us to stop growing and learning and thinking and loving.

Discerning with Jesus

Jesus would never demean our dignity by presuming we are the kind of creatures who can’t discern. We are built for discerning. He’s made the fact that we are often too lazy to do it his problem. So, as usual, tonight will be all about discerning.

I think Marian Franz was following Jesus quite brilliantly. She sounds a lot like a person who could have been talking to her disciples in much the same way Jesus was talking to Peter in this part of the Bible where Jesus is quoted in Matthew 17. Let’s have a woman under 30 read this.

      When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”
      He said, “Yes, he does.”
      And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”
      When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.
      However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.” — Matthew 17:24-27 (NRSVUE)

Unpacking a little, you can see what is happening. Peter commits Jesus to paying a particular tax. Why he did this, no one knows, since, as we find out, Jesus hadn’t done it yet. Maybe Peter answered the taxman that way because felt too proud to be among those who were exempt from the tax because they were too poor to pay — as a band of beggars, Jesus and his crew might have been considered exempt. Jesus doesn’t really have an income, per se. Maybe Peter just didn’t want to look bad in the eyes of the solicitor. Chances are Peter paid the tax every year, as any upstanding Jewish male might do.

The Temple tax had been gong for a couple of hundred years by the time of this incident. It was based on rules from Exodus 30. All adult Jewish males, everywhere, were supposed to pay a tax for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. It was like a sign that you were connected to your people and to God. Two drachmas was not very much, but the fund built up so much sometimes that the priests had to invent ways to spend it —  like one time they constructed a solid gold vine in the temple.

The tax collectors went out to solicit, but the tax was not compulsory, like you’d go to jail for not paying it. Some groups refused to pay it on principle because they thought the Temple was corrupted. Other people were exempt. Jesus, being something of a radical, might have been one of the people refusing to pay. Or as a rabbi, he might have been considered exempt.

I am going to try to show how this applies to whether we should pay our taxes or not. So you might be wondering how a voluntary temple tax compares to your relationship to the IRS, or to the state treasury or to the Philadelphia wage tax. The taxes do not directly match up. The two systems are not exactly the same. So you’ll have to extrapolate. As a matter of fact, no form of tax mentioned in the Bible would have the pretense of being much less than a temple tax. Some people consider Americanism a religion, but most of us don’t think we pay taxes to support religion. But ancient people had no such distinctions. Taxes to Roman went to a government that would soon make Caesar Augustus a god. Jesus has questions about Roman taxes as a result. I imagine he has some interesting ideas about our tax system, too. The ways the passage does match up with our situation is this – there is a governmental authority, it is demanding money, everyone else is paying it.

Within this small interchange with Peter, I think we can discern some of Jesus’ attitudes that will help us figure out how to interact with our own government.

I think the first answer we can find is “No.”
“Should I pay taxes?” Jesus says, “No.”

      And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”
      When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.” 

This is the regular logic of the Bible, just like the Christmas carol says, “God rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.” God is king of kings and Lord of lords.

So Jesus has a little fun with Peter, knowing he just signed him up to give taxes to Caiaphas and his band of robbers running the Jerusalem Temple. Do the kings of the earth collect taxes from their children? Of course not, unless they are somehow very evil. Is God, the king, going to ask his children – Me, the very Son of God, you a child of God, to pay taxes? Of course not. We’re exempt. We are actually free. Loyalty to the government won’t buy freedom for us.

Lots of people over the years have refused to pay taxes for just the reason Jesus gave. “I have no particular allegiance to any king but Jesus. So I owe you nothing.”

Ten years ago, when she was 23, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed 180 feet into the redwood tree she nicknamed Luna and refused to come down until she was sure the 600-year old beauty was safe from the Pacific Lumber company. [Her picture is above.] 738 days later, she came down with an agreement to save not only Luna but a three-acre patch of trees that surrounded it. [Sixteen years later, the belated IRA]

After her successful tree sit, the wireless company OmniSky and two other companies used her story and likeness in unauthorized ad campaigns. She sued to stop the ad campaign. “I do not endorse products,” she said today, “I endorse actions and beliefs.”

She and a volunteer legal team worked on a lawsuit. She said, “I wanted 100% of the proceeds of the settlement to go towards the social and environmental causes for which I work so hard…. Shortly before settling out of court in 2002, I found that even though I was not making a single penny off of the lawsuit, the federal government was going to demand that a very large percentage of the settlement be paid to taxes.” The total tax bill was over $150,000. “When I found this out I was sickened.”

“I struggled for a long time with the knowledge that if given to the government, this money would be used for terrible things, but that if I refused to pay, I faced consequences, some of them potentially very serious. When the first US bomb dropped in Iraq in March, my decision became crystal clear. I could not in good conscience allow this money to be used for the murder of innocent people.”

Hill said, “I was raised by Christian parents who taught me about the Ten Commandments, the first of which is ‘Thou Shall Not Kill.’ Paying for the murder of innocent people with my tax dollars is something that I cannot do in good conscience.”

So far, the IRS has not gone after her. She said no.

I think the second answer we can find is  “Yes.”
“Should I pay taxes?” Jesus says, “Yes.” 

“But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma  coin . Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” 

Here is the argument. No we don’t have to pay taxes, but since God is king of the world, we have plenty to share, what’s the hurt, here? Tax schmax. Let’s not offend them. Why should we bother making them feel badly about us? Why hassle it? We should have a very good reason to make a big deal out of something. We have bigger fish to fry than worrying about whether we should pay the Temple Tax. Let’s just consider it the cost of doing business here and get on with our business.

I’m not sure people like this about Jesus too much. First he makes a point of saying he is righteously exempt from the tax and then he pays it. It is like Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 9 that he has all these rights and power as a leader of the church, yet he would just as soon die as exercise any of them, because then his servanthood would be brought into question. Jesus has all the rights of the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Savior of humankind, and he is almost cavalier about not exercising them. A lot of people would prefer that he duke it out with the tax gatherers.

This humility is a constant problem for us. Melissa Powell told us a story about how the Nigerian Christians are facing it. She’s about to return to Nigeria where the Christians are really having a struggle. In the North of the country where it is mostly Moslem, the government allows some form of Sharia law to be practiced in certain areas. Some Christians have been hurt and even killed for resisting this, or just for being outspoken Christians.

In the south, where Christianity dominates, there is much less violence against Moslems, as Christians try to work out how to respect people who aren’t necessarily respecting back. They are struggling with how to be Christians when a vengeful enemy terrorizes you with power and tempts you to use their godless weapons. Melissa says the north and south are quite different places, so far. Christians have not always been so humble, of course, especially in Europe, where kings have warred against Moslems and anyone else on the other side of their God-blessed wars, looking for vengeance or dominance. In this particular instance, even though Jesus had a case and had the power to win it, he doesn’t even bother to get involved with it.

Generally, I think I have the same attitude toward my taxes. I pay my taxes because it is less of a hassle than not paying them, and I know God is the king of Kings, so he will take care of judging the injustice and sinfulness of a government. I could be mad about the nonsense of the government all day and lose my focus on what Jesus is really doing here. As it is, I only focus on what I’m mad about for a quarter of the day — progress.

A third answer may be more prominent than Yes or No and that may be just as Jesus prefers.
“Should I pay taxes?” Jesus says, “Maybe.”

 You’ll have to discern what to do and don’t forget the fish.

Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” 

From Augustin Tünger’s “comic book” in 1486.

I presume Peter did this. It seems like maybe he was having an I-am-ashamed-of-me day, so maybe he waited until it was almost dark so no one could ask him what he was doing — he seems to have wanted to look good before the tax collectors. Maybe he didn’t want to hear, “Hey, pristine coin! Where’d you get it?” He’d have to say “Well, Jesus told me I’d find a 4-drachma coin in the first fish I caught. This is it.”

It is absurd. Finding a coin in the fish is as foolish as finding salvation in Jesus. Opening up a fish and looking for a coin is as foolish as looking into Jesus for something precious. Trudging over to the lake with his odd task, wondering if anything is going to come of it, feeling odd, feeling insecure about being so odd, feeling like some little kid learning all over how the world works and feeling stupid about being treated like a little kid – it is irritating. “Why didn’t he just give me a coin? If he’s going to do a miracle, why not just pull a coin out from behind my ear like David Copperfield? Why can’t we just have a business and make some money rather than wandering around like paupers relying on women and random fish?”

Rely on the fish

When it comes to paying your taxes, “Maybe you should risk relying on the fish.” It will take some discernment, but more important, living like that will take some relating to Jesus, who knows where the coins are. It will take obeying Jesus, instead of the kings of the world or obeying the feelings and fears that tend to rule us.

I’ve been pondering this, lately. I’ve been running into quite a few people who have run into Circle of Hope and their lives are changing. They are really changing for the better! — dealing with mental health, drugs, poor relationships, destructive habits, all sorts of things. It is really encouraging! The discipline of the faith and the love of Christians is very life-giving. But once they get sort of settled, they have problems with Jesus.

Maybe I could say, they don’t like going to catch the fish. They like regularity. They don’t like having another conversation where Jesus says three things and then smiles – “Now go along and figure it all out. I’ll be with you.” It’s irritating. They don’t like getting an answer to their question that ends up being, “God will have to do a miracle. There is really no hope unless God is present.” What kind of answer is that?

Does anyone really like Jesus? For whatever reason, I really do. I like Jesus. I am a Jesus fan. I totally love that he has an absolutely out-of-this world solution to Peter’s dilemma about the taxes.

  • Peter sets him up to pay the tax without talking to him. Jesus says, “No big deal, I’m exempt anyway.”
  • But Peter is still thinking about what he said to the tax gatherer so Jesus says, “No big deal. Pay the tax so no one gets offended by you going back claiming exemption after you already told him I’d pay. Maybe the guy thinks we’re cool, so why make him feel bad about us?”
  • But Peter has to say, “But we don’t have any money.” So Jesus says, ”No big deal. Go fish a coin. It will only take a minute. It will be in the first fish you get.”

I really like that. I like knowing that happened. I like knowing Jesus. I like being rearranged by His Spirit and then being put together in a better, deeply discerned way. I like the anticipation of what he might do next. I like remembering all the great things Jesus did. I like him invading the little dilemmas of my life and revealing himself in them and showing me ways through them and turning them into something full of life. I like the dilemma of paying taxes, or not – who knew such a little deal is such a big deal? Or that me having or creating a problem is a big enough deal to God for Jesus to come and personally work it out with me?

Add a stanza to the “prayer for peace” — It’s a tough world

I have several copies of the “Peace Prayer,” attributed to St. Francis, on walls where I am likely to bump into it. (Don’t worry, you’ll bump into it down below, if you’ve never heard of it). I need to remember it in a world that is more about power than peace.

I do remember it. By now, after all that bumping, that prayer is etched on a convenient wall in my mind. So I had it on hand the other day when I needed it. And, like prayer often does, it inspired me to go beyond it. Maybe you’ll want to get someplace beyond what it usually offers you, too.

Some history of the Peace Prayer

There is no way Francis wrote “Make me an instrument of your peace.” For one thing, he rarely wrote anything about “me.” More relevant is the fact this prayer did not appear in general circulation until 1912. If a stray prayer of Francis of Assisi had been laying around for 700 years, someone would have known about it.

The prayer first appeared in Paris in small spiritual magazine called “La Clochette” (The Little Bell), the newsletter of La Ligue de la Sainte-Messe (The Holy Mass League). The league’s founder and editor of the newsletter was Father Esther Bouquerel (1855-1923). He published the prayer as written by “Anonymous” with the title of “Belle prière à faire pendant la messe” (A Beautiful Prayer to Say During the Mass). The author was probably Father Bouquerel himself, but the identity of the author remains a mystery.

The prayer was sent in French to Pope Benedict XV in 1915 by the aristocrat, Marquis Stanislas de La Rochethulon. This was soon followed by its 1916 appearance, in Italian, in L’Osservatore Romano [the Vatican’s daily newspaper] in the middle of World War I. Around 1920, the prayer was printed on the back of an image of St. Francis with the title “Prière pour la paix” (Prayer for Peace) but without being attributed to the saint. It was first attributed St. Francis in 1927 by a French Protestant Movement, Les Chevaliers du Prince de la Paix (The Knights of the Prince of Peace).

The first time it was published in English was probably in 1936 in Living Courageously, a book by Kirby Page, a Disciples of Christ minister, pacifist, social evangelist, writer and editor of The World Tomorrow. Page clearly attributed the text to Francis. During World War II and immediately after, this prayer for peace began circulating widely as the “Prayer of St. Francis,” especially through Francis Cardinal Spellman’s books. Over the years it has gained a worldwide popularity with people of all faiths. It was central to the gathering memorialized below.

Artwork memorializing the first World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi (1986), with Pope John Paul II hosting religious leaders from around the world.

Let’s pray the prayer

There are four major wars raging in the world right now. It is time for a prayer for peace. Each war has caused over 10,000 deaths, or more, in the past two years (Wiki). Over fifty conflicts with fewer casualties are also ongoing.

Last week Reuters said Russia doubled its 2023 defense spending to more than $100 billion — a third of all the country’s public expenditure. In July, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research institute, calculated the U.S. had, so far, spent $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine; included was humanitarian, financial, and military support.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!” In a world at war in large ways and small, shouldn’t that be our daily prayer? The peace prayer is that kind of prayer. Let’s try it out:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In the 1970’s, Franco Zeffirelli and Donovan put music in the mouth of Francis along with the erroneously attributed words, which is how I usually pray the prayer, too.

Add your own lines

In the middle of World War I a hopeful priest wrote a beautiful prayer. People picked up on it over time, translated it, tweaked it here and there in the process, put it on prayer cards. published it in magazines and bulletins, and said it was authorized by St. Francis, himself. I love it. Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu loved it.

But I don’t think a recited prayer is very alive unless people keep rewriting it.

The other day, I remembered my old favorite prayer and the erroneous depiction of my favorite saint praying it.  I was especially moved by  “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.” I had been feeling a bit inconsolable. The prayer helped me turn from my “side screen” to look at the “big picture” of my life [post on turning].

As I prayed, I began to see all sorts of other ways I should be praying the same basic prayer. Once it set me on a roll, I kept on rolling!  And I realized  neglecting to do so would result in a lack of peace in me and there would be that much less peace in the world, too.

I now have a longer prayer to use — at least until I need to add something else! Here is the new stanza I added especially for me. If you need it, nothing prevents you from praying it with me!

Lord grant that I may not so much seek

to be found as to find;
to hold out for what I deserve as to give;
to evaluate what meets the test as to accept;
to justify my temper as to be patient;
to resist possible disappointments as to collect small joys;
to sort out the weaknesses of others as to relish their goodness;
to protect my safety as to risk what it takes to connect.

What should you be adding to the peace prayer?

Be careful as you meditate on that question. Note that Father Bouquerel/Francis said “grant that I may not so much” NOT “Grant that I may erase my needs and desires.” We love others as we love ourselves. Erasing yourself does not make others more alive. Being unhappy is not a price you pay for making others happy. Turning into what is better is an everyday necessity — thus, we love that great peace prayer when we face all our conflicts, inside and out.

Peace is a lot more likely to take root in our hearts if we love others like Jesus loves us. And that love for others will be a lot more authentic when we are at peace in the love of Jesus. Pray: “Lord you are the instrument of my peace; make me an instrument of your peace.”

Spiritual Life? : How does anyone have time for one?  

In 2006, life in our church was rich. I started collecting questions that became the launchpads for messages. 

The “frequently asked question” for the evening is: How does anyone have time for a spiritual life? You know these questions come in as a result of what various cells have been exploring over the year. This is a very practical question, so I am glad to take a stab at it. I hope you’ll be thinking along with me as I speak. The fact is, you are having time for a spiritual life right now. Make the most of it. Have your spiritual life.

Normal vs. spiritual life?

70% from Rotten Tomatoes, from 1996.
  1. Before I try to get practical, I want to bring up one of the main problems with having time for a spiritual life. It is the notion that there is a “normal” life and then there is a “spiritual” life. The way most of us think, there is a split between real or normal life and spiritual life.

For the most part, this might be just a figure of speech – we talk about the sporting life. We ask “How’s your love life?” and “How is family life?” – and all we mean is how is the part of our lives under discussion. But it can go further with our faith. Somehow faith got pushed into our private lives and out of our everyday lives. Jesus became a part of our leisure time and not a part of our work life or civic life.

So, for instance, when President Bush was asked how faith might shape policy in the presidential debates in October of 2004. He answered from the classic evangelical viewpoint, I think. He said:

My faith plays a big part in my life. I pray a lot. I do. My faith is very personal. …I’ve received calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, well, how do you know? I said, I just feel it.

My faith is a big part of my life. It is very personal. Prayer delivers things to my life. I don’t know what the president thinks, really. But a lot of people have a personal faith, a “spiritual life” that never coincides with their regular life.

So when someone asks, “How do I find time for a spiritual life?” It must mean two things, at least.

  • “Normal” life is taking you over and you have no time for other things, like whatever is in my personal life.
  • You think you have a life that is not “spiritual” and you want to develop the one that is.

I have to question the question. I’m not sure it is helpful to talk about our “spiritual lives” too much. As far as the people in the Bible go, there is only one life. There is a spiritual life in relation to God or there is existence plummeting toward no life. You’re alive or as good as dead.

  • John 6:63 — The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life.
  • Romans 8:11 — And if the  Spirit  of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his  Spirit , who lives in you.
  • Galatians 2:20 — The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me

If you follow Jesus — if you serve/belong to/believe in Jesus — you have a renewed spiritual life. You have been given life. The capacity you had for spirituality in you has been activated and is developing. You are filling up with life. It is not like you are the owner of your life and you are managing sectors of it trying to keep everything in balance or keeping the plates spinning. The life you have, you received from God through the work of Jesus. You were dead, but back in relation to God, you are alive.

in 2006 Branson pledged $3B to develop alternative fuel sources.

I don’t have time?

  1. The second big problem with finding time to actually be consciously related to God and exercising our new life, putting on this new self, living in our eternity is how we have come to view time.

If all you have is this life then every second counts. (“I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” the gospel of Clairol taught us). We are generally painfully aware that we cannot get back the seconds that have passed (“Nothing is further away than a minute ago”). Since we have most of our physical needs met these days, and many of us no longer fret about how much money we don’t have, now it is all about time. We weigh it out all day; we consider what our time is worth and whether we are spending it wisely.

  • Spending it wisely could mean we spend it all frantically making the most of it to get what we want – so we will have more experiences or will earn more leisure time or afford more retirement time.
  • Or it could mean we avoid spending any of it on work so we can be free from time constraints and get all our time up front before I have spent it all on loveless toil.

We are always making a time deal.

So Joshua and I know that between May 15 and October 15 or so, every weekend is going to feel precious to most of us, because we only get so many sunshiney Saturdays a year. People are weighing out what is more worth it, time spent on the spiritual life or time spent on vacation.

So when someone asks, “How do I find time for a spiritual life?” I think they might also be asking, “Is this going to be worth it?”

For the people in the Bible, they are not so conscious of the value of all their moments, because they actually think they are eternal and they know any moment has value because they, themselves, are valued. They still want to make the most of their days on earth, but they don’t have such a sense of hoarding a scarce resource.

  • John 6:27 — Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you
  • Colossians 3:1-3 — Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

The idea is that we need to learn a new way to invest our time, not in the fear of scarcity, but generously, joyfully, freely being eternal. Depending on our personality styles, we can make the most of the moment and make the most of a decade — whatever we are given — because we are living in an eternal now.

We can help ourselves with the process of being a growing, spiritual person who is alive to God and comfortable in their own reality with him by doing very practical things. It is not just about knowing right things and changing your mind, although I don’t see how any transformation happens without that; it is also about considering how you feel, how you are built psychologically and mostly, doing something with your body.

Let me answer this question.

How can I learn to use my time well as a person who lives in the Spirit?

I want to give you some verses from Psalm 119, since we are letting the Psalms guide us in different ways this summer. Psalm 119 is all about feeling the challenges of seeking God and living a life in relation to God in a difficult world.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Use the time you have.

Don’t be outside the time you are experiencing. A lot of us wait for something to happen sometime, instead of happening in the time we are in. I am sure that just last week some people missed a great time to learn and praise: they were angry, were on drugs, were analyzing, were daydreaming. Then they wonder why they don’t have time for their “spiritual pursuits.” Be as present to God as you can right now.

Psalm 119:59-60
I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes.
I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands.

There is no replacement for honoring the importance of every minute, the meaning inherent in it. Jesus calls us to live. The Psalmist is having the same conviction. “I’m considering. I’m turning. I hasten to obey, to participate in my God-given time.”

  • Listen for God in your cell.
  • Prepare for worship
  • Give yourself a reminder phrase before you enter into a distracting situation – “Why am I here? I am here to worship. I am here to hear you. I am here to rest. I am here to love.” Keep centering on it, so you don’t get your time stolen. Hold on to your time like it was your purse in a threatening situation.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Discipline your time

Time is like a river – build dams and levees that slow it down. Time is like a child, it needs to be trained. Time is like a bronco, you either tame it, it stomps you, or it jumps the fence and runs away. A schedule can get flabby and need to go to the gym.

Psalm 119:147,164
I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.
Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.

The people who get to know God are not all smarter. They do things. Scott Peck said the original sin was probably laziness. Just doing whatever, just going with what is going, not bothering to consider, to imagine, to step out of the regular rut leaves us out of touch with God. The psalmist is making the effort. He gets up before dawn to pray. He’s got a seven times a day discipline he is using.

You might like to start big with the schedule form on your seat. It could help discipline all the time in the week.

  • Make a copy and write down what you do in a week. That way you can see what you really do. As you do this you’ll notice that you will already be freeing yourself to makes changes and decisions. “Do I REALLY want to watch 3 hours of HBO a day? Did I really play Halo that long? Can I afford that commute – am I using the time on the train?” Etc.
  • Make a list of things you want in your week. “If I want to be a person who is living in the Spirit, what do I need to do?”
  • Put them on the sheet and try to meet your goals.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Be incremental. Accrue

I think no time spent pursuing God is wasted. The actions build up. They accrue and begin compounding interest — so do something. Something is better than nothing. Do some little thing so you can get to a bigger thing. It is all too easy to let the day be so troubled that we never get to resting with God or praying, or caring for our inner journey – or even travel on it! It is also easy to see where we ought to be on the journey and be so ashamed or so overwhelmed that we don’t even take a step. Do something. Like the kid who gave his bread and fish, Jesus can multiply what he is given, and in the giving we are grown, too.

Psalm 119:143
Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands are my delight.

The psalmist has problems, too. But he’s delighting in what Good has given him.

  • When you are listening to me, be determined to get one thing from all this time that is for you. Then make a goal to act on it in some way, “I am going to complete that schedule thingy this Thursday night when I normally would watch America’s Got Talent.” Something like that.
  • Whenever you read the news, a book, or the Bible, write down a little goal for the day that will be a little step you can take to apply what you receive. When you are with your mentor, do whatever you felt moved to do as quickly as possible. When you are alone with God take your gut reactions seriously, unless that usually messes you up, and do what you are moved to do. You usually don’t have to spend a lot of time planning. You usually are given what you are already able to do. Do what you can. Don’t wait.
  • If you have a big goal that feels too big to start, like 20 minutes of contemplative prayer twice a day, maybe you need to be incremental. Do five minutes a day for a week.
  • Maybe you can manage to kick start some new direction by doing something dramatic – take a day retreat by yourself with God (I have loads of places you can go; some are very cheap). Take a pilgrimage to someplace instead of your usual weekender. If you are going to NY, say you are going to see St. John Divine and spend two hours there – then do whatever else you wanted to do. Get your mate or your friend to help, if you work well that way – say “We will begin the day with prayer each Wednesday from now until October.”

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Read meditatively.

Reading gives time. If you can’t read, learn to read. If you have ADD, struggle through the reading process once in a while. Don’t avoid reading very slow and listening between the lines. It is not an accident that the word of God is in a book, too. It helps us to meditate.

Psalm 119:130
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple.

The process of meditation is about something unfolding, like the petals of a flower grows and blooms. It takes time. The process of understanding words and relating to the people who wrote them and relating God who is always thinking along with us is a basic way to use time well for spiritual development. Better than TV, tapes, iPods, whatever.

  • Carry a book with you. We get a lot of demands on our time so we need to be ready when we get a moment: on the bus, in line, on hold, at the café before the friend comes. It might be a good thing for you to do at this stage of your life. You might also need to stop reading and listen to what you’ve already heard.
  • For a lot of us, meditatively reading — reading to listen to God and not just get information, is something of a lost art. Plan an hour for it that you normally give to media. Try a goal of ten pages a day. I have all sorts of suggestions in your program.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Get direction

It is a great, helpful luxury to sit down with a caring someone and listen for God as they listen for God in you. That is time well spent. In some sense I think of it as expanded time, a lot of goodness poured into a small space of time.

Psalm 119:63
I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts.

The psalmist feels a spiritual camaraderie with everyone who reveres God. Those kind of friends are cultivated by anyone who wants to have a life in the Spirit. There is probably nothing more dangerous than finding yourself in love with people who fritter your time.

  • Visit your therapist – most are worth the money.
  • Take a class – even one at Temple or Penn could be a time to get a break to listen to the depths of your mind and heart.
  • Find a spiritual director – these are not easy to get. You friend or your cell leader may be a good person for now.
  • It would be nice if we took each other seriously to receive the great gifts that are all around us, rather than holding out for some saint someday.

I think my favorite verse from the very long Psalm 119, must be this one:

I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.

The many people who asked, “How can I find time for a spiritual life?” were probably tired and frustrated. They are running in the path of the world’s commands and time is running out! They are yearning and trying, but it isn’t happening as well or as fast as they want. I hope I have stirred up some new possibilities or at least got what you already had installed activated. One of my main points though was that you don’t need to tack on a demanding spiritual life to your already full normal life. You have one life and it is eternal. God has laid out a lot of ways to run free in it. Don’t be afraid to try them. Your are important and your time makes a difference.

What do you want to add? Some of you may have a lot of good answers to this question too. Let’s here answers or questions and talk back.

How to Fast: The burning patience that leads to the shining city      

By 2005 our church was hopping and ready to multiply. This teaching was part of a series devoted to learning spiritual disciplines. Many of our people had never tried any. 

I like Lent. I like fasting, physically and emotionally! Fasting makes my body feel better. Fasting feels like a sport to me. I like feeling all ancient. So I guess I’m a natural.

But fasting is more than physical or emotional. Spiritually, fasting is another matter. It is getting the physical and emotional to open up to the spiritual. Fasting points out how rebellious I really am, how unfocused, how afraid to be weird, how secretly undisciplined, how needy I am.

So it is difficult to go where fasting is designed to take me. It is like the old analogy about being spiritual. If God is the lake, I love water skiing. But becoming a fish seems a bit much. If fasting is like fishing in God, then I might like throwing a line in for the afternoon, but it is a little different to think about being taken to the depths and developing gills. So I want to admit that right off.

Why fast?

I want to get to some “how to fast” stuff. But I’m not sure there is a reason to get too practical right away unless we have a good reason to fast at all. Not eating, or not doing anything does not have a lot of spiritual value unless the deprivation has a purpose, unless it is after something.

So here is a good reason to fast, in my opinion, and by my experience. One thing the discipline of fasting is good for is to cultivate what Pablo Neruda called “burning patience.”

Pablo Neruda and Nobel Prize

Pablo Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971 and died in his native  Chile in 1973. He had a rich, difficult life full of poetry and politics. In his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize this is how he ended.

I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner.

Lastly, I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.

I’m not sure I am hoping for exactly the same thing as Neruda; I don’t put my trust in humankind the way he does. But we are both cultivating the ability to get to that “splendid city.” I can’t control your destination of choice. You could see it as a home in the heavenly city at the close of time, or as a secure place in the city of God where Jesus rules represented by his church, or as the renewal and healing of Philadelphia until it is splendid. Regardless, to arrive anywhere redemption and regeneration want to take us requires a burning patience. Getting to that splendid city where God is taking us requires the cultivation of what Paul names the fruit of the Spirit called patience. And that is why we fast.

When you fast…

When Jesus was teaching his disciples about fasting in Matthew 6 (and we should all know Matthew 4-7 first among the revelation of scripture), he started out with “When you fast…” do this, and that. It was not “If you decide to fast,” or “If you get around to fasting,” or “If you can’t avoid fasting because someone coming after me is going to make up a season called Lent, then make you observe it and try to force you to fast…” It wasn’t any of those things. Jesus assumed his seeking-after-God followers were going to fast, because it is a physical aid to prayer.

We are spiritual beings in physical bodies; it is our unique identity among God’s creatures. So we need physical aids for spiritual activities. Fasting is good for training your body to go with your spirit. It helps you get your body out of the way so you can be more direct with God. Your body’s pains and grumbles can provide good places to learn to trust and rely on more than what you can get for yourself. In an overfed society, fasting might be crucial for hearing God!

There are many ways to fast and I hope a few of you will tell us how you have fasted in a few minutes. But for the sake of this teaching, I am thinking of fasting as going without food, like Jesus did that time he fasted for forty days in the desert before he began his miracle-working ministry. There are many goals and results of fasting, but I would like to underscore one — how it develops burning patience. I think fasting helps develop:

  • The character to face failure and difficulty but never lose hope in what can be and ought to be.
  • The courage to face evil and experience scorn but never lose faith and continue to work out that faith through love.
  • The ability to see a vision and persevere after it your whole life.

We need that burning patience.

Psalm 69 provides a good outline

I think Psalm 69 demonstrates the heart and struggle of fasting pretty well. So I decided to offer that to you for further study. I hate to dump a lot of Bible on you, since some of you may not have too much experience with it. But see how much God gives you through it.

In Psalm 69, the great King of Israel, David, is in the middle of his splendid city, Jerusalem and imagining where God might take everyone. He is consumed with the worship of God in the great temple, God’s house, in the middle of the splendid city, the capital city of God’s people. I think he represents a faster who has this burning patience I’m talking about. So maybe he will help you grow throughout Lent.

Some of you think fasting is advanced spirituality. I say Jesus thinks it is basic. Some of you think it is an imposition from some legalistic religion of the past that should be discarded; I say it is an important way to let God in and to keep you from taking over God’s place. If you’re skeptical and don’t know where to start, maybe you can explore feeling and acting like David, see and see what happens. See if your awareness of yourself is heightened, your connection with God is deepened and a character of burning patience is acquired.

Opening up to hope

David starts Ps. 69 in distress. This is the classic reason people fast. They are in need and they are clearing the decks of anything else but asking God to meet their need. Fasting is for focusing on God. There is lots of burning here:

You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you.
May those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me,
O Lord, the LORD Almighty; may those who seek you
not be put to shame because of me, O God of Israel.
For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face.

David is a sensitive man. He is sensitive to his own sin and sensitive to how others sin against him. He can’t shrug off the insults he feels hurled at himself and he seems to feel at least equally bad about the scorn heaped on God.

These are always good reasons to fast: I want to deal with my guilt. I want to gain strength so I don’t disgrace God. I want to prove my faith by enduring scorn – which people might do if you fast. What do you do when you are feeling terrible? I’ve been known to eat a half-gallon of ice cream or ingest something stronger, but it did not fix me up.

When we give up something, in this case I’m thinking food in some way, we open up an empty space. In that space we keep running into what reminds us to focus on God and pray. Some people could go without food for days. Some people need to focus on one meal. Bodies are different. The point of it is to open up some empty space for God to fill. The point is to experience the fullness of our discomfort to be comforted by God. The point is to add force to an eager prayer by getting normal activities out of the way.

When we fast we are practicing a patience that is not passive. Like a dancer practices a move over and over until her body can express what’s in the music, we are training our lives to express what is of the Spirit of God. Like any artist knows, that hope for the fullness we seek is generally a passion only partially fulfilled in our lifetimes – it runs on a vision, on a dream, on a revelation.

I often give up sweets for lent because I am a sweetaholic. It not only makes my body feel better, it makes me remember that not only do some people never have a sweet, but Jesus tasted death for me, which was anything but sweet. I hope my suffering will result in something better, too.

Opening to faith prevailing in love

David displays a heart of zeal. This is another reason people fast. It is a creative act. It is getting zealous, or getting into it, or getting determined. You really want God to act, you need direction, you want power to serve in some way, you are looking for miracles. So you fast. David says:

I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons;
for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.
When I weep and fast, I must endure scorn;
when I put on sackcloth (Or when I wear an ash cross on my forehead on the bus after Ash Wednesday), people make sport of me.
Those who sit at the gate mock me, and I am the song of the drunkards.

David wants God’s temple in Jerusalem to truly be the spiritual heart beat of the nation. He wants people to get it and they don’t — but he wants them to and he is not giving up. He is wasting away praying for it and acting out his faith.

These are always good reasons to fast: I am consumed with relating to God. Something needs to change. I must find out what is true or whether I am the nut case people say I am. James starts his letter with this:

Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Fasting is welcoming the trial. It is deliberately entering into something you must persevere, maybe like a spiritual joust or a marathon.

In this sense, I think fasting can be more about taking on than putting off. The point is to make a concerted effort to get yourself in a position to gain some strength, to make a change, to become something new, to get a new skill, to focus on the future.

I was telling my cell that this lent I am determined to cordon off more time to pray and study. I have been so busy the past year, that I feel hungry, and a little resistance to meeting my need has cropped up. I need to act on something before I get used to being hungry. So I am taking on a new schedule – at least I am trying.

Opening up to vision

Finally, I want to point out how David is fasting and praying in such a way that he is including himself in the big picture of how God is changing the world. He wants to see God’s salvation for himself. He’s praying against the forces that he calls: the mire, the deep waters, the bitterness of gall and vinegar.

But I pray to you, O LORD, in the time of your favor;
in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.
Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters. …
Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless;
I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none.
They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.

Let’s pause a second and remember that that last line is just what happened to Jesus.

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  — John 19:28-30

David was looking for that sure salvation. He was swimming in water a lot deeper than he even knew! He got himself right in with God’s plans for saving whoever would listen to him and love him.

This psalm is highly personal, but nothing about relating to God is ever just private. God is the creator of all and the redeemer of all —  if you get involved with him, you get involved with everything. We experience the impact of everyone’s sin when we pray. When we pray we are facing down the powers that threaten to drown us. So these few lines are an amazing, prophetic vision of Jesus — in whom all of David’s hopes and fears met.

I looked for comforters, but I found none.
Three days later Jesus rises from the dead.
50 days later, the promised comforter comes.
2000 years later God’s coming to us.

We fast as an aid to our praying because it clarifies our vision of what God’s all about and what God’s doing. We get gummed up. Our spiritual car goes through winter and desperately needs to go to the spiritual car wash so we can remember what it looks like. It even seems to run better when it is clean. I feel different in it. The world looks different. We are like that, fasting cleans us, maybe puts on a new coat of wax, encourages us to drive into the future.

When you fast …

Now I’m not talking about if you fast. I’m talking about when you fast. I am not trying to sell you on fasting, like someone should be begging you to be good, or be something.

I know 90% of you do this or are interested in this practice. And 50% of the 10% left who aren’t interested is yearning for you to be interested, because you are either threatened by mire or you know that this is the time of God’s favor, like the rest of us. You are looking for his sure salvation.

I know you all are fueled by that kind of vision or you would not fund our mission, give so much of your time to our common life and cause, you would not go to such great lengths to love each other and form a place where people can see God reign, you would not be such energetic worshipers and learners. You are not even close to the dead churches that have killed off so much faith in this town, you are the antidote. God bless you.

So I am just trying to add fuel to your fire so we are full of this burning patience. We are not meant to be apathetic, defeated, ambivalent people. We are meant to keep changing and changing things for the better. If they don’t get better right now we are going to keep at it until our time is up. Whenever you fast, and if we fast this season of lent,

  • God will meet us in our distress – go be with him,
  • God will affirm our zeal – don’t shrink back, and
  • God will transform us and those around us and even the powers that be will be moved around and reformed – enter the big picture.

Do you have anything more to share with us about what has happened with you when you made that empty space of God by fasting? Any more tips?

Patience: The lost virtue our relationships need

“Patience attains all that it strives for.” At least that is what the saint says. The prayer, “Nada te Turbe” was found in Teresa of Avila’s breviary, written in her own hand. Since the 16th century her private words have consoled countless numbers of people, including me. I even put it to music for the church to sing (before I discovered several other versions).

Nada te turbe,
Let nothing disturb you;
Nada te espante,
Let nothing dismay you;
Gm             F
Todo se pasa.
All things pass:
Dios no se muda.
God never changes.
La paciencia
Patience attains
F              Bb
Todo lo alcanza.
All that it strives for.
Quien a Dios tiene
The one who has God
Nada le falta.
Lacks for nothing:
Gm Dm Cm  D
Sólo Dios basta.
God alone suffices.

Teresa is credited with reviving Catholicism in the 1560’s and 70’s when Protestantism threatened to bring down the church. Her most significant contribution was founding the Reformed Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelite Convent of San Jose, a more radical version of the Carmelites. At the time of her death in 1582 she had started seventeen further houses, in Spain.

Bernini captures Teresa in rapture

Teresa is best known today as one of the great Catholic mystics, which means she recounted her personal experiences with God. She described her raptures in several books. Among the most widely read works is her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1611).

Teresa of Avila may have been the last proponent of the virtue of patience. Around the time she founded the Discalced Carmelites to restore basic, early church Christianity, the Catholic Church was breaking up. Spain was conquering South and Central America. Europeans were colonizing the world. Spain was in constant war to  secure Charles V’s royal claims. Copernicus revealed the earth orbited the sun. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. Henry the VIII murdered his wives and founded the Anglican Church. Cervantes wrote El Cid. John Calvin wrote The Institutes. Shakespeare and John Donne wrote their early works. Nostradamus published his prophecies. It was a wild time. Flush toilets, the spinning wheel, the pocket watch, the graphite pencil were all introduced.

Yet Teresa still disciplined herself to be patient, like her examples from the Early Church, reciting her prayer. She might have been the last leader on the continent to believe “God suffices” as the Europeans rushed into the modern world and the Americans soon invented a country (for the first time) to represent all that was new. I’m not sure most Americans would consider patience to be an important character trait, would you? — even though my mother used to mockingly chide me when I was tired of waiting with, “Patience is a virtue,” unwittingly channeling Piers Plowman from 1360 (Passus II, 383).

Patience, the lost virtue

Patience may be the lost virtue Christians, in particular, need to rediscover. I think many of us might see it as a bit out of date, now that we are accustomed to complaining if Amazon is a day late, or the line at the drive through is taking too long. A person lamented yesterday that their arrival at their appointment was thwarted for ten minutes by the Schuylkill. They were very frustrated. We have things timed down to the minute.

A book I have been reading, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, has reminded me the Bible writers and the earliest Christians considered patience to be a central trait of authentic Christianity. I want to leave you with a bit of their wisdom so you can follow their fruitful lead.

  • Origen of Alexandria (died around 253) quoted Romans 5:3-4 this way, “Tribulation produces patience, indeed patience produces assent to belief, and assent to belief produces hope.”
  • The KJV translates it: “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.”
  • My favorite, the NRSV says, “And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
  • I think the VOICE amplified translation sums it up well. “And that’s not all. We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness.”

You’ll notice that the word for patience is often translated “endurance” or “perseverance.” It is an active idea, not passive. It is not just waiting for your birthday to come without too much complaining. It is a discipline exercised by people who want to develop. It is a strategy for demonstrating glory. Patience takes intention and effort. It is a way of seeing and acting. Patience is not swallowing your resentment when it takes a while for your kids to put on their shoes. It is not just standing in line at the store behind a less-than-able shopper without groaning or looking around for another line with panic.

As you can see from the constellation of translations, patience is an outlook that results in a way of life. Patience is trusting God in the middle of everything, especially when you suffer. For the early church, patience was sticking with Jesus when the world was sticking it to them. They were not like the Stoics who endured by tamping down emotions and developing personal resilience, even seeking imperviousness. It was quite the opposite. Christian patience is opening up to the Spirit of God incarnate in our hearts and behavior. The eternal lens and heartfelt trust of the early church was central to their endurance. Patience is knowing everything works for good to them who love God.

The early church’s premier virtue

Few writings from the first 300 years of the church are about a “topic.” They are mostly stories or compilations of teachings. But Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian and Lactantius all wrote about patience. The early church did not produce writings about evangelism, at least as most modern people think about it: verbal persuasion and radical changes of allegiance. But they did write about patience, which changed them and changed their world. Their way of patience made the first Christians a distinct and attractive alternative to the brutal Roman world.

I was happy to discover Kreider’s book when I was listening to several couples trying to work out the tribulation of their power struggle. Many marriages, not to mention churches and other institutions, went through a lot of trouble during the pandemic. We are all still sorting things out. For many people, the trouble in the world became trouble in their relationships. It is terrible how often general trouble gets translated into blaming the people close to us: “If I have trouble, it must be you.”

The early church helped each other learn patience and didn’t turn on each other; they turned their behavior out into the world. Their way of life was salt and light. St Perpetua (martyred around 203) caused many conversions the day she refused to grovel in the arena, begging for mercy, but stood still and dignified, patiently trusting God for her future. If my lens developed a character like hers, I could at least endure the development of my mate (or myself) and give some time and space for our relationship to grow before I hardened my heart, cut them off, or found something better.

I hope you are getting the idea of how the virtue of patience is foundational to enduring as a Jesus follower and making a difference in our relationships and culture. Here are a few final characteristics that sum up how the Bible writers and early church teach about patience:

  • God is patient. She is walking with you and working for your best right now.
  • Jesus demonstrates God’s patience. Origen calls him “Patience itself.” He highlights how to trust in oneself and in miracle at the same time, in real time.
  • Patient people don’t just manipulate outcomes; they can take risks in trust and not worry what they can’t control is as urgent as it seems.
  • Patience is not hurried; it accepts incompleteness and can wait.
  • Patient behavior inevitably undermines the world’s common sense.
  • Trusting in patience to change lives is the opposite of relying on violence and retaliating. It is innately uncoercive.
  • Patience is hopeful, confident in God. As Teresa noted, God alone suffices.

Most families are good laboratories for learning patience. Churches should be a good place for learning it, too. They are the main places we learn to forebear in love, or don’t. In a marriage we have a daily opportunity to develop a way of living together that hopes more in God’s blessing than in the immediate satisfaction of our desires. As one of my clients said the other day, in marriage we learn to act out love rather than wait for love to make us feel like connecting. Patience opens up our families to God’s presence and relaxes the stranglehold of our disappointment and longing. Patience let’s things grow, and delights in nurturing what God is growing up in our loved one — that wonder, that creation, that future resurrected being.




Amos and wrath: The promising roar of the Lion

By 2004, things were hopping in our eight-year-old church. So why did I decide to speak about Amos for weeks? I can’t remember. But it has been interesting to look back on what I said. It still seems like a good discussion to have. You might like to read Amos 1 before you get into this, but not a requirement. 

That disturbing wrath

Fortunately, I am not God. Can we all agree on that, to begin with? What’s more, you are not either. Can we all agree that that is also a good thing?

But we are made in the image of God. Male and female, we represent God’s being. We are created in God’s likeness. So our basic make-up – the way our characters get organized, our emotions, the way we relate, is something like God. That make-up is broken, and it wasn’t an exact replication to begin with — but it is like God.

As a result, I can understand God’s wrath, the anger of God that so disturbs many of us these days.

Of course, I understand God’s wrath in broken ways. I’m not God. But I get the gist of it. It is like all those times my kids would push me right over the edge and I would mete out my punishment in unhinged and even violent ways. It’s like the times my wife has “made me  crazy” (we say), and I have anger well up from nowhere like a storm – hot wind, deep thunder, and then anger pours down. I don’t think God is as unconscious as I am, but I do think that feeling I have is not foreign to him. Somehow the anger I have comes from God, too.

The Prophet Amos, fresco fragment saved from the ceiling of the confessional at San Nicola (Rome). Ca. 1120. Vatican Museum.

I think when the Bible, and when Amos, our subject of the this piece, reveals things about God’s wrath, it is more like when I am angry about what happens to my wife at the office. She’s trying to do something good and get the administration done, she’s trying hard, she’s doing the best she can, which is very good, and someone acts out of some inexplicably selfish motive which, at first, you can’t believe is happening. You have to step back and ask, “Could that actually be what I think it is?” Then you find out, “Yes, they are that wicked. And there is my beloved in the middle of it!” That really burns me up. Sometimes, I get madder than she is! I defend against the attack. I seethe with desire for my lover’s safety and happiness.

I feel that all the time. When someone comes to my office to talk and they are relaying what happened to them, I find myself flaring up with anger. I’m indignant. I’m appalled. I’m sad. I’m defensive about my loved one. It seems to me that there is very little love if there is no wrath.

Amos and God sound really angry

“The LORD roars from Zion,
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
and the top of Carmel withers.”  (this is all from chapter one)

And he starts right in…

This is what the LORD says:
“For three sins of Damascus,
even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath]. …

There is a collision of images in chapter one and they all sound scary. A lion roars. Thunderclouds form over the mountaintop of Jerusalem. Lightning, wind and thunder swirl in the darkness. The hot breath of God’s roar blasts the earth and scorches the pastures. Even the top of Mt. Carmel, which is usually covered with snow, is dry.

The prophet’s stormy message starts with Damascus and crisscrosses the old tribal league territory of Israel until it zeroes in on the remnants of the kingdom of David: Judah and Israel.

“For the three sins of Damascus that are on my mind, I might turn away my wrath,” God says, “But this fourth one puts me over the edge.  Because she threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth.” This crime of the kingdom of Aram (capital: Damascus) is an event had happened long before Amos’ time, but it was apparently famous. Like Pearl Harbor or the Twin Towers, people remembered how ruthless Aram was to the people of Gilead that time (northern tribes of Israel, east of the Jordan River). It was like one of Amos’ neighbors in Tekoa mowed down the summer crops in his field and left his family nothing.

One by one, Amos identifies the neighbors of Israel and gives the same message: the coming impact of God’s wrath is well deserved. Then he turns a surprising direction and sets his sites on Judah. He’s from the northern kingdom of Israel, so his audience might have been cheering him on, at that point. But then, right there in the ancient shrine town of Beth-el where he shouts out his message to Israel, he turns on the northern kingdom, too. It is shocking. Under Jeroboam II, the northern kingdom is in the midst of an economic boom and a cultural renaissance. They feel like they are back on top. But here comes Amos to tell them the days of Israel as they know it are numbered. And sure enough, they were. He was telling the truth.

So how do you feel so far?

Let’s pause there for a minute. Because that message of the wrath to come might bring up some feelings. What is with this voice of doom, God? Do you want ME to be scared of you, too? Am I supposed to be all cautious about everything because you might swoop down on me? How am I supposed to relate to you if you are like a lion? – Cower in the corner? Tame you? Get eaten? Run?

People handle God in a number of ways. How do YOU handle it when a loved one, or just an authority figure, is angry with you? How did you handle your parents? Your Dad? Your Mom? They’re both in the mix here.

  • Some people deal by deciding that Amos is talking about the Old Testament God who is a lot like Chemosh of Aram, some quixotic storm God, the God of wrath. Primitive people needed to placate such gods, because they didn’t know any better. But now we have Jesus, the God of love. We’re enlightened.
  • Some people have explained all this anger away by surmising that Victorian-age Christians  projected their stern fathers onto God and we’ve been trying to get out from under the repression ever since. Educated and liberated people of this century have thrown off such  psychological shackles.
  • Some people, defend the doctrine of God’s wrath, since it is right there in the Bible. Even Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). They try to make the wrath of God into more of a controlled burn, since a full-on lion’s roar scorching the countryside does seem a little unseemly. So they make it rational, a principle. To them, God’s wrath is an instrument of exacting judgment.

I’m just trying to get the whole difficult picture drawn, here.

Maybe Jonathan Edwards drew the picture for you.

Edwards also wrote “On Insects”

One of the famous things that happened in the United States to seal people’s image of the wrath of God happened on July 8, 1741. Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God. His congregation was so traumatized that some people hung on to the railings for fear of sliding into the fires of hell. You may know this quote. Edwards pleaded,

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked….Oh sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in! It is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath that you are held over in the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it and ready every moment to singe it.”

BUT give the man another chance, because he went on.

“The misery you are exposed to is that which God will inflict, to the end that He might show what the wrath of Jehovah is. God has had it on His heart to show to angels and men, both how excellent His love is, and also how terrible His wrath is.”

To people who are free, in their own minds, at least — who are in need of very little, as we are — who are preoccupied with the pleasures of the flesh — and who have enough leisure time to be preoccupied with the depths of their relationships and with the exploration of their own psyches and souls, wrath seems unfortunate, at best. We wouldn’t buy it. We wouldn’t hire it. We wouldn’t marry it. We don’t worship it. We don’t respect it.

We do flip people off a lot, we do love football, we do bomb countries into shock and awe, we do murder people at high rates, we do have a huge punitive prison system, BUT we don’t think of ourselves as needing much but love. If God is like what Edwards says, or Amos, who needs him?

Is there a different way to see wrath?

Edwards may be more nuanced than he seems. I think C.S. Lewis tries to explain God’s wrath so we can value it. He says:

God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger–according the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way. (Mere Christianity)

Edwards’ emphasis on the wrath of God is foreign to our generation. Yet an amazing thing happened as he quoted heavily from Bible texts warning of the anger of God. Terrified men and women woke from their sin long enough to see their desperate need for the forgiveness of God. They saw they were boxed in and wanted out.

Amos is trying to say: God is God and you’re not. And because God can’t stand what you’re doing to yourself and his creation, he is going to get you out of your box. We can relate if we can see Amos point his message at the macro and the micro. On all levels, God intends to break creation out of its sinful, self-reliant box. We are going to grow now.

Here’s the macro message to Israel the nation (like what he said to the other nations)

Israel, you were chosen by God to be a vehicle for his message and for the revelation for the redemption of the world. BUT you got stuck on the choseness and neglected to see that God is the Lord of all. It’s not all about your nation. You’re just one of all the rest. I have a unique relationship with all of them. You’re special, but not that special. You are not the center of the world, I am. Look what you do…

 They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor

as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.

This is a reference to perverting the courts. Innocent people are losing their land. Can you relate to having courts that don’t do justice? Have you been to court lately? Are people getting justice? Are you able to get your insurance payoff without a lawyer?

Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.

The reference above could be that they revived the shrine prostitutes that were important to Canaanite fertility goddesses or they are just taking advantage of one of their slaves. Regardless, the name of God is profaned because sex is an act that comes with the mutual respect of making the image of God one. Do you think we have respect for sex like that in this country?

They lie down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines.

This is so colorful. When a person had a debt, they used his cloak as surety – you only have one coat, you’ll need it by night, so you’re sure to come back with whatever payment you were supposed to make – like when people keep your license or credit card when you rent something. But they are using these cloaks to cover their couches at the shrines where they have worship parties which are fueled by the wine they got when they went to collect the fines they unjustly got enacted on people!  The rich are out of control and they are using every means possible to get richer. I’d say most of the big buildings around here are decorated with just such injustice — like that Cira Center over by 30th St. Station which is part of an “economic development zone” intended more for North Philly than for corporate lawyers.

Amos assures us all — “There will come a day.” We should feel sorry for people who abuse us. There will come a day. They must think this mercy they live in is forever. God is reluctant to name those days, but they happen, and the final day will definitely come.

Here’s the micro message to each of us

What does one does with this lion? Amos realizes that he or at least his descendants will be at the mercy of this God, who has been pushed over the edge by the sinfulness that is destroying his creation. It is a hurting, disappointed, abandoned, unheard God, who is the Lord of all.

As far as Amos can see, each of us share in this sin, at some level. God can make this accusation:  

I also raised up prophets from among your sons
and Nazirites from among your young men.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the LORD.
“But you made the Nazirites drink wine
and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.

We have missed the mark, too, in our own way. We wanted to be holy, but we weren’t. We heard the word and knew we should follow it, but we didn’t. What are we to do to avoid God’s wrath?

Paul offers some sound advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9. He urges us prepare our souls and to go into battle with God, to “… put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus absorbed and defeated the wrath. Jesus, who is such a good picture of how wrath and love go together, is the Lion of Judah whose suffering pays the awful price of our wrongdoing.

We are not destined for wrath

Hear the good news! We are not destined for God’s wrath. We are destined for salvation. Salvation can only be worked out between God and each of us. We work out our salvation by talking with God, shouting at God, arguing with God and wrestling with God. Get out of your box. The wrath of God wakes us up to realize that our own suffering leads to new life. A sinner in the hands of an angry God is in loving hands. Hands that can’t stand to see them destroyed, seeing them living in an airless box of their own self-absorption,  ignorance, or pain.

C.S. Lewis’s pictures this well. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a young boy named Eustace unwillingly visits the fantastic world of Narnia with his cousins Lucy and Edmund. He finds himself on a sailing ship with the current King of Narnia, who is on a great quest. Eustace attempts to evade work when the ship and crew reach Dragon Island by running away. He gets lost in the mountains and accidentally discovers a dragon’s lair. After seeing the death of the great dragon, Eustace stumbles onto its treasure during a rainstorm. His greed for the treasure causes him to turn into a dragon. Neither Eustace nor the crew can find any way to reverse the transformation.

Later, Edmund sees Eustace in boy form, and Eustace tells the incredible story of his transformation back into his original, physical self. Aslan, the lion gets him out of his box, you might say,

Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — “You will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.” [115]

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. [116]

Let me leave you with that. Amos tells us that the lion is coming. We’re in for a painful, painful battle. But the lion is, ultimately, on our side. Amos tells us some blunt-spoken truth, but it is not the final story. This immediate “wrath” we feel is not our destiny! Salvation is our destiny. We don’t need to fear the painful work of our box-shattering God. Like Jesus goes through death to life, we can follow. We embrace that destiny, for there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Marcos Witt: Prayer and worship heals our wounds

The other night in our spiritual direction group, I started us off with a classic worship song by Marcos Witt:

Tu fidelidad es grande
Tu fidelidad incomparable es
Nadie como tú, bendito Dios
Grande es tu fidelidad

Your faithfulness is great
Your faithfulness is incomparable.
No one is like you, blessed God.
Great is your faithfulness.

It is a simple truth on which to meditate and with which to worship. You might like to experience how he uses the song to lift up a crowd at one of his events.

I love how he builds the experience with just a few simple lines everyone can learn, remember, and then use by the time the arc of the song has been completed. I imagine the writer of Lamentations 3:23 would approve. Maybe the original was a song, as well! When we sing along, we are entering an eternal now which erases the divisions of time, culture and label.

Marcos Witt

I had never heard of Marcos Witt until last month when the New York Times offered a feature article about him [link]. I do not live in an Evangelical or Spanish-speaking world, so there might be all sorts of amazing things I am missing.

Lonnie Frisbee. 70’s music pioneer

Marcos Witt appears to be quite amazing. He has been on a year long swing through the U.S as part of his América Ora y Adora (America Prays and Adores) tour, which began in spring 2022. It looks like they are going to finish up on September 9 in Washington D.C., if you want to go. The tour is an attempt to undo the divisions in the church. But it also looks like a victory lap for Witt who has had a very successful ministry, beginning with introducing “Praise and Worship” music from the 1970’s to Spanish speakers everywhere.

Most Americans have never heard of him, but Witt estimates that over the past 40 years he has sold roughly 27 million copies of his albums worldwide. He has sold out arenas in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Santiago, São Paulo, San Salvador, Miami and Los Angeles. He has won six Latin Grammy Awards, including one last year for his 34th solo album, “Viviré” (“I Will Live”). In the early 2000’s He built one of the largest Spanish-speaking churches in U.S. as part of Lakewood Church in Houston (also famous because of  Joel Osteen).

He told the interviewer, “My music carries the breath of God. Through our songs, God is hugging on people.”

The hug of God

You could use the hug of God right now.

Doesn’t everyone need the hug of God? I will not enumerate every way the world seems to be an overwhelming mess right now. I will just offer one frightening piece of news from Senator Murphy of Connecticut, who has a bipartisan bill to address how algorithms are making kids desperately unhappy [link]. The kids really need a hug from the risen Lord and their present parents.

In just our little group the other night, worries and challenges piled up quickly. Our capacity to listen to God and one another seemed a bit weak for everything we faced. But by the end of our all-too-brief time, our confidence and trust were deepened, just like moving through Tu Fidelidad. Our hearts were enlivened and I think we felt more able to go out and do some hugging ourselves.

If you can’t find a church that makes sense to you, try to find a couple of people to hang on to, even to hug, in this wild time we are in. If you can’t quite get into relationship with Jesus followers, at least begin to renew you relationship with God. Senator Murphy notwithstanding, there are many apps that will help you stream “praise and worship” songs, like this one from Google Play. You might try that on for a new discipline. Recorded and remastered  music is a step removed, of course, from the real connections we crave. But I think the Holy Spirit can use your attention to bring you into the spiritual hug you need the most. We’ve all got to keep trying.

It is a trying time. We are challenged. But we can meet the challenge. We don’t know the future, but we do know that God will be faithful to us until the end of time and beyond. Let’s sink into that before all we can think and feel about is how we might be sinking otherwise.