Category Archives: Doing Theology

Is it disobedient to be afraid? (2012)

In my long stint as a Philly pastor, I often answered “frequently asked questions.” This speech reflects a time when someone asked me, “Is it disobedient to be  afraid?” Someone must have asked me for more Bible study, because there is a surprising amount of scripture here.

Is it disobedient to be afraid? We are going to talk about that. The answer is, generally, yes, but probably not for generally accepted reasons.

Rhyolite bank building

What are you afraid of?

I am afraid of heights. I’ve done a lot of things to try to overcome this fear, but I am not very successful. One time I got stuck on a ruin Rhyolite, Nevada (like the one above) when I was out in the desert with some friends and could not get down from my climb because I was too afraid to bridge the gap between my foot and the next foothold. They had to come up and rescue me.

But I think I am more afraid of depths. It is hard to look into certain territories inside. I am not alone in this.

But the worst thing might be that I am most afraid of people I am close to, even people I love. I have a nagging fear of you, right now. I am so afraid of the things that might hurt me again, or make me feel too alone, or make me feel smothered or shamed. My reaction is so automatically fearful I am afraid of my reaction! What’s more, I am afraid to be myself because that might hurt someone else. I not only don’t want to do that, I don’t want them to do it to me.  Are you as messy as me?

So if the Bible teaches I am being disobedient to God when I am afraid, I am pretty much disobedient a lot. I’ve got sin ready to pop out all the time!

The Bible does say, “Do not be afraid” a lot. Like in the famous account of the resurrection. Some one read it and everyone read the bold part.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  — Matthew 28

Jesus has died, there has been an earthquake, an angel has appeared to the soldiers and they have fainted they were so afraid. The women see the angel (note they do not faint) and he says, “Do not be afraid.” I suppose it is disobedient to not do what a messenger of God tells you to do.

But also note that in verse 8, they are disobedient, still afraid, but they are filled with joy. You might want to hold on to that seeming incongruity for later.

So they are obediently running to tell the disciples the news that Jesus is risen, when they run into Jesus! They fall on the ground. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

Is it disobedient to be afraid when Jesus says “Do not be afraid?” I honestly think the answer to the question is “Yes.” It is, at some level, basically disobedient to be afraid. It is idolatry, the fear has a bigger place in your worship than Jesus.

People organize their lives around fear every day. Why are our national leaders so afraid of people in Northwest Pakistan? There are a lot of reasons that could be given. But they are not afraid because they trust God!

Why are we so afraid of each other? You get next to someone and suddenly you are afraid of what they think of what you just said. You are so concerned about what they might feel  you are anxious and miserable all day. When all the while, if you actually follow Jesus, you are going to live forever, which means even if what you experience kills you, things will work out OK.

What can mere humans do to me?

The writers of scriptures from about 1000 BC to 64 AD have a common memory verse that you might like to add to your thinking: what can mere humans do to me? My spiritual director often asks me, “What can really happen here? Really, what’s the worst thing? Why be so locked in fear?” He does not always succeed in getting me to not be afraid, but he is right to ask.

Four of you read one of these as an invitation to us to give up our fear. Don’t read the reference:

  • In God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere human beings do to me? — Psalm 56:11
  • When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; / he brought me into a spacious place.
    The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. / What can human beings do to me?
    The Lord is with me; he is my helper. / I look in triumph on my enemies. — Psalm 118:5-7
  • What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. — Matthew 10:27-9
  • God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can human beings do to me?” — Hebrews 13:5-6

So yes, God tells us to not be afraid — and for some very good reasons. If we don’t trust him and are afraid for our usual bad reasons, then it is disobedient. God commands us to act for our best interests. Trusting God is in our best interests.

How to Calm a Fussy Baby: Tips for Parents & Caregivers - HealthyChildren.org

Is there a fearless human somewhere?

All that being said it would be bizarre to find a fearless human. They might be a sociopath. Some Christians seem to be to have some kind of psychological talent that allows them to act like they are not afraid and pretend they have no fear.  They are committed to being obedient, they saw that the Bible said “Do not be afraid.” So, by God!, they are not afraid. But I think they might be afraid of being afraid, deep down inside. And they might be so afraid of God that they would shut their feelings down in order not to offend her. They might be afraid their religious house of cards will tumble if they call God “her!”

Contrary to that, I think it is very likely that all those scriptures that say “Do not be afraid,” were intended to be comforting scriptures. Those passages are more like when you are holding your screaming child and you say, “Don’t cry honey.” I think they are saying “God and all his messengers know you are afraid. Don’t be afraid.” They are pointing out our fear, acknowledging it exists and working with it.

We have a strange problem in this era. We think what we feel is who we are. If I feel fear, I am afraid. I think It makes more sense to separate feelings from actions. You can be afraid and filled with joy, too! God and his angels might scare you, but you could respond with worship.

After all, Isaiah says:

Therefore, this is what the Lord, the LORD Almighty, says: “My people who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians, who beat you with a rod and lift up a club against you, as Egypt did. “

Isaiah is speaking for the Lord, who is telling his children, the people of Israel — the whole nation is like his offspring, “Don’t be afraid of the Assyrians,” even though the Assyrian Empire is huge and is undoubtedly going to take you over, and your King, Ahaz, is trying to make a deal with them instead of trusting God. Be faithful to God.

Isaiah notes however, that the experience of being beaten is installed in the nation’s memory, since that is what happened in Egypt when they were slaves. When they were just a child of a nation God rescued them from their abusive condition, but the fears born of having been in that condition are still real.

When God tells you don’t be afraid, he remembers your beginnings, too. I have a story about why I am still afraid inside, even though I can act fearlessly in many ways. I have an Egypt in my past where I was hurt. Some of you have stories you don’t even want to tell, they are so painful to recall. Some of you have stories you can’t tell because you blocked them out completely. They were being formed when you were just a small human. There is no way God is telling you, “Don’t be afraid,” as if you were never in Egypt. He encourages us to not be afraid because we were in Egypt and we needed to be rescued. And now the Assyrians are coming upon us.

We have a lot to be afraid of

Get a picture of what you are afraid of in your mind. Even make a mental list. I am not going to make you tell us what it is, so don’t be afraid. But I am going to offer the opportunity to a couple of people, so we can be honest, like God is, about carrying things that scare us. Any body want to tell us the first thing that came to mind?

I don’t think being obedient is not ever being afraid. I think being obedient is listening to God’s call and trusting him when we are afraid, which is pretty much all the time. “Do not be afraid,” should be translated, “I know you are afraid. Listen to me. Trust me. This is going to go someplace. I am with you. Act in faith even though you are afraid.” The scriptures suggest ways to live that out.

Meet God in the night

Everyone read this if you can:

Do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
they will be life for you, …
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. — Proverbs 3:21-2,24

I sometimes wake up in the night and can’t resist making a list of things that trouble me. I did it last night, because I forgot to do something I needed to do and I was afraid of the consequences. My fears get to me when my defenses are quieted by sleep and they can get out. I hope that does not happen to you. But for most of us, it does happen, at least once in a while.

To be obedient, try some rituals. You might need to get up and pray or get up and deal. You might need to push it off. You might recite the Jesus prayer and re-center. You might use your new memory verse “what can humans do to me?’

When we become aware of our fear it tests our obedience to God’s command. We need to meet him in the fear. The Lord is calling into the fear for us — calling us out. If you experience fear, it is a place to meet God.

Trust in the touch

Let’s all read this in a mysterious whisper:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. — Revelation 1:17

 This is John in Revelation thinking about the end of time. The other day we got a movie out of Red Box called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It turned out to be a God-free rendition of John’s revelation! The movie was all about fear and finding someone to touch before the meteor hit. It was touchingly disobedient and lovingly hopeless. I think John’s vision is better. John’s vision is such a wonderful thing he experiences as he is awaiting the end of this age, exiled on his island. He has a vision of the risen, ruling Jesus, and Jesus tenderly touches him. Do not be afraid.

God is going to touch you where you are afraid. But you will have to let him and learn to let him when you are too afraid to let him or too accustomed to not letting him. You learned to be afraid and not let it touch you. You have a tendency to fall down dead in the face of what you fear. The touch of God, who is the beginning and the end, before you began and bringing you to your end, is how we deal. That is obedient.

Take a step

Let’s have a woman be Moses:

See, the LORD your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”  — Deuteronomy 1:21

This is Moses telling the people of Israel that the people of the promised land are not too big for them and they should go inhabit what God has given them. They are afraid. We come up against things that make us feel tiny and helpless every day, don’t we?

One of my grandsons is learning to swim. When he is done screaming, he is quite proud of what he can do. He feels better because he has gone through a fearful thing. We don’t get very far if we don’t travel through fear to get there.

One of my directees talked to his father after five years recently. It turned out even worse than he expected. But not talking to him had clogged him up with the fear of not making that connection. He feels like he is getting free. He took a step.

You are not going to be unafraid when you take a step. See what the Lord has given to you. See what those who have taken steps before you are telling you. Go with it.

So is it disobedient to be afraid? Yes, if what you mean is you are ruled by your fear and not by your faith in God. But no, it is not disobedient to be afraid. You are just afraid. It is a feeling, and one that makes a lot of sense, given your circumstances. It will pass through.  “Do not be afraid.” Have joy in your fear, Jesus is with you.

Did the devil write The Sound of Music?

“What?!” the Evangelicals say, “The only movie my parents would allow me to watch is being subjected to the latest litmus test?”

Well, if that is how you want to see it, yes. Call it deconstructing, if you like. But the population was fed a lot of hogwash. That’s especially true when it comes to the sweet, romantic, almost iconic scene I want to briefly discuss.

There is some ambivalence about this earworm

I have the misfortune/blessing of having a song in my head most of the day. My mind seems to trap them. The other day this one from The Sound of Music popped up. I was upset, because it had been banished for while due to its terrible theology. But it is a hard earworm to resist.

Before I ask you to give it another look, you might want to give it another look. If you choose to do that, you can hit this link to the YouTube (less than 2 minutes long). I’m going to give it some disrespect. But before I do,  it is fine with me if you look beyond its terrible lyrics.

While you are watching it, go ahead and vicariously enjoy being a grieving, angry man who  has been re-awakened by the governess who initially irritated him. Or vicariously relish the wonder of being a woman poorly assigned as a nun who has found her place as a wife and mother, loved and accepted as she is. I hope someone has met you in the gazebo! If not, I hope they will. Be glad that love can unexpectedly happen – even when the Nazis are at the door! Good grief! Stop being too cynical for this lovely story!

Feel free to get a little tear in your eye for a second before we cast off the terrible, supposedly Christian, logic that led to this scene in this strangely religious musical.

Here’s the problem with this lyric

It is evangelism for a gospel that is not THE Gospel and believing it lands people in misery.

Richard Rogers (who wrote the music) was reportedly an atheist. Oscar Hammerstein (who wrote the words) said this about his faith is a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace. He was telling a story about an exchange he had with a fan. The fan asked,

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” and I said “No.” “He said are you religious?” and I said, “Well I don’t belong to any church,” and then he patted me on the back and he said, “Ah, you’re religious alright.”

And I went on feeling as if I’d been caught, and feeling that I was religious. He had discovered from the words of my songs that I had faith, faith in mankind, faith that there was something more powerful than mankind behind it all. And faith that in the long run good triumphs over evil. If that’s religion — I’m religious, and it is my definition of religion.

In The Sound of Music Hammerstein is trying to picture what he thinks Catholics would probably be thinking if they were getting into this wonderful love relationship – a bit like he looks into Polynesian culture in South Pacific or Oklahomans in Oklahoma. He’s painting in stereotypes (and often undermining them).

Unfortunately, he got it right when it comes to the mess people make of Christianity, which is why I hate it when this messy song pops up. It has such a lovely feeling and such terrible thoughts!

Let’s go through this once and for all

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth

To be clear, he’s teaching usto beleive: “there must have been a moment of truth” because otherwise I could not deserve this moment. I must have done something right because me doing the right thing is how I get good things and, what’s more, it is how I get into heaven.

I have atonement explanations in the side column over there if you want to revisit what Jesus Christ is all about. He is certainly not about noting our “moment of truth” so he can reward it later by fulfilling our deepest desires. My Christian clients are often tormented by the thought of how unworthy they are of being loved by God or anyone. They may accept that God is good enough to love them but they don’t accept that they are good enough to be loved. Hammerstein captured their dilemma in a song:

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Yes, you were wicked and miserable (and many times still are), but you were not and will never be responsible enough to be good enough to balance it all out. You will not be able to perform well enough to solve the problem, even if you can sing like Julie Andrews! You did not merit the blessings God delivered out of love in Jesus. And if someone professes their love for you, you should probably just take it instead of evaluating it according to your self-loathing.

I think many people believe the theory of God’s grace. But we still feel it is unlikely, if not impossible, for God or anyone to love the real us. Many of us feel if we were just better everything would be better — that’s the truth we live by and deeply suffer as a result. We never get good enough. Whatever nasty thing you say to yourself when you look in the mirror (or suppress saying,  it is so terrible), it is probably spawned by “truth” that pops up like this lyric I’m decrying. We vainly try to control the conditions that led to our lack of love. We’re always sorting things out, “I’m wicked. I’m good.” But inconclusive sorting ends up being the habit of our heart and closes us off to what we need.

A lot of the problem stems from this terrible line of logic I wish I did not remember:

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

If you are a Jesus follower and you believe this nonsense, dash back to your Bible and go directly to:

1 Cor 1:26-30: God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Colossians 1:15-23: [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Romans 4:16-23: [We] share the faith of Abraham (who is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”), in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Everything comes from nothing by God’s grace.

It is the presence of God that matters, not how well you present or whether what you  present is good enough.

So did the devil write it?

I don’t know and neither do you. But so what if he did? If he didn’t write it, any one of us might be saying a similar thought in our head right now: “Maybe I did the wrong thing and that is why no one loves me” etc. The fact we are awash in such thoughts is why we need a Savior. When my clients triumph over the wicked, miserable thoughts in their heads, it is still not enough. Ultimately, we are all seeking to live in the presence of God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” who out of great love chooses “what is low and despised.” People also call and choose like that in various gazebos — it is a wonder.

Maria von Trapp died in 2014

I hate to spoil the lovely scene. But we all know that after the kiss it will only be a decade until the Captain is dead and the von Trapp family is making a living in Vermont as struggling immigrants. Maria von Trapp was not thrilled with The Sound of Music. She thought the stage and screen stars, Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, “Were too gentle – like girls out of Bryn Mawr” (times change, eh?). Her life was tough. You might not be thrilled with how your life story looks on film, either (or how it is torn apart like in Anatomy of a Fall). Our lives are messy.

The Sound of Music certainly got that right. What a mess! Love in 2024 is a miracle, too, and yet it happens all the time. It happens even when a false line in a sweet song threatens to corrupt the whole thing. When the temptation to control the world pops into our minds, we hang on to the faith — of millions living and hundreds of millions dead, in the presence of God in Jesus,  “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. “

Top Ten Posts of 2023

2023

Group communication “sad?” Try on some Virginia Satir.
My new group reminded me of two things Virginia Satir taught me: 1) Tell your own story, 2) Be aware of your communication style.

Slander divides: Six ways to overcome it
Trump has unleashed a slanderfest. If it threatenes to swallow you, what are some things you can do? I’ve needed to try a few myself!

The Upside-down Apocalypse: Power fantasies be damned
My acquaintance, Jeremy Duncan, wrote an intriguing commentary on Revelation that makes so much sense I wanted to add my review to advertise it.

A call to prayer: Frodo and Sza on Mt. Doom
The dialogue Frodo has with Sam and Gollum on Mt. Doom is just like what is happening in us (and Sza).

The Spirit of God is Praying for You
Forget cetrainty. Prayer is all about discerning the presence of God who is constantly praying for us, who desires to be with us and hopes to see us flourish.

The Sad History of Christians Co-opted by the Powerful
The good things Jesus creates and recreates in the world are always threatened by some power that wants to co-opt them or just eliminate their alternativity.

The Common Emotion Wheels Need Unpacking
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.

Beyond Trauma and Resilience Is Love
Psalm 139 has always been a good reminder, a symbolic representation, of what we all know in our deepest hearts beyond our brokenness. We were created in love.

I am Disconnected: Why? Can I change?
A perfect storm of troubles has atomized the country and wicked people are capitalizing on our disconnection to seize power and keep us divided, as they historically do in such circumstances.  What should we do?

The Wonder of Being Saved: A collection of Ways
Nobody in The Whale wanted to be saved. If you do, there are many ways to get there and stay there.

2022

FFF #17 — Brendon Grimshaw and his Seychelles wonder
I loved being in solidarity with the Fridays for the Future climate strikers.

The church in the rearview mirror
While on retreat I get some vision for my future that might help you move on, too.

I believe in you: I’m rarely talking about me
My 50th reunion gives me a lot to love about the community I have.

Jesus gives 5 ways to endure the shame: Kansans lead the way 
The first followers of Jesus would applaud the declarations of independence from corrupt Christianity some people are proclaiming.

Should I forgive them if they never offer an apology? 
Forgiveness is hard under all circumstances. When reconciliation is unlikely, it is even harder.

“How I Got Over:” Mahalia Jackson helps us do 2022
I have been singing with Mahalia all year. She did, indeed, help me get over.

The new movement of the Spirit takes lament, commitment, action
Time with the Jesus Collective inspires me to move with the Spirit now.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it
The word of the year might be “overwhelm.”  Better to name it than just wear it.

Three reasons the Trump effect is not over yet
The elements of the Trump effect are not going away too soon. The wickedness has a “trickle down” impact.

In this uncertain now: Who are you Lord and who am I?
I have had a tough couple of years in a few ways. How about you? Who are you and who is God now?

Top ten posts from the past — many of them read more than 2023’s

Is choice a spiritual problem?  (2010)

In 2010 our church was coming to its fullness in number and effectiveness. This speech reflects how we were forming a sense of “alternativity.” Serious people. 

A little late in the game, I imagined someone asking me what this week’s final FAQ was. When I told them it was, “Is choice a spiritual problem?” They said, “Oh wow, you are going to tackle abortion this week! Interesting. But I don’t think I will invite my mother.” It did not even dawn on me that people might think I was talking about a woman’s right to choose, or about the opposite argument that is often voiced on the bumper sticker as, “It’s a child, not a choice” – choosing for the choiceless.

Drowning in choices

But it should have dawned on me, because the preoccupation with choice, to the point where it could be boiled down to a slogan about someone’s right to choose, is just the spiritual issue I want to talk about. Maybe I am on a subject that is just too abstract to be understood. But I am focusing on the general opportunity or even the obligation in our society to choose.

We have a lot of choices to make and every one seems to include more options all the time: Make a phone deal. Buy a car. Shop in the King of Prussia megamall. Endlessly swipe for a mate. Be entertained by something on a screen. Or visit my favorite example of the proliferation of choices: the cereal aisle. I was at Pathmark yesterday. To get some cereal, one must sift through an amazing array of choices, most of which are some variation of corn.

In the movie the Hurt Locker (2008), we see Sergeant First Class, William James, come back from his tour of duty in Iraq. First we saw him go through the amazing, traumatizing craziness he endured as the number one cowboy on the bomb-defusing squad. He has total PTSD and he’s trying to cope with normality back home. His wife Connie asks him “Do you wanna get some cereal and I’ll meet you at the checkout stand?” Her patient smile tells us that she is challenged by having to live with this guy who has become an alien from having all his choices be life and death ones. There he is in the aisle facing a new kind of enemy that he can’t defuse – too many choices. He has a little minor explosion before he gets out of the aisle, as you will see.

What I want to say is that the choice presented and demanded by the cereal aisle is no friend to the Jesus-follower. The choices in themselves are not necessarily bad or good – that is not really the spiritual problem. It is the implication that we need to choose all the time and that choice, in itself, is a great good. Even worse, it is the implication that we have a right to choose, because what we choose is what makes meaning.

We will see if I get all the way to what I want to say.

But choice is basic, isn’t it?

It is a little ironic for me to be complaining about choice as a Christian, because it is basic to our story that once we had no choice and now we do.

Here is a version of our common story: We were imprisoned in sin and death. There was no way out. We were dead in our sins. We were groping around in that dim-light-before-night-falls-completely thinking it was the only light there was. But the light of the world came to us and freed us. We had no choice but to sin and die. Now we have a choice to live.

John and Charles Wesley used to take that story out of its confinement in big fat Anglican churches in the 1700’s and go tell it to coal miners who were in slavery to the man, who were doing an incredibly dangerous job. They lived near death, poor, illiterate, basically slaves, choiceless. The Wesley’s high-class friends were scandalized by their mission. Charles put their message into music. One of my favorites songs of his fits here, you might help me sing it.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? — Psalms and Hymns, 1738.

The coal miners would stand in the fields after work and listen to the story of Jesus and tears ran down their cheeks and left streaks in the coal dust. They were not doomed after all. They were free. They could choose to follow Jesus; their chains were off. It was revolutionary. A lot of the human rights and freedoms Western democracies have built into their laws are influenced by faith in Jesus undermining the domination system. [Here is the hymn extracted from its original context).

But this freedom to choose has become a problem because people took out God and grabbed for the freedom without him. It is a little bit like when Aubrey left Brendan with baby Nat the other day for thirty seconds and suddenly Brendan had freedom to parent the baby the way he wanted without mom’s guidance or participation. By the time she got back, Nat had sippy cup water all over his head and Brendan was blowing it around his face with a flute of some sort.

Freedom boiled down to choosing

Once this intoxicating sense of freedom and human worth got built into the laws without any regard for God, Christians responded by fighting for the choices people were allowed to make. American Protestants, in particular, made an aggressive sales pitch for Jesus and demanded that people stand up in public and make their choice known.

My favorite example of this adaptation is probably Billy Sunday. Here he is making front page news in 1915. I like Billy Sunday because he had been a professional baseball player (he even played for Philadelphia) before he came into the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, heard about Jesus in a way he could understand and not only surrendered his will to the Lord but became one of the most famous speakers in the country from 1893 to 1935. He was not sophisticated—he was famous for his theatrics: jumping, shouting, posing, and hitting the pulpit. He also took an aggressive stand against the evils of his day – especially booze. Here’s a famous quote: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile, but public, definite enlistment for Christ makes you a Christian.”

He boiled becoming a Christian down to making a choice. And you could express that choice by simply walking down the aisle to shake his hand. Up to our day, most people seem to think that being a Christian is all about one’s personal choice — like choosing your favorite cereal among the brands of religions. If you are more advanced, it is choosing bits and pieces of religious-like thinking and concocting one’s own personal collection of choices into a playlist on your spiritual ipod. In the end, the Christian becomes no different than the world at large, who think that having a choice and making a choice is not only a right, it is how one makes a life for themselves. People think we are the sum of our choices. It is a spiritual problem.

I am trying to set up my simple discussion by highlighting the problem we need to solve or processes we need to face. The choices in themselves are not necessarily bad or good – that is not really the problem.

  • What we need to consider is the implication that you need to choose all the time and that choice, in itself, is a great good — that is the spiritual problem.
  • Even harder, we need to consider the implication that you have a right to choose, a psychological obligation to choose well, because what you choose is what makes meaning — I think that is a huge spiritual issue.

Jesus has many important things to say about this spiritual issue. I want to give you two. Let’s see if I can bring it down to two sound bites.

Being chosen is more important than choosing well

The main spiritual issue we have today is not ‘choosing well,” it is surrendering to being chosen.

You did not choose me, but I chose you — John 15:16

Jesus frees us for this surrender. Before Jesus presents us with the gift of being chosen, we are basically stuck in whatever choices we make. As we see recorded in John, Jesus was about to leave his disciples, and before they got the wrong idea, he wanted to make sure they knew who they were – chosen by him to be his disciples and to bear the fruit of a life in his Spirit. Each of us has been called by Jesus. The story of Jesus calls us into our destiny. We are chosen people.

The other day I shared a psalm I wrote with Gwen and she laughed at the line that said, “I still feel like a fat girl asked to dance.” She could not imagine me relating to that. But I have had many girlfriends who thought they were fat even when they weren’t, and really suffered at the hands of men when they were. I can relate. God help me, I am still shocked when Jesus comes across the dance floor of the universe and chooses me, fat, ugly me waiting over here to be considered valuable.  Before I take his hand, I am imprisoned in whatever I can choose to do to make myself safe and not go crazy from feeling alone and unwanted. I’m helpless, really.

One of the main spiritual issues of our choice-ridden day is to stop choosing and be chosen. You do not have to choose. You don’t need cereal or anything else they say you’ve got to decide about, you’ve been chosen.

Not being choosy is more important than choosing well.

Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? — 1 Corinthians 4:6-7

Paul was talking to people who were well-acquainted with life in the Spirit. But they still got tripped up when their teachers seemed to be competing and they seemed to be asked to choose. They began to choose which camp they belonged to, like we might, as well: “I’m of Rod or I’m of Joshua or I’m of Nate” or “I’m too holy to bother with your petty distinctions – I’m of Jesus.” Paul is trying to ramp down this natural choosiness. He said, “You are acting like you can choose a better life for yourself than what someone else gets from God. Why are you acting like you got something more than anyone else when Jesus chose you?”

It is so tempting. We have become so automatically choosy and we think it really matters whether we have a Droid or an IPhone, a bike or a car, a mate or not, cool Bellagio glasses or contacts, urban life or country life, on and on. We are always on the edge of a slippery slope to thinking we are making ourselves by what we choose. The Jeep commercial before the new George Clooney movie (not good) celebrated the recovery of the American car industry by saying that what we make makes us. We think things like that: what we do makes us, what we choose makes us. Not so.

The discipline of not choosing

A main spiritual discipline of each day is to sit down and be chosen and work at not choosing for a while. Work at opening up space in our hearts to receive. Gain some receptivity. Do some nothing so God can give you life. Stop thinking that if you choose the right path, choose the right book, choose the right church, choose the right day to come to the right church with your right mate it will all be OK, as if you could choose from the good things God has to give and make it all good, or worse, just give up on that and say, “Its all good.”

This is not the only way you can do that, but why not spend this next week having no other choices for your daily time with God than just the two portions of scripture I have given you tonight. Starve your lust for more, craving for new, anticipating of what’s available next. Just stay with God until you have what you can receive from what you’ve been given already. Someone took me up on a challenge like that a week or so ago and it was quite revolutionary for them.

In closing, I beg you not to get me wrong, I am not saying our choices don’t make any difference so just do “whatever.” I am ultimately saying exactly the opposite. Now that I have been chosen and I have given up making the world be all about my choosing, what I choose really makes a difference. My true-self expression just keeps getting better. When I come to you, I am a lot more like Jesus who came to me knowing he was chosen. I am more like Jesus who obviously was not too choosy when he decided to love me and serve me, even serving to death.

When I have received my place with Jesus, I stick out among the people of the world because what I choose comes from somewhere more than just the right to choose. I am not on an endless treadmill of my endless choices. I actually come from somewhere and get somewhere, my choices make an eternal difference. I don’t fear them; I look forward to them, no matter how hard they are. Some of us might feel scared about being that important, but that is how God sees us. He is endlessly interested in how we are going to turn out, because what we do in relation to him makes all the difference in eternity.

Let’s have some dialogue about all this and see if I got close to where you thought I should go.

What Makes for a Non-Consumeristic Church? 

I did not create as many messages in 2008 because I was gifted a four-month sabbatical. Before I left, I answered a question someone offered.

I want to answer a question that someone slipped into the offering box, which doubles as our question box. “What would a consumeristic vs. non-consumeristic church look like?” I suspect this good person picked up on a bias against consumerism around here, especially when it comes to people “church shopping.” Maybe they witnessed one of my random outbursts of rebellion about being treated like a “product,” and they wondered, “What’s with that? It is a good question. Ask some more.

So this is how I want to structure the answer, which what I often do when I make a speech. I’m going to set up the problem as I see it, tell you what the Bible might say about the problem, and then let’s think about how to solve it and do something about what we’ve concluded.

The problem: Living in consumer culture

The problem with the church in the U.S. is a lot like the other problems I can associate with being a consumer culture. It is all a lie. Life is not about buying and selling things. People and experiences are not products. Jesus can’t be bought or sold. The church and worship are not commodities.

On the contrary, the church is a spiritual-physical ecosystem; it is an organic thing. If you turn it into a product, you mess it up. Consumerism is not good for organisms, for creation, in general. For instance, we’re not sure we should raise animals in industrial contexts; animals are not mere products. Likewise, we’re not sure you should endlessly burn carbon fuels; the atmosphere is not a big trash can for byproducts. When we are run by what we consume, bad things happen.

I heard a story on NPR that provide a helpul example for everyone who wants to mess with organic things, like the church. You may have heard about the elephants, ants and a particular tree (which would be a bush in Pennsylvania).

Elephants gather around the ant-plant Acacia drepanolobium.

Think of the church as the tree in this tale. African elephants eat a lot; they are big consumers. They like to eat trees. A certain tree found a way to protect itself from being eaten by exuding a tasty sap that ferocious ants like. When an elephant goes after this tree it just might get a snoot full of ants. So the tree is nibbled and not devoured.

 A little aside, here: 

  • If this were an American tree it would find a way to pump up and get rid of elephants for good. You’d see this redundant commercial for “New extra strength anti-elephant sap.”
  • If the elephants were American they might try to get rid of the ants so they could eat trees. The news story would say, “No Amnesty for Ants: The Freedom to Eat Trees Act has allotted 100 million dollars to capture and deport illegal, tree-invading ants.”

But back to the story. In a long-term experiment, a scientist cordoned off some of these trees to see what would happen if elephants were prevented from getting to them. He expected the trees to flourish. But instead of flourishing, the trees stopped producing sap, since the ants were not needed. The trees kind of dried up. They didn’t grow as much as when they needed to produce sap for ants and leaves for elephants. What’s more, without the protector ants, other bugs infested them and started drilling holes in their bark and hollowing them out.

The moral I draw from this story for the ecosystem of the church is, don’t try to turn the church into a feel-good, easy-buy, no-fuss, no-pain, instantly satisfying product. It won’t work. Just like the acacia tree needs the tension between ants and elephants to flourish, every living tree has giving, and taking, and hurting going on. If you mess with it, you will end up hollowed out. The church is a living tree.

Getting hollowed out is exactly what I think happens to the church that adapts to consumer capitalism. When the church gets commodified, people buy it, they find out it is not really what was advertised and the whole enterprise gets a little more attackable and empty. Isn’t that generally happening?

You can see what consumerism does to the church by seeing what people who are cultured to be consumers do to this meeting. This meeting is the most visible part of the tree, you might say. This meeting is where ants explore for sap and elephants nibble on leaves. It is a rather complex, mixed bag of a meeting and the church has always used it in a number of ways and leaned it in many directions. Is it a show that anyone can come and enjoy, or is it a disciplined spiritual exercise for the initiated? Should we tamp the deep things down so the spiritually hungry ants coming to sip will like it, or should we fill it full of meaty things so the ravenous elephants won’t get bored, move away or even starve? Needless to say, if you come to it looking for what you wish you had, you’ll probably be disappointed, at least a little.

I’m not sure we know exactly what we are doing with this meeting, either. But I don’t think we have just concocted a great product. This meeting is an expression of us. For us, it is the family’s public meeting. It could careen from light to heavy at any moment. In the course of five minutes one person might find it shallow and another deep. I might seem like a great show to some and a total flop to others.

It is kind of painful to hold a public meeting. Ants and elephants both live off this tree – but strangely enough, we thrive when our sap is eaten and our leaves are stripped.

Non-family are welcome at the family meeting — people don’t show up and automatically love us like family, so it hurts — people who feel connected don’t have all their needs met, so it hurts. But I honestly think it may be in the hurting that we are most valuable, so I am willing to do it.

People criticize what we are doing as if we are just another show when we are an organism. They check out our schedule of events to see what’s in it for them or to see if they fit, as if we were an investment or a pair of shoes – being treated like that hurts! I’m not $3.99 a pound, I am a cow!

What are you going to do? We are a nation of consumers. George Bush is famous for being interpreted in 2005 as saying our duty in the present state of warfare is to shop (redacted video above as evidence). The president of the seminary I went to wrote an article in the latest Christianity Today magazine that defended what some people label consumerist tendencies as more a matter of freedom to grow and choose than just being a slave to fashion or personal taste. He doesn’t think it is automatically bad to consider whether you want a Big Mac or a Whopper, a Pentecostal or a Catholic. He has a point. Since he is a philosopher, he probably IS making a choice and he is rich enough to make whatever choice he wants. But for the rest of us, I fear that an awful lot of us haven’t thought over how we choose and just go with what is going. We perpetually shop. That’s the problem. Consumers by nature make the church a commodity to be consumed in the typical pattern, and that kills the tree.

I have two Bible passages that tell us what to do instead.

The Bible speaks to consumer culture

The first quote encourages us to have our pain, rather than just go for “What’s in it for me.”

[H]old out (or hold on to) the word of life–in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.  So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:16-8

The basic example of Jesus, who is our model for being created in the image of God, is living a life of self-giving love. Living a life of self-giving love is our true destiny. Lust for self-getting should not drive us; the quest for a true self that lives in love and expresses love should drive us.

In the case of Paul and Jesus, they both think their highest calling is about being poured out in service and worship, not being poured into. Paul finds joy in his connection with God which transcends even the joy of seeing some fruit come from his tireless labor. He is filled with the Spirit of God and doesn’t feel an endless need to be filled. This is a very anti-consumeristic verse, wouldn’t you say? But I do think it is honest about the pain involved in being anti-consumeristic – not shopping feels like being poured out, without getting a good return. It is not a good deal.

I have told you before that in seminary I was actually taught (by “church growth experts”) that Americans will not come to your church (note “come to,” like coming to the show) unless you WIIFT them, as in “What’s In It For Them?” People must be WIIFTed; that’s how they work.

I think the experts are right about how to get people to come to the show, but they might be wrong about making followers of Jesus. If people are cultured in the church to always consider what’s in it for me, they’ll have more trouble connecting with God or others than they already have, because, as Jesus shows, to connect takes suffering. There will be pain to connect. I’m not sure there will be blood, but there was God’s blood. To paraphrase one of the Lord’s most basic teachings: If you consume as a way of life, you’ll lose your life, but if you pour out your life in worship and service, you’ll find joy.

Endless shopping and deal-making creates insecurity, even when you find something you like or you make a good deal. When we are always shopping, our relationships end up being about “Do I feel good?” or “Can I make you feel good?” We’re always pondering ourselves and never connecting, and then we wonder why we never feel connected and we wonder who or what might make me feel loved? It is endless.

If we endlessly shop, we end up looking around our cell skeptically, wondering if we should get in any deeper with these flawed people, since people in Phoenix are reportedly friendlier. We look at ourselves and feel ashamed, because if we were more saleable someone would have bought us by now. We think “No one shops in the extra-large or extra small section for love,” or “No one would want a used product like me.” Our value ends up based on whether we are a good deal. Shopping creates false expectations, good and bad, “I deserve the best” and “I deserve the worst.” You see how this goes.

Within my lifetime, Americans became mere consumers; they started being labelled “consumers.” People began raising their children as consumers. Like the children are even consumers of parenting. Like they need to be the best parents possible or their children will have gotten a bad deal and they will tell their therapist what bad parents they had and feel deprived. As a result, the children are predictably insecure and demanding; they never get enough, they are perpetual shoppers – and as a result they never pour their lives out, and have a tough time receiving and giving God’s love.

Given that self-giving love is at the heart of being a Christian, how can we make a non-consumeristic church?

Being consumed in the right way

Let me give you another verse. But first let me admit that I haven’t made a very clear definition of what consumeristic means. I don’t think consuming things is bad, of course, unless that is all you do. Being “consumeristic” is being a slave to consuming and organizing everything to be consumed effortlessly and as a top priority, regardless of the consequences. But like my seminary president says, not everything about church shopping is bad. I have been Baptist, been rather Franciscan, been pretty Pentecostal, and mostly Brethren in Christ, which is in itself, a little supermarket of Christian brands. I looked around. I grew. Life is not an either or. We need to choose.

But you can’t make good choices just by consuming. Eventually, you need to be consumed if you are connected to Jesus. Lately I have been talking to people who have tasted it all and they are sick of it all when it comes to Christianity. They are jaded consumers. They never got to faith. They tried to eat the wrapper and missed the candy bar, I guess.

A fire that does not consume - nac.today

Here’s the other verse for them and you.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-9

Maybe the difference between a follower of Jesus and a consumer of Christian products is that the follower is consumed by the Fire. A follower is filled with the Spirit of God. A follower is loved in the light. The consumer is considering whether they want it. The consumer is aspiring to get something more than they have. The consumer is trying it on to see if it fits.

Don’t take that the wrong way, if you are a consumer. Consumers belong in this meeting. Because if you eat enough rice you might learn to like Asian food. Before I went to Indonesia as a teenager, I could not choke down a spoonful of rice. I hated rice. The smell of rice cooking in my host family home in Semarang almost made me sick. But I was served rice constantly. I learned to love it and now I yearn for a spoonful. Consume the right thing and you might become like it. This verse kind of says, sit by the fire and you’ll get warm. Live in the light and you’ll have less shadow. Be in relationship with God and the Spirit of God will make you real.

The writer of Hebrews is talking about coming to the glorious kingdom of heaven that is far beyond the smoking mountain where God wrote the ten commandments with fire on Moses’ tablets. Jesus reveals how God is even bigger than his commandments. You can’t consume God, you can only relate to God, who is all-consuming. You can pour out your offering on the altar fire, like Paul imagined his life, and worship.

It is not like God is a consumer and you’re not. God is consuming, like the ultimate fire. We can’t put him in a box to buy, we can’t package her neatly (in the correct gender term), we can’t manufacture God, we can’t keep them on the shelf. God is. Jesus says, “I am.” We can be with him and do with him. If not, we might be consumed.

Making a non-consumeristic church

I think people are working with God around here and managing to pull off a non-consumeristic church. Rather than tell you what to do in theory, let me tell you about people who pour themselves out before God, who is a consuming fire.

For instance, we recently scrambled the Public Meeting Teams — the teams that make this meeting, our three acacia trees. The East teams had scrambled this and they kind of inspired and baited the BW teams to mix themselves up, too. Shake things up. Get the ants and elephants back to the tree. Cause some pouring out and needing God. Rachel and Angie took new leadership, here. Some of our valuable servants felt uprooted. New, even risky people were added in. But, all in all, it has been amazing how people are working out a weird thing. It hurts. It requires love. We’re not just keeping what we’ve got or just getting what we want, we are going for the consuming fire, trying to get beyond what’s typical. We’ll see what happens.

But whether it all works or not, at least those 30 people or so who make up our PM teams are not sipping to see if they like it. They aren’t sniffing around to see if they are welcome. They aren’t visiting. They are the church.

Likewise, look at the Council meeting we had yesterday anchored by our 43 cell leaders. It is very optimistic to expect such a high level of interest and commitment in the middle of a consumeristic culture. Can’t you people find a more exciting way to spend Saturday morning? You could be sleeping, working, going shopping, fixing the house, having sex, looking for someone to have sex with, being amused, doing as little as possible because you are always asked to do too much. There are a lot of other choices to make than pouring oneself out with an expanding group of people pushing along an enterprise that often seems like it is already out of control! We have a remarkable level of being – and we trust it. We don’t just wait around for someone to sell it to us, we build it. We don’t passively consume it, we are it. The Council meeting is another place we trust God very seriously. And if we do not have that trust, we expect to justly die.

That brings me back to the dual nature of this meeting. I think most people come in as consumers. We love them. God loves them. But we don’t conform to them. That means our relationships might need to develop. We might have conflict. We might even witness some elephants running off with a snoot full of ants, at times. There is a bit of pain on the way to joy. But we want to be that spiritual ecosystem that trusts the Creator to bring it all to fruit and put it in order just the way she sees fit. We want God to be the consuming presence of life in the midst of us — can’t shop for anything better than that!

Talk back – What Do you think? Questions? Further thoughts?

Biden in Israel: The problem with being the chosen ones

Being chosen is a wonderful thing. The surprising hit show The Chosen films the feeling wonderfully, most of the time. Everyone who finds themselves chosen by God — including Jesus appreciating his own self-awareness, is thrilled with the pleasant absurdity of being noticed, appreciated and singled out. There is a lot of “why me?” voiced, both in joy and suffering. We see that being chosen is an experience, a relational reality, an undeserved grace, love.

When I think about the delight of being chosen I usually go back to having a higher-than-expected rank, at times, when I was picked for a team at recess. Or I remember the evening I asked a  young woman at the jr. high cotillion dance (yes, I did that) to be my partner when she did not feel like she was someone who would be asked. She was surprisingly pleased.

Gideon’s army being reduced. James Tissot.

The “chosen people” in the Bible are having the same experience, as far as I can tell. Sarah is chosen to give birth as an old woman and laughs out loud. Her grandson, Jacob is blessed as the second son and is shocked his elder brother does not try to kill him. Jacob’s son, Joseph, is elevated from an Egyptian prison to the highest ranks of government. Moses is called to lead even though he is a stuttering felon. Gideon is told to make a point by collecting a weaker army which can only succeed by relying on God. David is called from the forgotten outskirts to be king and repeatedly restored from utter failure. Then, of course, there is Jesus, the Chosen One, born in a manger in the Roman Empire backwater Israel still is at the time.

The perversion of being chosen

Then there are the people who apparently missed the main teaching. They are proud of being chosen and do not intend to let anyone take that mark of their value away from them. Jesus tells the Pharisees who are restoring and beefing up their identity as Abraham’s offspring:

“Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Luke 3:8).

After Emperor Constantine co-opts the Church in the 300’s, Jesus followers generally stopped accepting the main teaching and started living in palaces instead of prisons. After Constantine, being a “chosen one” becomes a badge of privilege and entitlement instead of an experience of surprise and undeserved endowment. By the time Europeans divide us all into nationalities and identities, everyone can have a little sense of being chosen over someone else.

Americans, especially the Evangelical portion, have mostly assumed the privileges and responsibilities of being the chosen people. Even Barack Obama made a point to reaffirm  the idea the United States deserves its special place in the world. He, like the rest of us, was taught the U.S., like Israel was given Canaan, was given North America. (Thus we have towns named New Canaan, CT). The myth is, CRT notwithstanding, we kept becoming more deserving of our special place in the world. After WW2 we were chosen to lead the free world. (As if the country had not always had such designs– Thomas Jefferson famously called it an “empire of liberty”). The idea is, the U.S. is chosen to give the world a choice, unfettered by tyrants and tradition. Obama said in his famous “A More Perfect Union” speech,

“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law, it is our willingness to affirm them by our actions.“

He wanted a new kind of exceptionalism, but he did not doubt he is one of the chosen people.

When Biden spoke to the country last week about Israel and Ukraine he asked,

What would happen if we walked away? We are the essential nation… And as I walked through Kyiv with President Zelensky, with air raid sirens sounding in the distance, I felt something I’ve always believed more strongly than ever before: America is a beacon to the world, still, still.

We are, as my friend Madeleine Albright said, the indispensable nation.

The dangers of protecting one’s choseness

Ronald Reagan, of course, was much more directly religious than Obama or Biden about it. He was always quoting John Winthrop calling Massachusetts a “city on a hill”  (as in “the light of the world” in Matt. 5:14). He said it again it in his farewell address (here lovingly augmented with background music by the Reagan Library).

At the same time Reagan was preaching, some Christians were writing books about how proud they were to be part of the chosen American people. When my wife took over directing a bookstore in an Assemblies of God church during the Reagan years, she came upon a big display of The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall Jr., son of the famous Senate Chaplain, Peter Marshall, and the famous author Catherine Marshall. It is arguably the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.

If you are looking for a starting point that ends in the Trump cult, peopled greatly by Evangelicals, this engaging book could be it. In the intro, Marshall and his co-author David Manuel summarize their thesis with this rhetorical question:

“Could it be that we Americans, as a people were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?  Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”

Their answer is “Yes!”  And they proceed to make an historical argument that the U. S. came into being as a Christian nation; it had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”

These thoughts have been developing since then. When Catholic, Supreme Court “originalists” ask “What would the Founders do?” it becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” Pastors all over the country impute this kind of moral authority where God has not granted it.  That is idolatry. But idolatry or not, many people thought they were taking back the country for God on January 6. I suspect some Representatives think breaking the House is a small price to pray for returning America to its “calling.”

Biden's visit to Israel yields no quick fixes: ANALYSIS - ABC News

Biden and Netanyahu: a meeting of the chosen peoples

Equating the state of Israel and the United States with the Bible’s description of the “chosen people” is not only heretical, it is dangerous.

Nevertheless, the idea is laced into the country’s thinking and maybe yours. Dallas Jenkins, the writer and the director ot The Chosen says, when it came time to give the show a title, he decided on the name because of the term “Chosen One” is used when referring to Christ.

“We look at and use the term for Christ as the ‘Chosen One. ‘ So, it refers to Christ in many ways. The Jews are God’s chosen people. Even as an Evangelical, I believe that. And the people that Christ chose to follow Him and be on his team – as we like to say – it’s a little bit of a nod to that.”

What if you take that farther and apply Israel’s Old Testament, land-based assumptions to preserving a Christian nation-state?

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)

For many Evangelicals, the U.S. is Israel 2.0. The countries are team mates making sure history turns out right.

The state of Israel translates  its choseness as a right to exist, which Hamas decries. Radically religious Israeli settlers are willing to risk their lives to secure Abraham’s patrimony. The mostly-secular states of the U.S. and Israel are absolutely committed to securing the safety of the Jewish state, even though it has a diverse population that includes Palestinian Christians, both in Israel, and the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The religion involved in all this political turmoil is ancient and complex. But the sense of chosenness is clear.  Biden promoted his “arsenal of democracy” as an expression of the obligation of being chosen  in his speech. He spoke of the “iron dome” protecting Israel as if it were sacred.

Reclaim being chosen

Psychologically and spiritually, we need help to be sure we are chosen, which always needs to be metered by our desire for the Chooser. Like with sex, we can settle for pleasure and never make the vulnerable connection of love. Being chosen can stay dangerously superficial, attached to whoever has enough power to protect their special status. But that quest for power never satisfies our desire to feel chosen, which requires an ongoing experience of mutuality. We wake up every day wondering if we are wanted, together, and safe. Against our best interests, we might defend our chosenness against anything that threatens our status, but that usually leaves us alone behind our defenses, insecure about being chosen.

The powers that have corrupted God’s gift of being chosen cause us great misery. I keep pondering the irony of the “great Christian nation” firmly supporting Israel’s recent bombs on the Christians of Palestine. The dissonance flabbergasts a doctor at the only Christian hospital in Gaza, which provided shelter to people until it proved unsafe. [Link in case the embed does not show up]

In the middle of the power struggles of the world the upstart, crowd-funded TV series The Chosen reasserts what it means to be chosen over and over. It is an obscure, overtly Christian show that doesn’t deserve to get made or be popular itself! But there it is. When it depicts Matthew chosen by Jesus to become his disciple (in the following clip), it gives me hope that many, if not most, Christians understand the Bible and feel the truth about being chosen in their very bones.

 

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.

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. 

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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?

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.”

The sad history of Christians co-opted by the powerful

The good things Jesus creates and recreates in the world are always threatened by some power that wants to co-opt them or just eliminate their alternativity. The history of the church being co-opted keeps repeating itself.

Way back in 1990 I had the amazing privilege to travel to Honduras and El Salvador with MCC where I met some Jesus followers who were hard to co-opt. It was the first of several immersion trips that have changed and enriched my life. The visit took place two years before the civil war in El Salvador (1969-92) officially ended, and ten years after Oscar Romero was martyred. It was less than a year after six Jesuit priests were murdered for speaking out against the government of El Salvador and advocating for the poor.

Jon Sobrino in 2015

On the trip I met the seventh priest, Jon Sobrino, who had been teaching missionary students in Thailand about liberation theology when his housemates and caretakers were attacked and killed. He was gracious, sober, and still grieving the loss. When he heard we were Americans, before long he said, “I can never go there again.” He had recently been interviewed on U.S. TV about the scandalous actions of the death squad. “It is too, debilitating, too tempting” he said, or something to that effect. “It is a spiritual desert which thinks it is an oasis.” Sobrino could not be co-opted by the media machine, or wealthy donors, or the colossally power. But people tried to exploit him for his story, to reduce his suffering to “news.”

Ever since then, he has been an inspiration for soul-keeping for me, as in “What does it profit you to gain the whole world, at the cost of your soul?” I wish for you the same conviction and courage Sobrino continues to display.

In the history of Christianity, it is amazing how the best people are often co-opted by the established powers: the government, the media, corporations, the church, etc. They lose the battle Sobrino has regularly won. They bend their freedom to the rules. They dim their inspiration for the fearful. They lose their courage in the face of the gullible herd. They let their joy be stolen and their best selves conformed and compromised. Or they just get rolled over, as many would say is just what happened to Jesus.

I’m especially thinking of two of my favorite examples from the past: Teresa of Kolkata and Francis of Assisi. I’ll mention the Evangelicals, too. The movement Francis led (d. 1226 at the beginning of European capitalism) is quickly taken over and neutered by the church even before he dies. Teresa (d. 1997 during the flowering of neoliberalism) is boxed like another brand by the media machine and I think the exposure dims her light. The American Evangelical church plummeted in influence and authority when it was co-opted by the empire’s ways and means, especially during the pandemic. It’s division into “left” and “right” has to be one of the main reasons there are more “nones” than white Evangelicals for he first time this year.

Teresa

Mother Teresa’s media presence was wildly successful in raising consciousness and funding her work. But I still wonder if her conversion of the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was also a means of him converting her, too. His book Something Beautiful for God (1971) still sells over 100 copies a month in its “beatification edition” from 2003! He was a boon to her and she to him, as far as making money goes.

I love how she gets her message out. But I wonder what the screen is doing to her: the faux intimacy, the chattiness, the objectification and reductionism. Perhaps her faith transcends the screen. Or maybe the screen reduces it to another story in its world of truthiness. Here is an example of her on screen with Muggeridge from 1971. [link]

Francis

In 1266, a generation after St. Francis died, the general chapter meeting in Paris ordered Franciscans everywhere to destroy their writings about Francis written before the minister general’s, that is Bonaventure’s, new biography was published. It was a breathtaking attempt to “control the narrative.” Twenty years earlier, the chapter had asked people who had known Francis to write down all their memories, which they did, copies of which survived the purge. These surviving records are what Jean Paul Sabatier rediscovered and included in his biography of Francis in 1894. I recently read an annotated version by John Sweeny: The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis: 120th Anniversary Edition. It is an inspiring and sobering book.

Francis died a sad, transcendent man. His prolonged stay in Syria after inserting himself into the battles of the Fifth Crusade, created a rumor he was dead and caused a brother to go find him.  Upon his return, Francis found the “Cardinal Protector” of the Franciscans, Ugolino di Conti (later Pope Gregory IX) had imposed the Benedictine rule on Clare’s community and influenced the men Francis left in charge to loosen their vow of poverty and act more like other monks.

Sabatier says:

It was the first movement of the old spirit against the new. It was the effort of people who unconsciously, I am willing to assume, made religion an affair of rite and observance, instead of seeing it, like St. Francis, as the conquest of freedom that makes us free in all things. This is the freedom that leads each soul to obey the divine and mysterious power that the flowers in the field adore, that the birds of the air bless, that the symphony of the stars praises, and that Jesus of Nazareth called Abba, or, Father.

For the last five ears of his life Francis endured the incremental co-option of his brotherhood into the orders of the church, their freedom mediated by the Pope. By the time of Bonaventure, his life was a glorious but impractical relic. Sick, exhausted, and leaning into death, bearing the wounds of stigmata, Francis began to move toward his desired resting place at Portiuncula. He said good-bye to Mt. Verna and spent time recuperating at San Damiano with Clare’s community. As he gained strength there, he composed the famous “Canticle of the Sun.” Here are the SVD Brothers and their recent version. [link]

Just four years after Francis dictated his last will and died, Pope Gregory declared the Brothers Minor were not bound to observe it. His reinterpretation of the rule Francis never wanted to write, resulted in a divided order: the “Brothers of the Common Observance” and the “Spirituals.” The latter were disciplined and one was even killed for wanting to be a Francis-like Franciscan. Francis’ first disciple, Bernard of Quintavalle, went into hiding for two years as he was being hunted.

Evangelicals

You may see your own experience in the lives of these saints. You may have tried on a simple faith and watched it eroded by the ways of the world. You may have been in a freedom-feeling community and watched it driven into the divisions of politics and power-seeking. I have experienced several versions of those ills. Next year I expect a book to come out that recounts the life and transition of a church I loved and led for decades. In some sense, I think it may be the same old story.

The Evangelicals, as a movement, began with a fervor for truth and a passion for evangelism. They made a huge difference in the world and continue to do so. But then Jerry Falwell (d. 2007) and others decided they needed to “take back” America. I think, as Sabatier might, they did that because America had taken them back. Their conformity to the ways to the empire led Falwell’s descendants to back the godless Trump to lead them. And their leaders have become more Trumpy ever since.

I keep asking Francis’ question these days, “Who are you Lord? And who am I?” I still burst into songs in the sunlight. I still feel my freedom in Christ and exercise it. I still care about and care for the poor. But am I just a part of the American story? Just another part of the news cycle? Did the powers succeed in taking over and ordering my world? Do I despair of an alternative now that an author will consign my past to history, into some reduction, like Bonaventure tried to do with Francis? We need to keep praying those questions.

Meanwhile, Jon Sobrino keeps getting disciplined by Rome for sticking with his decidedly anti-establishment teaching, saying things like,

[R]eality is known—in this case oppression and liberation, suffering and hope—in the disposition of taking charge of these realities in a praxis (en la disposición a
encargarse de ellas en una praxis), to carry these realities (a cargar con ellas)—running risks and the persecution that reality generates—and shouldering the weight of these realities (dejándose cargar por ellas)—accepting gratefully the kindness, generosity, and solidarity that there is in reality, and above all in the underside of history.

Jesus, Teresa, and Francis all built an alternative from the underside of history. No matter how many times those kind of people get rolled over, they are likely to rise again. Brother stone will cry out in praise or sister bird will sing the truth if the humans are silenced. But the Spirit incarnate in the body of Christ is hard to control for long. I don’t think the powers will keep it down. The creation will have to keep groaning as God awaits the next outburst of the light of the world from the Lord’s co-workers.