Deep unto deep calls out
at the sound of Your channels.
All Your breakers and waves have surged over me.
By day the Lord ordains His kindness
and by night His song is with me –-
prayer to the God of my life. (Robert Alter)
My Psalm this morning came after pondering the portion of Psalm 42, above.
Thank you for helping me turn, Lord —
turning: the base skill of spiritual health,
turning: the squeal of worn-out ball bearings
under the faulty drum of my inner washing machine,
turning: the painful choice to stop looking
at the past as if it were not over
but ready to click into the spin cycle and wring me out.
We don’t need to be in the churn of Psalm 42, do we?
What will it be when deep calls to deep today?
The psalmist probably meant
“’Chaos calls to chaos!’
I am stuck in the primordial soup
waiting for ‘Let there be light,’
for life to blow into my nostrils of mud.
The optimistic kataphatics
hear the depth of God calling to the depths of them.
Those “waterfalls and waves”
are a mindful trip to Bali
floating on a calm sea of love.
I always seem to start out in the churn
(only the faithful dare to look into the abyss),
but here I am longing for the turn.
Mindful or mindless, I hold this in my heart.
From the old RSV:
“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love;
and by night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.”
From the new VOICE:
“Yet in the light of day, the Eternal shows me his love.
When night settles in and all is dark, He keeps me company —
His soothing song, a prayerful melody to the True God of my life.”
I will try not to toggle today Lord,
wobbling and banging like an overfilled washer
then floating on a sea of forgetfulness and wonder —
the twain rarely meeting.
I will have joy in one hand and suffering in the other
and turn into the song of eternity in me and ahead of me.
Help me listen
and listen again…
and turn and turn into your song,
even turn round right.
The other night in our spiritual direction group, I started us off with a classic worship song by Marcos Witt:
Tu fidelidad es grande
Tu fidelidad incomparable es
Nadie como tú, bendito Dios
Grande es tu fidelidad
Your faithfulness is great Your faithfulness is incomparable. No one is like you, blessed God. Great is your faithfulness.
It is a simple truth on which to meditate and with which to worship. You might like to experience how he uses the song to lift up a crowd at one of his events.
I love how he builds the experience with just a few simple lines everyone can learn, remember, and then use by the time the arc of the song has been completed. I imagine the writer of Lamentations 3:23 would approve. Maybe the original was a song, as well! When we sing along, we are entering an eternal now which erases the divisions of time, culture and label.
I had never heard of Marcos Witt until last month when the New York Times offered a feature article about him [link]. I do not live in an Evangelical or Spanish-speaking world, so there might be all sorts of amazing things I am missing.
Marcos Witt appears to be quite amazing. He has been on a year long swing through the U.S as part of his América Ora y Adora (America Prays and Adores) tour, which began in spring 2022. It looks like they are going to finish up on September 9 in Washington D.C., if you want to go. The tour is an attempt to undo the divisions in the church. But it also looks like a victory lap for Witt who has had a very successful ministry, beginning with introducing “Praise and Worship” music from the 1970’s to Spanish speakers everywhere.
Most Americans have never heard of him, but Witt estimates that over the past 40 years he has sold roughly 27 million copies of his albums worldwide. He has sold out arenas in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Santiago, São Paulo, San Salvador, Miami and Los Angeles. He has won six Latin Grammy Awards, including one last year for his 34th solo album, “Viviré” (“I Will Live”). In the early 2000’s He built one of the largest Spanish-speaking churches in U.S. as part of Lakewood Church in Houston (also famous because of Joel Osteen).
He told the interviewer, “My music carries the breath of God. Through our songs, God is hugging on people.”
The hug of God
You could use the hug of God right now.
Doesn’t everyone need the hug of God? I will not enumerate every way the world seems to be an overwhelming mess right now. I will just offer one frightening piece of news from Senator Murphy of Connecticut, who has a bipartisan bill to address how algorithms are making kids desperately unhappy [link]. The kids really need a hug from the risen Lord and their present parents.
In just our little group the other night, worries and challenges piled up quickly. Our capacity to listen to God and one another seemed a bit weak for everything we faced. But by the end of our all-too-brief time, our confidence and trust were deepened, just like moving through Tu Fidelidad. Our hearts were enlivened and I think we felt more able to go out and do some hugging ourselves.
If you can’t find a church that makes sense to you, try to find a couple of people to hang on to, even to hug, in this wild time we are in. If you can’t quite get into relationship with Jesus followers, at least begin to renew you relationship with God. Senator Murphy notwithstanding, there are many apps that will help you stream “praise and worship” songs, like this one from Google Play. You might try that on for a new discipline. Recorded and remastered music is a step removed, of course, from the real connections we crave. But I think the Holy Spirit can use your attention to bring you into the spiritual hug you need the most. We’ve all got to keep trying.
It is a trying time. We are challenged. But we can meet the challenge. We don’t know the future, but we do know that God will be faithful to us until the end of time and beyond. Let’s sink into that before all we can think and feel about is how we might be sinking otherwise.
This was a message for the church in September of 2001, not long after 9/11
It happened again. I sat in front of MTV gape-jawed the other day. I flipped to it during the commercials on another channel and I happened upon a new video of an Elton John song called “I Want Love.”
I admit, I am regularly tormented by MTV, but I don’t think I have ever seen or heard such a misleading, stick-in-your-head little pop poem as this song — and Elton is probably scheduled to perform it at the Kimmel Arts Center when he’s over there to help open it in December! I’m almost afraid to play it for you, but I have to. Because we need to be able to differentiate between the love of Christ and this false love Elton is overwhelmed by. And even though our scripture is not speaking directly about this tonight, at the base of what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 3 is his own torment about the plight of the Elton Johns of the world and their influence. Listen to cravings Elton describes as he sings through the vacant eyes of Robert Downey Jr.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin are probably writing about the “love” of drugs and how the obsession with them kills people on the inside with easy ecstasy. Robert Downey Jr. had about ruined his career with drug use and this video is the start of his resurrection. Maybe all the MTV viewers get this backstory, but I am afraid more of them admired the song for “owning” the “reality” of being isolated from true love and being “brave” about it, as follows:
I want love on my own terms. Don’t be nice to me because I can’t feel anything. I’m dead in places where other people are liberated. Don’t make me submit to anything. Don’t ask me to be surrounded by anything. It is what it is.
That’s the kind of I-want-it-the-way-I-want-it “love” scaring Paul when he is writing to the Corinthian church. In chapter 13 he gives them a little love song of his own, which is a worthy alternative to Elton’s. But here, in chapter 3, he is just trying to get people to look at the symptoms of caving-in to what is worst about us as people. He is not judging people, or saying we should never struggle, he’s just trying to get the love of Jesus at the center of inevitable troubles we face and cause.
Elton’s kind of “love,” the kind of relating he’s describing, kills souls, as I think Elton knows. He can see it makes him dead in places where other men feel liberated. I see that kind of unlove killing whole churches which should be all about liberation. When struggle turns to strife and trouble turns to trauma, we’re into the kind of thinking and acting that killed Jesus. Thank God Jesus rises again! That’s chapter 15.
So let’s check out 1 Corinthians 3. Here’s an outline of what Paul is saying to them, and, by extension, to us:
The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (1-4)
So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (5-17)
To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (18-23)
The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (vv. 1-4)
Paul says (I’m paraphrasing):
“People, I won’t talk to you as if you are spiritual because you are worldly–mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, because you weren’t ready for solids yet. And you apparently are still not ready. You’re still stuck in pre-Jesus habits of the heart. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not just like the world has always been? Are you not acting like humans out of relationship with God? When one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ what’s new about you?”
Can we agree on this? Jealousy and strife are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. One thing, among many things, that has really made me stop and think since September 11 is that many people are amazed that anyone could hate the U.S. so much as to bomb the Trade Centers. It is as if seeing people fight each other surprises them; it’s as if they missed the history of the last century. It is like they never heard themselves going off on their children, or never had anyone go off on them, or never stopped talking to someone because they would just as soon they moved away and were never heard from again. It is like they didn’t know that thousands of children die each day of starvation because no one cares for them. It is like they never heard of the Native American eradication project in the 1800’s in our own country.
We can be so blind. We really need a savior. Jealousy and quarreling should surprise no one. They are our mother’s milk. Most of us think fighting our rivals is an essential way to get justice, even as a way to have a self. We don’t think anything bad is happening among us sometimes, because we think it is “normal.” But it kills us and it kills the church.
The whole point of being the church is to undo this “carnality, this being-a-human-without-God-lifestyle” in us. The love of Jesus is at work among us to free us from being stuck in the world-as-usual. Paul is telling these good people that the rivalries they think are normal and right are going to kill their church. They will close the door to the Holy Spirit in their hearts and close the door to the Holy Spirit in the midst of them as a church if they keep it up. We need to be open to the Spirit of God to feel anything but we are pitted against this group, or excluded from that group, or suspicious or jealous of that group.
We have a lot of love here, but you can see how much we need the Holy Spirit of God as people assess their rivals and feel jealous or opposed to others. Just listen to some innuendo or actual quotes I’ve heard lately:
The artists in our church don’t care about racial reconciliation. Center City people talk about living simply but they obviously don’t. I haven’t been to worship in ages because there aren’t any good churches in Philadelphia. A few people in the church make all the decisions. I’m not in a cell because I doubt that people would be deep enough to handle how I share my soul. I’m not going clear up to Germantown. No one goes there. I don’t fit in because everyone is so young. I don’t fit because everyone is a Democrat. I don’t fit in because I am not such an evangelical Christian.
It goes on.
I don’t know whether those things are true or not. But I do know they cause strife. You may have gotten a little steam building up in you just thinking someone said one of them. They make for quarreling. And I know, even deeper, that they are often spoken under the spell of jealousy.
Jealousy is hostility toward someone, often a knee-jerk feeling about a rival who seems to have an advantage over you. I think we are all born jealous of God’s advantage over us. Jealousy let loose in God’s church, where the Holy Spirit resides, is a disaster. It is the anti-love that acts like a computer worm taking over your reactions. Jealousy makes you suspicious, it makes you guarded and defensive. Jealousy makes you competitive, makes your rivalries more important than your contribution to building community. Jealousy makes what others seem to have and what you lack the most important thing to you.
Paul says, “I can’t even talk about God to you! When you pass the division test, maybe we can get somewhere. But as long as jealousy is making you all rivals and not family, we’re back at square one, and even that square is in danger.”
So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (vv. 5-17)
This is the idea: God is reclaiming the world from the wilderness. In Jesus, he is the sower, seeds are growing, and the farm is being tilled in territory that was once overgrown with weeds, infested and unproductive. It is like God’s farm, the earth, was overtaken by the jungle, like one of those Mayan cities in Yucatan that Gwen and I saw. One temple near Copan was so covered by vegetation that it looked like steep hill, not a pyramid (like in the pic). The Corinthian church is like part of God’s farm that has been placed back in cultivation and it is growing good things. Paul says, you’ve got to keep it free of weeds. Rivalry is like kudzu. It takes you over. It tangles you up and chokes out love. If you are one of those people who are forming a group around yourself, or even if you just are stubborn enough to want “love” the way you want it, you are like some big thistle of division planted in the middle of everyone’s life.
There is a lot more in these verses we could learn about, but the main thing I want to emphasize is this picture of what life is all about, because farming with God is what our church is all about. Farming is such a great organic picture and we want to thrive with the life of the Spirit growing in us. Being God’s farm is what being a cell, being a congregation and being a network of congregations is all about.
Let’s concentrate on the small group, the cell. Being God’s farm is what a cell is all about. We were discussing this at our meeting the other night. We aren’t similar people in our cell. Some of us would be natural rivals. But we are together because our common faith and love has given us this radical notion that we can grow something new in the world. It crosses divisions. We are God’s fellow-workers in this. So take note about how you relate to cells. If you like to go there and argue so you can feel like someone, you could be a weed. If you want them to give you love the way you want it and get mad if they disappoint you, you could be a thistle. If you can’t even get next to a group of people face to face at all and love them for Jesus sake and for the sake of reclaiming the farm with him, you may need to check out how he wants you to get involved another way.
To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (vv. 18-23)
Paul thinks his argument is pretty compelling. And don’t misunderstand him, he writes in a particular style that seems sort of combative. But it is just a style. He’s trying to get across God’s heart, not just win an argument. He says, in essence: If you are hearing me, if you agree that division kills and God has a plan for his farm, then, let’s give up the rivalries! All things are ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Peter or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are ours. We are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
Jesus has opened up the way to eternity. The best is ours — even the best of these different groups in Corinth, the best of Paul or Apollos or Peter, or whoever or whatever, is ours. We don’t have to fight for it. God is delivering what is best to us. He started by giving himself in His son.
I think this is a profound way to live and I am trying to go with it. For instance: Periodically people ask me “what are you guys?” Maybe they mean, “What denomination are you against?” If they wonder if we are Presbyterians, I say, “Basically.” Baptists? “Of course.” Pentecostal? “Yes.”
When I answer that way I am not being cute, because all are mine. One woman asked me if I were a priest. “Pastor” didn’t make any sense to her. So I finally said, “Sure, I’m sort of a priest.” I am of Christ. Who cares about being this or that other, I have the best of them all.
We are looking to be the new humanity without race or class, where there is no Jew or Arab, low-class or high-class, majority or minority, male or female, simple-liver or entrepreneur but Christ is all and is in all. In our church, where Jesus is in his temple, we are trying to get our minds and hearts around something bigger and deeper. Sometimes we call it the “both/and,” but that is too philosophical. In Christ it is just all – no balance necessary because Jesus personally holds everything together in love.
I don’t know what all this is meaning “practically” to you.
I at least think it should mean you look around the room tonight with Jesus eyes rather than the old, killer-instinct eyes of sorting out your rivals.
We should at least ask ourselves if we can pass a basic division test to see if we are more than just pre-Jesus humans.
At best it could practically mean that we can all breathe easier, now. We’ve got it all. All we can do is get better at accessing all that God is trying to get to us.
So we can let go of that painful, disappointing process of trying to find ourselves in comparison to another person, for better or worse. And we can stop trying to get for ourselves the life that God is desperate to give to us. We’ve got it. Connected to Jesus we have access to all of it, and it is just going to get more complete. I want that love.
As I rummaged around in past messages I prepared for the church, I came across this one from 2000 focusing on Francis of Assisi and building a church of “living stones.” My interest was heightened because I am reading a classic book about him: The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis. I thought you might like to be reminded of him, too. In these days of strained community, he is an inspiration.
Francis of Assisi and others who went before him in what is called the “monastic movement” became strange mentors to me as a follower of Jesus. Francis’ life and his legacy, in particular, reached across 700 years and lit a fire in me that hasn’t died out yet. I read a book about him once called The Last Christian and I can appreciate what the author was saying. He had a very passionate, New Testament, close to the earth, filled-with-the-Spirit kind of life.
In his early twenties Francis liberally used his privilege as a rich man’s son, and was quite the life of the party in Assisi. He was known for his poetry, songs, and for leading the scandalous line dance called the farandole. Call it unfortunate or blessed, he and his friends made up a generation of young warriors who were sent off by their fathers to pillage a neighboring walled city. The war, and Francis’ sickness (or was it a desertion?), left him a changed young man.
In the middle of his desperation, God somehow revealed himself. She didn’t reveal herself through the church — the institution which had blessed the war and received the spoils. It was through nature. Whenever you see a lawn ornament of Saint Francis (and I have one in my living room, if you’d like to), there is always a bird perched on him somewhere and often a bunny at his feet. That’s much cuter than necessary, since his most spectacular association with animals is with a man-eating wolf. But it is a reminder that he sort of got the message straight from God, through the sun, moon, stars, fire and water.
In my twenties I discovered a movie about St. Francis that brought him home to me even more. The 1970’s was a time when a lot of people were acting out how sick they were of their parents’ materialism and war, and a lot of them were again finding Jesus outside the established church. I was very influenced by the whole movement of the Spirit that was going on. Then I saw this movie that put it all together for me. Here was the Francis, about whom I’d read, in a movie directed by Franco Zeffirelli with a lot of hippie trappings called Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
But it wasn’t just the cool-at-the-time packaging of Francis that got to me, it was the timeless content. The word of Jesus breathed truth into the first century, into the 1200’s, and into 1975, and the Spirit of God is doing it today. I hope the following clip from the movie helps draw you into what God is doing in every age.
In this scene, Francis quotes from our scripture for today from 1 Peter. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” After Francis left his parents to live free as a beggar, he heard a message from God, “Rebuild my church.” He took this message quite literally and started rebuilding a run-down church building out in the country. As Zeffirelli tells it (and who knows exactly how something happened in the 12th century?) Francis’ old drinking buddies and friends began to come looking for him. They found him doing this project. In the clip we’re going to see, one of his future main men, Bernardo, comes to see him. Bernardo has just returned from the Crusades and is disillusioned. He has a choice to make – follow his desire to be real, or get roped into the politics and power-grabbing of the powers that be.
During their conversation, Francis apparently begins to see that the idea of rebuilding the church is not much about buildings at all, it is about people built into a spiritual house. It is about a new community based on Jesus and his ways, not just on his own personal convictions about rejecting the ways of the world. You can see the light dawn as Francis talks to Bernardo about a building stone he’d like to have. Bernardo gets the idea that the cornerstone he’s talking about just might be himself.
Obviously, it is a very European message coming from this movie. At the time of Francis there were already a world-full of acceptable versions and depths of Christianity around. I don’t think one size fits all. Sentiments from medieval Europe may not play too well in Asia or Texas or even in my neighborhood. But in every culture and every style of thinking, I believe Peter is saying the same thing. It is the same thing Francis heard, that Bernardo heard, that I hope you will dare to hear again tonight. It is the bookend phrases of our passage tonight. Very simple:
As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him– you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
The living stone rejected
Jesus rejected, Francis rejected, Bernardo getting on the wrong side of Emperor Otto of Brunswick, you chosen by God but rejected by people — this is normative. Followers of Jesus inevitably are called out of the world as it is, as it lives without Jesus as king, and they are built into what amounts to a countercultural community – not anti-cultural or supra-cultural community, just a group of strange people. People filled with eternity are foreigners in this passing away world. Whenever the body of Christ gets comfortable in the easy chair of any culture, it loses its heart. If it isn’t strange to the world it is strange to God.
It is so hard to be strange, that evangelists have often offered workarounds. In Mexico they made it easy for Aztecs to follow Jesus by amalgamating European saints to Aztec gods. In the U.S. they made the church as individualistic as the Declaration of Independence and as bottom-line-oriented as our brand of capitalism. Presenting Jesus in the robes of any culture, kills the whole thing, as far as I can see. I tie my heart together with the people all through the history of the church who have gathered together around Jesus to listen to him, no matter what habits they had from the culture they came from. They did not hate themselves or their ancestry; they just loved Jesus more. Jesus is transcultural – he’s alive in all cultures and subject to none. That’s what I hope you will go for, too.
Peter teaches like we are his family or comrades:
Brothers and sisters, my friends,we were chosen, made alive, and we are being built into the place where the Spirit of God lives. We are the people of God, now. We received his mercy. It makes us strange. So come out that world and don’t go back to be it. When you interact, love it like God does, and to call people into life with you.
This scripture has huge implications, but two main ones stick out.
We all need to keep letting our minds get changed about who we are.
This is the main thing a culture defines for you – who you are. Culture is just “how we do things, what kind of people we are.” So we say, “I am an American. We know we organize our country around the pursuit of profit and property. We die for individual freedom. Etc.
But the main thing Jesus defines for you is also – who am I? I am a child of God, a member of his family, a part of his household. I am a citizen of the kingdom. I am a valued part of the body of Christ. This mercy I have received demands a response. Etc.
Our pre-Jesus culture and the desires it built into us, needs to get subordinated to the king. There’s a big interior process that needs to keep maturing.
How we decide what to do needs to be transformed, too.
What we do gets launched from our identities as one of the people of God. We are not just our own. We were bought by Jesus and we were transferred to his kingdom and we were given an assignment in the family business. It isn’t all about you; it is also all about God and all of us. That’s going to make a big difference in how you spend your time and decide your schedule. When we decide what to do, we will consider the people of God in general, and the people of God specific – our Church and our church.
Some people see this as an imposition on their freedom, if they still see life as coming from themselves instead of from God and through his body. They make transactions with their time and resources between the church and themselves because the church is something and they are something else.
But once we were no people, but now we are the people of God; that truth demands attention. We have the constant challenge of seeing how we, in union with God, interact as a body and interface with the people we meet — especially those driven by society meeting the undriven.
I’m boiling down a huge discussion topic, maybe you should talk about it in your cells again. I just hope you get this. We are into something new, strange, other-worldly and laced with the Spirit of God. It feels real to me, and exciting, like I found a piece of meat I could really sink my teeth into (apologies to vegetarians). Peter is talking about life with substance, real people, being the real people of God with Jesus in their midst. I’m as hungry for that as Francis ever was.
I think the communion table is the perfect symbol at the center of this countercultural community that God keeps forming in every era and in every territory and tribe that will welcome him. Tonight we are very much a community gathered around Jesus. As we hand one another bread and then the cup we reaffirm that our desires have been freed from sin and the bondage of living without God in the world, and as we take the body and blood of Jesus from one another we are reaffirming that we are the people of God, one with the whole body throughout the world and throughout time, and one with one another, especially, face-to-face.
Many towns in the United States claim they invented Memorial Day after the horrible Civil War, from which the country has never recovered, I’d say. All over the nation, graves were growing uncared for and many people thought that was shameful. Within 30 years the government made Decoration Day into a national holiday. It was placed at the end of May when flowers are in bloom everywhere.
Roughly 2% of the U.S. population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty during the Civil War. Taken as a percentage of today’s population, the toll would have risen as high as six million people.
There are many people to remember on Memorial Day. It is hard to get a hold on just how many there are!
Most record keepers suggest that about 75 million people worldwide died in World War 2, including about 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians. Many civilians died because of deliberate genocide, massacres, mass-bombings, disease, and starvation.
America has been in 19 known wars since World War 2. But just remember the death toll from three of the bloodiest conflicts: The Korean War, The Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The total death toll of people killed by American troops in all these wars put together is over 12 million.
Our war weapons are used on our own own citizens, too.
This week last year, the sad facts of Memorial Day were heightened when we heard about 18 year old Pedro Ramos, who shot his grandmother in the face after they argued over how he did not graduate from high school. He then took his two legally purchased AR-15 automatic weapons to Robb Elementary and shot 36 people, mostly children in two adjoining classrooms, killing 21.
You probably don’t remember the details. There is a year-full of subsequent shootings. As of the end of April this year, in just four months, there have been 185 mass shootings in the U.S. (using the definition of 4 or more people shot in one incident). 254 people died. 708 were wounded. Untold numbers were traumatized.
I often say, “How could someone do that?” But there are many terrible reasons. They are not all personal. Pedro Ramos lived in a country in which leaders of his state tenaciously protected his freedom to buy an automatic weapon in the name of freedom. He lived in a country which is committed to spending, if I calculated the unfathomable right, about $26,000 a second in 2023 to maintain by far the largest military in the world to protect Pedro Ramos’ freedom. You can do your own moral math about that and watch the country refight the civil war on the “news.”
New victims to memorialize
I want to spend my Memorial Day tears on placing symbolic flowers on the graves of people killed in Uvalde on May 24, 2022. I know the survivors are more overwhelmed by their losses than I can imagine, even a year later. But I can imagine a lot.
Lord, I pause the fun at the lake. I dare to look at my lively grandkids. I force myself to look at the numbers, at the evil statistics too horrible to know.
I will ask for forgiveness later. But first I examine the sin, the heartbreak, the wounds reopened every second with every dollar spent on power, spent on the mistaken notion the right to kill makes Pedro Ramos free, like he must have thought.
Ten year old Nevaeh Bravo. Her name was heaven spelled backward.
Nine year old Jacklyn Cazares. Her first communion picture was offered to the press.
Ten year old Makenna Elrod. Four sisters and three brothers will never forget.
Ten year old Manuel Flores. His mother said, “He was very good with babies.”
Irma Garcia had taught at Robb for 23 years. Two days after her death her husband died of heart failure. Their children were told mom was seen shielding her students.
Ten year old Maile Rodriguez. She died helping others to safely hide.
There are more Lord. Always more. We are overwhelmed with more. You bear the overwhelming sins of the world.
No amount of decoration on graves will conceal the hideous truth. Humanity chooses power over love, even makes you a warrior God instead of a suffering servant.
Can you forgive us who rarely forgive? Can you save us who believe AR-15s save?
Not long after I spent a few minutes staring at this amazing piece of art in the sumptuous Seville Cathedral, I popped into a neighborhood church on the way to more gelato. Unlike how I imagine frustrated Francis patiently enduring his place in the wall of a treasure house, treasuring a lost bird winging through the air near the ceiling, and seeing Christ in the hordes of tourists, I felt a bit too much bite and bile rise up in reaction to the state of the church — my church, and God’s.
This dashed-off psalm down the road by the pool reflects my examination.
An instinctive turn into the church:
Sevillans are intoning a rosary.
The leader gives a glance to verify
We are invisible tourists.
I make my companion sit with me:
Sevillans creating a foreign atmosphere,
Making a world for the initiated.
I get through a cycle and leave.
Out on the sidewalk I speak softly,
A sotto voce of contempt lest they hear,
“That’s a good reason for the church to die.”
I am self-righteously upset.
I am right again. So right. So right.
But my scorn is also a good reason
For your beleaguered Church to die.
I kick its last leg in the shin.
Every time I wander here, I lament
When the baroque church was powerful,
When they got a cut the land and gold
From which I still benefit.
They spread out art in every corner of each town:
Brilliant details amplify your honor and glory
With the ill-gotten gains of thieves and murderers.
I inherited murderous thoughts.
I am instinctively turning into this psalm,
Into a place outside my bite and bile.
If for just a moment, I am freed by worship
As my heart sees the invisible.
One of the most memorable “characters” in the wacky Disney Nutcracker (2018) is the Mouse King. For one thing, it is a technical marvel. MPC, the animation wizards, crafted hundreds of individual mice which they then combined into a oversized monster that could ooze around humans, robots and CGI scenery.
But the Mouse King is also memorable as a fascinating idea. When I was praying, the idea came to me as I sifted through lost and longed-for loves — my own loves and those my clients recount. I thought, “Love is like the Mouse King.”
We wish love were bigger
What I mean is, just like the wicked Mouse King is a conglomeration of many little mice, the big love we long for could be a collection of the little loves presently offered to us. The one with eyes to see, let them see.
As I prayed, I felt lonely and unloved. But I am not, objectively, alone or unloved, so I needed to see what those feelings were all about. They centered on my disappointment over people who were not responding to my attempts to connect and meaningful relationships I felt I had lost. I had a classic moment of eating the holes in the Swiss cheese. I ignored the “cheese” I had for the cheese I desired. You may have developed variations on this theme:
I am not worthy of actual cheese so I make do with holes.
I was deprived of cheese and only understand holes.
I don’t need cheese and am strong enough to live in holes.
I deserve good cheese and no one will give it to me.
Fill in the blank for yourself.
All this is to say, we are hungry for love, for the “cheese” in which we find so many holes, for the main sustenance our souls can’t live without. We usually wish we had more true love in us and coming to us. If only my love were bigger.
Could small loves add up?
Today I got to see a friend’s toddler on Zoom. He barely knew how to wave and wasn’t sure about all those faces, but he waved. Later on, he said in language only his father could understand, “I want more waving.” I said, “That’s worth the effort to get to this meeting!” It was a very little love to receive, but could little loves add up? Could we be more satisfied if we turned into them?
A 2022 movie adapted Sir Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001) for the screen. The film is a funny and sinister take on the Pied Piper of Hamelin story. In it, Pratchett creates another version of a rat king. This monster has a magical ability the draw non-sentient rats to itself. They pulse and bubble under his coat (above). Many little energies produce a potent villain.
I think the same can happen with love. Christians often note this when they bravely say their mustard seed of faith can move a mountain, “If we combine the individual gifts we have, we can change the world!” My small faith, hope and love are not too small to be valuable. In this vein, most Christmas cards should depict God, who is love, being born as a human baby. Amazing things came from that small being! Small loves add up to substantial impact.
I think it is a little easier to see how I am obligated to do the right thing by loving others, even if my love is small. It is harder to see and collect the small loves given by people loving me! (Did you add a bullet point above?). Nevertheless, I think these small-seeming loves combine to form enough love for me to live on. But I will need to have the eyes of my heart open so I can see them. They may seem so small they are invisible!
What’s more, these little loves, even when seen and welcomed, will have to find their way through all my defenses against the terrible feelings I fear connected to not getting enough love. I may have decided long before I had language to think about it, that my mother’s love was too small! I wish we could draw all these loves to us like a Rat King draws rats. But more than one acquaintance has said, “But that would be self-centered, wouldn’t it?” or “Wouldn’t I be taking someone else’s love?” Do you have a reason to stay unloved? Is it “big love or nothing” with you?
Make a list
Even though it seems like a daily battle, I keep trying to receive what I am given, even if I feel it is too small, even if I sometimes give into the temptation to think all I have is holes.
Why don’t you try collecting a bunch of small loves with me and see how you feel? See if they amount to more of what you need. Here’s what I piled up today from the last 24 hours or so:
My friend’s child on screen felt like a small love to me. There were a lot of layers of love in those waves.
My own amazing and devoted children are on my screensaver. I talked to one of those lovers yesterday.
I looked at the painting my granddaughter made and we framed.
My yoga app surprised me with a new soundtrack: birdsong.
New friends invited us over for 70-hour brisket. I don’t know what that is but I already appreciate the effort.
There were a LOT more bullets. I culled my list because I’m sure you get the idea. To NOT come up with a substantial list of your own will take some stubborn resistance on your part, and you may have that, like we all do. But we can overcome our resistance.
Even without God in the world, you’d have small loves all around you leading to the biggest love of all. It is a blessing the whole world shares. But God is born among us every day. Jesus is walking with us. God, who is love, is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. We’re gifted with love moment by moment.
I get a good impression of Jeremy Duncan whenever I meet him at Jesus Collective events. I think he and his crew are doing an inventive and reparative job at Commons Church in Calgary, which he founded. Now he has written an inventive and reparative book called Upside-down Apocalypse: Grounding Revelation in the Gospel of Peace. Once I started it, I could not put it down. What’s more, I could not resist telling anyone who would listen about the book I wish I’d read when I first started getting into the Bible.
If you ever listened to me speak or write when I was a pastor, you didn’t hear too much about the last book in the New Testament: Revelation. I basically assigned it to obscurity in seminary. In high school I read (and was inspired by) a best selling book about Revelation and the “end times” called The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay. It ultimately soured me on the prevailing interpretation of apocalyptic literature among Evangelicals.
Lindsay made a career out of teaching his misreading of the Bible. I was so intrigued by his best-selling first book, I actually looked up the Bible verses he quoted. I discovered that even a cursory reading revealed he was making stuff up. When I read Revelation, I did not understand it well, but I did get the idea it was mainly about encouraging the Jesus-followers of John’s day (and, by extension, me) to hang in there even if the world seemed like a disaster. It did seem like a disaster, but not really for the reasons Lindsay and the Left Behindwriters were popularizing.
Free the Revelation!
I would have done better if I had owned a copy of Pastor Duncan’s book. He articulates what I only suspected and frees Revelation from its bondage in conspiratorial, power-seeking, Empire-spawned speculation. Jarrod McKenna kind of skewers people who get it wrong in the Prologue:
All that Christ embodied and instructed is sidelined with pietistic sincerity as Christians vote, act, and desire for history to side with their end-time speculations. Most telling of all, these so-called revelations don’t reveal but rather obscure Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of the gospels is displaced by diabolical readings of a murderous messiah who saves not with provocative, nonviolent, suffering love but like a Marvel villain wanting to make his enemies bleed.
Duncan brings Jesus out of obscurity and restores his central place in the book of Revelation. Here is his central premise, which you did hear if you ever heard me speak:
If we are going to read the Scriptures well, we need to read them on their terms. And even though the New Testament is written by a collection of authors addressing various contexts, two presuppositions hold all these diverse texts together. First, God is love. And second, the person of Jesus is the closest we will ever come to seeing that love embodied in human history. These are the assumptions that sit behind everything we read in the New Testament, including the book of Revelation.
If you put on this Jesus lens and read Revelation you see the Lord John knew and wrote about in his Gospel and Letters. It is easy to find Him in Revelation, even if you’ve been flooded with the cinematic gore of “end times” hysteria.
Duncan starts by retrieving the word “apocalypse” from its twisted use as a “disaster” or “final reckoning.” As he was doing it, I found myself having a hard time accepting its true meaning. Maybe you were influenced, like I was, by brilliant uses of the corrupted definition like in the movie Apocalypse Now. The opening scene, above, is etched in my memory as an appropriate way to see Vietnam. R.E.M. later similarly protested with “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”
When John titles his prophetic writing Apocalypse he is not talking about a huge crisis or the end of the world. The word means the “uncovering of something hidden.” An apocalypse, Duncan says, tells us two things: “First, there is more to the story, and second, the more will change everything we thought we knew.”
John uses the common form of apocalyptic literature and, first, turns it upside down to fit how Jesus turns the common imagination of God upside down. “Jesus shows us the complete nonviolence of a God who would rather endure death than inflict it,” Duncan says. The second way John uses the form for his own ends is to reveal Christ, to give witness to “the unveiling of Jesus’s victory that turns our expectations of power upside down, replacing them with divine renewal.”
Reassert the structure.
Like I told you, I did not study Revelation too hard, so I am glad Jeremy did. One of my big takeaways from his book centers on how John’s prophecy is actually structured. It is usually seen as a linear story leading from the present and looking into the future, right up to the end of time. But as early as 270 A.D. Victorinus taught the book was synchronous, not successive. Like the Hebrew prophets often do, John tells one story three times, with an expanding scope: local, national and cosmic.
John borrows his structure from the book of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, he starts small and builds from the lived experience of individuals. Duncan sees the synchronous stories as three “rounds.”
The first roundopens with seven letters to seven churches, “addressing everyday experiences of injustice and anxiety and Christ’s call to live with each other well.” Like the other rounds, it begins with a vision and ends with Jesus enthroned in the world:
To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (3:21)
In the second round, John pushes out the story further. Like in the first round (1:10), the second round begins with John “in the Spirit” in 4:2, receiving his further word from the Lord. If Jesus is Lord, that understanding does not stop at the heart level; it must change society, too. Directly opposed to the wicked Roman emperor, Domitian (ruled 81-96 AD), a wounded lamb comes to sit on the throne.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.”
Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing,
“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign. (11:15-17)
Our worship leader had us singing with those elders on Easter Sunday last week.
In the third roundthe camera is pulled back to view the whole cosmos as God sets her sites on the final defeat of evil. At 11:18 the final cycle begins. At that point, the nations are angry over the reign of God. Just like when the rulers killed Jesus, there is a contest between God and those who destroy creation. Unlike Isaiah, who saw a day when God would destroy evil among us, Duncan says Jesus transforms that vision into a day when God saves the world by destroying the evil in us. These famous words end the final round:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (21:3-6)
Most of the book has to do with an explication of these three rounds. I hope this little taste entices you to pick it up and do some Bible study with a Jesus lens.
Renew your hope!
I think Duncan is especially interested in the second round. The first round represents the too-small, individualized Christianity where most churches are stuck these days. And the third round is so cosmic it does not need to be understood, fully, just anticipated with gratitude. But in the second round we see that our struggles for transformation are not futile but elemental to faithfully living in the upside down kingdom revealed in John’s upside-down apocalypse.
After showing how John is writing to people under the tyranny of Domitian, Duncan shows how he cleverly sets up his readers to see that fighting Rome with Rome’s tools corrupts us and produces Domitian-like leaders and strategies.
Just as we are ready to despair, and as the scene turns from worship to tears, the Lamb emerges to take the scroll from the one who sits on the throne. The true son who “did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6), who did indeed ascend to the heavens, but who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant unto death – even death on a cross (2:7-8). God is not like Domitian. Jesus is not the imperial child. Destiny is not written by the violent.
In self-giving love, Jesus unveils the hidden, authentic history of the world. Faithfulness was not the illusion. Power was.
Reading that quote made me want to read the book again! In the age of Trump (and who is this Harlan Crow billionaire with a collection of dictator statues?), many Christians are coopted by the pursuit of power on the political right and the left. And many more people, it seems, are long-gone from the bankrupt church and fully given over to acquiring power in an attempt to dominate some piece of what remains of the empire. John’s Revelation was a corrective to the despair of his time and Duncan’s restoration of Revelation is a similar blessing. As we read his book, may our hearts again feel the strength to take our stand in an evil day and open our souls to hope again.
He confessed a classic movie scene:
a hero must offer Dad’s eulogy
and can’t complete it because he sobs.
That’s not him. He’s a stone lit by flickers,
afraid someone will see his tearless guilt,
or hear his relief echoing in the loss
of the father he never had — that death
finally completed, his secret resurrection.
She held a service in her mind:
another tree fell in her strained forest
when the dominator finally left —
moved on to a new host, declaring victory,
leaving the rotting hulk of their influence,
a shadow still dimming the light in her bunker,
where she reflexively cowered in the springtime
of their crucifixion, weeping at the tomb.
Both pleaded, “Please stay dead, so I can rise.”
Though free they still felt oppressed,
surrounded by the blare of faux idealism,
screens teaching what no one is
but who everyone is supposed to be.
They could not confess their liberty,
consigned to forgive people who were not sorry,
bearing sins which others committed,
forever fearing the day they trusted again.
Both prayed, “I can’t die with you; only the living can.
I’m killed, choiceless, double crossed.”
Lord, the old confession finally seems relevant.
I welcome You into the fullness of your death:
the “daily death” Paul dies from the wild beasts
snapping at his soul, sitting at dinner tables,
leading business meetings, filling pulpits,
the stench of their breath accepted as atmosphere.
When it lifts, we feel normal might be in the air.
But it is the breeze of resurrection we smell.
We pray, “Make me alive so I see death dying,
so I am not an empty, tearless loss,
or still at home in a toxic memory.
When I discovered John Donne’s sonnet in my college literature anthology, it preoccupied me for months. I even turned it into a song for my Music 1 course. My TA thought the tune was a little strange, but I still sing it in my head.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
— John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet XIV (pub. 1633)
I still sing this poem because I often need to. Like Donne, from the first days of my faith I doubted the primacy of my mind when it came to my relationship with God — reason is about as good as the reasoner. I was more concerned with the irrational thinking (and the habits associated with it) that felt like a prison. So I loved Donne’s image of God battering on the big oak doors of my heart like always happened in movies about knights and sieges. And I secretly loved the erotic imagery of a passion so insistent I could use it as a touchstone memory of ecstasy.
Donne’s sonnet helps me put the proper passion into the work of Jesus. God comes to free me from my prison: sin, unbelief, death and, ultimately, sadness, physical pain and mental illness. He’s not doing the paperwork, he’s risking his life for a lover.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. – Hebrews 2:14-15
God shares our flesh and blood. The other day at Chuck E. Cheese, my son was recounting his astonishment when he opened his birthday-present-subscription to The New Yorker and read about the condition of gold miners in South Africa. I’m not sure we needed more evidence of the evil in the world than driving up Roosevelt Boulevard offers every day, but there it was, brazenly at work among the poor in South Africa. And there it is in the fact Russia has stolen children from Ukrainian parents! And there it is in the mirror most of the time. It appears we are all betrothed to God’s enemy whether we choose it or not. John says, “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
But God is with us. So the apostle, Paul, writes to his protégé and instructs him to act
with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. — 2 Tim 2:25-6
The preacher last Sunday deftly sidestepped the skepticism people have about the devil. He didn’t exactly say there wasn’t one, he just implied it didn’t make much difference if I said there wasn’t. I did not mind that much (John might mind, however). I think he was working with what was in front of him. Powerful and power-grabbing people from the U.S. Empire think there is no legitimate opposition to their authority, which is why we will likely be ruled by AI and overrun by nanotechnology before long, if Antarctica does not melt first. Who needs a devil?
I’m fine with the origin of evil being mysterious. The effects of it are ever-present. We’re surrounded and often manacled. I think any spiritually aware person is amazed at how free they can be and still feel pushed around by sin, death, and suspicious spirits. If Jesus does not ransom and rescue us, we’re in trouble.
Paul basically assumes his readers in Corinth know God ransomed them from the prison of sin and death by the work of Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection. He writes, “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Then he assumes it again in the next chapter: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of humans” (7:23).
Origen (c. 185–c. 253), the famous scholar from the early church in Alexandria, is often accused of popularizing a “ransom view” of the atonement. I think post-1900s theologians are more likely the culprits. They needed a neat way to explain church history according to Enlightenment theories. I think they put the word “atonement” at the top of their chart like it was a genus and went looking for species; the “ransom theory” became one of many. Origen describes his idea of ransom but I doubt he was being too specific, since even in First Principles he assumes most concepts can be considered in a literal, moral, and spiritual/allegorical way. Origen was primarily an ascetic, so he was probably enjoying the feeling of being ransomed and feeling the desperate need for it, just like John Donne.
But he did say:
To whom gave he his life “a ransom for many?” It cannot have been to God. Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us, even the soul of Jesus, was paid to him, being deceived into thinking that he could be its lord, and not seeing that he could not bear the torment of holding it. (apparently in his Commentary on Romans, but I did not find the source online for you).
Whether we need to credit Origen or not, for the next 1000 years this understanding of the atonement is probably the most popular. Many people think “ransom” is a better metaphor than a doctrine, but most people just take it for how it is taught by the big names, like Augustine, who in the 400’s says,
“The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors” (Serm. cxxx, part 2).
People have always had some problems with this explanation of the Lord’s work for the basic reason it is a theory of how the atonement works, not a story. Rather than being a drama or a revelation of mystery, the work of Christ becomes a mechanism to be explained when the philosophers get a hold of it.
What’s more, there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically says Satan was the one to whom ransom was paid. But that is a bit like saying there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that grants women political rights. Origen and Augustine were offering an amendment to the Bible and the church folded it in.
The ransomed ransom
I welcome being ransomed, me and John Donne. I don’t need a theory to approve my eligibility for rescue. I need to be rescued. Every day in psychotherapy I become better acquainted in the many variations of our captivity. We can’t rescue ourselves or each other effectively. We need Jesus, our ransom and rescuer. I am less interested in how, exactly, the ransoming occurs. I am more interested in the passion I feel being enacted on my behalf. It is good to know Jesus is tirelessly beating on the castle door.
I think Lent is a good time to get out of prison and help set others free. Jesus taught:
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”—Mark 10:42-45
A lot of people looking for a theory have an “Aha” moment when they hear Jesus giving his life as a ransom, “So THAT’s how it works!” But it seems clear that Jesus thinks his disciples won’t get how things work until they enact a passion like his. Be loved and love. Be ransomed and be a ransom. Be suffered for and suffer. In my experience, I feel more ransomed when I ransom. Like the abused often become abusers, the ransomed become ransom.
So for Lent, how about being ransomed? If you just made up your own tune for John Donne’s sonnet, it might lead to feeling rescued.