Sunday, December 25, 2011

Get Less, Give More (Matthew 6:19-21; 25-33)

Now, the way things operate in business and many other areas of public life is that two different parties work together to find their giving and getting balance.

Think about when you buy something -- your goal is to give the seller the least amount of money in return for the most product, and the seller's goal is to give the least amount of product in return for the most money. That doesn't mean either of you are trying to cheat the other, it just means that you both want to maximize your return. You go out with an idea of how much money you will spend, and an idea of what you want to get for that amount of money. But if the product you want costs more than what you want to spend, you won't buy it. Or you may decide that since you have to spend more money, you will buy a different product that is worth the extra. You won't buy the ultra-cheapie item but you will go to a name brand because the name-brand item will probably last longer.

A seller, on the other hand, has to sell things at prices that cover the cost of making them and bring in a little profit. So if you're selling something, you want to price it high enough that you will make a profit but not so high that no one will buy it. You want to make a quality product or offer an accurate description of what you're selling, of course, but you still want to get the most money for what you have on offer.

Work is the same way. If you employ someone, you certainly want to pay them enough that they want to keep working for you. But you don't want to pay them more than their work is worth or you will go bankrupt. As a worker, I want to give my employer my best efforts in return for what I'm paid. But I don't want to let my job consume all of my life or I'll be giving them too much for what my employer pays me.

We can sometimes translate that way of thinking into Christmas, and in fact if we listen to the different advertisements and sales and stuff like that, we can see it demonstrated very clearly. The secular season that people call "the holidays" is a pretty good example of that. It appeals either to our greed when we talk about what we will get or our insecurity when it tells us we have to buy that particular item or none of our friends will love us anymore.

And of course the actual holiday at the core of all of this is not at all about maximizing our returns. It's about maximizing our giving. It's about how much we give and pays not one bit of attention on how much we get, if we follow God's example. In Jesus, God has offered us everything we need and everything that will make us what we are supposed to be, and he's done that fully aware we have nothing of our own to offer in return.

That idea is at the core of God's solution to the problem of worrying about tomorrow or about how we 'll manage or about what's going to happen next. You have nothing, he says, but what I give you. And I have given you everything that matters. I have given you a relationship with me and the way to make that broken relationship whole. I have given you life and I will give you what you need in that life. If you seek after me and my kingdom, you will see you have what you need -- maybe not the way that you figured on having it, but you'll have it nonetheless.

On this Christmas day, we can see this modeled in Jesus. Remember when Paul talks about Jesus as being equal with God but not counting that as something to grasp, instead laying it all aside and emptying himself to obey God and bring us salvation? He had everything, and he chose to have nothing.

He did this because it was the way to give us -- who have nothing -- everything. If flowers and birds can understand this, perhaps we can learn to as well.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Stress and Fear (Psalm 56:2-4, 10-13; Luke 1:26-38)

When we examine the reasons our lives seem to overwhelm us now more than they ever have, some of the reasons are external -- we agree to take on too much and so we lose the time we would take to rest and recharge, and we also lose our ability to notice and respond to the world around us.

But some of them are more internal, and they play their own role in wearing us out and pushing us towards just existing in life rather than savoring it as God intended. Both the internal and the external sources produce this kind of stress, at levels that cause way more problems than they solve. Some stress, of course, is not only inevitable but even beneficial. The only people without stress are those six feet deep -- everyone else has a little in their lives, and it turns out we sort of need it.

Without any stress, systems will stay at rest. Engines won't move, nothing will happen. Without any stress, we wouldn't deal with our lives. The thought of an upcoming test in school or deadline on a project at work brings a little bit of stress to our lives: Someone's going to evaluate our knowledge of a subject, or someone's going to expect our tasks to be completed. Will we measure up on the evaluation or finish the job adequately? Until we get the grade or our the "Well done" we will stress a little over the outcome.

We face problems when we have too much stress, just like an engine that overloads. Rather than helping us and getting us going, it wears us out. The too-busy schedule feeds our stress, but so does something else, and it's something the Bible tells us God addresses over and over again. In this case, there is a clear biblical guideline as to one way to reduce our stress: Do not be afraid.

That sounds almost too simple to be true, and in any event we might not believe we fear all that much. But if we really examined our lives, we would probably find a lot more fear there than we realized. Or we might find a lot of worry, which is sort of like a more diffused version of fear.

Again, fear is a natural response to certain things and it's healthy in the right places. Almost all living things have fear responses in them that help prepare their bodies to either escape or fight a threat. The pulse speeds up and oxygenates the blood, making the body ready to run away faster or to maintain its pace longer -- or to fight off an attacker. Adrenaline floods the system for the same purpose. We teach children to be alert when they cross the street or alert for the danger posed by someone they don't know. Some of that teaching is designed to help them recognize dangers that might require the body's natural fear response.

Our problem comes when we find ourselves afraid of things that we either shouldn't be afraid of or we can't control. A twenty-four hour news cycle needs things that will make people watch it, so stories are teased in ways that might make us worry about missing something important and harmless things may be blown out of proportion. After all, thunderstorms are gray and white. So why is the heaviest rain shown in red on the radar screen during the "Weather Alert!" -- surely not because we associate red with danger and therefore we're afraid of what we might miss if we don't watch, right?

To oversimplify it a little, fear or worry about things we need to deal with is actually a good thing. But fear or worry about things we can't control or that really aren't all that likely to happen isn't. Fear that a truck will ruin your whole day if you cross the street without looking is useful; fear that a satellite in orbit will fall on your head isn't. The second kind of fear, fear that can't actually help us in any way, creates and adds to our stress because we can't do anything about it.

And to all such fears, God says, "Do not be afraid." His words intend a specific kind of comfort, though. When God tells the people in the Bible and through them, tells us not to be afraid, he does not say that bad things will never happen to us. When God tells parents not to be afraid, he does not mean that their children will never hurt. When he tells us believers not to fear, he does not mean they will never face persecution. He means that in these cases and in all others he will not leave us, no matter what happens. He will not leave us, he will never leave us, in spite of anything that we may undergo.

Mary had to be afraid, not only of the appearance of the angel but of the possible consequences of a pregnancy out of wedlock. In her culture, that could mean death. She definitely believed that God's will would be done through her but she had no ironclad guarantees, no magic potion to whisk her away if she was accused of adultery, no mystic scroll to call on a mighty warrior guardian.

She had only the angel's words that told her not to be afraid, and in the end we have the same thing whether we heard them from an angel or read them in our Bibles or sensed them during prayer.

Do these words matter? Maybe those magic potions or whatever would be a lot more useful to us than a simple promise from God that he will not desert us. When we analyze them, we realize that they don't shield us from bad things happening to us or those we care for. The bad things are just as likely to happen with those words as they are without them. Could the worst still happen, even though God is with us? Yes, it can, because God makes no promises about keeping the worst things away. He didn't keep it away from his own son, so we have no credible reason to believe he'd keep it away from us. The worst thing can still happen.

But to borrow a phrase I've heard in some other sermons, God promises us this: The worst thing is never the last thing. The cross was not the end; the empty tomb awaited. On that we can depend, and it is on that promise we can build lives that are not ruled by fear.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

It's Up to Me? (Luke 10:25-37)

One of the overlooked stories in the tale of the Exodus from Egypt is a little family incident that happened while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, pays a visit and finds Moses seated and hearing disputes. Jethro asks what he's doing, and Moses explains he hears disputes between the people and lets them know what God's statutes say.

"What you are doing is not good," Jethro says, and I leave it up to those with fathers-in-law to decide how much the Bible edited his actual comment. "You will wear yourself out, and the people too." He suggests creating a system of judges for the unimportant cases so that only the biggest deals get brought to Moses as well as teaching the people what God's statutes are so they can decide for themselves sometimes.

There were a lot of upsides to Moses' system. It was consistent: Only one judge, so no different interpretations of the law. It had a single standard. Moses also had authority. As the recognized leader of the people, he had been in charge when they left Egypt and had been seen to be chosen by God for the work. People trusted his judgments would be fair and represent God's direction, so they would abide by them. But there was also a downside: It wouldn't work. There was no way one person could judge every dispute among a group of people this size. Once Moses spent all his time deciding cases, he couldn't lead the people, and the people waiting to have their cases heard couldn't work while they waited.

One of the reasons our modern lives have so much hurry in them is how many times we say "Yes" to things and squeeze our schedules even tighter to give them all space. We might say that if we just said "Yes" to the important things we could ease things up, but the truth is a lot of us already only say "Yes" to the good and important things. We don't really waste time -- because to be honest, we don't have any time to waste in between all of the good and important things we have scheduled. That may make us feel a little better but it doesn't ease things up when it comes to hurrying.

The church can be one of the worst offenders in asking for our time, because most of the things we're asked to or that we volunteer to do are good things and things that need doing. So we don't really lay anything down that we're doing already but just add something new, and get ourselves crammed up.

Which means that when the time comes that we have something we might want to do or need to do, something that's an emergency, we don't have the time for it. The story of the Good Samaritan can be seen that way, if you want to look at it in that light. Jesus doesn't tell us why the priest and the Levite pass by the injured man, but I heard a sermon once that suggested we could think of our own reasons if we like and one of those might be that the two men were just too busy. They were on their way to important appointments and they didn't have the time to waste on an injured man -- who, after all, might have been a lure to get them robbed or who might have been trying some kind of scam or whatnot.

No one is really too busy to help someone injured like that, but it's easy if we've fallen into the hurrying mindset to talk ourselves into the belief that we are. And even if we wouldn't pass by such a great need, always being in a hurry means we might very well pass by one not so obvious but just as important.

The issue is not whether we say "Yes" to everything -- we will say "No" to some things no matter what. The issue is whether or not we will say "No" of our own choosing or because our schedules force us to, and whether or not we will say "Yes" to so much we don't do anything very well.

We may believe we need to do those things to feel good, or that if we don't do them then no one will and they won't get done. Moses probably had some of those same feelings, and I won't speak for whatever you do outside of your church arena, but inside the church I can say that if it's something no one wants to do, then it's something that doesn't need doing. If I become convinced that it would all fall apart without me, then that may be a sign that it's time for it to fall apart.

Because in the end we need to remember what Jethro also told Moses, which was that if God was with him, then the system he set up would work. Because God is at the root of what he was supposed to do and what we are supposed to be doing, and if we rely upon ourselves instead of God, then "what [we] are doing is not good."

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Stop. Look and Listen. (Exodus 20:8-11)

Whatever we have managed to distill in our society to produce our constant state of hurry, we've refined it to the extra-purest form for the time we call "the holidays." Shopping, giving and going to parties, events, and a half-dozen other things invade our already-crammed schedules and make them that much worse. We'd recognize the irony of being almost too busy to notice Christmas -- the exact situation that greeted Jesus' birth -- if we only had the time to do so.

Our real problem comes from the corrosive effect busy-ness has on our lives and our attitudes. We are in a hurry, so we get irritated when people disrupt our hurrying. A slow waitress, a laggard grocery sacker, a pokey highway driver will all send us grumbling for the antacid when we get home because they committed the unpardonable crime of slowing us down when we were in a hurry. Even if, when we pause to think about it, we weren't really in that big of a hurry this time. We just thought we were, because we always are.

Of course we miss things left and right when we hurry like this. We don't see things because we're gazing off into the distance thinking about where we have to be next. We don't listen to people because we're trying to figure out how to end the conversation quickly so we can get to the meeting we're late for. We don't reflect and think about things because we're trying to keep up with the schedules in our heads. Example? A few weeks ago President Obama spoke at the dedication of the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. The news ran a picture of the president standing with the monument site curator and his oldest daughter, who's 13.

Had he not been killed, King could very likely have lived to see the election of the first black president -- something I don't know if he believed even his children would see. And there in front of his statue is that president. Whether you like him or not, he does represent a triumph of King's dream. How will this transformed America affect the lives of the president's daughter and children her age? Her own children, along with every American born after January 2009, will never live in an America that without a black president? How will that make our country's racial picture different? I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone does. I know we took no time to think about it, though, because we were busy with a Kardashian divorce or Michael Jackson's doctor's trial.

I heard a sermon preached on this that made a connection about our hurrying that I hadn't considered before. I'd figured it was just a bad feature of modern life, something that we knew we shouldn't do but which we just couldn't make ourselves quit. But this pastor said that this kind of life is more than just ill-advised. It's a sin.

We tend to think of sin in terms of evil deeds like robbery or murder. But its true character has more to do with "missing the mark" of the way God wants us to live life, to borrow the Greek word's root meaning. And God did not give us the ability to perceive things, to listen to one another and to reflect on the world around us just so we could sacrifice them on the altar of hurrying up.

In fact, God set up a rhythm of life that allows for time to rest and to recoup our energy and strength when he commanded the Sabbath to the Israelites. We can't escape the reality that hurried lives are a lot more likely to be shallow lives, and may even become next to meaningless. Because if we lack the time to rest, to really perceive creation around us and to consider the meaning of the lives we lead, we sure as heck lack the time to spend on our relationship with God.

And that's the ultimate loss in living the hurried life -- an attenuated, strained afterthought kind of relationship with God that isn't a source of strength but just another thing to do stuck in the schedule before we go to sleep or shop for groceries Sunday afternoon.

But a regular Sabbath -- weekly and then maybe even at other times when the batteries get low -- offers us time to connect with God, to listen to him and seek out his guidance and his nourishing spirit. It's as those nourished and rested spirits that we can do God's work more effectively, and we develop the habit of looking and listening for what God wants us to see, undistracted by busy-ness. Look at how Jesus handled the woman who touched his robe.

He's on his way to heal Jairus' daughter, who needs help now. But when the woman with the issue of blood touches his robe he stops and asks who has touched him. Her condition is gone -- Jesus could have simply kept going to Jairus' house and come back to find the woman later if needed and that wouldn't have changed. But he didn't. He stopped and noticed the woman, spoke to her and acknowledged her cure. I think her touch of Jesus' robe cured her, but Jesus' choice to stop and notice her healed her.

He did that because he would not hurry, not when hurrying meant ignoring someone. He modeled that for us, as well as the practice of a Sabbath of drawing apart to pray. If we want to develop our ability to notice people and to connect with them, we too need to develop the habit of the Sabbath, whether it's on Sunday only or other times as well. We need to develop the habit of making time to listen to God, to praise him and pray to him.

Maybe you do have to put that into your schedule, or maybe you can begin to re-think your scheduling practices so that such time is there when you want it. Advent is a good time to do that -- after all, Jesus said he came so that we might have life, an abundant life! Not a hurried one.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thankful Giving (Matthew 25:31-46)

This picture of humanity's final judgment gets around pretty good -- even people who don't really believe in a final judgment sometimes like to refer to it because the behavior Jesus calls for matches the behavior they want people to adopt.

Simply put, Jesus directs people to help other folks, and suggests that one of the things that will be weighed in that last day are whether or not we helped other folks. Although I do believe in a final judgment, I don't know if Jesus intended to exactly describe it here or if he intended to make a point independent of how literally we might wish to take his vision. To me, that point is that in order to be a true follower of Christ, we must be willing to help others. And we must be willing to help others based on one and only one standard: Their need.

See, nothing suggests that the people Jesus condemns were completely selfish folks who stole candy from babies and dropped Monopoly money into the collection plate. Like today, the number of people who'll help out isn't small, but way too often we will help people out on our own terms. We'll help family, or friends or people we care about. We'll help people we know. In those days, people might limit their assistance to people from their own village or from their own homelands. Or maybe people who needed help because they'd had bad luck...but not people who'd made their own mess.

Jesus said that idea of helping wouldn't fly. The only standard we can use is whether or not people need help. If they need it, the followers of Christ will provide it, or else they might as well be rejecting Christ himself.

Of course we have to be wise when we help. Sometimes people in need ask for things that really won't help them at all, but only make their problems worse. The ministerial alliance in one town I served offered help for people who couldn't pay their utility bills. The first time was just a matter of verifying the need, but the second time they had you attend a seminar on financial planning, so you could try to make the money you did have go as far as possible. Many of the people needing that help had never planned their spending before or had never made a budget.

Habitat for Humanity operates a little like that too. They don't just give you a house. For one, you work on it too. For another, you buy the house, which means you have to get your finances in order before you can qualify. Debts have to be paid down, savings have to be set aside, income has to be stable, and so on, because Habitat wants to truly help people and they know that slapping another thing they don't know how to pay for on top of all the other problems doesn't help those people.

So maybe it's not a good idea to give panhandler money. Maybe it is. We'll each need to check our own consciences on that, because there are no guarantees we judge rightly. Even so, all this caution means is that we try to be wise when, not if, we help -- it doesn't let us off the hook just because we don't like the person in need. We get off that hook only if the person is not in need or if we don't have any way to help them. And those occasions are rarer than we think. We may think we're squeezed and we've got little to give, but consider the following:

We're giving away Thanksgiving baskets this holiday, of food so some families can enjoy a holiday meal. One of the women selected for us called our office this week -- she also gets food from our food pantry now and again -- and told our secretary that she had another friend who needed that basket more than she did and so could we please give the basket to the other family instead. Even if you've got next to nothing, there's someone out there who's actually got nothing, and you might be able to help them.

The key idea in Jesus laying down such a radical standard of helping is to take the focus of the helping away from us and whatever standards we might use to judge who is worthy of our help and put the focus on God. Jesus wants us to remember those in need stand where we stand -- sinners in need of grace, loved by God though none of us deserve it. He wants us to remember that when we were the ones in need, he gave what he had though we had seriously made our own mess and he didn't have to give us anything.

We've talked about how worship is our response to God, and a part of that response is thanksgiving. It spreads beyond worship, too. We can't offer God a single thing God doesn't already have, so if we want to show God our gratitude, we have to find somewhere else to give our gifts. Here in Matthew, Jesus spells out just exactly where we might find some of that somewhere else, and some of the folks who live there.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Why We Are Here (Psalm 100)

When large groups of people began to stop attending church, one of the things they said was that they still considered themselves Christians, but they didn't believe they had to show up to a certain building and sit in a pew and listen to an organ and hear a dry sermon and wear uncomfortable clothes and so on in order to love God and worship him. The idea was "I can worship God just fine anywhere at any time," and that's true. But I imagine most people who actually do worship God anywhere and at any time also worship him in once a week in a setting pretty similar to what we call "church."

I've never seen a survey done on it, but I'm pretty sure the habit of worship in all those other times and places flows out of worshiping with the gathered body of Christ more often than not.

Early in Christian history people who followed Jesus picked up the habit of gathering on the Lord's Day to hear and sing songs, listen to the Scripture be read and explained, to pray with and for each other and to share in communion. We have generally tended to combine all of those things under the heading of "worship," but we may not have considered what all of those things might mean or why we give them that name.

The word "worship" comes from an older English word "worthship," which was a label usually used to designate someone worthy of respect. In those days and times, it was generally one of the lords or nobles of the land, and the common folks might address them as "your worthship." You might see the phrase "your worship" said to a noble, wealthy or respected person in books or movies set in England in earlier times.

Over time, the word took on a verb or action meaning as well, as it became connected to God. God was the ultimate "your worthship," deserving the greatest respect, honor and praise, and so the verb that described how people related to God came from that label, and it took on some of our modern understanding of the word "worship." People worshiped God because of God's great worthship.

The Hebrew and Greek words in the Old and New Testaments that were often translated as "worship" were words that kind of resembled the older "worthship" concept, and many of them related to words that talked about bowing down to another. In the ancient Near East bowing to someone when meeting them was a part of the etiquette of greeting them, much like a handshake is for us. It's still a part of some cultures in that region and is a big part of cultures in the Far East. In some of those cultures, proper etiquette even determines how deeply you might bow to someone depending on how much honor or respect you want to show them. Age, wisdom, success, status -- these factors help you determine what kind of bow you make in greeting another.

In those cultures, the deepest bows were reserved for people who deserved the greatest respect and honor, like a king. Not showing that respect earned the king's unwelcome attention. The ancient Hebrew people, who understood God as greater than any earthly king, made their deepest bows in his presence. Some, like Daniel, would not offer those signs to any human being no matter what the risk was to them.

Today, you may see Muslim worshipers kneel and place their foreheads to the floor as a sign of their respect when they pray. When Roman Catholic priests are ordained, they will lay flat on their stomachs on the ground with their faces to the floor. Sometimes Christians may pray in the same posture, called "prostration." They may pray in many other postures, too, but this one may be appropriate when one of the things we most feel or want to show is our complete and total reverence for and dependence on God.

The thing that struck me about all of these roots of our modern word "worship" is that they all involve actions. Greeting etiquette, showing respect, giving honor -- they are all things we do. They are things people did regardless of their actual feelings. The king may be a fink, but if you like your head where it is you bow it down in his presence, acknowledge the worthship he demands and save your opinions about whether or not he deserves it for your friends.

In our modern worship, of course, we understand the role our actual feelings and desires play and we don't shove them aside. But sometimes, we may have gone overboard the other way and put them at the center of our worship. We focus on a "feeling of worship." We emphasize the experience of worship -- some churches even call what they do a worship experience instead of a worship service. And we do that so much we may crowd out the idea of giving thanks and praise to God in favor of how we feel about what we're experiencing.

I've heard people say "I didn't feel the presence of God in that worship service" and I don't even know what to say to that. Real worship is thanking God for all he's done and praising him as our Lord -- if that's what I'm doing, how can I not believe God is there? Can I blame the musician or the preacher or the baby who wouldn't stop whining or her parents who wouldn't take her outside for me not praising God?

Of course I've done the same kind of thing even if I haven't used those words. And when I do, I miss who is really responsible for my worship: Me.

Adam Hamilton described some of our modern worship services as being like a game in some sport that looked familiar but for which we don't really know what's going on -- he used rugby as an example because it looks like football but it's definitely not the same thing. The difference is that we're not spectators like we would be at one of those games. We're the participants. We can and should learn why we do what we do in worship, either by our own study or by asking the people who lead our worship to explain it every now and again.

We should do that because we're the worshipers and we need to know what we're doing and why. And, once having learned those things, we need to remember we're the worshipers, and our worship of God doesn't depend on the talent of a musician, the skill of a speaker, the comfort of a pew or the hour of the day. All those things may play their roles, but the body of Christ worships Christ because we believe he deserves it, and for no reason more or less than that.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Follow the Leader (Joshua 2:7-17)

This is a story that on first read seems a lot less important for us than for the people who experienced this event. God tells Joshua right at the beginning what's going to happen and why -- the miracle will confirm for the people that God is with him, as God was with Moses. Especially because the miracle will be very similar to the one that God worked at the Red Sea, where the Israelites also crossed a body of water on dry land.

That's pretty important for Joshua and for the Israelites. We're used to government that functions more or less the same during and after a transition in leadership. A new governor or a new president may (or may not) take things in new directions, but we know that the machinery of everyday government will keep things running. The Israelites' culture offered no such assurances -- how could they know if Joshua was up to snuff? How could they know if he could lead the people? How could they know if their new leader would walk the path laid out by the Lord or if he would take his followers away from God onto some unfortunate path? When the Jordan River stopped flowing and the people walked across it on dry land, that confirmed for them that God was with Joshua as he had been with Moses.

You and I, though, should we need to cross the Jordan River, would probably use a bridge or a boat. We wouldn't need the water to stop flowing, because we have other ways to navigate than just our own muscle power. We also may not be too concerned over who's in charge of the ancient Israelites, since it's not us. So can we learn something from this part of Israel's history?

I think we can, but we have to read it carefully. The quick version might say that Moses parted the Red Sea, Joshua parted the Jordan River; so Joshua is just as good a leader as Moses. But that's wrong.

At the Red Sea, Moses did indeed stretch out his staff against the waters. But it was the wind that blew and created the path for the escaping Hebrews, and a powerful wind was very often seen as a sign of God's presence -- just as it had been in the story of creation in Genesis. And the Jordan didn't stop flowing when Joshua crossed it, but when the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched the water. Again, the Ark symbolized the presence of God in a special way, and so both times the people saw God at work on their behalf, demonstrating to them that the person leading them was following a path God laid out.

In fact, the people of Israel had the most trouble when they took their eyes off the idea that God led them and relied too much on their human leaders. When Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, they worried because he had been gone so long, and they asked Aaron to make them the golden calf as their god. You know what was going on around them when they asked for this? The top of Mt. Sinai was covered in a storm, a symbol of God's direct presence while he spoke with Moses. Reminders of God's care for them were all around them, but because their focus on their human leader and his absence prevented them from seeing those signs and realizing their true leader was still with them.

We can idolize people just as easily as they did. Large churches with charismatic leaders may struggle when those leaders move on, even if the changeover happens without some kind of scandal. People who found their church a place to encounter God, to meet to worship him and to enable them to do his work for people in need will miss their old pastor, but they will continue. People who came to the church because of the pastor's top sermons or because of the prestige of attending that pastor's particular church will have a harder time and may not stay.

We can idolize many other aspects of church -- worship styles, emotional experiences, other people with whom we attend -- and forget that our main focus in our church life needs to be God. Just as we might attend a church because we feel good about one or another of those things, we might not attend because we feel bad about them. We've always gone to a certain church, but now we're mad at the pastor so we'll go somewhere else. The church hasn't been doing enough of the kind of music we like, so we'll go to another one. Or we'll sit through worship and grump about it and how much better it used to be, which may make our pastor wish we would move on to another church.

The key mistake we all make is attaching our loyalty or our reverence to something that isn't God, when the purpose of church is worship of God. The key mistake the Israelites made with Moses was attaching their allegiance to him instead of to God, and Joshua points out clearly that the miraculous work at the river is not his doing but God's. It may confirm him as God's chosen man, but God remains the true leader of the people. The people may follow Joshua now because they know he follows God, but if he should ever stray from that they should drop him like a bad habit.

Which, come to think of it, isn't only a metaphor in this case.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Greatest (Matthew 22:34-46)

Because we usually see the Pharisees opposing Jesus, we might overlook that the question of the "greatest commandment" was a real one for first-century Jews. There was no agreed-on answer.

Some religious teachers and authorities argued that the first commandment in the ten -- "You shall have no other gods before me" -- was the greatest. It was, after all, the first one. Israel's failure to limit themselves to the worship of God and God alone opened them to near destruction at the hands of other nations. The proponents had a pretty good case.

Others might suggest the words from the prophet Micah -- "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God." It definitely covered most of the range of human activity and it was a command even if it was not in the Torah or books of teaching itself.

The answer Jesus gave when he quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 was shared by a lot of people as well. It sort of covered the territory of the first one mentioned and it also included direction about actions, such as loving God with all our minds and all our strength. Some of the Pharisees may have really wanted to know what Jesus thought. Remember, not all of them oppose him and some are interested in what he says. They may have been part of the group, even if their leadership is looking for ammo to use in their arguments with the rabbi from Nazareth.

Those people would probably have been disappointed with Jesus' pretty straightforward answer. He gave an answer shared by many religious teachers that had some solid reasoning behind it. Probably every Jewish person knew that verse, called "The Shema" after its first words in Hebrew: "Shema Yisrael!"

But then he gets weird.

The questioners asked for the greatest commandment, and they had to have been surprised when Jesus gave them not just the top commandment but the runner-up as well. "The second commandment? Who asked him for the second one? I don't get this." And their confusion wasn't helped by the content of the second commandment Jesus chose. It's a quote from Leviticus and there's no natural connection between them in the Torah. They're not next to each other and they're not in the same contexts. Both are commands to love, but to first-century Jews the pairing makes as much sense as putting the Shema with the pre-Porta Potty sanitation instructions given in Deuteronomy 23:12-13 or the command to not strip all the grapes from the vineyard in Leviticus 19:10. We see the connection because Jesus drew it, but why did he draw it at all?

If I'm right, a major reason for that connection is to pave the path for sharing the gospel.

We live inside the gospel, so to speak. We know what it means for us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength because we know who we mean when we say God and we know (more or less) what God wants: To be the center and foundation of our lives. But someone living outside the gospel may not know what we mean when we say we will love God that way. They may not know who God is and they may have a wrong idea about what God wants. Someone who meets people who claim to be Christian but only talk about who God hates probably aren't impressed with our determination to love God even though we aren't like those other people. We have to show them what we mean when we talk about loving God -- who God is and how we show love.

We do that by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. We do that when we try to make sure that, in every case where we can, we find the most loving thing to do and do it. Sometimes we will show compassion, sometimes we will offer help and sometimes we will confront evil, but every time we'll do whatever it is in ways that show love. People who see that may then say, "Well, those Christians show love to other people, so I might be interested in hearing about the God they say tells them to do that."

If anything, time has made the connection more important today! Our culture tends to over-emphasize the "feeling" part of love so much we've made it even easier to say "I love God" but mean next to nothing by it. Popular entertainment leaves out the part where love requires work and action to be real, but if we want to show the world our love for God is real, we have to demonstrate that with actions towards our neighbors. We need to have more than a warm mushy feeling towards a homeless person to help them not to freeze to death. We have to have more than butterflies in our stomach towards foster kids if we want them to have the chance to succeed that their circumstances may deny them. You get the idea.

And if that's how we live, to show real love for our neighbors whom we have seen, to borrow a phrase from one of John's letters, we will demonstrate to them and to ourselves our love for God whom we have not seen.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Dividing Line (Matthew 22:1-14)

This parable gives us fits. It's so violent, for one, and the violence seems so extreme given the circumstances. We have a king who destroys a whole city because some of the people who live there rejected his invitation to a wedding feast and themselves murdered the messengers sent to collect the RSVPs. We've got a fellow who shows up at the feast who gets thrown out into the outer darkness because he doesn't answer a question about his wardrobe quickly enough -- talk about What Not to Wear!

That'd be not such a huge problem if it wasn't that Jesus starts telling the story with the well-known line, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to..." In other words, this whole "Conan the Barbarian's Guide to Wedding Feast Etiquette" is supposed to tell us about the Kingdom of God! Wait, what? How does that work?

Well, in a lot of people's minds, it doesn't. Many Christians simply overlook this story when they talk about the Kingdom of God, because they can't reconcile the violence of the story with the coming of the Prince of Peace. If they talk about it at all, they suggest that we have the story wrong, that at some point, someone copied Matthew wrong or they added in their own thing and so what we have is garbled. I sympathize with their confusion but I believe God intended for all of Scripture to be used by his people and I'm very leery of leaving pieces out just because I don't like some of the things they say. Wouldn't be long before I had about two or three pages left, and if you were doing the same thing you'd find yourself in the same boat -- probably with a different set of pages, too.

Of course, one of the reasons we get ourselves tied up in knots about this story is that we forget at its roots it's exactly that -- a story. I believe Matthew reported faithfully what Jesus said, but that doesn't mean I believe Jesus meant us to take the story literally -- he wanted us to see its meaning and take that, instead.

As Christians, we understand the first part of the story just that way. The "messengers" represent the prophets, sent to the people of Israel to remind them of God's invitation to them. Far too many of the Israelites ignored and rejected the message, and some of them did assault and murder the messengers. This part of the story represents the story of God's outreach to Israel, but it doesn't tell it literally.

This rejection and murder outrage the king, who sends his soldiers to take justice from the murderers and burn their city. In one afternoon? Well, if we take the story literally, yes, but I think that's the point where Jesus starts to hint to us that we need to stretch our brains a little when thinking about what he says. No city could fall in just an afternoon, not even to a Caesar. While this move satisfies the king's desire for justice, it leaves him a little shy in the feast guest department. So out go his messengers into the streets to gather up the poor and the leftovers, "whoever you can find." Again, see how the story is representational and not literal? We understand God's invitation is given to everyone equally -- in fact, some Christians suggest that the poor and needy hear it before the rich do. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that God's invitation goes out to the whole world regardless of wealth, privilege or status, because the whole world regardless of wealth, privilege or status needs to hear God's message.

I think that's one thing that Jesus wants those who hear or read this story to understand. I also think he wants us to understand that there is no difference between passively ignoring God's invitation and actively rejecting it. We can't abstain from the vote. Jesus himself tells John in Revelation that he would almost rather one of the seven churches he addresses would be cold instead of lukewarm, because the lukewarm makes him sick. Those in the city who just turned their back on the messengers but who didn't attack or kill them lost their homes just as surely as did those who responded violently. A theologian named Rudolf Bultmann said this was the "existential question," meaning a question that dealt with our very existence. We accept that God is real and calls us back to him or we don't, and our choice influences everything about our lives.

The incident with the unfortunately clothed guest shows the same idea. Without a wedding garment, he obviously didn't belong at the wedding feast. We either follow God or we don't. We can't half-follow him, just like the wedding-garmentless man couldn't pretend to be a wedding guest. The story is less of a description of the fate of people who get caught sneaking into the Kingdom of God -- because that isn't going to happen -- than another reminder that there is no middle ground.

Now, there might be plenty of people who follow God even though they're not aware that's what they do. In Romans 1, Paul suggests that God has given people what they need to know how to do that, and it may be they don't recognize they're doing so. But they're still following God or not following him, no matter what they know.

And in any event, that's them. We know what God requires, so we have our choice clearly outlined for us. God has invited you, and me, and everyone, to the wedding feast of his son and his bride the church. Let us make our way there together.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgiven and Forgiving (Matthew 18:21-35)

The lectionary is a tricky thing sometimes. It's a three-year cycle of Scripture readings organized by the church liturgical year. The thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in year A has, ever since the Revised Common Lectionary was developed, had Matthew 18:21-35 as its gospel reading. In it, Jesus advises his disciples on the need for constant forgiveness and tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.

This year, the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost falls on Sept 11. So ten years after a vicious attack on innocent victims by evil men, the gospel message is one of forgiveness. I doubt I'm alone in resisting that idea, but if I turn away from Scripture that I don't like I wind up with my own version of the Jefferson Bible where I've picked and chosen what makes me happy. That's an unlikely scenario for spiritual growth.

Our most common understandings of forgiveness cause some of the problem. Our society has laid a pretty heavy load on the word itself. We've invested it with emotional weight it may not have been designed to carry very well. And we've collapsed its meaning with another word, "reconciliation." In fact, I think many times people actually mean reconciliation when they say forgiveness. And they do not mean the same thing.

Reconciliation means that a broken or strained relationship is made whole again or renewed. Two friends separated by one friend's wrongdoing rejoin, and we can say they are reconciled. Reconciliation requires forgiveness, but it isn't the same thing. Those two friends won't really reconcile until the transgressor asks forgiveness and the wronged person grants it. Then they can begin to heal that relationship and move towards reconciliation.

I believe we too often treat forgiveness as though it's something that erases a wrong and so we aren't willing to offer it when we need to. Now, maybe in small things that kind of erasure is a good idea -- married couples tend to learn early that score-keeping every fault or flaw in their respective spouses is...unproductive, let's say. So that forgiveness can mean not sweating the small stuff.

But some stuff isn't small. And pretending that such wrongs never happened is not a good idea. If I'm the wronged person who tries to act like the wrong never happened, I never confront and deal with the harm it caused. I can get away with acting like I never nicked myself shaving and not paying attention to the small wound. I can't ignore a severed limb, though, and trying to will have some pretty negative consequences. Plus, if I try to pretend some great wrong never happened, I never put the other person in the place where they understand the harm they caused. I think most people don't like harming others and if they see how they have, they try not to do it again. They won't see that if we try to pretend the wrong wasn't real.

Do we have to pretend wrongs never happened in order to forgive? I don't think so. I think forgiveness involves acknowledging real wrongs and real hurt, but refusing to let those hurts define us. Those who hurt us did so because, either through indifference or error, they figured our response to what they did wasn't important. They didn't care about the impact of their choice, and so we didn't matter.

Of course, we differ on that -- we do matter! They were wrong to try to define us as worthless! And so we refuse to let their definition of us be our definition of us. Their wrong act will not rule who we are or what we do. Forgiveness originally meant something like this. Jesus' story shows that the king forgave his debtor what he owed -- but he didn't lend him any more money, either. That would have required reconciliation -- the debtor would have had to have shown he would be able to pay back this new loan or the king would have just decided he didn't care if he got his money back. Simple forgiveness is different. The king said, "Hey, you don't owe me anything! And you're not going to owe me anything anytime soon, either!"

If you look at forgiveness that way, you might see why it's so important for us to do.  Let's say you're having a great day. But during that day, you run into someone who you don't like all that much. We're not talking a sworn enemy here, just someone who annoys you. What can happen to your good day then? Will you continue to have it or will you be bugged because you ran into that person? If you'd still have your good day, then up the ante a little to that sworn enemy. Now how's your good day going?

As long as you hate, as long as you choose to define yourself according to someone else's view of you, you give that person control over your life. You let that other person make a bad day for you. When you choose to define yourself according to your terms, or, for Christians, according to God's terms, then you have started to forgive.

You might also see why God's relationship with us requires us being forgiven first -- if God does not forgive us he gives us control over him, and that won't work. God had to make that work through Jesus, but at the core the idea is the same.

Such an idea of forgiveness might make some forgiving easier, but not all. I'm still very angry with the evil men who killed those innocents ten years ago, for example. And that lets them have power over me, so I ask God's help to reduce their power and replace it with his. In some cases, that may happen only in the life to come, but it is still what God wants of me, because it's what he did for me.

It may not be easy news, but it's still pretty good.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Lead Me, Lord (Psalm 119:33-40)

Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm in the book -- 176 verses sorted out into 22 different sections. Each section begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. In seminary, they told us this meant it was an "acrostic" Psalm but that fact never came up in discussing its meaning, so I don't know why they told us that.

It's a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for...the law. To us Christians, this might seem a little strange because we are used to a more negative view of what we call "the law." In the gospels, legalist Pharisees try to trick Jesus with questions drawn from the law, and their own hair-splitting over the years has made an already complicated code more or less impossible to understand or to follow. They wield "the law" when they complain about Jesus healing people on the Sabbath, and we come to think of the law the way we think of the main villain's henchman in a movie -- he's not the real baddie, but he's bad enough and we don't like him because of who he works for.

Paul also seems to pit the law against the main component of how he sees the gospel message, the magnificent grace of God lived out and brought through Jesus Christ. Because of the law, we know our selfishness and self-worship is actually sin that separates us from God. The law is the messenger that brings us that information, and while the old saying tells us not to shoot the messenger, it assumes we will have a reason to want to.

But to the ancient Israelites who heard and said this Psalm, the law was something a little different. For one, it was much more than just a rulebook. Yes, Leviticus especially as well as Deutoronomy and Exodus have long sections of regulations and codes. However, much of those first five books is the story of the people of Israel, especially in Genesis and the main part of Exodus. And when we read Jesus or Paul talking about the law, that's what they meant: all of those first five books, given in Hebrew the name Torah.

That name is another wrinkle. Although we usually translate it into English as "law," it was often used also to refer to "teaching." For Jewish people from the time of this Psalm to today, the world Torah will make them think "teaching," maybe even more often than they think "law code." Observant Jews will say, as does this Psalmist, that they delight in the Torah, or the teaching. They will ask God to teach them and give thanks that he does.

For the ancient Israelites, the Torah was a sign of God's relationship with them. He had already made covenant with them, through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then renewed it with Moses and again with David. God had said, "I pick you," and he didn't say, "Subject to do-overs if I feel like it." Then, in order to make their chosen status stand out, God gave the Israelites the Torah so they could know how God's people ought to act. Other people might have bizarre religious practices like human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but not God's people. Other people might think nothing of the rich using their wealth to treat the poor however they wished, but not God's people. Other nations might trust in the strength of their armies, but not God's nation.

In fact, the Pharisees originally focused on the same idea -- people who call themselves God's people ought to act like God's people. Legalism and hair-splitting took over that idea and made the smothering code Jesus' opponents used to try to trick him, but they started out just wanting to know how to follow the Lord.

Christians ask for the same kind of guidance in our lives, don't we? When facing an issue or a problem or a choice, we often want to know what God would like us to do so we can choose actions based on how they bring us closer to him. Maybe not as often as we should, but that's the idea. We might use the same words we read here: "Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes." Or "Turn my heart to your decrees." We might use others, too.

Now, sometimes we might say we don't know what God wants us to do. There are certainly issues we face today that are not in the Bible, because we live in a different time and deal with different things. But many of the times we ask, "God, show me what to do" God has already answered the question through his teaching.

For example, we are unlikely to run across a robbery victim left lying beside the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, so we may believe the story of the Samaritan is interesting but not very useful. But when we see someone picked on because of his religion, or because she lacks social skills and dresses funny, we know what we should do if we see them like the Samaritan saw the robbery victim -- our neighbors. And I bet we can remember what both Old and New Testaments say about how we respond to our neighbors.

If we want to follow Paul's direction not to be conformed to this world but be transformed, if we want to change our lives so that we can lead changed lives, if we want people to know we're God's people because we look and act like God's people, we need God to teach us. Our prayer can echo the prayer of this Psalmist -- not seeking a sterile and impersonal law that obstructs us but a teaching that enlightens us.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Shall We Live? (Romans 12:9-21)

At one point in his ministry, Methodist founder John Wesley found himself feeling as though he lacked faith (OK, that actually happened more than once but I'm picking a specific one). His friend George Whitfield had some...interesting...advice for him. Preach faith until you have it, Whitfield told Wesley, and then once you have it, preach faith.

Some parts of this idea run counter to the way we might think things ought to go. We are pretty good on the thought that our emotions or feelings can spur actions. We know that it's usually healthier to admit them and express them -- appropriately -- than it is to deny them. But we're not always as up on the idea that our actions can influence and may even help determine some of our emotions, feelings and attitudes.

Earlier, Paul told the Romans they should not be conformed to this world, but "be transformed by the renewing of [their] minds." He didn't give a list of specifics because every person's mind is different, but in this passage he offers broad but concrete suggestions as to what kind of life we lead that can help spur the renewing of our minds and our transformation into the people God desires us to be.

Right off the bat, for example, is the idea that we should hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Then we are to actually try to outdo each other in showing love to one another, and love our enemies, and bless those who persecute us, and so on. All of these things run counter to the way the world around us seems to suggest for our course of action, which is do unto others before they do unto us. They also run counter to our feelings about what we should do. Even though we recognize that clinging to what is good in terms of behavior, thoughts and speech is a good idea, we might think we can't do that just yet, because we don't feel any love for what is good. Shouldn't we wait until we feel that love before we start moving in that direction, so our response is genuine?

Well, apparently no. If we take Paul's words here as our guide, we're just flat-out told what we ought to do to enable that mind renewal and transformation without any regard taken for whether or not we feel like it at the time. And although again I'd point out it's not a good idea to deny the reality of feelings, it's not always necessary to use them as our only spur to action.

If we look at experience, we can see this demonstrated. A friend of mine moved to Los Angeles to help her goal of working in the entertainment industry. She was a person of faith, but I noticed in our conversations over the years that aspect of her life seemed to occupy less and less of her time and her communication with me. One time we were trading messages back and forth on Facebook and that subject came up, and she simply confessed she had no faith anymore, that she had lost any feeling of faith in her life whatsoever. I didn't say -- because this is not the kind of conversation you can have on Facebook -- "Well of course you don't feel any faith. Your blog is all about your workouts and what you're eating and your boyfriend and according to it, most of your time and thought is taken up with those things. You haven't paid much attention to your faith in a long time, so why should you feel it?" But that's what I would have said, probably in a gentler form, if we had been talking face to face.

I attended an open-level Narcotics Anonymous meeting once as a part of a ministry seminar. Part of these meetings, which focus on the first steps of recovery and which are open to anyone, is a focus on testimonies about the impact of the 12 Steps on the lives of people who are walking them. One man at the meeting I attended described how his earlier attempts to clean up failed and did so for a simple reason: He wanted a changed life but he didn't make any changes in it. He hung around with the same people and went to the same places and so naturally he wound up doing the same things, including drugs. He had to change his ways if he wanted to change his ways. He phrased it this way: "If you hang around a barber shop, you're gonna get a haircut."

Paul's list in this passage talks about changed ways of living. Those changes don't save us. A world where everyone tried to outdo each other in showing love would be a better world for certain, but only the grace of God offered in Christ brings salvation and restores our relationship with God. God's grace healed our broken relationship with him and made us, in Jesus' words, "born again." But once born, we have to grow up, and the way we grow up is by learning how to act like a grown-up would act and then doing so.

Do we feel like blessing our enemies? I don't. I feel like lettin' 'em have it, and then when the dust settles givin' 'em seconds. No matter -- we should bless them if we want to be transformed into the kind of people who do feel like blessing our enemies. If we wait till we feel like it, we might wait a long time.

And as Wesley's correspondence with Whitfield shows, the same pattern can develop in many other areas of life. Wesley had other crises of faith during his life, but his sermons always demonstrate a faith that God can work in the lives of those who seek him. I imagine we all want to be transformed, we all want to be renewed as God's followers. And we all wonder how, and we wonder if Paul's suggestions here really make that difference.

Does this answer seem too simple? If you want a changed life, live a changed life? Maybe so. Certainly not easy, but almost too simple.

Which is probably why it's so hard to do.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Offering the Crumbs (Matthew 15:21-28)

Jesus seems a little harsh here, doesn't he? He's telling a woman that he didn't come here on her behalf, equating her and her sick daughter to dogs...this Jesus seems more likely to dunk Peter than save him when the disciple tries to walk on water.

I've heard several explanations for this behavior. One suggests that Jesus, being a human being, had bad days and he got what the old folks would have called "a mite tetchous" now and again. Certainly understandable given the disciples, isn't it? They quarrel about status, they never seem to get what Jesus talks about, they don't understand his significance, and so on. They'd put most folks off their feed, and then when you add in the crowds that show up just to see the miracles and the religious leaders always looking for a way to dig at him, it's not hard to to imagine Jesus having a rough day now and again.

I'm not really sure about that idea, and anyway it doesn't help me much if it's true -- it just proves Jesus was human, and his death takes care of that pretty well.

I'm curious about this episode because it seems like Jesus does what the disciples ask, or tries to, anyway. She's following them around, asking for Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Being a Canaanite, she'll stay away from the Jewish Jesus and his disciples because she knows they'll flip out over the prospect of touching an unclean Gentile female. Which means she has to yell at them, and that makes her even more annoying. "Send her away!" they ask.

Interesting, don't you think? How many of them are there? Twelve, as I recall. And how many of her is she? One, I believe. So what do we hear from this even dozen of courageous Jewish manhood? "Teacher, make the girl leave us alone!"

But Jesus more or less does what they ask. "I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel," he says. He tells the woman, "It's not right to give the children's food to the dogs."

Do you wonder if the disciples were a little shocked by the harshness of this? Did they think to themselves, "Whoa, Master, we didn't mean like that! 'Dogs?' Overkill much?" Perhaps they thought he would offer her a little blessing and send her on her way, or maybe tell her one of his parables and that would satisfy her. Or maybe he would think of some other nice way to tell her it was time to run along now, but dogs? Really?

But look at the reality of things. Whether Jesus had done some kind of "nice guy brushoff" or not, the impact would have been the same. Again, remember who these disciples are hanging around with and what they've seen him do -- feed multitudes, walk on water, heal the sick and, oddly appropriate given this woman's request, cast out evil spirits. They have seen him do amazing things, and if they had been able to pair their twos together to even the slightest degree, they might have thought that one way to get the yelling lady to go away and leave them alone was to do what she asked. After all, if her daughter didn't have a demon any more, she would probably go home.

They don't, though, and it seems it's as much because she's bugging them than whether or not she's really bugging Jesus. Because she's annoying them, they're willing to keep her from seeing Jesus. And when Jesus speaks so harshly, I wonder if he's not trying to show them just exactly what it is they want him to do and how awful it is.

I think we can see where we might have done similar things now and again. We hear a call from God to reach out to one of his people in some way or another, but for any one of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of reasons we don't do so. Or we hear about someone who's done something really wrong or who's a part of a group we don't like and we are quick as anything ready to turn our backs to them.

Because they annoy, offend or have wronged us, we are willing if not eager to be the ones who look at Jesus and say, "Send them away, Lord." No, not that, we may say. We would love for these people to know Christ or to learn that God reached into their lives. What we leave unsaid is that we don't love it quite enough to be the conduit for showing that love or to pray for someone we hear about whose done great wrong. It's like we somehow figure that the Pearly Gates and St. Peter aren't enough to properly screen who gets into Heaven so we set ourselves up as bouncers.

And make no mistake, no matter how mildly we may try to view it, that's exactly what we're doing, just as Jesus' reference to the woman and her daughter as dogs compared with the children of Israel was the same thing as the disciples wanting her sent away. I understand and sympathize with dislike of some people because they've done something wrong or because they're just plain dislikeable -- I do it myself. But I have to remember that even while I might even be exactly correct in my judgment of what they've done, I can't set myself up as an extra gatekeeper between them and God, either by pushing them away with an attitude and actions, or failing to pray for them. Because if I do, I might very well be right that I'm on the other side of the fence from them.

But I'll probably be wrong about which side is which.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Still in the Silence (First Kings 19:9-18)

Remember the commercials that used to run after big sports events in which the winner was asked what he was going to do next? "Hey, Victorious Quarterback! You just single-handedly engineered a 45 point comeback in the last two minutes and made the game-saving tackle coming off the bench to play defense! What are you going to do next?"

"I'm going to Disneyland!" Probably not, actually. He was probably going to sit in a whirlpool tub for awhile and then see a chiropractor to try to ease the effects of 300-pound linemen playing whackamole with his face. But the idea was that he was going to celebrate his win and the only way it could get any better than the win itself would be celebrate it at Disneyland.

So, Prophet Elijah! You just pwned 500 prophets of Baal and watched your God send down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice of bulls that you'd doused with so much water they grew gills. You've conclusively demonstrated that the God you serve is real and the gods the others served are false idols! What are you going to do next?

"I'm going to run and hide!" Wait, what? Run and hide, really? Just because Queen Jezebel, whose priest ranks have quite a few new openings these days, threatened you? You watched God do this absolutely amazing thing and you're going to run away from one queen? Was Elijah a coward? Did he not have very much faith? Was he not too bright and missed the connection that if the power of God could consume a sacrifice it might protect a prophet? We don't know. All we know is that Elijah ran and hid. Just before the passage we read, in fact, we see him go out in the wilderness to just lay down and give up. God has to use an angel to get him to rouse long enough to eat and set out to Mount Horeb, which is where he is now.

When God asks him why he's there, Elijah says he's the last God-follower in all of Israel and he heard the queen was going to have him killed. God tells him to go out and stand in front of the cave, because God was going to pass by. When Elijah is in place, we first see a mighty wind, so strong it was actually splitting rocks in half. Then we see an earthquake, and then a huge fire, which may have been a volcanic eruption. But God is not in any of these things. After all the ruckus subsides, there is nothing but silence, and it is then that Elijah knows the Lord is passing by so he covers his face and they repeat their conversation from earlier about why Elijah is here.

This time God gives him instructions about anointing a couple of kings and about who Elijah's own successor will be. And by the way, God says, I've got seven thousand followers in Israel, so let's can the poor pitiful me routine, eh?

I'd like to draw some attention to how God actually showed up and maybe offer a couple of reasons why it's important. He's not in the big 'splodey stuff but in the silence that follows, and that's interesting to me. Sound, as we may remember from science class, is just vibration. Something happens, and it starts vibrations through the air that reach our eardrums and get converted into recognizable sounds by our brains. It works like the ripples in a pond after a rock gets thrown into it.

Now, continuing the sounds requires continuing disturbances -- things have to keep happening in order for us to keep hearing them. Once the rock sinks beneath the surface of the pond, its ripples stop and eventually everything is smooth again. Once whatever produces the sound stops happening, the sound fades. If you want to see it this way, silence is the natural state and sound is what happens that disturbs it. When the disturbance is over, silence returns because it's always there.

The metaphor I see is that God is like the silence in that he's always there. Whatever disturbs our focus or causes vibrations or ripples in our lives will fade away, and God will remain. Once the disturbing force runs out of energy -- because they always will -- then God's presence will reassert itself.

Can you see why Elijah needed to hear this? God could of course have been in the wind or the quake or the fire and demonstrated his awesome power. "Afraid of one little ol' queen? Really? Trust me, Elijah, ain't no queen or king want to mess with wind and fire here!" But Elijah has seen God's awesome power demonstrated and is still scared. If I'm right, I think what he needs now is an assurance that God is still there even when the high-profile stuff is done. God is in the storm, but is God in the silence? God is there in the battle, but is God there when the battle's over? God is there in power, but is God there in the weakness?

And now you can probably see one of the reasons Christians attach such importance to the cross. It's the ultimate defeat, even more that Elijah running away. And yet God is there in it and afterwards. It takes no faith to see the all-powerful God in the might of a storm -- his force is clear and plainly visible.

But to see God in the silence? That does indeed take faith. And God strengthens that faith so that we can come to trust him in storm and in silence, knowing he is always there.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Feeding Multitudes (Matthew 14:13-21)

Nearly every familiar Bible story has what I like to call "orphan" verses in it. We may notice them and even read them instead of skimming past them, but when it comes time to get the meaning of the story we usually don't emphasize them very much because they don't really add to that meaning.

The feeding of the multitudes emphasizes some important things about Jesus -- his concern for those who followed him, for example. Probably nobody in the crowd would have perished from hunger, but they'd probably wind up pretty miserable by the time they got home or found someplace to buy food. That mattered to Jesus, so he dealt with it.

We also see a physical example of the spiritual truth that when we depend on Jesus, we will find more than we need. Though he began with a handful of loaves and fish, he wound up with twelve baskets of leftovers.

We need these important lessons, so we shouldn't ignore them. But because they're tied so closely to the big event of the story, we can miss some meanings that attach to those orphan verses, and they have something to teach us as well. In this case, Jesus' words to the disciples when they first approached him with the problem stick out to me: "You give them something to eat."

I'm sure this response confused the disciples -- after all, a whole lot of what Jesus said confused the disciples. But especially since they had just said there was no food. "Ha ha! Good one, Teacher! No, seriously, this is a lot of people and we need to get them on their way before the villages close up for the night and they can't get anything to eat."

Matthew doesn't offer us any more to this conversation, so we don't know exactly what Jesus wanted to do when he said this to the disciples. I think he wanted to teach them something or to see if they had learned something yet, but I can't be sure. If I'm right, a fuller version of the conversation might have gone like this:

"You give them something to eat."

"Ah, Lord, we don't have any food here," one disciple says.

"And we don't really have enough money to buy enough food for this many people," says another.

"Which even if we did we don't have any way of getting it back here for them," adds another.

"You give them something to eat," Jesus repeats.

The disciples mutter amongst themselves. "Is he not listening to us? Are we mute or something? What's going on." One speaks to Jesus. "Lord, we really don't have what it takes to feed all these people."

"I understand," Jesus says. "You don't have any food." They nod. "You don't have any money." They nod again. "You don't have any way of getting the food from where it is to here." They nod again, relieved. He gets it.

"What do you have?" he asks. Now they are mute. They don't know what he's talking about. In order to feed people, you need food, and they don't have and can't get food. What else could possibly have an impact on this situation?

A quick side note -- by this time, the disciples have seen Jesus heal more people than Matthew can count -- some he cites specifically, like the man with the withered hand or the centurion's servant. They've seen him heal a woman who touched his robe and raise a young girl from the dead. They've seen him still a storm and compel demonic spirits to release their victims.

Back to the story -- what do the disciples have available to them that might affect this lack of food? No food, no cash, no way to move the food if they had it. If only they had access to something that could overcome this problem, some greater force that could handle the lack of supplies, funds and viable mass transport systems. If only they had, say, followed around a man who had done spectacular things that seemed to defy natural law and might be persuaded, if asked, to provide food for people who'd followed him out into the middle of nowhere.

Which of course they had done and had been doing now for some time. They had nothing that they thought they needed, but all along they had the one thing they needed most of all -- Jesus himself.

Our parallels ought to be fairly obvious. Jesus called each Christian to share the gospel, regardless of ordination or overly expensive graduate education. He pretty much said it's our mandate. And it ought to be a natural response. To paraphrase Penn Jillette, who do you hate so much you don't want to tell them about eternal life? We've been given the best, most amazing gift in the history of gifts and there's no person in the world I could justify keeping that from. And I've Scots heritage, meaning I know how to hold grudges.

But it's not that we don't want to share the gospel, it's just that we aren't equipped for it, with us not having the training or knowledge or courage or whatever else it is we can think up. See "mandate" above. We have all we need, all we'll ever need, which is the presence of Christ in our lives. It's all the disciples needed, even if they didn't know it, and it's all we need too.

Well, we might say, if we go about sharing the gospel with people we know and doing God's work and all, what will the pastor we hired do? Trust me, he or she will be just fine. Augustine may have formulated the doctrine of original sin as a way of explaining the necessity of Christ's atoning sacrifice, but it works out fine as job security for pastors, too. There are always people who need to hear the gospel. Even if we somehow managed to run out of them, I know I can always benefit from a reminder and I bet most other folks could as well.

Again, to paraphrase: It's still 106 miles to Chicago, it's still dark and we may be wearing sunglasses, but we haven't got a full tank of gas or a half a pack of cigarettes. What we do have is our Lord and Savior, and his grace that's changed our lives.

Hit it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wise Asking (First Kings 3:5-12)

Sometimes it seems like we speak of gifts from God as though they come to us completely apart from anything else that's already in our lives. "God, please give me the gift of discernment." "God, please give me the gift of helping others." "God, please give me the gift of patience, and could you make that a rush job, please?"

Is that how God always works? Does he take people who completely lack a certain quality and just drop it on them full and complete? If you remember the movie The Matrix, you may remember that when our heroes were conscious in the computer-generated virtual reality simulation of the title, they could gain any new ability by having it uploaded into their brains. In one scene, the woman Trinity needs to be able to fly a helicopter inside the simulation, so she calls up her Operator and has him upload that skill. A quick blink and a headshake later, and Trinity is an expert chopper pilot. Does God give us gifts like that?

Sometimes, of course, it would be nice if he did. If we are dealing with some really heavy troubles, it would be nice to have the patience or foresight or compassion or whatever else we need to deal with them just sort of uploaded to us like Trinity's new piloting skills. "God, I'm always glum. Could you upload me some happiness? Thanks!"

The problem for the people in The Matrix was that these abilities were limited to the virtual world. In real life, Trinity didn't know how to fly that specific kind of helicopter, even if she could have found one. She never learned how to do it, so she didn't have the actual information, skills and practice she would have needed if she had to fly that kind of helicopter for real. She would have been stuck with kicking people's heads in, which was a skill she definitely had learned and was pretty good at.

Obviously, if God were to give us a gift of something like happiness or some other quality we'd asked for, then we would have it. But would we have learned it? Would we appreciate it? Human nature tends to treat things better when they cost more, either in resources or time or effort. Even as a kid I treated something I'd bought with lawn-mowing money better than some of the things I got for free. The Habitat for Humanity organization was founded on the idea that people without homes need to earn those homes with their own money and work so that they will truly be their homes. I'd hope we would recognize the great value of some gift from God like that and treat it appropriately, but I'm not optimistic.

On the other hand, what if God gives gifts differently? What if he gives in a way that magnifies what is already there? I ask that in relation to Solomon because it seems to me when I study this story that Solomon was no dummy to start with. His father David helped build the nation of Israel, forging it from what Saul had started and combining the northern and southern groups of tribes into one country. His battles fought off Israel's enemies and united the people under his leadership and God's authority which he honored.

But there will be no battles for Solomon to fight. The enemies are defeated, or at least cowed enough they'll stay away for awhile. The people have come together, they want to be lead. But how? And to what? Creating a nation is never easy, but in a way it's easier than managing one. Even in our own nation's history, we had to erase the unworkable Articles of Confederation to replace them with our great Constitution, and we had to spill a lot of blood in order to ensure that our country would stay united and its people would be no one's slaves. What will Solomon do? How will he lead the people when they battles they face are not against outside enemies but against their own tendencies to turn from God and grow complacent? He doesn't know.

He does, however, know that he doesn't know. To me, this is a sign of wisdom that a lot of people, including me, display far too rarely. So when God asks him, "What should I give you?" he immediately points out that he's not at all sure how he could possibly lead any kingdom, let alone one populated by God's people, and he needs the wisdom to be able to do that. So God grants his request -- I believe that he magnified, or amplified or whatever you'd like to call it, wisdom that was already there in Solomon, so that Solomon was equal to the task he faced.

When we ask God for the gifts we need in order to deal with our lives -- because face it, we can't deal with them on our own -- we should realize that those gifts are multiplications of what's already there. Do we want God to help us be more compassionate? Then let's start being more compassionate and give the Great Potter some clay to mold! Do we want God to grant us wisdom? Then let's pay attention to what's going on around us and do some exploration and thinking of our own so that our brains have information to process and God can magnify it!

When I read this story of Solomon, who has the wisdom to see what he lacks and the wisdom to ask for more, I am reminded, of course, that God will provide. But I can also be reminded, if I care to think about it, that God has provided, and I can ask in faith that he will continue to do what he has promised.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Imperishability (First Corinthians 15:50-58)

When we say we believe in an afterlife, it prompts several questions. What will we do? Where will it be? What will it be like?

And what are we going to look like in it? On the one hand, that may sound really superficial -- we're getting eternal life and we're going to wonder about how we look? Sure, I'd like to be a little taller and have a tuck here and there, but if I show up and that hasn't happened it's not like I'm going to turn down eternal life because of it: "What? I'm still five-nine? That's it, Lord, I'm walkin'!"

But on the other hand, there is a real question there for people who might suffer from different conditions that limit their movement, or illnesses that cause them problems. A person who passes away from emphysema probably wouldn't think much of eternal life if they're raised with the same hardened lung tissue that killed them.

There's also a real question in there that connects with an important Christian understanding of the afterlife and the life eternal that follows Christ's return. We will have bodies. We won't be disembodied spirits and lack all physical presence. We won't be merged-together souls all crammed up somehow or fused into some sort of combo spirit like a Power Ranger Mega Zord. We may not know what those bodies will look like -- who would guess that an oak tree is just the grown-up version of the acorn, after all -- and we may not even be able to conceive some of the ways life in that state will be different from life in this one, but if Paul's words are true we know we will have bodies of some kind.

That's important because it tells us we can't be who we really are if we don't have some kind of physical existence. We make a mistake if we teach that we have bodies and we have spirits, and our spirits or souls -- which are the real us -- survive the death of our physical bodies -- which are not the real us. This philosophy of "dualism" was popular in Greek thinking, but the Jewish roots of Christianity taught that God made our physical bodies and we didn't become living beings until God combined that body with his spirit of life. We combine body and spirit, and we're not the real us without both of them.

We might wonder why it's a big deal whether we have bodies of some kind in the life to come. Well, if we believe that only our spirits survive our deaths, then we might start believing what we do with our bodies doesn't matter. We can do whatever we want to this flesh we're wearing because it won't change our immortal spirits. Some ancient philosophies taught this, and said that satisfying the body's physical desires was the most important goal of life. Some others taught that since the flesh we're wearing is evil, it has to suffer in order to keep us in line. This idea also entered Christianity, and you might read about people who injure themselves in order to help purify their spirits and punish their flesh for its evil desires. Neither way sounds good to me. Both treat the body as unimportant, which doesn't match with what we know of the church's early teachings or its Jewish roots.

It also doesn't seem to match with the work of Jesus. After all, one of the reasons he was our Savior was that he came to live among us like one of us. "The Word was made flesh," John tells us. God's desire was to heal the broken relationship between himself and creation, and in order to do so Jesus became part of creation. God wanted creation restored, not wiped out and replaced with some kind of ghost or spirit world, and by entering creation Jesus made that possible.

Why did God want creation restored? Well, if the Jewish and early Christian teaching was true and our true selves are combinations of body and spirit, then God wanted them both restored in order to have our real selves restored and dwelling with him. When Jesus entered creation as a human being, it's like he grabbed hold of creation so he could take it with him through his death and resurrection, bringing it salvation as well.

He healed us. All of us, and through his life, death and resurrection these flawed perishable bodies will put on imperishability, to dwell with him and with God for all eternity.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15)

Some people shy away from the book of Revelation because of its strange images and visions. Those different creatures, all of those trumpets and seals and numbers and marks -- they confuse us and maybe even frighten us a little. We don't know what they mean, so we feel safer not talking too much about them (a rare humble moment for some, I'm sure).

We might also back away from it because some of the Christians who do and say things we don't like use Revelation as a source for those things we don't like. Harold Camping's prediction of a May 21, 2011 rapture was based in part on what he believed he read in Revelation. If we bring up the book, we might be lumped in with him. Some Christians talk a lot about the final destination of folks' souls -- hell or heaven, smoking or non-smoking. They may be pretty mean about it, too, and draw from images like the one in this passage about the lake of fire. We don't really like what they say and we don't want to be associated with it, so we back off the book those images come from. They're too "judgmental."

Of course, when we say "judgmental" there, we're really talking about condemnation instead of judgment. We have to judge things every day. And we judge people all the time too: This person is my friend, that person is not. This person is dependable, that person is not. This person stays calm in a crisis, that person does not. We judge them and we decide what we do based on those judgments.

What we shouldn't do, of course, is condemn people. What do I mean? Well, judgments can change. New information brings a new understanding. That person who wasn't calm in a crisis before has new skills and now handles troublesome issues quite well, thank you. Even in the legal system, judgments can change. We've all read stories of people convicted and sentenced to jail who were freed many years later when DNA evidence proved that someone else committed the crime. Before, they were judged guilty. Now, they are judged not guilty.

But condemnation is permanent. Back to legal terms for a minute, where we use it to talk about capital punishment: The guilty person is condemned to die. Nothing could be more final than an execution. If we find out later that someone else was guilty, we can't bring the executed person back to life.

So we shouldn't condemn, but we should be aware that developing and using good judgment is important.

The language of Revelation, which talks of a final judgment, looks like it's about condemnation, so if we want to avoid condemning people then that might be another reason we back away from it. This passage, for example. talks about judging the living and the dead according to their deeds "as written in the books." They are all judged "according to what they had done." That sure sounds like some of those mean people we'd rather not be linked with, doesn't it?

It's also a little uncomfortable for us because we realized that we're going to be judged too, and I for one would definitely like to set that notion aside. Sure, like most folks I haven't ever seriously harmed anybody or done anything that bad. So I might like to think I'm OK, really. Not a spotless record, maybe not even a great record, but not all that bad. But what about the people who have done something harmful? People who have, through their words or actions, injured someone else? Being judged according to what they did might give them a lot more reason to worry. Is that fair? Is there a line somewhere that says how much bad is too much? Does God say, "You didn't do so great, but you did some good and that cancels it out?"

See how this gets troublesome? Because most of us are probably also aware of how we haven't measured up to the standard God sets for us. We know, to borrow Paul's words, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If Revelation means a judgment and we're going to be judged for what we did, we'd just as soon not think about that, thank you kindly. Because it's a final judgment and that sounds like we're back to not just being judged, but being condemned.

That's what it says, "anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." That's condemnation for you, right there! The lake of fire, the same lake of fire that Death and Hades are going to be thrown into...waitaminute. How did that go again? "Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life..." Nothing about being judged worthy or unworthy. Nothing about whatever bad or whatever sin was written down in those books. Just being written in the book of life. Well, how does that happen?

And that's when Jesus says, "I'm glad you asked me that question. Let's talk about it a little."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hold On, I'm Coming! (First Thessalonians 4:13-18)

It might seem odd to focus on a passage from Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica in the middle of a study and series about ideas from St. John's Revelation, but here we are.

Whether you are a believer in the doctrine of the Rapture or not, this passage is the biblical foundation of that doctrine. Studying Revelation does show offer us some insight into God's ultimate plan for restoring all of creation and its people, but we don't see direct references to the idea that believers will disappear from this world before that happens when we do. We find those references here. And like our Nativity scenes sometimes feature the Wise Men even though they probably didn't visit Jesus until several months or even a couple of years later, we have connected the Rapture to the visions John saw on Patmos.

Now, the interesting thing is that even though Paul wrote more from a logical understanding of what he knew about Jesus and John wrote from a supernatural vision, they had similar purposes: Offer hope to confused, worried and perhaps even frightened people.

Paul wrote this letter, we believe, sometime in the 50s or 60s, between 20 and 30 years after Easter. The people who follow Jesus know he told his first disciples that he would return -- some of them believe that will happen within their lifetimes and some of them just figure that no matter when it happens, they should be making themselves and the world around them ready for him. But all of these believers wonder about loved ones who followed Jesus but who themselves died before his return. What happened to them? What will happen to us if we pass away before he returns?

Paul reassures these people. Yes, if Jesus was going to return and set up a kingdom like Caesar had or like any other ordinary mortal king, those people wouldn't participate because they are already dead. But Jesus is no mortal king, and his return will bring about a kingdom nothing like anything that goes on in the world around them. They shouldn't worry about those who have died -- in fact, those people will be with the returning Christ before anyone else! Then the believers still living will meet their coming Lord in the air and take part in his return to Earth, joyously reunited with him.

Through John's vision, God offers hope to another group of his people in their own time of worry and wonder. Signs of persecution have appeared by the time we believe the Book of Revelation to have been wrtten, sometime in the last decades of that first century. Roman rulers and officials distrust this new religion and its people, who don't recognize Caesar as a god or even pay a token attention to the Roman state religion. Although the persecution will get worse, it's already harassing enough to worry churches and their members, especially in the larger cities of the Empire.

John's vision, though, does two things. One, it points out that people who follow Christ will always be at odds with people who follow the powers of this world. Even when everyone gets along and nobody's picking on each other, their differences from the cultures around them will divide them from other people. Sometimes, those differences will mean people in power will persecute the Christians who they feel threaten that power.

It is, he says, beginning now and it will keep going on and might get much much worse. The forces that work against Jesus' teaching will be desperate to defeat it, because Jesus and his work mean the end of their power. But even in dark times, when it seems like these forces have in fact won because their power and control have overcome the message Jesus and his followers proclaim, those followers should not lose hope, John says. Because God is coming, God wins, and Jesus will return to seal that victory and restore all of creation to the glory for which God always intended it.

In the mid-60s, Sam Moore and David Prater released their first major hit, a rousing soul anthem called "Hold On, I'm Coming!" In it, the duo say that whatever problems the person they're addressing may face, that person should not worry, because they're on their way: "When the day comes, and you're down/In a river of trouble, and about to drown/Just hold on! I'm coming! Hold on! I'm coming!" Although Sam and Dave may not have intended any theological meaning, those words are the words of Jesus to his people, whether through Paul's logic or John's vision or the Holy Spirit's testimony to our own spirits.

Hold on, Jesus says. I'm coming.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Propheting (Revelation 1:9-20)

Our English understanding of the word "prophet" usually includes some idea of predicting the future -- and we'll judge a prophet by his or her accuracy in forecasting. There's nothing wrong with this definition, although it sometimes leaves us switching between "prophet" and "National Enquirer psychic" a little too easily.

But when we study prophecy in the Bible, we should remember that the word we translated as prophet wasn't just about predicting the future. In fact, that was really a small part of a prophet's role. The na'vi, which is the Hebrew word we translate prophet, was thought of as a special kind of spokesperson for God. In old gangster movies, the criminals wouldn't talk to anyone until their "mouthpiece" or lawyer was present. A na'vi was that kind of "mouthpiece."

So a prophet's message is not just the prophet's message -- it's God's message, delivered through a human mediator. Even when prophecy in the Old Testament focused more on pointing out what was going wrong than what was going to happen in the future, the prophets would say that their ability to discern and see patterns in the events of the day came from God.

Prophets were also less concerned with predicting what was going to happen than they were with warning what was going to happen unless. The Old Testament prophets warned the people of Israel and Judah that their mixing idol worship into their daily lives meant that when the time came to rely on God, they would be lost because they wouldn't know how to do that anymore. And they warned them that a failure to live as God's people would come back to haunt them if the time came when they were under another nation's laws that made no allowance for God's law.

In other words, the prophet's message is most often a warning and offers guidance. The opening part of the book of Revelation does just this for the seven churches mentioned in this passage. Jesus, speaking to John in a vision, warns these churches of the dangers each of them faces and tries to guide them past those dangers. A church that has lost its passion is encouraged to try to recapture it. A church that seems to be going through the motions, neither hot nor cold, is encouraged to take a stand and make a difference, and so on.

Prophets' words do this for churches, communities of people, and for individuals as well. John wrote down what he saw because Jesus told him to, not just to speak to me. But his words do speak to me, to guide me away from the dangers I might face in my walk with Christ and to point out what those dangers are. I am encouraged to recapture my early passion for following Jesus. I am encouraged to make a stand rather than try to have something both ways. I am warned that if I depend on something other than God, I might have more trouble because I may forget how to depend on God.

Interestingly, the second part of Revelation -- the part with the really wild stuff in it and the part that some people have chosen to use to try to scare people into their way of thinking -- is actually the part that's supposed to give hope to people facing the problems outlined in the first part! It's "apocalyptic" message wants its readers to understand that God wins in the end, and that even though they may have failed, God offers lasting forgiveness and redemption.

The prophet's message is: "Watch out, God is coming." The apocalypticist's message is, "Hold on, God is coming." Both, of course, are needed.