Thursday, September 28, 2023

Called to Good Trouble--September 29, 2023

Called to Good Trouble--September 29, 2023

"For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well--since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have." [Philippians 1:30]

Okay, let's get something REALLY clear here: we're not supposed to hope for suffering or try to get ourselves in trouble because of our faith.  But we are taught to hope that when trouble or suffering come in our lives, that we can point to Jesus in the ways we face it.  There's an important difference.

There's a line from Marilynne Robinson's gorgeous novel Gilead, in which the narrator (an old preacher) reflects, "I heard a man say once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it, it’s fair to say that.... I believe there is dignity in sorrow simply because it is God’s good pleasure that there should be. He is forever raising up those who are brought low. This does not mean that it is ever right to cause suffering or to seek it out when it can be avoided, and serves no good, practical purpose." That's the thing--we Christians aren't called to seek out the hairshirt or cast ourselves as being "persecuted" (especially if we are really just being inconvenienced or asked to let others have a seat at the tables we are used to controlling).  But when there are times when suffering is a part of the path of following Jesus, the question is whether we will bear it in creative and loving ways that reflect Jesus' own self-giving love.

It reminds me a bit of the story that's told about Origen, the early church father of the second and third century.  As a young man, he had seen his father arrested for being a Christian, and because he was convinced he needed to be a martyr for the faith like his dad, his mother went and hid all of his clothes so he wouldn't go and turn himself in to the authorities, because he didn't think it appropriate to leave the house naked.  Young Origen had that lesson to learn: while we may find ourselves unavoidably in the situation of suffering for the sake of walking in the way of Jesus, we are not called to go on a suicide mission for no purpose.  We aren't supposed to try to get ourselves killed for our faith; but rather, when suffering alongside Jesus is where we are led, we are called to face it with his own kind of self-giving love.

In other words, the Christian hope is NOT, "I hope I get to suffer because it will win me heavenly prizes or I'm supposed to be some kind of spiritual masochist," but rather, "When suffering is a part of my path, I hope I will use that situation, too, as a way of reflecting Christ."  We don't have to wish for painful circumstances or somehow pretend it's fun and enjoyable to suffer.  But we might take it as a compliment if we find ourselves harassed, made fun of, or ridiculed for the same kinds of things that Jesus was mocked or attacked for.

Maybe that's the rule of thumb for us to keep in mind.  If I feel like I'm being attacked or criticized and I'm certain I'm being persecuted for my Christian faith, it's worth doing the honest introspection to see if I'm actually acting and speaking like Jesus... or if what's actually happening is that people are holding me accountable for NOT being very Christ-like.  That's different, isn't it?  Lots of Respectable Religious folks in 21st century America are quick to sound the alarm that they are being persecuted for their faith, when in actuality, they are just being called out for claiming to follow Jesus while not practicing the way of Jesus.  

And see, that's important.  To be sure, Jesus got in trouble regularly, suffered on account of his message and actions, and he was in the cross-hairs of plenty of powerful people.  But nobody ever persecuted Jesus because he was acting like a jerk too much, or because he was punching down at people on the margins.  Jesus didn't get into hot water because he was too exclusive or overly harsh with sinners, and nobody criticized Jesus for selling out for political influence or greater social status.  If people are critical of us for being petty and cruel (ahem, social media...), or for being stingy with God's scandalously unconditional love, or selling out in pursuit of status or power, then we're not being persecuted for our faith--we're being called back to live our faith authentically.  And in that case, we don't get to claim that we're suffering for Jesus; we're feeling the sting of facing how un-Christ-like we've been acting and speaking.

On the other hand, if we find ourselves left out, looked down on, or mistreated because we're always hanging out with the ones called "sinners", or being willing to call out religious hypocrisy, or crossing boundaries to associate with outcasts and "those people," or raising up the folks who have been left out, well, then maybe it's a sign that people see glimpses of Jesus in us.  Like Jesus himself says in what we call the Beatitudes, "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man... for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets."  The prophets were never persecuted for letting themselves be co-opted by kings or priests, and they weren't rejected because they were spiteful and cruel to vulnerable people.  They got into trouble for afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, as the old saying goes, but not for being greedy snake-oil salesmen.  If we find ourselves looked down on or left out because we are walking in their sandals, that might be a badge of honor. In that case, like John Lewis said, we're getting ourselves in "good trouble."  The question is what others are calling us out for.

So today, instead of looking for ways to cast ourselves as martyrs or thinking that our suffering wins us heaven points with God (they do not), maybe the real question is, "How can I reflect Jesus' love in whatever circumstances I find myself?"  Then, it becomes clear that we are neither hoping to avoid suffering nor striving to seek suffering, but just to use whatever situation we are in as an opportunity to make Jesus known.  That's what we hope for, so that in sorrows or joys or in-between days, people will read the gospel in our lives and sense they have been in the presence of Christ because of us.  

And if that means suffering love and getting into trouble, then so be it; after all, as Andrew Greeley put it, "Jesus and his troublemaking go merrily on."

Lord Jesus, help us to use each day to reflect your good news and embody your love, whether the day is easy or brings suffering for Jesus' sake.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Trajectory of Our Hope--September 28, 2023

The Trajectory of Our Hope--September 28, 2023

"Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel..." [Philippians 1:27]

Do a thought experiment with me for a moment.  Picture someone you deeply care about.  Maybe a spouse, a close friend, a child or grandchild. Someone along those lines.  Got them in your mind?

Okay now: what are your hopes for them?  What do you want to happen for them?  What aspirations do you hold for them in their lifetimes?

I ask because there are different trajectories we might direct our hopes toward, and the followers of Jesus are called to point ours toward goals that the world might find foolish.  Plenty of folks dream for their kids to be honor roll students and graduate summa cum laude, or to make varsity on the team of their choice.  Some wish for their grandkids to get into a good college, or make lots of money, or marry an attractive spouse.  A lot of people picture their loved ones with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence, living a successful life with a growing nest-egg of investments for retirement and a late-year vehicle in each stall of their two-car garages.  We are used to hearing those kinds of hopes for our loved ones: success in careers, comfortable lifestyles, good money, and the whole American dream.  Right?

And then there's Paul, who holds a different hope for the people he cares about in Philippi.  It's not that he is opposed to living a comfortable and respectable life, or having a two-chariot garage and bank accounts overflowing with denarii.  But those just aren't the top of his list.  For Paul, what really matters is whether our lives reflect the Good News of Jesus.  He hopes that his dear friends at the church in Philippi will live in ways that make Jesus known, and that their words and actions will be reflections of God's love.  You can leave the honor-roll certificates and letter jackets behind, as far as Paul is concerned--the life that is really worth hoping for is the life that embodies the gospel.  And that's a different sort of hope from our culture's drumbeat of financial savvy and career success.

It's funny how we all keep wrestling with the pull between those different kinds of hopes, no matter how long we have been following Jesus or how much at home we are in Christian community.  Every so often, my son will ask me something like, "Dad, if I become a world-famous soccer player or basketball star and make millions of dollars for the family, will you be proud of me?"  And these days, I'll answer him with something like, "Well, in that future scenario, are you a decent and kind person who is good to others?"  And often, he'll look at me like I have three heads and am on fire--with utter bafflement.  So I'll follow up with, "Because the thing that matters to me, regardless of whether you have a million dollars or don't have a nickel, is whether you are a kind and decent person.  That's worth being proud of, not whether you're famous or rich."  And sometimes his twelve-year-old brain gets it... and then sometimes he thinks I just don't understand his question.   He's learning what it feels like to be pulled between two different trajectories of hope.  And maybe seeds are being planted for some future day when he has to decide what direction is worth pointing his life in--being a person of love, decency, kindness, and compassion, or chasing after whatever the world calls "success."

When we read the wise voices of the Scriptures, including Paul's here in this passage from Philippians from this past Sunday's worship, it's striking how rarely they care about getting rich or becoming famous, and really how little they are interested in their own culture's version of "the American dream."  But rather, they teach us to hope for something different, something peculiar.  They point us in the direction of what Paul calls "a life worthy of the gospel of Christ."  

Now when Paul says that, he isn't warning us that if we're not good enough, we won't go to heaven; there are no points to be earned or gold stars to be won.  It's rather a matter of whether our lives look like the kind of love we have met in Jesus.  When people look at the way we spend our time and money, do they see choices that look like the way Jesus spent his time (with the anybodies and the nobodies, healing and helping, speaking truth and loving outcasts)?  When people hear our words or read our posts on social media, do they get a glimpse of Jesus' reckless and unconditional love? So when people see the ways we prioritize small acts of kindness over big profits or greater status, it won't matter if they think we are "successful" or envy our cars or houses--they'll see what the Gospel's kind of love looks like when played out in daily life.  That's what is worth spending a life on.  That's what is worth hoping for our children and grandchildren for.

Today, where will you and aim the trajectory of our hope?

Lord Jesus, point our hearts toward lives that embody your love and make your ways known to people around us, whether or not anybody else thinks we look successful.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Hope for Today--September 27, 2023

Hope for Today--September 27, 2023

"For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again." [Philippians 1:21-26]

Let me ask you this: what's your reason for getting up in the morning?  

What gives you the energy, the drive, and the passion to put your feet on the floor and face a new day--especially if it's still dark and the bed is so comfortable when your alarm goes off?

I ask because there's probably a first-level shallow answer off the top of our heads, and then there's probably a deeper answer if we give it a bit of thought.  For folks who get up and go to work, part of our off-the-cuff response would be, "Well, I have to get up to get to work; that's how a job works."  Or if your routine involves caring for a loved one--a spouse, a young child, or an aging or sick relative, maybe--you might say something similar: "I have to wake up so I can make a breakfast, or pack a lunch, or help someone with their physical therapy or doctor appointments." It almost becomes like running on autopilot: we get up because we have programmed ourselves to get up, and we go out and go to work or do our chores because, well, we don't really give it a moment's thought beyond, "It's just my daily routine."

But if I pushed you a bit and asked, "Okay, but why do you go to work?  And why do you pack the lunches, or make the breakfasts, or any of the rest of your daily routines?" how might you answer?  What makes it worth it to get up and face whatever comes in the new day?  Well, pretty quickly our answers will turn to love, I suspect.  You go to work, not just to put a roof over your own head, but to provide for people or pets that you care about.  You do the morning routine for your children or grandchildren or parents or a spouse because you love them.  Love is what keeps you going, I suspect; love is why we deal with the drudgeries of our routines or the weariness of work or the tiredness and tediousness of the everyday grind.

And in that sense, love is what gives us hope that we'll wake up again in a new day to do it all over again, all our lives long.

That's important to consider, especially for us who call ourselves Christians, because of course, we also have a Big Picture hope about life that awaits beyond this life.  We trust, after all, that even after time and age and death have done their worst, that we will be more alive than we have ever been because of God's resurrection promise.  I have a hope that when my heart gives out one day in this life, there will be a new breath of the Spirit's life in me and I will be a part of God's new creation.  So, yes, I need to work to make money to feed my family and myself, but even after all of that is done, I have a firm hope that God will raise me to new life.  And yet, even for all that glorious hope, I still get up every morning and go through all the daily routines of life and work and chores... because of the people I care about right now.  I have a hope, not just for "One-Day-After-I-Die" but for tomorrow, because of the people I love who depend on me to be there when the sun comes up again.

Like I say, for most of us on most mornings, we don't go through all that thought process every day when we put our feet on the floor to start the day.  But there are times when we get a renewed clarity about why we keep on keeping on.  Sometimes it's when someone you care about has a health scare or gets a difficult diagnosis.  Sometimes it's when you have to be apart from the people you love for a while, due to travel.  Sometimes, if you're like the apostle Paul, it's when you're facing your own mortality and the precariousness of life.

That's where Paul is when he writes these words many of us heard this past Sunday in worship.  Paul's letter to the Philippians is written during his imprisonment in Rome, while he awaits trial before the emperor.  He is literally under guard with Roman soldiers penning him in, and he knows that the charges against him could mean a death penalty.  When he writes to his dear friends in Philippi, Paul knows the deck is stacked against him; he could die at the executioner's hands, or he could die in chains waiting for the gears of the bureaucratic Roman justice system to turn another notch.  He knows his life is in the balance, and he also knows that he has a hope beyond this life.  Paul writes to the Philippians with utter confidence that if he dies, he will be in the presence of Christ and held in the grip of a God who loves him.  That's not scary for Paul, but rather he knows he will be at rest and at peace.  He's not afraid of dying, not a bit.  

And yet--and this is the thing that gets me about this passage--Paul doesn't seem ready to check out.  He doesn't say, "I just can't wait for the Romans to get this over with so I can go to heaven and be done with this wretched old world!"  But rather, Paul tells the Philippians, "Even though I know I'll be with Jesus when I die, I want to keep on living right now--because I love all of you, and I want to be there for you."  He continues that he is so sure that these dear friends of his need him to continue caring for them that he is certain that he'll survive his current predicament so that he can keep on doing what God has called him to do.  He has a hope for tomorrow, not just for the hereafter, because he loves his this congregation.  And it is his care for him that keeps leading him to put his feet on the floor day after day, whether that floor is of a prison cell or a Philippians house church one day, or even the golden streets of the heavenly city.

I know you're not in a Roman jail cell today, and I doubt you're awaiting trial of any kind while you read this.  But I want to suggest that Paul's frame of mind is one we can adopt, too, for whatever we are facing today.  We share Paul's Big Picture hope that God has got us no matter what, even beyond death, so we don't have to be constantly petrified by fear in our day to day lives.  But at the same time, we also share Paul's love for the people around us who are our reason to keep going in this life.  We keep facing each new day, and we keep putting our feet on the floor in the morning when the alarm goes off, not because we are afraid to die, but because we want to be there for the people we love.  Love for other people gives us hope to get up and face this new day, not just for some future day in heaven.  Today is a chance to love people whom God has placed in our lives, so today is a day to practice hope.

That's an important reminder for us that Christian hope doesn't mean giving up on the troubles of this life.  We don't shrug off the needs of the world with some excuse like "I'm going to heaven when I die, so I don't have to care about any of this," but just the opposite: we care about this world all the more because we love people in it, and because God loves the world.  Paul's example shows us how love for others in this world means we hope for the chance to use each day well for their sake, even while we know that after all our days are spent, God will still hold onto all of us.

Why do we put our feet on the floor in the morning and go through the day's routines all over again?  Because we hope that there is good work to be done for someone we love, and for someone God loves.

Let's get to it.

Gracious God, give us the hope to see the value in this day as an opportunity to do good for those we love, and those you love.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Hope for Haters--September 26, 2023

Hope for Haters--September 26, 2023

And the LORD said [to Jonah], “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” [Jonah 4:4-11]

So... why does God go to all this additional trouble over Jonah, with a supernatural intervention of a shrub... and a worm... and the elements... when the original objective of Jonah's mission has already been accomplished?  Why would God expend all that additional effort for Jonah's sake, when he's been nothing but a stubborn stumbling block to God's purposes?  And why would God go to the lengths of trying to persuade ol' Jonah to care about the people of Nineveh, if God had already decided to spare them?

Because here's the thing about the living God: God hopes for the restoration not just of the notorious sinners, but for the respectable ones who dress their sin up in religiosity.  God hasn't just been hoping for a turnaround from the people of Nineveh; God's been aiming with hope to produce a turnaround for Jonah, too.

That's really the second wonder of this story (and maybe even the greater one!)--that God hasn't only been patient with the infamously cruel and wicked people of Nineveh, but God has been patient with Jonah, as he faces his own subtle and socially acceptable prejudices.  See, the thing is that Jonah isn't just a bigot; he's the worst kind--the kind that dresses up their hatred in looking pious and devout.  Jonah's not just a hater; he's a religious hater.  He's convinced that his animosity toward all the people of Nineveh is pleasing to God, and so he can't even recognize that it's there anymore.  It's as natural to him as the air he breathes, and maybe Jonah has even told himself that God smiles on his spite for "that great city." And even though Jonah's personal prejudice against them (no matter how reasonable and rational he believes it to be) seems like it's dyed in the wool, God risks hoping that all of the theatrics of prompting a worm to eat a shrub overnight will get through to him and get him to care about the human beings he has written off as unworthy of mercy.  God risks hoping for a change in Jonah, because God loves even Jonah.  Yes, even though Jonah has wrapped his racism in religiosity and confused his prejudice for piety, God is hopeful that he can see the light and come to accept that God cares for the ones Jonah hated.  God goes to all these lengths because there is hope for haters, and yes, even the ones who wrongly believe their hate is holy.  And that is simply because God also loves the hateful and wants to see their hardened hearts opened up to divine mercy.

And that <gulp> is a necessary word of hope for a lot of us, honestly, because for a lot of us Respectable Religious Folks, we have gotten our own learned bigotry and pet prejudices confused for God's will.  And whether we have been able to admit it yet or not, we have needed a God willing to risk hoping for a change in our heart.  We have needed--and still need--a God who is willing to go to great lengths to get through to us so that our old hatreds may be overcome by God's other-embracing love.  From Jonah's day through the legacy of Jim Crow racism in our own history down to the present moment, it has been terribly easy for the ones who call themselves righteous to despise people for how they speak, where they come from, who they love, what they've done or what they look like, and to tell themselves "the Bible told us so" in some form or another.  Jonah is a case study in how easily we convince ourselves our prejudices come from on high.  And yet, God seeks for a change in our hearts when we succumb to that kind of counterfeit faith... God hopes for it, and acts for it, and moves heaven and earth to get through to us... because God loves us.

I know in my own life story, it has been through the patient hope of people who cared about me enough to tell me their stories, to bear with the bigotries I couldn't yet see in myself, and to show kindness to me even when I was bound up in prejudices I had dressed up in piety, that I have been able to grow. They showed me God's love in their hope. It's been the times when I was crusty old Jonah, convinced I was on a crusade for righteousness, and others have been brave enough to be real with me, and to help me see things in a new light, like God hopes to accomplish with a worm and a plant for the cantankerous prophet.  And it's been the times when God has spoken through others who helped the scales to fall from my eyes when I was convinced I knew what "the Bible clearly said" only to discover that maybe I didn't see as clearly as I thought I did, what God was speaking.  The thing is, if there's hope for Jonah, even at his most hypocritically hateful, then there's hope for me, when I've been sulking in his spot and didn't even realize it.

It can be easy for us to read a story like Jonah's and never do the hard work of letting it be a mirror for ourselves.  But taking this passage that many of us heard on Sunday seriously means asking ourselves where we have been unwilling to be patient and persistent with others we know who are entangled in bigotry they have baptized into acceptability, and how we might try again to get through to them.  And this passage also forces us to ask where we have been--and maybe still are--Jonah, on the brink of seeing just how wide God's mercy is after all.

The thing about Jonah's story is that it ends here--with an unanswered hanging question.  We never find out what Jonah does in response to God's extraordinary effort to pry open his closed heart and mind. 

But we can hope.

Lord God, don't give up on us, where our hearts are hardened, and where we have confused our prejudices with your ways.  Keep on reaching out to us, and keep on loving us into the way you love.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

When God Hopes--September 25, 2023

When God Hopes--September 25, 2023

"When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, 'O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing'." [Jonah 3:10-4:2]

What do you suppose God hopes for?

Is God even capable of "hope"--is that something you can do if you are the Almighty and all-knowing Creator of the universe?

I mean that question sincerely, because it's kind of weird to talk about God hoping for, well, anything, isn't it? Hope seems like a decidedly human thing, because usually we think of hope as an attitude of expectation in advance of an uncertain future--and we usually think of God as being omniscient and eternal, outside of our experience of time.  God never has to wonder, worry, or hope about the future, because God knows it all already, right?  It might seem that hoping--an attitude of expectation toward a future you haven't experienced yet--is something that God can't do, because we usually define God as all-knowing. You can't throw God a surprise party, after all, right? So how could God be hopeful about a possible outcome--wouldn't God know it already and either be pleased or disappointed about whatever will happen?

That is often how classic theologizing goes about God--that God can't be surprised (good or bad), caught off guard, be afraid, or even hope. And I get how that seems a perfectly logical conclusion if God doesn't experience time like we do in a straight light from Point A to Point B, but rather exists beyond and outside the limitations our chronologically-bound minds. 

And yet, here's the climactic point in the story of Jonah that frames everything in terms of God's hope, even when Jonah doesn't want to hope.  This story stretches our understanding of God, because it forces us to see a side of God that is, in some meaningful sense, hopeful about the outcome of human events.  And that hope comes from God's love for the people that are easily written off by the Respectable Religious crowd.

Just to back up for a moment in this passage that many of us heard this past Sunday, this is the second half of the book many of us associate with a big fish or whale swallowing the reluctant prophet Jonah.  And yes, that's the first half of the plot: God tells Jonah to go and preach against the people of Nineveh, the capital city of the ruthless enemy Assyrians. And he runs in the opposite direction (to Tarshish) because he doesn't want to do what God directs him to do.  The reason, as he confesses in the verses above, is that Jonah doesn't want to accept the possibility that the people of Nineveh, whom Jonah has been taught to hate and despise all his life long (and not without reason), might actually listen to Jonah's warning and turn from their violence, cruelty, and idolatry.  Jonah is afraid that the people he has written off entirely as "those people" might finally listen, and God might forgive them, and God might not zap them with righteous fury and wrath.  Jonah, in other words, is afraid of God being merciful--and God, by contrast, is hopeful that the "enemy" will turn from their wickedness.  

This concluding twist in the story changes everything about it.  Jonah's tale isn't simply a warning to do what God says or else (as in, "...or else a whale will eat you..." or "... or else God will zap you with lightning...").  Rather, this is a story about God being hopeful that people can change, and when God sends a warning, God actually does hope that it will be listened to.  God, you could say, takes the risk of hoping, because God takes the risk of loving people who keep messing up.  And Jonah, like so many Respectable Religious Folks, doesn't want to allow the possibility that enemies, sinners, and mess-ups could be shown love.  And so he cannot hope for them.

In the end, the real warning that is left unresolved is the one for Jonah:  what will he do with a God whose mercy reaches to include the people Jonah doesn't think should be eligible?  What will he do when it turns out God's love is wider than he dared to imagine, and God's compassion leads God to take the risk of hoping--even of looking foolish.  That's part of what Jonah is afraid of, too: he went around announcing that the city of Nineveh would be destroyed, afraid that God would relent from zapping them; and now he's worried that God won't look "tough" or "powerful" or "strong" because God did relent.  And Jonah is afraid, too that he'll look like a fool for speaking that kind of message, only to have God forgive the people.  These are the options, I suppose--you can either be afraid of unexpected grace from a God who is known for being unexpectedly gracious, or you can take the risk with God of looking foolish or weak by hoping for an opportunity to show that grace.

To be clear, God has already made that choice and thrown all the chips down, gambling on the hope that there will be a reason for mercy.  God is willing to risk the possibility that the people of Nineveh would dig their heels in and refuse to change their ways. And God is also willing to take the risk that people will look on that mercy as weakness--and God shows mercy anyway.

One of the hardest things for us to do, the more we strive to grow in Christ-like love, is to hope for change or good in the people God calls us to love--especially when God is calling us to love the people we have labeled as enemies.  We are all used to wearing Jonah's sandals. We have our own personal lists of usual suspects for people we give ourselves permission to hate and look down on--maybe they're in the opposite political party from you, maybe their faith or their family is different from yours, or maybe their personalities just rub you the wrong way.  But it is SO easy to cast everything they do in the worst possible light, and also to assume those enemies are doomed to endlessly do terrible things and make wrong choices, rather than ever allowing the possibility of hoping they might do good, get it right, or even have something to teach you.  That's the challenge for today.  It's unlikely you'll have to go far away to Nineveh to find those folks; chances are there are some among your social media circles, in your workplace, on a branch or two of your family tree, and even at your church.  But when we do cross paths with folks we have already written off, God dares us to keep hoping for their good, as a practice of love.  

Maybe today it wouldn't be a bad idea to do some honest reflection on what people in our lives we have put on our "enemies" list (whether consciously or not) and who we have started treating like our own personal Ninevites--as irredeemable opponents beyond any hope.  And maybe today we are called to take the risk of kindness and goodness to the ones we gave ourselves permission to hate, without knowing what will come of it--only the hope that it might lead to grace.  

That's how God is facing this day, after all--with hope.  

Lord God, keep our hearts soft and open to hope, rather than hardened with hatred for the ones we want to close the door on.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

When God Says 'I Love You'--September 22, 2023

When God Says 'I Love You'--September 22, 2023

"But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you..." [Isaiah 43:1-4a]

It's beautiful to me how often God pauses the motion of history to stop and tell us, "You don't have to be afraid."  And even more beautifully, God will stoop down and say, "You can have hope... you don't have to fear, because I love you."

Sometimes the message comes certified mail by angelic messenger, like Gabriel visiting Mary to announce God's intention with her role in the birth of the Messiah, or the white-robed figures waiting at the tomb to tell the weeping women that the same Messiah was no longer dead but risen.  Sometimes it comes in a dream with startling, fantastical visions that require a pre-emptive "Be not afraid" to calm down the dreamer.  And sometimes it comes through the very human voice of a poet like the prophet's words here in what we call Isaiah 43.  It's a promise from God, coming through an ordinary person to other ordinary people, "You don't have to be afraid, because God says 'I love you'."

This is another one of those times when the shadow of exile lingers over the people.  Our best guess is that the words of Isaiah 43 speak to folks who had actually been carried away from their homes, captive by the invading Babylonians who were intent on indoctrinating and dominating them into their empire.  The party line from the Babylonians was, "There is no hope of going back home.  There is no hope from your god, because we destroyed your god's temple, and we defeated your god's power."  There was no reason to dare to dream that anybody would ever go home again back to the land of Judah, and there was every reason to give in to the power of fear--fear of the empire and its armies, fear of abandonment by an absent god, fear of the unavoidable grip of death.

And so, what do people in that situation need to hear, but the defiant assurance that God is neither dead nor an absentee parent?  What do those folks in exile need to keep them from succumbing to the persuasion of Babylon that the Empire has won, hope is extinguished, and they had all just better get used to it?  Well, they need a voice to say on behalf of God, "I love you, and I will move heaven and earth to bring you home"?  And so that's what God raises up this voice in Isaiah 43 to say.  It's all the sheer power of words--this is a poet speaking to brokenhearted people with nothing more to back up his claims but the insistence that they have come from God.  But they are the words the people need at this moment, and as we are discovering this month, they are the sort of words that move people from love to hope.

What the exiles in Babylon need is the capacity to imagine a new future--which is really what hope is, after all--and a reason to be able to hope.  Before, all the things they had built their lives on had failed them: the temple, the monarchy, their whole system of government, and their capital city, Jerusalem, were all reduced to ashes.  And to lose all of those things and find themselves in a whole new situation without any of the familiar sources of comfort and security was utterly terrifying.  I keep hearing the words of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" in the back of my mind thinking of this time in Israel's history: "I've been afraid of changing, 'cause I built my life around you." And that's just it--all the things the people had built their lives on seemed to have vanished overnight, and that made the present moment seem hopeless.  After all, the last time the people had put their hope in something (say, for example, "The king will save us from the enemy," or "Our city walls will keep the Babylonians at bay,"), they had been let down.  It is hard to hope again when you have been let down, and it is hard to risk believing in someone again when the last ones you trusted before have since vanished into thin air.  

So the prophet starts with the assurance of God's love.  "The same God who created us promises still to be with us!" he says.  "The same God who called us by name will now lead us through the waters and across the rivers out of Babylon and will bring us back home!"  "The God we have known all our lives will bring us home, because that same God says, 'I love you!'"  In other words, this was a different kind of grounding for hope.  It wasn't based on the height of city walls or the number of soldiers in the Israelite army.  It wasn't dependent on which ruler happened to be on the throne at the moment.  It wasn't even dependent on how well-behaved, holy, or pious the people themselves were.  It was a hope grounded in God's love, which had not abandoned them after all.

Those are words we keep needing, it turns out.  The details will change over the course of a lifetime, to be sure.  Maybe we're not dealing with invading Babylonians or the destruction of a Temple, but we do know what it is to be afraid of violence and war, and we often know the sorrow of seeing churches close, or go through change, or feel like they are in decline.  We know what it is to grieve people we love, and we know what it is like to be without the ones who had been strong for us in the past.  We know what it's like to sing with Stevie Nicks, "I've been afraid of changing, 'cause I built my life around you."  And we know what it is like to be let down by the things we used to assume would be fixed and immovable in our lives.

And so we keep finding our hearts in need of a God who can stop us in our tracks, tap us on the shoulder, or speak through ancient words waiting for us on the pages of our Bibles, and who says to us again, "You don't have to be afraid.  You can hope again--because I love you."  There is reason for us to hold onto hope, and it's not a flighty or fickle foundation like sand.  There's a reason to believe that we will get through whatever it is we are going through, from change in our families to a difficult diagnosis to grief and loss to fears about the kind of world we are leaving to our children.  And the thing that gives us hope is the assurance that none other than God says, "You don't have to be afraid--because I love you."

It really is something, if you think about it, to hear and read the words "I love you" on God's lips here in the Bible, isn't it?  I mean, we talk a good deal about God's love, sure.  And there are surely places that talk about God loving "the world" as a big collective entity, like everyone's favorite verse John 3:16.  But to hear God say to "you," as in a direct address, not a third-person proposition, "I love YOU," well, that has some power to it.  It's not a theoretical claim or a generic truth about "humanity in general," but it hits home.  It meets us where we are.  It's God pointing a finger directly at YOU, in all of your you-ness, looking you in the eyes and saying, "It's you.  I love and choose you.  YOU are precious to me.  Of course you can have hope--I. Love.  You."

There's a reason that Mister Rogers sang to a generation of children, 

"It's you I like,
It's not the things you wear,
It's not the way you do your hair
But it's you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys
They're just beside you...."

In some ways, Mister Rogers was just echoing to children at home what Isaiah 43 said to the people in exile far from home on behalf of God:  "It's you I love, just as you are, and so you can have hope that I won't let go of you."  Whatever else might have been true at the moment--our lives are a mess, we keep turning from God, we are afraid and uncertain, and on and on--the central unshakable fact is that God says, "I love you."  

And the thing is, when God says, "I love you," it becomes possible to imagine a new future again.  It becomes possible to hope.

May we hear God's voice where we need it today, so that we can imagine a new future where we need it.

Lord God, give us hope by reminding us that you love us.  Let us dare to believe you.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

With Open Hands--September 21, 2023

With Open Hands--September 21, 2023

"A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save. Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.  Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you." [Psalm 33:16-22]

It's about more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach--hope, that is.  Hope that is rooted in the steadfast love of God changes our posture toward the world: it opens us up to see others as also beloved of God, rather than as threats to be fended off.

That's a connection we need to hold onto here in this psalm, because to be truthful, it's really easy to treat "hope" as a pleasant feeling, but nothing else. It's easy for "hope" to be merely an emotional pick-me-up that carries no direction to it, like it's no more than a spiritual sugar rush.  But the voice of this poet in what we call the Thirty-Third Psalm says that hope has a certain trajectory to it.  Hope--at least when we are talking about hope that is grounded in God's love--will lead me to be less combative and more secure in my beloved-ness.  It will make us less fearful and defensive, and instead it will give us the courage to risk putting ourselves out there.  Hope that arises from God's love will loosen my clenched fist or my grip on a weapon, and instead will lead me to open my hands (and my heart and my door) to neighbors.  That's so much more than a feeling--it is a literally disarming change of perspective that affects my whole way of seeing the whole world.

And honestly, it's pretty counter-cultural stuff, too.  I've got to tell you, I get brought up short every time I read this passage (and others like it in the Scriptures), because the psalmist makes such a clear connection between hoping in a loving God and not putting our trust in the weapons of war or the tools of violence.  The poet rattles off the typical arsenal of his day--a big army, great strength, and the military technology of the day (substitute "war horse" with "tanks" or "drones" and you get the same sense)--and he dismisses all of them as ultimately unworthy and impotent.  They cannot save.  They cannot deliver.  They cannot guarantee victory.  The tools of warfare are simply not worth putting our trust in, according to the psalmist... but God is.  

In an era like the psalmist's time, that had to have been a scandalous thing to say; it is no less scandalous in our time!    Surely the poet here is not naive or unaware of the dangers out there in the world; surely he's heard the stories about the fearsome Philistines or seen the formations of the ravaging Assyrians.  Surely he knows how destructive the Babylonians are famed to be, and knows the legends of Pharaoh and his ferocious chariots chasing the newly-freed Israelites toward the Red Sea.  And for that matter, the psalmist has surely seen kings and their commanders use the might of their own armies to take territory from their neighbors or repel an invading force.  And yet--for all of the presence of the ancient military-industrial complex there in the ancient poet's awareness, he is convinced that hoping in God will point us away from warfare and weapons.  Instead, by hoping in God, we find we are made confident apart from our ability to hurt, threaten, or bully someone else, and without the need always to have a bigger stick that then next person.  We can face the world, even knowing there are scary things and powerful dangers in it, but without constantly needing to rely on a sword, a spear, or war horse (or their modern counterparts) to feel secure.  We don't have to keep giving our allegiance to the ways of violence because we hope in a God of steadfast love who insists on getting the last word, even beyond the power of death.

And when I take that seriously, it changes the way I encounter a world full of strangers.  I don't have to be naive, but neither do I have to see everyone who crosses my path as a threat.  I don't have to see every problem as a fight to be won but will recognize what turn out to be conflicts to be resolved or challenges to be worked out together.  I don't have to see everything as a zero-sum game where your success must mean my defeat, but will instead see how much of my well-being is bound up in your own ability to thrive as well alongside me.

This is all powerful, even radical stuff, and it's all there just shouting to us from the pages of the Scriptures.  Here is an ancient poet saying that the more he puts his hope in the God who loves faithfully, the more clearly he realizes that having more weapons won't make him any safer or feel anymore secure.  In a time like ours when we are constantly sold fear (and then sold the things people want us to believe will quiet those very fears), the psalmist points us in a different direction, beyond warm fuzzy feelings, to the trajectory of hope.  

Today it's worth asking ourselves, if we are going to put our hope in the steadfast love of God as well, what will that lead us to let go of our grip on?  And who will we be free to embrace now with open hands?

Lord God, as we place our hope in your faithful love, teach us what we can let go of with these clenched fists and souls of ours.