“All shall be well”… Really??

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 21:5-19 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

There are few things in life that we want to believe more than this:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

Those lines come from Julian of Norwich in the 14th-century. It’s not her talking: it’s Jesus, as he has appeared to her in a vision.

Her vision is not cheap hope that crumbles at the first sign of pain or difficulty. It’s in the context of acknowledging the pain and sin in the world that Jesus says to Julian:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

But do you know what her response was to these powerful words of comfort?

Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?

“HOW could all things be well?”

The disciples were about to ask that question.

What about the disciples?

But first… they couldn’t help but admire this beautiful temple they worshiped in. They gawked at “the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts,” Luke says (The Message).

The lectionary will circle back eventually to the story just before this passage—the poor widow with her two copper coins. She takes the standard of tithing 10% and multiplies that by 10, giving everything she has.

And somehow all the disciples want to talk about is who’s in the temple’s Platinum Donor’s Club. Hey, I know that guy! I talked to that family once! They’re a big deal around here!

They’re spiraling, and Jesus disrupts it: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

It’s all going down, Jesus says, every… last… stone.

The disciples must get scared, because they snap out of their donor admiring, and ask, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

Jesus gives four:

ONE. Fake Jesuses. Verse 8: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.”

TWO. Wars and revolutions. Verse 9: “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

THREE. Natural disasters. Verse 11: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

The FOURTH sign is personal: being persecuted by others and betrayed by your own family. Verses 12, 16-17, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

But then Jesus says, “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (18-19).

And, remarkably, Jesus says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v. 13, NRSV). “This will result in your being witnesses to them” (NIV).

The disciples, apart from being scared, must have also been confused.

One commentary quite helpfully says, “The lack of chronological order in Jesus’ statements helps to discourage any attempts to work out in advance a timetable of events.”

The disciples couldn’t work out a timetable. They couldn’t know when their end was near; they could only know that God would be present with them no matter what happened and when.

What about us?

And that’s true for disciples of Jesus today, too.

Some scholars think this passage had both immediate fulfillment—the destruction of the temple, the persecution of the disciples, and a fulfillment that is yet to come—the so-called end times.

But just as the disciples couldn’t figure a timeline from Jesus’s words, neither can we. God doesn’t promise us we’ll know when the end is near. Elsewhere Jesus talks about the second coming as unexpected, so watch and wait for it. We’ll practice this watching and waiting in Advent.

So we hear this foretelling of wars and natural disasters, and we ask, “Surely it couldn’t get any worse than it is now? Surely this is it?”

It can get worse. Probably will.

It’s comical how many people have been so certain that the world would end on such-and-such a date.

And then, inevitably, when it doesn’t end, “Ah! I found an error in my calculations. It’ll be six months from now.”

This reality is perhaps best presented—and skewered—by the TV show Parks and Recreation. There’s a group in that show called “The Reasonabilists,” who are anything but what their name suggests. The Reasonabilists are an end-time cult that is waiting for Zorp the Surveyor to destroy the world.

Who is Zorp, you ask? A Parks & Rec fansite describes him as a “28-foot-tall lizard-god savior.” But the salvation he brought was a little different—he was to come to earth and melt everyone’s faces off with his “volcano mouth.”

Well, Zorp’s predicted time comes and goes, and the cult leader has to re-figure the numbers, only to stay up all night for the next time Zorp will come melt their faces off and thereby save the world.

Our temptation is more subtle… with every new war and every massive natural disaster, with every self-proclaimed Savior and persecution of Christians, we could begin to live in the same kind of fear the disciples surely feel.

But Jesus’s point is exactly the opposite.

No matter when such a time is, and no matter what it looks like, and now matter how bad it gets, the same God who accompanied the disciples—even to their deaths—promises to accompany us—even to our deaths.

Even in the scenario that verses 16 and 17 describe… even should your own family come to hate you, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” They can take your body, but not your soul. No one can take God’s love away from you. So make up your minds, Jesus says, not to worry beforehand! (v. 14)

Paul picked up on this in Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

————————-

Here’s a question to consider. You might give it some thought and prayer this week. When you walk into a difficult situation, what do you carry with you?

When you initiate a hard conversation, what do you have? When you face into a challenge you’d rather ignore, what resources do you have to face it? Maybe your family wouldn’t betray you to the death, but maybe you have to face some family dysfunction this Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What do you carry with you into all that?

However you answer that, we all have the promise of at least this resource: the words and wisdom of God. The words and wisdom of God.

Verse 15, spoken first to the disciples and surely extended to us in our time of need, has Jesus saying, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Those words, that wisdom… they come from the Holy Spirit, whom God has sent to dwell in the hearts of all who follow Jesus.

Well, indeed

I said that Julian of Norwich had replied to God, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”

That question feels right at home with this passage. It’s the kind of question the disciples would ask Jesus. It’s the kind of question WE want to ask Jesus when we hear something like this. Or when we just go about living our lives and watching the world around us. “How could all things be well,” O Lord?

Even after a vision of Jesus saying, “All shall be well,” that was what Julian asked—and a bunch of other questions like it.

And then, she got a response. She writes:

And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this fashion: I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well.

This is the same emphasis the Isaiah passage (65:17-18) gives us.

Behold, I will create / new heavens and a new earth. / The former things will not be remembered, / nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever / in what I will create, / for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight / and its people a joy.

I will create and all things shall be made new, God says. Not just because of some vague optimism that things just have to get better. “All shall be well” because our living and powerful God makes it so.

The 19th century poet Oscar Wilde is said to have taken Julian of Norwich’s lines—“All shall be well / And all shall be well / And all manner of thing shall be well”—he is said to have taken these lines and added to them:

And if it isn’t well, then it’s still not the end.

What God(s) Were the Pharisee and Tax Collector Praying to?

This post is the concluding portion of the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 18:9-14 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

Did you notice the Pharisee and the tax collector both start their prayer the same way? “God….”

They use the same word, the same way of addressing God, but you get the impression they are praying to two very different Gods.

We wonder: who must the Pharisee think God is, to be praying his way? And what does the tax collector think about the God to whom he prays?

Also, how does our own image of God shape our prayers?

For the Pharisee, there’s very little introspection. He’s critical of others and not himself. He mentions God, but it’s really only a quick appetizer before he can get to the main dish that is his own righteousness.

Maybe it’s as simple as: he’s just arrogant. His religiosity has gotten the best of him.

But imagine for a moment that the Pharisee is being sincere in his prayer. Sincerely wrong, yes, but what if he really means what he’s praying?

What kind of God would he have to have in mind to be praying like this?

It would be a God who just can’t stand all the ways we terrible humans mess everything up all the time.

It would be a God who LOVES when we get it right, and loves us more when we get it right more often.

It would be a God who doesn’t need a relational connection with us—just for us to check certain things off the list, and that’s enough.

It would be a God who wants us to jockey for position—who wants us to outdo each other in religious practices and spiritual disciplines, in fasting and giving and serving.

Then when we pray, if this is who God is, we’re just reporting back to our judge on all that we’ve done, desperately trying to find our place in God’s system of punishment and rewards.

The God of this Pharisee also seems to be a God who wants people to do it on their own. Because as the Pharisee is contrasting himself with others and listing his achievements, not once does he say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not once does he ask, “God please help me as I fast… increase my generosity so I can give cheerfully.” Never does he invite God into his faith practice.

What kind of God is that?

Maybe one we’ve believed in, from time to time. Maybe that’s a God we’ve prayed to.

Who we believe God is will shape how we pray. And that means that we can listen to our own prayers, dig a little deeper, and ask ourselves, “Who do I really believe God is?”

The French thinker Montaigne was right on the money when he said, “Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”

By contrast, who is the God the tax collector believes in?

It’s a God who listens.

It’s a God you can approach—even from far off—no matter what evil you’ve done.

A God you can confess to, and who will hear you, and will forgive you.

The tax collector believes first and foremost in a God who is merciful.

This is a God to whom you can tell the blunt truth about yourself. You can talk to God about your sin, bring it right into God’s presence.

1 John 1 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

The tax collector believes in a God who receives us when we confess, arms open, just as the father did the prodigal son.

We don’t have to read our spiritual résumé to God. We don’t have to put other people down when we pray, to elevate ourselves. In fact, God’s presence calls for our humility. Prayer is not first about us, after all. Prayer is first about God.

God is so full of mercy, so ready to forgive—as the tax collector knew—that we simply can enter in, as we are, and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector is a model for us, not only in how to pray, but in how to think about God.

Of course, if we overheard the Pharisee’s prayer in real time, we’d be faced with a particularly cruel irony. We’d have to be careful not to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not like THAT arrogant Pharisee. Thank you, God, that I know who you are.”

Thomas Merton wrote:

There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people]. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God.

New Seeds of Contemplation

In the end, the Pharisee’s idea of God and idea of himself were really not that different. He was so good, so giving, so upright, he didn’t even need God! He was basically his own God.

The tax collector knew he couldn’t survive another day without God’s mercy.

And whether we realize it or not—insulated as our lives can be—none of us can truly live another day without God’s mercy.

We need it, we crave it, we have to have it now, Lord Jesus, because we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy.

Psalms of… Vengeance?

Watterson Imprecation
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached a few weeks ago, with Psalm 55 (read it here) as my preaching text.


Can we pray them? Yes, we can!

Recently the The New York Times published an Opinion piece called “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us.” The subheading was: “They are our apex predator, the deadliest hunters of human beings on the planet.”

An opening line was innocent enough: “It has been one of the most aggravating sounds on earth for 190 million years — the humming buzz of a mosquito.”

But the article shared some alarming facts. It described mosquitoes as “a swarming army of 100 trillion that kills (some) 700,000 people annually…” and “…research suggests (they) may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived.”

Even the most humane among us have no trouble swatting or smushing a mosquito. We might have some choice words for them.

Were mosquitoes to become a topic of prayer, we’d have no trouble praying against them: may they die a thousand deaths; may they leave no progeny behind; may they burn in the unquenchable fire. Even as I was looking over this sermon in the cool quiet of the morning, I found myself praying for a wretched fate for the crows that loudly feasted on our compost.

But when it comes to praying against other people or institutions, we might be a little more reluctant. We might wonder: can I pray that? We hear David pray, “Let death come upon them; / …for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.” We wonder what to do with this verse and others like it, that are right here in our holy book.

Psalm 55 is a prayer of vengeance—an “imprecatory” Psalm is the category interpreters put it in. We have Psalm of thanksgiving, Psalms of confession, Psalms of trust, Psalms of lament, royal Psalms, and others. But the imprecatory Psalms may be the hardest ones to know what to do with. These are Psalms that, in short, call on God to take swift action on enemies, even to the point of their destruction (HT: Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies).

Imprecatory prayers can be as specific and harmless as, “Dear God, I pray that that person who is texting while driving would get into the slightest of fender benders as a harmless but effective wake-up call so that they never text and drive again.” And imprecatory prayers can be as broad and intense as, “God, destroy these your enemies, so that they never see the light of day again!”

Some commentators say we should not pray these Psalms, as Christians. The verse “Bless those who curse you,” they say, is reason to no longer ask God to curse those who curse us.

Some of these commentators—including ones with a high view of Scripture—have described these Psalms in less than favorable terms, like:

  • “defective prayers”
  • “cold-blooded”
  • prayers of “malignant cruelty” (SOURCE)
  • “terrible” / “contemptible”
  • “barbarous and revolting”
  • “a disgrace to human nature” (SOURCE)

C.S. Lewis reacts to these Psalms this way: “The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves” (Reflections on the Psalms, 22). Lewis said, the imprecatory Psalms—Psalms of vengeance—“are indeed devilish” (25).

He’s entitled to his interpretation, of course, but in recent months I have come to view prayers of vengeance in a different way. I’ve made it my practice—given myself permission, really—to pray like the Psalmists do when they’re praying God’s vengeance would come to earth.

Thinking of the haughty and proud who abuse their power, I’ve prayed words like these ones in Psalm 59:

For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.

For those that lie serially, and who incite violence, I have prayed words like these ones in today’s Psalm, Psalm 55:

Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.

I’m far from alone in reading the Psalms this way. Readers and interpreters of these Psalms have argued that just like we need Psalms of lament, we need imprecatory Psalms—prayers of vengeance. This is especially true when we consider the church across the world, and Christians who may live under a kind of duress or oppression that we may not know in our contexts. One commentator says, “A diet of upbeat songs and positive testimonies does not meet the needs of those suffering disappointment, ill health, or persecution.”

To be clear, no one in this worshiping community has been the subject of my recent imprecatory prayers. But as I’ve tried to inhabit Psalms like the one we read—as I’ve tried to pattern my own prayers after them—I’ve been reminded that God is a God of mercy and a God of judgment.

This is not just an Old Testament characteristic of God, either. Even the New Testament features words of imprecation, on the lips of Paul and even on the lips of Jesus himself. Martyrs in Revelation 6, killed for the sake of Jesus, cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

In my own praying, I’ve found myself feeling more vulnerable and more honest in God’s presence when I pray a prayer like Psalm 55. That honesty has led me to a greater sense of intimacy, or at least to feel like I’m doing something.

The big question about imprecatory Psalms—with a nod to Bob the Builder—is: Can we pray them? Yes, we can!

Still, I think the Psalms suggest some important parameters, if we’re going to take the plunge and pray prayers of vengeance.

1. Leave vengeance to God

First, imprecatory Psalms leave vengeance to God. They leave vengeance to God.

This is hugely important, noted by many readers of the Psalms, and gives us a reason to pray a prayer we might otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Our Psalm ended like this:

But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.

It did not end like this

But I, O God, will case them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days, because I will make sure of it myself. I will trust in myself.

Fundamentally, a prayer calling God to take action against his enemies is an affirmation of trust in God. It’s to say, “This is God’s job; not mine.”

Deuteronomy and Romans and Hebrews all quote God as saying, “Vengeance is mine; I shall repay.” Vengeance is not ours. We do not repay. God does.

When Psalm 55 and others like it pray for vengeance, it’s an affirmation that God judges in a way we cannot and should not. Better to ask God to exact justice—even destruction—on a serial evildoer, than for us to go rogue try to do it ourselves.

Prayers of imprecation pray for vengeance to come from where it should come from—from the Almighty and just God, not from ourselves.

2. Know “your” enemies

A second parameter seems important to Psalmists who prayed against others: knowing who “enemies” really are. Prayers of vengeance are not for that kid in your class who just bugs you; they’re not for someone who looks at you funny; they’re not for New York Yankees fans.

Imprecatory Psalms are chiefly reserved for those who are enemies of God, who set themselves up against God’s righteousness and justice, and who persist in doing evil in the world. They are those who harm precious ones created in the image of God.

Think of our Matthew passage today. Jesus says:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Or consider Psalm 139, powerfully rendered in the King James Version:

O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, and Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; they have become my enemies.

As we say in my family sometimes, “Hate is a strong word.”

We’re probably hesitant (rightly!) to even use the word “enemy.” And we know Jesus calls us to love our enemies, whoever those may be.

But whatever else we make of this part of Psalm 139, the point of the pray-er is that he’s calling on God to silence and put an end not to those who speak against him, but who speak against God.

Prayers of vengeance are not for personal vendettas. They’re prayers that God would deal justly with God’s enemies. And if we want to know who those are, we’d do well to spend lots of time reading Scripture and praying and connecting with other Christians, so we don’t mistake our enemies for God’s enemies.

Further, we want to keep in mind, as Ephesians says, that

(O)ur struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

If you’ve got pent up energy and frustration when you see injustice and wickedness in the world—pray first “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Those are the invisible powers animating the visible powers of this world.

3. Imprecate yourself?

Psalmists who prayed imprecatory prayers (1) were leaving vengeance to God and (2) were defining as “enemies” those who set themselves up specifically as God’s enemies.

A third parameter that’s important, if we’re going to pray like this, is that we be ready to turn this kind of prayer back on ourselves.

In Psalm 139, David confesses in prayer to despising those who despise God, calling down judgment and destruction on them.

But we know how that Psalm ends:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

I trust I’m not the only one who has read that Psalm and skipped from, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” to, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” But those intense imprecations come in between. And they cause the ending to make even more sense.

David says, “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Because he knows that there may be others who could rightly pray prayers of imprecation against him! Bathsheba certainly could have. His daughter, whose rape David did not take seriously, certainly could have. He at least has the self-knowledge to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. See if there is any offensive way in me….”

We might consider a similar ending to our prayers, as we pray for God’s justice and judgement to be enacted on the wicked.

For example, we might pray against racism, and those who advance it. In the same prayer, we might also pray, “Lord, show me any racist thoughts—however minor!—in my heart. Reveal to me, God, if there are any ways have I benefited from and perpetuated systems of racism.”

And we pray against those who harm others day after day, we might also ask, “God, help me to see: how have I hurt others with my words and actions, perhaps causing them to want to pray prayers of imprecation against me?”

One interpreter cautions about these Psalms: “Those who pray them are inevitably faced with the question of their own complicity in the web of violence.”

That makes praying imprecatory prayers even harder—we maybe already feel uncomfortable praying them, but to do so in good conscience before God, we need to be ready to point the prayers back on ourselves.

“Surely there is a God”

Psalms of imprecation, at their best, leave vengeance to God; they define “enemies” less as their own enemies and more as God’s enemies; and they are ready to implicate themselves.

It’s helped me to see this kind of prayer as a more detailed expression of lines in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

If God’s kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, that means there will be judgement for the wicked.

One interpreter and modern-day prayer of these Psalms said it like this:

As poetic prayers, the psalms of vengeance are a passionate clinging to God when everything really speaks against God. For that reason they can rightly be psalms of zeal, to the extent that in them passion for God is aflame in the midst of the ashes of doubt about God and despair over human beings. These psalms are the expression of a longing that evil, and evil people, may not have the last word in history, for this world and its history belong to God.

Psalm 58, another one of these “Psalms of zeal,” we might call them, ends like this:

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

If God lets evil go on forever, what hope is there for us? If God cannot stop and will never stop evil, how can we have faith?

As with lament Psalms, imprecatory Psalms are a way for us to keep showing up in God’s presence, even when seemingly unchecked evil might otherwise shut us down and keep us quiet.

“Surely there is a God!”

We need to see—the world needs to see—God in all power, exercising mercy and judgment, so that we can all say, “Surely there is a God!”

A Call for Presidential Repentance

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, I wrote an “Appeal to Christians Regarding President-Elect Donald Trump,” which local and nationally known faith leaders, scholars, and ministers co-signed.

The petition began with an expression of concern about Trump’s character:

President-elect Donald Trump has bragged about sexual assault and berated his female accusers. He has repeatedly disparaged African Americans, Latinos, and other communities. He has denied what is true and promoted what is not. He has threatened political opponents, called for torture of U.S. enemies, and has failed to quickly and unequivocally denounce and distance himself from race-based crimes committed in his name.

Character matters, and a position of power brings out more of what is already there. People can change, yes—that’s the power of the Gospel! But Trump has expressed no interest in asking for forgiveness of wrongdoing, as he famously said in 2015.

My concerns about Trump’s character have only grown—perhaps a post for another time. Today, I simply want to say that more than ever, I stand by the five commitments in that “Appeal to Christians” petition:

  1. We will pray for President Trump, elected officials, our nation, our churches, and each other.
  2. Rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the prophets, we will tell the truth about the world around us, and we will speak up for those who have been marginalized and taken advantage of.
  3. We will actively resist the temptation to overlook or normalize values, speech, and behavior that are in conflict with what Scripture calls us to.
  4. In the name of Jesus, we call President Trump to repentance for dishonoring the image of God in others.
  5. We will fix our eyes on Jesus and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, redouble our efforts to honor the image of God in all people and to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

I’ve prayed for this presidential administration more than for any other. But the third commitment has been more difficult for me. Saying nothing or ignoring the news is easier. We can easily be desensitized, or lose our sense of shock. But it’s important that we keep our moral bearings.

Trump knew the other night that he would say in his State of the Union address: “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution.” Those words themselves are right. Did he mean them?

I don’t think so. Earlier that same day he is reported to have called Chuck Schumer a “son of a b*tch.” He called Omarasa “that dog” after she published a book about working for the Trump administration. He referred to the pornographic film actress he cheated with on his then pregnant wife as “Horseface.” The list goes on.

Trump doesn’t “reject the politics of revenge,” as his SOTU address called for. By his own admission practicing “politics of revenge” is, for him, a way of life. In a previous speech in which he shared advice for achieving success, he said: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.”

So why is he pretending he believes otherwise? And are we being discerning in putting his words to the test?

Monday night’s talk of putting away revenge is not Trump turning over a new leaf (though we wish it were!)—it’s disingenuous lying (and gaslighting). In other contexts we would readily identify this as an abuser’s means of keeping control: he wants to keep others from pushing back on him while he continues to say whatever vindictive thing he wants to say.

Just as we would want our children to stand up to bullies at school, I hope the media and citizens alike point this discrepancy out—because as Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes, we have “the responsibility not to tolerate lies.”

Frank Bruni was right on the money the morning after the address:

He pretends to care about matters that don’t move him in the least. He feigns blamelessness in situations where he’s entirely culpable and takes credit in circumstances where he has more to apologize for. He presents himself in a positive light, as one kind of person, when his actions paint him in a negative light, as a different character altogether. Many of his biggest lies are to himself.

Jeremiah warned the people about false prophets who said, “Peace, peace,” where there was no peace. So let’s acknowledge that Trump’s own words—about himself and directed to others—testify against him: he does not want to move beyond revenge politics. He just wants to quiet any who oppose him. That is not “peace.”

Consider this short post, then, one citizen’s small effort to make good on the third and fourth commitments from the petition above: to “actively resist the temptation to overlook or normalize values, speech, and behavior that are in conflict with what Scripture calls us to,” and “to call President Trump to repentance for dishonoring the image of God in others.”

Those are commitments that those who voted for Trump and those who voted for Hillary (and those who voted for Evan and those who voted for Jill!) can all get behind.

In his State of the Union address, Trump called on America to “choose greatness.”

I call on him to repent, come clean, begin telling the truth, and choose the greatness that he will only know when he asks God for forgiveness and begins to walk, as Scripture says, in the light of the Lord.

My Sermon This Morning: The Light Shines in Our Hearts

It’s been a while since I posted one of my Sunday sermons here. Below is what I preached this morning, the Second Sunday of Advent, on 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.


 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4044
This photo taken at 4:14 p.m.

Until recently I’d forgotten that the sun could even set before 5:00. Last night the sunset was at 4:08 p.m. 4:08! 

My six-year-old asked me this week if it was true that there were only four hours of daylight each day in December. 

Not quite, but it feels like it. 

These short, dark, cold days seem to linger on. We await a later sunset, the buds of spring, and warmer days. 

What are we to do with all of this in-between time? 

That’s the question of Advent. Christ has broken into our world, but so much remains untransformed by his power. We are waiting. We are hoping. We are longing for Jesus to come again and make everything right.

The stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg once disparaged instant oatmeal. He said:

I get up in the morning, and I make myself a bowl of instant oatmeal, and then I don’t do anything for an hour… which makes me wonder why I need the instant oatmeal… I could get the regular oatmeal and feel productive!

Advent calls for our patience in dark days where God’s kingdom (still) isn’t here. It doesn’t come in an instant. 

But it’s not a passive waiting that we do. And there’s nothing hopeless about Advent. It’s not a season where we throw up our hands and say, “Welp, I guess we just hang out until Jesus comes back.” 

On the contrary, in Advent we remember and re-activate that hope within us that believes—that knows—Christ will come again. We proclaim with Zechariah:

Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.

In these dark, cold, in-between days, “the light shines in the darkness.”

And the light shines right into our inmost beings.

That’s what Paul says to the Christians in the city of Corinth: 

The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

There’s the miracle of God’s love… the all-powerful creator of the universe who could bring light from darkness, has sent his light right into our hearts, so that we could know Jesus. The one who created worlds could be bothered to shine light into my dark heart, and yours. God even delights in shining light into our hearts. 

 

What does the light do?

The light shines in the darkness, and that includes the darkness of our inner world. 

I think Paul has something in common with us. None of us wants to just talk in platitudes or generalities. The light shines in our hearts, yes, so now we want to know: what exactly is the light doing in us? What does the light-of-Christ-in-our-hearts do?

Paul suggests a few things. As it shines in your heart, here is what the light does. 

First, he says, the light illuminates what is hidden. 

Here is the first part of verse 2: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides.”

That’s because Paul and his fellow believers have the light of Christ in their hearts. That light has illuminated what is hidden—shameful things. 

Paul models a response to the shameful things the light has shown him in his heart. “I renounce them.” 

It’s a line you’ll hear in the baptismal liturgy: “I renounce them.” The light illuminates my hidden, shameful things, shows me what and where they are… and I renounce them.

evolving_google_identity_shareI’ve always been glad no technology exists to Google our brains. Think about what that would be like. All our memories, experiences, hopes, wayward desires, and hurts. Your search for envious thoughts toward others returned 13,849 results.

Thank God we can’t Google our brains. But in a sense, that’s what the light of Jesus does. As the Psalmist David put it, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. 

The light of Christ in us illuminates what is hidden.

Second, Paul says the light of Jesus is a floodlight on lies. The light of Christ shows lies for what they are. 

After verse 2 says, “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides,” it goes on: “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” 

Because the light of Christ shines in his inmost being, Paul and his co-laborers in ministry commit to be truthful, especially when it comes to the revealed word of God. “We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” 

The light shines on lies in the darkness. It points at them and calls them what they are. Where the light of Christ shines, there can be no lies. 

 

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TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

 

I’m reading a book right now by James Clear called Atomic Habits. The author describes a process that train conductors in Tokyo practice. It’s called “Pointing-and-Calling.” He says:

As each operator runs the train, they proceed through a ritual of pointing at different objects and calling out commands. When the train approaches a signal, the operator will point at it and say, “Signal is green.” As the train pulls into and out of each station, the operator will point at the speedometer and call out the exact speed. When it’s time to leave, the operator will point at the timetable and state the time. Out on the platform, other employees are performing similar actions. Before each train departs, staff members will point along the edge of the platform and declare, “All clear!” Every detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud.

The author concludes: 

Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level. Because the train operators must use their eyes, hands, mouth, and ears, they are more likely to notice problems before something goes wrong. 

This is great for habit development. But good habits aside, here is the light of Christ, practicing the same method of Pointing-and-Calling in us! That’s what the light of Jesus does!

The light of Christ illuminates what is hidden, even shameful things. And it’s a floodlight that shows lies for what they are. The light of Jesus points-and-calls in our hearts.

Eugene Peterson translates verse 2 this way:

We refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.

Paul also says more generally: the light of Jesus guides our inner life. 

The word Paul uses for light is more expansively defined as “illumination for the inner life.”

Are you confused, or torn up inside? The light of Christ can guide you. 

Are you anxious, scared, uncertain of what the coming days and weeks will hold? The light of Christ doesn’t make all your problems go away, but it will illuminate your inner thought life, as you try to make sense of it all. 

Things become more visible, clearer by the light God gives us. 

The light of Jesus guides our inner life. 

Finally, and most important, the light that God shines in our hearts reveals “God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This is more than just your run-of-the-mill illumination. Verse 4 says it’s the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Verse 6 says the light God shines in our hearts is the light of the knowledge of his glory. 

Paul is not talking about “the light within” or whatever light or goodness or hope you can generate yourself. 

There may be a place for that, but it will only take you so far. 

The Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge says, “(I)f Christian faith is going to have any guts, it simply cannot be satisfied with exclusively human hope.” 

This isn’t just any light. It’s Jesus light. 

One poet put it like this: 

It gets so dark it stays dark,
Even when I turn on the light.

We need more than ourselves to turn on the light. We’re prone to error, prone to despair, prone to exhaustion if we try to face and fight the darkness all on our own. 

Thank God, we don’t have to. 

The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

For light to truly shine in our hearts and illuminate our paths, it needs to come from an external, inexhaustible source. 

That light source is Jesus. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer waited in prison for a release that would never come, he wrote, “Only the coming Lord can prepare the way… the end (goal) of all preparing the way for Christ must be the recognition that we ourselves can never prepare the way.” 

To that let’s add: we ourselves never shine enough light to dispel the darkness.

 

The light persists

Paul begins this passage thus: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Paul and company knew deep in their bones that the mercy and love of God were essential to their doing ministry. 

We show mercy, he would say, “just as we have received mercy.” 

And that’s how the light works—it’s received, it’s given, just like grace. It’s not all up to you to do the shining.

You know that your light alone, will burn out. Maybe it already has. 

Your batteries will expire. 

The flame will extinguish. 

The wick will run out. 

And you’re not just contending with yourself here: Satan will try to keep you from living in the light. 

But as Paul says, “the god of this world” may try to keep people from “seeing the light of the gospel,” but he can’t actually touch the light itself. The so-called god of this world can’t stop or prevent or even reduce the shining of the light of Jesus. 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4012Jesus’s light is eternal… limitless; it forever burns bright. 

And that light is yours. It’s ours. 

So with the beleaguered apostle Paul, “we do not lose heart.” We wait in hope; we wait in power. 

We have the light of Christ already in part, and lean forward, eagerly awaiting the day when we’ll have Christ’s light in full. 

God has shined the light of Christ in us. 

NOTHING can darken the light of Christ. 

May God shine that light, brighter and stronger and warmer, in our hearts this Advent season.

Accordance’s Picture the NT: A PhotoCommentary of the New Testament

One of the draws of Accordance Bible Software is its graphics tools. Not only does it render existing graphic resources well (Sacred Bridge, for example), but it has its own growing suite of resources: its PhotoGuide, Bible Times PhotoMuseum, and now its newly released Picture the New Testament: A PhotoCommentary of the New Testament.

While you can search Accordance’s existing photo resources by Scripture reference already, this is their first graphics tool that is designed to specifically open parallel to your Bible, verse by verse. It’s organized, in other words, by canonical reference.

I’ve already found this helpful for lectionary-based preaching. Simply open a Bible, click on “Add Parallel,” and open Picture the NT next to your Bible of choice (and any other parallel panes). Like so:

 

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Images are high resolution. My understanding is that most of these images are original to this resource and don’t merely reproduce images available elsewhere.

 

Screenshot 2018-11-19 13.56.52

 

 

In addition to images, there are maps:

 

Screenshot 2018-11-19 13.44.05

 

Not every single verse of the NT is covered. John 1:1-3, for example, has no images, but it’s hard to imagine any images that would go with those verses anyway.

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Search fields

Even though Picture the NT functions as a verse-by-verse commentary, opening the tool in its own zone allows you to search the module through other search fields, so that you could hone in on a particular topic, for example, no matter its canonical location.

Accordance has cleverly designed the module with internal cross-references, so that if a verse would have re-used a photo elsewhere, it just hyperlinks to that other location and takes you right there.

Picture the NT currently contains the Gospels, Acts, and 1-2 Peter, with more NT pictures projected to be “added with free future updates.” It’s currently on sale; you can find it here.

 


 

Thanks to Accordance for the review copy, given to me for the purposes of this review but with no expectation as to its content.

 

Vote! And an Election Prayer

Paying Attention

 

The below is slightly modified from an email I sent my congregation Sunday.

Trying to enact Christian values in the public square and trying to map Christian virtues onto candidates and ballot questions can be challenging. There’s not a one-to-one match between what Augustine called the city of God and this earthly city.

Still, part of our calling as citizens of the kingdom of God is to be engaged earthly citizens. What Paul wrote to the church in Corinth applies to us: we are Christ’s ambassadors, joining God in his ongoing work of reconciling the world to himself. We want to be like the people God called through Jeremiah to seek the shalom of the cities in which we live.

It’s important that we bring our whole selves into the public square: our love, our hope, our witness, our God-shaped discernment, and our biblically informed values. We want to live out our faith in city council meetings and town halls and online forums and community events and in the voting booth.

Midterm elections are notorious for low voter turnout, so however our Christian convictions lead each of us to civic engagement, I hope we will make every effort—acting in good faith as both a citizen of the heavenly city and this earthly one—to vote on Tuesday. (Click here to learn more: polling places, hours, candidates, ballots.) And encourage your friends, family, and neighbors—in this state and in others—to vote, as well.

As we vote, let’s be constant in prayer for our city, state, country, world, and all who lead… that they would pursue justice, freedom, truth, and love for all people. Here’s a prayer for elections from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to help shape our praying:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.