March 14

God’s Love and the Unfaithful Bride

Two weeks ago, I received a powerful vision, both visual and verbal. Some of it was personal, including some specific instructions. Some of it was communal. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but I’ve decided to share the parts that are not personal in nature:

I am the root and the branch; I am the seed and the seedling. I am the dark and the light. At my command, the rains come and the sun appears. I am, and there is no other. Wherefore then do you ask, “Why?” I am the why, and the what, and the how. In the sunset see my hand, and likewise in the dawn. I am the soil and the sky, and I am the flame that burns in all life. Above all, I am love, for without me there can be no love any more than there can be breath. You, created in my image, were made to love. Go, then, and love this world as I do—every person, every beast, every plant, every river, stone, and mountain, for they are mine as you are mine. Love them as I love you, for so I love them also.

The land burns, therefore flee to the water. Immerse yourself in it and let it wash over you. Let it cleanse your heart, for when the fire has passed there will be new life, a new world built on the old foundation. Walk in it with wonder, my children! Walk in it with innocence and awe! For as it once was, so it shall be again: all things made new. For I will burn away the scourge of greed and cunning, of fear and violence, of self-centeredness and self-reliance. I will do a new thing, such as has not been done since the beginning, and you, my children, will have another chance. The slate will be wiped clean of all your sins, if only you will confess them and renounce them.

Look how high they are heaped! Like straw waiting for the fire they choke the fields. Like refuse they clog the streets and even the rivers! Leave them behind! Then you may be spared when the fire does its purifying work.

But woe to you who cling to the old ways, the ways of sin, who say “Lord, I am forgiven” for that which they do not confess aloud! Do you not know that promise goes two ways? Would you not divorce a spouse who is unfaithful time and time again? “I love you,” she says in the morning, but where is she in the evening? When she thinks I am not looking, does she not get drunk on the wine of her lovers? She sings to me, but she dances with them. “But surely,” she says, “he does not know.”

Unfaithful bride! You come to me, and I smell stale wine from when you drank with them, the blood from when together you slaughtered my lambs for your feast, and the scent of a luxurious perfume that I did not give you. You still wear gold jewelry given to you by those you lie with! No, you have no shame.

And yet I love you still, for the bride that you once were.

This, then, is what you shall do if you wish to reclaim my covenant: get up from that soft chair in which you lounge. Strip from your body your soiled clothes and the jewelry given to you by your lovers, and lay them on the straw outside. Walk naked to the water—yes, naked in your shame—and cleanse yourself of the stench of your adulteries.

And as you cleanse, I will burn the straw with all the evidence of your unfaithfulness. Then return to me, washed and born anew—for then your nakedness will be innocence—and I will clothe you. Sit at my table and I will feed you. Embrace me, and I will love you. Look only to me, and my covenant with you shall not be annulled, and it shall last forever.

And as for you, mortal, it is time for you to choose. Too long you have walked the line between us. You see her unfaithfulness, yet you beg me to have mercy. It is by her own hand that mercy will be gained or lost. And you, still by her side, do you excuse her harlotry? You have seen her wear the crown and turban of her lovers, and still you would stay my hand?

Choose, mortal, choose! For if you stand by her in her iniquity, you shall suffer her fate. Beg indeed, but not of me! Beg the drunkard to give up her wine, the harlot to give up her lovers and their gifts. Take her, then, to the water and wash her, if she will. But do not look to me, for her future is of her own choosing.

March 13

What If Jesus Is Lord?

“What if Jesus is Lord?” I’m not asking whether he is, but rather what does it mean that he is? We’re Americans. We abolished lords over 240 years ago. What does it mean to us to have a lord?

Our relationship with authority is somewhat different than what people of Jesus’ time experienced. We pledge our allegiance, pay our taxes, and rely on the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”– rights we consider inalienable to us, but which were unknown to anyone in the ancient world. We don’t even have the draft anymore. The vast majority of Americans do not serve and have not served this nation actively in any way. It’s not required. (Note: I didn’t serve in the military, either. I’m not criticizing, I’m just observing.)

But do we take the same attitude when we accept Jesus as Lord? Is it enough to praise him, give to our church, and go on our merry way?

“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38)

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

“Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:31)

“Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

Clearly the answer is no. Jesus actually expects us to do something. Moreover, Jesus expects us to put him first, not ourselves. Talk about un-American!

I think this is why Christianity is so difficult for us. Jesus asks us to serve him, and we don’t know what that means. Serve him a hamburger? A tennis ball? A subpoena?

People in the Roman world knew how. To serve meant to give up your freedom, do what you’re told, and die if necessary for your lord. For the privileged, there were reciprocal benefits: the lord would protect your safety and help support you. For the masses, the other 98%, it meant you could be taxed, relocated, accused, and even executed at the whim of a man (and it was always a man) in a distant city, whom you had never and would never meet.

Serving Jesus looked pretty attractive to them because it was an improvement!

To us, serving Jesus starts to sound like a lot of sacrifice.

And it is. We are some of the most privileged people in the history of the world. We don’t like to be told what to do, and we don’t like to share what we’ve accumulated.

Yet serving someone means exactly that.

Paul refers to himself as a slave of Christ (Romans 1:1), and says, “whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22). Can we even imagine such language? I suspect we can’t. Not really. None of us have been slaves, and most of us don’t descend from slaves.

Think about what it means to be a slave: to be considered property, to have no rights whatever, not even the right to life, and to have no opportunity for self-determination. You may want to become educated, but your master may have you working on the farm instead. Or vice versa.

Moreover, you don’t get to argue with your master without risking punishment.

Can we imagine such a relationship with anyone, much less Jesus?

The good news is, what Jesus asks is usually not life threatening. And the reward, peace that passes understanding, is greater than anything our economically-blessed freedom can provide.

 

March 11

Open Your Heart: An Invitation to the Kingdom

The Word came to me today. It is clearly addressed to me, and yet I think not only to me, for it contains a challenge for all who fall short of the promise made in John 14:12:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

This is the Word I received:

Walk with me, my child—do not be afraid to take my hand. You call my name, yet when I answer you turn away, like a child seeking reassurance that I am here. Now I call you. The time for playing is over. Embrace me! Come into my arms! For while you focus on your toys and games, you are still alone. Come to me, my child, that you may be held in my loving arms.

It is as if you live in a fertile valley, and you climb the foothills and marvel at what you can see. Do you look at the far-off mountain peak and imagine how much more glorious it might be there? But it is too far for a day’s journey, and you would not come home for dinner, and so you have never gone.

Look again at that peak, for there you will find me, for I have set my Kingdom on the mountain as a light to all the world! You are the heirs to my Kingdom. Will you not climb and enter? Come claim your inheritance! You are children of the promise—come, let the promise be fulfilled! Yes, you must travel far and leave your comforts behind. I promise you will not regret the journey, for you cannot imagine the glory you shall see.

Would you leave the table after the soup, without eating the meal? Why, then, do you settle for so little in your search for me? Why do you eat little when the table is so abundant that you may be filled beyond measure?

I sent you my Son to show you, and he made you this promise: that your deeds would exceed even his if you believe. Where then are your mighty works, your healings and your miracles? Why are the poor yet hungry and cold? I am the Lord! Will my Spirit not work through you if you will only ask and believe? Why then do you still turn to governments and human will?

Come into my house, for it is your house. Come to my table, for it is your table. Do not fear to embrace your father! As I embraced my Son, so I will embrace all my children—if you but ask. Do not be content to play in the yard, saying “That is my Father’s house, and there is my Father who comforts me.” Do not settle for that! Embrace me and let my love enfold you. For it is time to set aside childish things and learn to do the works that I shall do through you.

A closed heart is like a closed fist: It gives nothing and receives nothing, and is only useful for striking a blow. Open your heart! Let it be filled with my Spirit, and you shall give to all and yet never want.

 

March 5

Our Relationship with God and Each Other

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God didn’t have to create the world. He chose to. And he chose to create this world out of love. To believe otherwise is to attribute to God a mere hobby, a scientific experiment, or worse, some evil intent, none of which are consistent with an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God.

God created humankind in his image (Genesis 1:27). It is interesting to note that when God decided to create Eve, he describes her as “Helper” (Gen 2:18) using the word עֵ֖זֶר, ‘ê·zer. All occurrences of this word outside this passage refer to God as the helper (e.g. Deuteronomy 3:29, Psalm 89:19, Psalm 115:9-11 (3x), Daniel 11:34). So the relationship between man and woman was envisioned as the relationship between man and God.

Likewise, when God gives the two humans “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures (Gen 1:28), he uses the word וּרְד֞וּ, ū·rə·ḏū, which means to rule. Leviticus 25:43 and Ezekiel 29:15 both use the same root, making it clear that the model for this “rule” is the just rule of God, not the exploitative rule of human kings.

In the Garden of Eden, then, we see humanity living in communion with God and with each other. Even the relationship between man and woman is based on “helping” based in love, as God helps us. Up to this point, the woman doesn’t even have a name (Gen 3:20), for she and the man are one unit (Gen 2:24). (Lest you think that this is a sexist act, note that Adam’s name is taken from the Hebrew word אֲדָמָה (‘adamah), earth, from which he was made, and is thus more of a descriptor than an identifier. It may even be insightful to consider the relationship between the two descriptors: “earth” and “helper.”)

After they eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (Gen 3:6), something else begins to happen. They hide from God. When God confronts them, Adam blames his wife. She blames the serpent. Later, Adam gives his wife her own name, reflecting their separation. Cain murders Abel out of jealousy. No longer is there communion with God or between people.

Jesus came to heal that division. He came to reconcile us with God. One of the most poignant reflections of this is Romans 5:10:

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

We became enemies of God, and still he reconciled us to himself through Christ. Through him, we return to communion with God.

Yet Paul opines that this reconciliation is not always reflected, even in the Lord’s Supper:

[W]hen you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. (1 Corinthians 11:17-21)

He warns,

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink in an unworthy manner without discerning the Lord’s body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)

To participate in this reconciliation with God, we must also reconcile with each other. This does not suppose that reconciling with each other causes us to be reconciled with God, nor that we must reconcile with each other before we can reconcile with God. Rather, I suspect, as with the relationship between grace and works, reconciling with God cannot exclude reconciling with each other as an inevitable consequence.

If we are reconciled with God, we are driven to reconcile with each other.

And if we do not reconcile with each other, how can we fail to question whether we are reconciled with God?

February 28

John Winthrop, American Prophet

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“Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.

Therefore let us choose life,

that we and our seed may live,

by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,

for He is our life and our prosperity..

John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote these prophetic words in 1630. We may not know who he is, but we feel his influence in our culture every day. He’s the one who wrote (in the same document):

“We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

It was Winthrop who instilled in us the idea that we are God’s chosen people.

But as his words above indicate, he also recognized that we faced the same dangers as the Israelites. Just because we were (in his view) chosen did not mean we were automatically good. He warned of worshiping and serving other gods, namely pleasure and profits.

Here we are in the 21st century, nearly 400 years after Winthrop wrote. Our national religion is capitalism. We rank ourselves by our income and our wealth. We shame the poor for not working hard enough. Our heroes are not martyrs or saints, but wealthy people: politicians, businesspeople, movie stars, and sports figures. Yet, at the same time, real economic advancement is more difficult than ever, and the percentage of people living in poverty is greater than at any time since 1965. Some 32% of those living in poverty have jobs. Yet we continue to cut taxes and complain about the burden of the poor, while the tax revenue we do collect goes overwhelmingly to the military.

I don’t think that’s what Winthrop had in mind. Take, for example, this except:

Question: What rule shall a man observe in giving in respect of the measure?

Answer: If the time and occasion be ordinary he is to give out of his abundance. Let him lay aside as God hath blessed him. If the time and occasion be extraordinary, he must be ruled by them; taking this withal, that then a man cannot likely do too much, especially if he may leave himself and his family under probable means of comfortable subsistence.

In other words, in ordinary times, we are to share our abundance freely with others, but not to the extent that he jeopardizes his family’s “comfortable subsistence.” In extraordinary times, we must do more, ruled by the need of others and not by our own needs. “A man cannot likely do too much.”

Winthrop’s position was based in the Bible, but his emphasis on charity stemmed from very pragmatic concerns: he saw that extreme divisions in wealth caused a destructive division in society. Those who were wealthy tended to look down on the poor, and the poor tended to resent the rich.

Fast forward to today: That’s pretty much what has happened.

In Winthrop’s day, and for the next 200 years, towns gave fuel, food, and money to their poor. It wasn’t until the 1850s that hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Potato Famine in Ireland overwhelmed this system, and states became more involved. And yes, the Irish were hated just as much then as Muslims are today. Yet few would look back now and argue that we shouldn’t have helped them.

Now we live in a world in which half the population lives on $8 a day or less. Compare that to the median income of $75 per day per person for Americans. (Yes, this is adjusted to reflect pricing differences between countries, giving an “apples-to-apples” comparison.) No longer do the poor in America look like the poor everywhere else, in eorther numbers of quality of life, as they did in Winthrop’s day. We are the wealthy. What are we going to do about it?

If Winthrop was right, we have a covenant that calls for charity. Otherwise, we will lose this land.

February 26

Measuring the Church

I do model railroading as a hobby. My favorite part is building things: structures, bridges, and so forth. I love building a smaller (1:160) version of an actual building. But how do I know if it’s the same as the original? I have to measure it.

We use measurement almost everywhere. We measure our time, our income, and our weight. We measure the economy using GDP and unemployment. But something happens when we decide to measure something:

What we measure, we emphasize.

GDP, for example, measures total economic activity. It doesn’t take into account what is actually productive and what is wasted. So we maximize activity without looking at the quality of that activity. Unemployment measures the number of people looking for work, but not whether the rest have jobs, or how good those jobs are. Even our weight fails to tell us how healthy we really are.

What do we measure in our churches? Membership. Attendance. The size of the collection. We have three Scripture readings and five hymns. We know how long the sermon is supposed to be.

What did Jesus measure? We have no idea how many followers he had, nor does it appear that he used a collection plate. The Gospels put their emphasis elsewhere.

They measure faith. “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed…” (Matthew 17:20)

They measure the nearness of the Kingdom. “The Kingdom of God is near!” (Mark 1:15, Matthew 3:2)

They measure the number of people fed. (Mark 6, Mark 8)

The recount, and imply to be countless, healings, deliverances, and miracles.

They recount, and imply to be countless, moments of prayer and contemplation.

They measure the number of people who went out and did as Jesus was doing. (Matthew 10, Luke 10)

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) tells us to go forth, baptize, teach, and do what Jesus taught us to do. But how much does our ministry resemble his?

What we measure, we emphasize, and we don’t measure the same things.

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