March 5

Our Relationship with God and Each Other

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

“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.

February 25

Oh Proud Nation!

The Word came to me again:

Look at the proud nation! How they go here and there without a thought for those they trample underfoot. “I did this,” they say. “I made these riches.” Oh, you wicked, arrogant people, have you no shame? What you have, you were given by your Lord, or else you took from someone else. You have made nothing! You are but the image of the One that is, and even that you have forgotten! My son gave his life for you to save you from sin and even death. What do you give in return? You shield your eyes from the poor, call them criminals, and blame them for their poverty.

Hear this, oh proud nation: I do not know you! For you have strayed far from my teachings, and look only upon yourselves. You cry “Lord, Lord,” but you say it as if into a mirror. Save yourselves, then, if you think you can! Send forth your mighty armies, your riches, your bankers, and your politicians. See how they fare! Beat your brows upon the cliffs of the sea until you return to your senses, or until you drown.

Rebellious children, you do not hear the language of love. Listen then to the language of consequence. You will reap as you have sown. Your fields shall burst forth with weeds and thistles—eat them! Your cup will be of poisoned water—drink it. And your mattress shall be hard with the bones of those you have trodden in your quest for riches. See then how you sleep.

When you have had enough, when you are ready to hear, turn then back to me, for I have not yet given up my love for you. But know this: it is not I who punish you, but you who punish yourselves. No longer will I shield you, for you have become spoiled children who do not learn.