The Reflectionary – Week of November 17, 2019

Text: 2 Kings 22:1-23:3

Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah; she was from Bozkath. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and followed completely the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, King Josiah sent the secretary, Shaphan son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, to the temple of the Lord. He said: “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest and have him get ready the money that has been brought into the temple of the Lord, which the doorkeepers have collected from the people. Have them entrust it to the men appointed to supervise the work on the temple. And have these men pay the workers who repair the temple of the Lord—the carpenters, the builders and the masons. Also have them purchase timber and dressed stone to repair the temple. But they need not account for the money entrusted to them, because they are honest in their dealings.” 

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.” 

Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.

She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’ Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’” 

So they took her answer back to the king.

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.

Reflection

Kings, kings, kings. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah had each had their fair share of kings, and most of them were not very good kings. But the king of today’s text was not like most kings. Josiah, who ruled the southern kingdom of Judah from 640-609 BC, was known as the reformer. As Josiah ascends to the throne, he inherits a kingdom that is in bad shape. His predecessor, Amon had a short reign, being assassinated only two years after becoming king. Amon’s father Manasseh, however, reigned for approximately fifty years, and in that fifty years, he did a lot of damage.

While the kings of Israel and Judah were not particularly known for their fidelity to the God of Israel, Manasseh is reckoned by the narrative of 2 Kings to be the worst of all of the kings of Judah. Much like Ahab in the north, Manasseh allowed, and perhaps even encouraged the practice of worshipping foreign gods. Whether his motivations were political or personal, we can’t really know. What we do know is that Manasseh was the poster child for forfeiting the distinctive character and requirements of the people of the covenant in order to accommodate other powers and principalities.

This is the kingdom Josiah inherited – a kingdom whose powerful couldn’t have cared less about worshipping the God of Israel. Paying lip service to God was fine, but what really mattered was political expediency and pragmatism. The ends justified the means. In today’s text, however, we see in Josiah a king who is resolved to be a different kind of king than Manasseh.

He became king at eight years old, and he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” While the text does not explicitly say what that means here, we can infer that Josiah was not only a king who truly worshipped God rather than foreign gods, but that he was also a just king.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, a significant event happened – a Torah scroll was found in the Temple that had presumably been lost for a long period of time (perhaps because it had fallen into disuse under the laxness of previous kings). The text says that when the king heard the words of the Torah, he tore his robes. Clearly, this was not only a personally moving moment for Josiah – it was a moment that called him to repentance on behalf of his kingdom. Why? Because perhaps for the first time in his life, he was hearing the words that spoke to the heart of Israel’s identity. He was likely hearing the words from Deuteronomy that call the people of Israel to live in a very particular and distinctive manner, identifying themselves as a people of the covenant. He was hearing words that gave the moral, ethical, and religious vision to his people.

Josiah called his people to repentance and renewal. He spent the remainder of his reign tearing down altars to false gods, continually calling his people to worship the God of Israel as the only God. And yet… even as Josiah earnestly sought to worship God with all of his heart, soul, and mind, it wasn’t enough. Judah had become too entrenched in accommodating false gods in the name of political expediency. Exile was not too far off.

Though we live in a very different time and place, we, too, face the struggle of remaining faithful to the vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ gives to us. We, too, live in a time and place where the Church has made all kinds of accommodations to false gods of wealth and power. We face the temptation of living in such a way that says “the ends justify the means.” Like Josiah, we might not be able to change everyone around us, but we, ourselves, can hear God’s words, tear our robes, repent and renew our commitment, and seek to live out the vision God gives to us.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where do you see us making accommodations to false gods today?
o   What vision of the kingdom has God given to you? How might you help make that kingdom a reality here and now?

Challenge

Spend some time meditating on the vision of God’s kingdom. If you would like Scripture to meditate on, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a very good place to start.

And/or 

Sometimes one of the best ways to think about the vision of God’s kingdom is to consider the faithful witness of those who have gone before us. Take some time to learn about one or several saints of the Church. Read their stories, and listen for God’s testimony through them.

Prayer

God, you are the only one worthy of worship. Give me a vision of your kingdom, and then help me to live in it, here and now. Make me a faithful witness and hearer of your words. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of November 10, 2019

Text: Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

_______________________________

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
 

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Reflection

I was recently listening to NPR when they were doing a story on how the wildfires in California were impacting vineyards and the production of wine. Naturally, wildfires are a huge threat to productivity, when they can completely wipe out a vineyard. But as I listened, I also learned a little bit more about the care and management of vineyards. Cultivating healthy grape vines is actually quite a fine art that takes a lot of care, patience, wisdom, and, of course, cooperative weather/soil/environment, etc. There are many things that can go wrong in the process that can lead to a failure to produce good, healthy, and flavorful grapes. I imagine that it must be highly stressful work to be a vintner. You have to work hard to manage the “just right” conditions, and even if you do everything according to plan, wildfires (among other things) can still come along and mess everything up.

In the Isaiah 5, the prophet begins to sing a song about a vineyard and a vintner. This vintner loved his vineyard and put everything he had into it. He managed to get the “just right” conditions. He built a watchtower so he could see and protect the vineyard from anything that threatened to come in a wipe it out. The vintner did everything according to plan. And then… and then… the time came for the crop. The grapes should have been perfect. But the grapevines yielded only bad fruit. It was all sour grapes.

In v. 3, the text shifts from the prophet singing a song about a vineyard and a vintner to God speaking in the first person. We realize that the vintner is God, and God is angry about the failed crop of the vineyard that he so carefully and attentively cultivated. God is ready to destroy the vineyard. He’s ready to let the proverbial wildfires come in and make it a wasteland where only briars and thorns can be found. In v. 7, we find out that the vineyard is representative of the southern kingdom of Judah (which is where Isaiah did his prophetic work).

But what exactly was the “bad fruit” of Judah? What was it that made God so angry with his people? The prophets in both the northern and southern kingdoms tended to have two main criticisms that they articulated over and over again: the people needed to stop worshipping idols and the people needed to stop inflicting injustices upon the vulnerable. In this instance, the accusation against the people of Judah falls in line with the second of the two criticisms: where there should justice (mishpat), there is bloodshed (mispakh), and where there should be righteousness (tsedaqah), there are cries of distress (tse’aqah).

Justice here does not simply mean appropriate punishment for wrongdoings. Justice, in the biblical sense, has a much greater breadth of meaning. Justice is about the world being as it should. It is about wrongs being made right. It is about a vision of a society where the vulnerable are no longer vulnerable, and rather than exploitation, there is equity. Justice is about a social order where all of God’s people flourish.

Similarly, righteousness also has a social component. While the word “righteousness” for us often connotes a sort of personal purity and piety, in the biblical sense, righteousness is also relational. It has a connotation of “doing right” by one another.

If justice is about creating a right order where all people can flourish, righteousness is about each person looking out for their neighbors. That sounds like the kind of world I want to be a part of. That is certainly the kind of world God hoped his people would work to create. But instead of finding justice and righteousness, God finds bloodshed and cries of distress. He finds manipulation, exploitation, and everyone only looking out for number one. Let the vineyard be destroyed, God declares.

But then, a few chapters later, we shift metaphors, but we see that God does not leave God’s people to be destroyed, after all. Instead, we find God proclaiming anew the vision of justice and righteousness that God has for God’s people. God has not given up hope!

Some days, when I look at the world around me, I become overwhelmed. On those days, I become pessimistic at best, and nihilistic at worst. I get angry at all of the ways in which we, as human beings hurt one another. I feel rage at the evil we commit. I feel like I understand Isaiah’s vineyard song.

But God doesn’t leave us with the vineyard song. God leaves us with the image of the shoot that comes out of the stump of Jesse. God leaves us with new life coming out of that which appears to be dead. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which is good news to the poor and needy. It’s good news to those who are crushed beneath the wheels of injustice. It’s good news to those who are trampled by unrighteousness. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – one that comes into existence through the gift of the Spirit. As you meditate today upon these words of Scripture, may God instill in you the vision of the kingdom and courage of the Spirit to work toward its reality.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where, in our world, do you see injustice and unrighteousness?
o   Where do you catch glimpses of God’s kingdom being made a reality? What can you do to be a part of that?

Challenge

Enjoy some grapes, or fruit, or other type of food that comes from the ground. As you eat and taste the sweetness of the food, meditate on this passage again. As you think on it while engaging your senses in this different way, pay attention to what new insights or thoughts God might be showing you.

And/or 

Consider an injustice that is occurring in your own community. It might be related to food security, access to medical care, or any number of things. Identify one thing that you can immediately do about it, and then do it. It may be as simple as taking food to a neighbor who sometimes goes without or driving a friend to a doctor’s appointment. It could be volunteering with an organization that directly addresses social needs. It might even be working to change or create laws that care for the most vulnerable.

Prayer

God, you are the great vintner and you continue to nurture your vineyard. You want your vineyard to be a place where all vines can flourish. You want your vineyard to be a place where all may find the sweetest of fruit. Cultivate me, that I might be a vine rooted in Jesus Christ. Prune me, that I might bear the good fruit of justice and righteousness. Through your Spirit, may I work with you, as you give me a vision of your world. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

 

Letter to a Wayward Church

This letter began as an exercise as I was meditating on Hosea 11:1-11 in preparation for preaching this coming Sunday. It quickly morphed into a piece inspired by the Hosea text, the Good Friday Reproaches, and Luke 15:11-32, among other things. I imagined this from the perspective of God, and while traditionally, God is referred to as Father (even though God is not actually gendered), I chose to sign the letter as “Mama,” since as I was writing I couldn’t help but to tap into my own love for the toddler who calls me “mama.”

My Beloved Church,

When you were a child, dear Church, I loved you. Out of bondage I called you. From worldly institutions I freed you. When the categories of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free mattered for where you stood, I rendered them void. You were my own beloved child, the center of my heart. I brought you up sitting at my dinner table. At my table there was no superior or inferior. From the margins and from the center, I brought you in and gave you a new vision of the world.

When Caesar saw fit to lay the yoke of oppression upon you, I gave you a kingdom far more beautiful and expansive than the Pax Romana could ever provide. When death cornered you, I opened up the door to life that can never be extinguished.

I touched the lame, the leper, the bleeding woman. I called them by name, just as I call you by name. I gave the outcast the seat of honor at my banquet. I showed you that you do not have to live by the rules of the world – the rules that keep the rich in power and keep the poor down and out. I showed you that the categories you place upon one another don’t mean a thing in my home.

When you were a child, dear Church, I dreamed that you would grow and start a revolution of grace and love – of care for your neighbor, just as I taught you and showed you how to do. I dreamed that my kingdom would spread on earth – not through conquest or the use of forced conversion, but through the abundant love you would give to everyone created in my image.

Remember how you would call upon my name? How you would only have eyes for me? Remember the zeal the Spirit put within you at the start? To you I was like the one who would lift you to my cheek and then gleefully run with you in the field, as you experienced the freedom from the constraints of empire.

To you, I was like the one who held your hand as you learned to take your first steps of your fledgling faith and community. I picked you up when you stumbled and comforted you when you were afraid.

But soon, you were walking on your own. And then you were running. And before I knew it, I found that you preferred the company of emperors and kings to mine. Before I knew it, you had traded in your white robe and basin for the imperial purple and a scepter. You made friends with the war hammer and sword, with the crossbow and battle axe. You carried them in my name. You used my cross as a symbol of dominance rather than sacrificial love.

As you strayed further afield, all while keeping the name I gave you, the name of Church, you forced baptisms of peoples under threat of death – not so they could know my grace, but so that you could make them pliable citizens of your earthly kingdom. How quickly did you forget the ways that I raised you!

Oh, you had moments where you remembered your true self. There were moments where those voices from within you tried to call you back to justice, to mercy, to reach out for my hand and walk with me. But all too quickly, you silenced those voices.

There were other times when I thought you might be finding your way back to me. When I thought your vision was clearing and you were remembering the joy of your life in my home. But you were still so entrenched in the power systems of the world that you could not or would not fully untie yourself.

You forgot that I had rendered null and void the categories of master and slave when you embarked on a centuries-long endeavor to buy and sell human beings as chattel, to prop up the economic systems that kept you powerful, all while invoking my name and twisting my words to justify it. Did you forget that I broke you free from these very things when I gave birth to you, my Church? Why, oh why, do you keep going back?

You tore people from their land, land you claimed “for me.” You brutally ravaged a people you called uncivilized savages. You forgot that they, too, were my children. You, my Church, acted the savage!

You watched and even helped as my firstborn, Israel, was rounded up and sent to death camps. You used the words of my holy book to embolden and enflame hatred against them. You forgot that you are not my only child and that I love my firstborn as much as I love you!

Why, my beloved Church have you strayed so far? Why have you set up flaming crosses and lynching trees? Why do you continue to worship the god of nationalism and white supremacy? Why do you still trample my children who don’t look like you or behave like you do? Why have you tried so hard to hold on to riches and power? Why do you endlessly debate the worth of any of my children? Why do you fight so hard to protect unjust institutions? Why do you build walls, when on the cross, I tore them all down? Do you not remember the true nature of my kingdom? Do you not remember that the last shall be first?

What shall I do with you, my Church? Shall I leave you to your own devices? Shall I wash my hands of you? I should leave you to your own destruction. I should let your rage and fear tear you apart. I’ll turn my back and leave you out in the cold. Not that you would even notice. It has been so long since we’ve truly shared life in the home I made for you. I should disown you and be done with it. I’m sick and tired of watching you live this way. It breaks my heart every time I think of how I’ve loved you. I am heartsick over you, my wayward Church.

I should lock my door and take away your place at my dinner table. I should close your bedroom door and let your things collect dust as I put you out of my mind. I should stop standing at the end of the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of you. You are too far gone. You are not the same child I once loved. You are never coming back.

But O, how can I give you up, my child?
How can I hand you over, my Church?
How can I treat you as one long dead?
How can I make you as a distant, closed off memory?
My heart will not let me. You are mine, and always will be.
How I love you still! How I will always long for you!
My heart will never grow weary of waiting for you.
There will always be a place for you at my dinner table.
Every day I will go to the end of the road, waiting to catch a glimpse of you.
Every day I will call out for you.
Every day I will sing the songs I sang to you as an infant, hoping the song will reach your ears;
Hoping the song will remind you of your true home.
I will keep on singing the songs of justice, of mercy, of love.

One day you will hear. One day, they will bring you out of your palaces, out of your stupor, out of yourselves. One day they will bring you back down the highway, the road, and then the narrow path to my home – to your home. You’ll find the door open and the table set.

My child, my beloved Church, I dream of this day. Please, let it be soon.

With Love Always,
Mama

The Reflectionary – Week of November 3, 2019

Text: Hosea 11:1-11

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
 

“Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?
A sword will flash in their cities;
it will devour their false prophets
and put an end to their plans.
My people are determined to turn from me.
Even though they call me God Most High,
I will by no means exalt them.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt,
trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,”
declares the Lord.

Reflection

Several generations have passed since the rule of King Ahab and the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Even more generations have passed in the kingdom of Israel (the northern kingdom comprising of 10 tribes) since it broke off from the southern kingdom of Judah, under the leadership of their first king, Jeroboam. In Hosea’s time, another Jeroboam has risen to power as king – Jeroboam II.

According to archeological findings, the rule of Jeroboam II had brought the northern kingdom of Israel to the greatest prosperity it had known. Of course, that meant prosperity for the wealthy and powerful. It meant prosperity for the king. It also meant a yoke of oppression and exploitation of the poor in the kingdom. Jeroboam II was a king who was skilled in negotiating trade (especially with Egypt and Assyria, who were much larger, more powerful, and potential threats to Israel), but he was also a king given to excessive shows of wealth and amusements. He also continued the practices of worship at the altars Jeroboam I had set up in Dan and Bethel. In other words, the practices of idol worship had been continuing for these many generations under the kings of Israel.

Hosea and his contemporaries (Joel and Amos), were prophets during this time. They criticized two main things: the continued idol worship and the exploitation and oppression of the poor. Much of the book of Hosea are pronouncements of judgment and doom upon God’s unfaithful people, but especially upon the powerful who lead those in their kingdom astray. Hosea, himself, in fact, marries an unfaithful woman named Gomer, whom he still loves despite her unfaithfulness. Hosea sees his own marriage as symbolic of God’s relationship with Israel.

In this particular passage today, however, we see not the doom and the gloom we find in most of Hosea. Instead, we find God wrestling with his love for his people even as they are unfaithful to him. Notice the tender and affectionate language of the opening verses. Notice the language of nurture and of care for Israel as a vulnerable but beloved little child. In these words, I can recognize my affection and tenderness towards my own son, my little toddler, who still relies so fully on me. I think of the many times I lift him to my cheek in an embrace. Maybe you can recognize your own love in these words for your children when they were tiny, or your grandchildren.

Then the text takes a bit of a turn, as God looks at them like a parent of a rebellious teenager heading down a destructive path. We see God express frustration and downright anger that the beloved child is making these choices. We get the sense that God is getting so fed up with his child that he’s about to wash his hands of Israel. It’s time for tough love. It’s time to leave Israel to his own doom. My child is still a toddler, but I know the teenage and young adult years are coming, and a wonder (and fear) what they might bring. Maybe you, as a parent or grandparent know the anguish that God is expressing here.

But then, the text takes yet another turn, and it is almost as if we are overhearing a conversation that God is having with himself. He wants to be done with dealing with Israel. He wants to just cut his child off. But then, it as if God stops, and comes back to himself, and we hear the voice of the tender parent again: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” In this text, we are reminded of the character of God. God’s very nature is one of compassion. Of forgiveness. Of second chances. God has always been thus. From the very beginning through the full realization and expression of that compassion in Christ Jesus, this is WHO GOD IS.

Remember, ancient Israel’s story was one of chronic unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. The leaders were constantly causing or at least enabling people to turn away and worship false gods. The powerful were constantly oppressing the vulnerable they were charged to shepherd and care for. This had been going on for a long, long time. God had every right to be angry, to be frustrated, to be ready to cut them off. That is, after all, how any human parent would probably feel under the same circumstances. Maybe you, yourself, have been there. But here, we are reminded that God is not, in fact human. God is holy. God is compassion. Alexander Pope’s words come to mind: “To err is human; to forgive is Divine.” Thanks be to God!

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   In what ways do you relate to God in this passage? In what ways do you relate to Israel?
o   Where have you experienced forgiveness and compassion in your life, whether from God or from others?

Challenge

Sometimes the hardest thing is recognizing the sin or pain that exists within ourselves. Take time this week to engage in the spiritual practice of journaling. Don’t think too hard about what to write, or grammar, or sentence structure. Just simply write, asking God to open up parts of your heart that need to be opened up.

And/or

Think about a time when you experienced compassion and forgiveness and what that did for you. Write a letter of gratitude to the person who offered it, or to God. If you are able to send the letter to the person, do so. It might be just what they need to hear.

Prayer

God, your love for me is beyond all comprehension. You bend over to lift me up to your cheek again and again. You hold me like a mother holding her newborn child, with tenderness and deep love. You always make room for me to sit down at your table, even when I run off and forget you, or worse, snub you and disown you. Thank you for never disowning me, even when you might have every reason. God, whose name is Love, soften my heart. May I hear your “roar” that always calls me home.  In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of October 27, 2019

Text: 1 Kings 18:17-39

When he [King Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”

“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.

Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

Then all the people said, “What you say is good.” 

Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it. 

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. 

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” 

Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. 

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

Reflection

One chapter prior to this one, the prophet Elijah mysteriously makes his entrance onto the stage of the northern kingdom of Israel, while Ahab is king. From the get-go, Elijah positions himself as one who stands against king and royal household. He makes it known that he (and God) want nothing to do with the ways of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel, and the worship of Baal and the other Canaanite gods and goddesses that Ahab has allowed to permeate his kingdom.

For Elijah, the problem of Baal worship was not simply that it was worshipping a false god. The problem of Baal worship was its social implications as well. As the scholar Walter Brueggemann writes in his commentary of 1 and 2 Kings (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2000),

The caricature that dominates Israel’s imagination is that Baalism is a socioreligious system rooted in the capacity to secure life for self by the manipulation and control of the gifts of the creator, by self-centered management that inevitably leads to an antineighbor ethic… it is a rather deep and costly conflict between two contrasting perspectives on reality that are deeply rooted theologically and highly visible in the life and social practice of the community (219).

In other words, the conflict was about more than just paying lip service to false gods. It was about the ways in which that falsehood becomes embodied in concrete ways in the life of the people of Israel. For Elijah, the people of Israel cannot have things both ways. They cannot worship God and worship Baal.  The two loyalties are mutually exclusive. It is time for Israel to make their choice.

The contest itself begins. The prophets of Baal do their best. They work themselves into a frenzy, shouting, cutting, dancing zealously, waiting for their god to answer with fire. They get nothing. Only silence. Elijah, on the other hand, goes out of his way to make it clear that when God answers, it is God and God alone. He douses the altar not once, not twice, but three times until it is saturated with water. When the fire comes from heaven, there can be absolutely no confusion. The God of Israel is the one who decisively answers. Fire comes down and consumes the wood, the stones, the soil, and even the water.

The people of Israel are reminded of God’s power. They had been seduced and subdued by the myth of Baal – that by calling upon the false god, people could control and manipulate the world for their own benefit. In this decisive act, they are called back to the affirmation and proclamation that the world is not actually theirs for the taking and bending to their own will – the world belongs to God, and God alone.

We live in a different time and place today, but in many ways, we struggle with the same temptations of Israel in Elijah’s day. We want to profess faith in God, while at the same time, we seek to lay hold of God’s creation, manipulating it and exploiting it for our own benefit. I share this further commentary from Walter Brueggemann because he articulates it so well:

…We may see that a sense of the world as a mystery from God marked by a neighborly ethic is in deep dispute, in our own day, with the reduction of life to a manipulation of technical knowledge… I should imagine that medical research, the potential of military devastation shamelessly embraced, the industrial destruction of the ecosystem, the cheapening of the life of those who are not productive, all suggest that this profound contest is replicated and reenacted often among us in policy disputes as well as in more daily decisions about neighbors (229).

For Elijah, there is no middle ground. Phew. What a challenging passage and what difficult ideas to ponder! I invite you to wrestle with them along with me.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where do you see this contest played out in our society today? How are you personally challenged?
o   How do you hear God calling you to care for your neighbor today?

Challenge

Consider the ways in which our society constantly seeks to manipulate and exploit creation for our own benefit. What is one issue that you want to learn more about? Perhaps it is about water security and safety. Perhaps it is about energy resources. Perhaps it is about carbon footprint. Take some time this week to begin learning more, and what steps you might be able to take to move away from destructive practices that affect that particular part creation.

And/or

Spend time out in God’s creation. Simply rest and appreciate that which God has made in whatever way feels best to you.

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the one true God. You were present at the creation of the world, and all things have come into being through you. Help me to care for all that you have created, recognizing that it belongs to you and not to me. Show me the places in my life where I am following “two opinions.” Speak decisively into my heart, that I may be transformed by you and for you. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of October 20, 2019

Text: 1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29

Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had gone there to make him king. When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard this (he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), he returned from Egypt. So they sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”

Rehoboam answered, “Go away for three days and then come back to me.” So the people went away.

Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked.

They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” 

But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. He asked them, “What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, ‘Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”

The young men who had grown up with him replied, “These people have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.’ Now tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’”

Three days later Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam, as the king had said, “Come back to me in three days.” The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the Lord, to fulfill the word the Lord had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah the Shilonite. 

When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king:

 “What share do we have in David,
what part in Jesse’s son?
To your tents, Israel!
Look after your own house, David!”
 

So the Israelites went home. But as for the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah, Rehoboam still ruled over them.

_______________

Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. From there he went out and built up Peniel.

Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”

After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan.

Reflection

I was a big fan of the show Game of Thrones while it had its run on HBO. I love the genre of fantasy, and if you throw in some dragons, I am definitely a fan. I had been a fan of the book series long before it became a TV show as well. What made me such a fan of the books and the show, however, was not that it was just another epic fantasy series – what made me a fan was the character development and its nitty-gritty realpolitik. The series did not shy away from playing out the often-horrifying consequences of a Machiavellian politics – a politics not based upon any kind of moral ideal or social good, but based upon pragmatically amassing and asserting power.

Today’s text reads a little bit like a scene from Game of Thrones. In it, we see how the divided monarchy arose, barely one generation after King David. For a brief recap of what happens prior to this passage: when David dies, his son, Solomon, becomes the king. Solomon continued to amass and consolidate power through political alliances (often contracted through marriage – Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines), through trade, and through major construction projects, including the Temple. Solomon was simultaneously seen as being both wise, but also as a one who was easily swayed and distracted by foreign gods.

When King Solomon dies, his son, Rehoboam succeeds him. Rehoboam, who has grown up wealthy and in a place of power, now wants to assert his power in his own right. The seeds of discontent have long been sowing in Solomon’s kingdom, and now they are brought to fruition. Jeroboam, who had previously served Solomon, but had deserted him and fled to Egypt, harboring a desire to become king over the ten northern kingdoms of Israel, at least in part because he saw Solomon’s sin of abandoning God to worship foreign gods. Once Solomon is dead, Jeroboam returns from Egypt to confront Rehoboam. Jeroboam gives Rehoboam a chance – if he will lighten the yoke placed upon the ten northern tribes of Israel, they will not rebel and they will serve Rehoboam.

Rehoboam sends Jeroboam away so he can consult with the elders from his father’s day. They advise him to lighten the yoke for the sake of peace in the kingdom. But Rehoboam is not satisfied with this advice. So instead, he consults his friends, who advise him not only to not lighten the yoke, but to make it heavier – to assert his dominance – to show them who’s boss. So this is what Rehoboam foolishly does.

And with that, the final nail is hammered into the coffin of the united monarchy. Jeroboam heads north where he is crowned as king of the ten northern tribes of Israel, while Rehoboam remains king over only the two southern tribes. Never again will the twelve tribes be united. Rehoboam continues to control Jerusalem and worship in the Temple, while Jeroboam sets up two sites for worship up north so those who belong to the northern kingdom do not have to travel down to Jerusalem to worship, thereby avoiding the temptation to worship the foreign gods that Solomon under his laxity had allowed to become a part of society.

Phew. Quite the history lesson, but perhaps also a theology lesson. Remember, that just a few generations prior to this moment, Israel had not had a king. It was not God’s desire that Israel have one. And yet, Israel demanded that God give them a king to be like the other nations. God warned them that it would not be good for them. They demanded anyway. What we see just a few short generations later is what happens when a people put their trust and hope in an earthly ruler. We see what happens to those who are put in positions of worldly power. It becomes a big old mess – full of corruption, entitlement, and power games.

Is this really what God desires for God’s people? Now take a few moments to think about our reality today. Is this really what God desires for God’s people?

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   How does this story speak to you today? What warnings or challenges might you take away from this text?
o   Who do you know who currently suffers under a heavy yoke?

Challenge

We are in the thick of gearing up for election season in our country. We probably each have a political party or stance that we tend to default to. It can be incredibly difficult to see the bigger picture or to see the way faith calls us beyond political party or candidate. Take some time today to pray, asking God to show you a third way of being in the world, apart from our embedded two-party system.

and/or 

Jeroboam asks Rehoboam to lighten the yoke of the people. Consider someone you know who would be considered to be living on the margins in our society – someone living below the poverty line, an immigrant, a person of color, a child who is currently in the foster system, etc. What can you do to lighten their load? Is there a task you can help them accomplish? Is there legislation you can lobby for? Do they have a story you can amplify?

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, I know that you are the one true King. You are the one true Savior. Help me to put my trust in you, and not in any other systems or powers or rulers. Help me to see those who suffer under a heavy yoke, and to take action to lighten that yoke as a builder of your kingdom. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

– Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of October 13, 2019

Text: 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5

All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’” 

When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.

David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

_______________

David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

Reflection

These short passages are snapshots of King David’s life, marking two significant moments – when he became King over all of Israel, and when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem to give it a permanent resting place. David, as king, certainly did much for the people of Israel, in the name of God. David, of course, is seen as the greatest king of Israel. It is significant that Jesus comes from the line of David. He’s a pretty big deal.

We know, however, that David was also a flawed human being who at times, made absolutely terrible decisions (ie. taking Bathsheba for himself and having her husband killed). How could a king who is elevated to the extent that David is also do something so vile? We often hear of David as a man after God’s own heart. At times, that may, in fact be true. But in other moments, David’s heart is anything but. So what do we do with these conflicting ideas about David? Is he a great king, or a sinner of the worst kind? Is he generous and faithful, or a murderous and selfish lecher?

It is tempting to want to place David in one category or the other, writing the other off. But when we truly pause to think about who David was, what we actually see is ourselves. We, like David, have moments where our hearts are like God’s own heart – where we are merciful, where we are loving, where we are seeking justice. But then, there are other moments, where we are not bearing the heart of God. There are moments where we take what we want, when we want it, no matter who it hurts. There are moments where we act with hatred, or sometimes even violence.

Not one of us is totally good. Not one of us is totally evil. In our polarized world, it is a great temptation to write people off as one or the other. David did great things for Israel, to be sure. He worshipped God, and gave the Ark of the Covenant a permanent home. He enabled to people of Israel to find security and to flourish for a time. When David kept the kingship of God at the forefront of his life, he lived as a man after God’s own heart. It was when he became focused on his own power and desires that he strayed.

The same is true for us. When we recognize the kingship of God in our lives, above all powers, above all governments, above all nations, above the desires of self, then our hearts are able to be in alignment with God’s. But when we become focused on other powers above God’s reign, then our hearts and our desires become distorted. You may recall when Israel first began asking for a king to rule over them, the prophet Samuel reminded them that they would regret it – that God was their king, and that if they wanted to have kings like the other nations, then they would, in fact, become like other nations where the rich oppress to poor, where the rulers consolidate power and their subjects cry out for relief. Eventually, this did happen.

There is no king but Christ. There is no one who is above him. Worship of the wrong things (idolatry) is the continual struggle of God’s people from the very beginning, up until today. Consider how you may personally be experiencing this struggle.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   In what areas of your life might you be struggling to allow Christ to reign?
o   In whom do you struggle to see any good? What do you think is preventing that ability?

Challenge

Think of that person in whom you struggle to see any good. Pray for them, and pray that you might be able to see glimpses of goodness in them.

and/or

What are the most important things in your life? How might they be in alignment with Christ’s kingship, or how might they be in conflict? Take some time to reflect and to journal about your current priorities.

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the one true King. You are greater than any power, than any leader, than any nation. Help me to live as a citizen of your kingdom, and to be able to discern what that looks like. Give me a heart that is like yours – one that loves like yours. Allow me to catch glimpses of your image in others, even in those whom I would deem my enemy. At the same time, allow me to see the sin and the evil that exists within my own heart. Lead me, transform me, make me new. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+