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+

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+

On “Raising White Kids”

While we were on vacation a couple of weeks ago, I started reading Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey. I’d had this book in my “To Read” pile for a while, and I finally had the time to sit down and begin reading it.

Raising White Kids CoverAs a pastor, a person of faith, and a human being, confronting my own privilege, prejudice, and participation in systemic racism is something that I have been wrestling with for a long time and will continue to wrestle with until the day I die. Now that Darick and I have added a tiny human into our family, it feels as though that hard work has become even more complex and challenging, as we are trying to figure out how to raise our son to be anti-racist and a champion of God’s justice in a world filled with injustice.

I imagine that many of you, fellow white people, fellow Christians, are also wrestling with what it means to be anti-racist in a society where white supremacists have been emboldened by the powerful, where xenophobia is spreading like wild fire, and where black and brown people continue to be targets of violent words and violent deeds.

Raising White Kids is providing me, as a parent, with much to think about, and much to act upon. I want to share my own wrestling with this book in the hopes that maybe it will help those of you who also want to raise anti-racist children. So, with that said, over the coming weeks (or however long it takes me to read), I will be writing about what I am hearing and struggling to understand and practice. I won’t be giving a summary of the book or a chronological blow-by-blow, but instead I will be reflecting on themes, ideas, even snippets of text that I am chewing on.

If anyone else wants to read this book as well and talk about it with me, in person or online, I’m all in!

-Cindy+

Exchanging the Truth for Lie

Some days, I ask myself the question, what would I have done if I had lived during the time of chattel slavery? During the Holocaust? During the Civil Rights Movement? I like to think I would have been one of the brave ones, leading the charge for justice. But that is a lie. My own answer shames me as I realize the truth. I would not have done enough. I would have sat quietly for far too long, as I have now.

Why have I sat quietly? I don’t entirely know. Perhaps it is because my place of privilege allows me to ignore things that are not happening to “me and mine.” Perhaps it is because I am easily overwhelmed by the scope of what is happening. Perhaps it is because the truth is just too damn ugly and hard to face.

holy family icon
Holy Family Icon by Kelly Latimore

There have been people who have been speaking the ugly and hard truth for centuries – indigenous people, people of color, immigrants, the disenfranchised. I don’t belong to any of those groups. I’m a white, middle-class female married to a white, middle-class man. I have worked hard to get where I am in life, but I’ve had many advantages along my way. I’ve never had to worry about how to pay for my education. I’ve never had to worry about having a social safety net. I’ve never experienced oppression other than a little bit of misogyny. I’ve never dealt with persistent violence in my neighborhood. I’ve never had to flee my home because the danger of staying there is greater than the danger of crossing a border. I just do not know what it is like to experience any of those things because I had the random luck to be born in a particular social location, none of which was of my own making.

It would be much easier for me to keep listening to the progressive narratives that exist around me – that our country is making progress, that we are naturally becoming more just, that the American dream is alive and well – but that would be a lie. And I don’t want to live my life based on a lie anymore.

Every morning when I get up, I spend a few moments alone in the quiet, often reading the news before my toddler wakes up. In the early hours of this morning, I sat, reading the news, and yet another story of tragic loss came across my screen. A young father and his 23 month-old daughter drowned in the Rio Grande while desperately trying to seek asylum. But as I read, the softness and dilution of my own words hit me. This was not a “tragic loss.” A tragic loss is something that is often largely unavoidable – a freak accident, an aggressive illness that takes a life too soon. This was not a tragic loss. This was a travesty – this was a denial of justice – this was a symptom of systemic evil and sin.

St. Augustine defined sin as curvatus in se, which means that we are curved in upon ourselves, so that we do not see God and we do not see others – we only see ourselves. I continue to believe that this is the best definition of sin, and it certainly characterizes this moment in our collective life. The loudest narrative being proclaimed today as gospel truth in our country is the gospel of (white) America first. It’s the gospel of military might. It’s the gospel of wealth. It’s the gospel of walls. This gospel is a false gospel. We have exchanged the truth for a lie.

Evil is in our midst, and it’s metastasizing.

child cage iconWe know this is so when we barely blink an eye when the lives of those seeking to be free from violence are denied asylum in a country whose motto was once so proudly declared: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”

We know this is so when we say, “well, that [read: detention, separation, death] is what they get for trying to enter illegally.”

We know this is so when there are children, in our country, in the “care” of the government, who are living without their parents and in conditions no person ever should.

We know this is so when there are many, who without missing a beat, defend this practice of dehumanizing children.

In my silence, I have lent credence to this evil, to this false gospel that has been lived out in various ways over the centuries. I do not wish to perpetuate this false gospel any longer. As a follower of Jesus and an ordained clergywoman in Christ’s holy Church, I am called to proclaim the true gospel – the good news that is for ALL people.

The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends borders. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends nation-states. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends cultures. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends age, sex, gender, ethnicity, race, ability, and whatever other boundaries we try to create for ourselves.

The gospel of Jesus Christ tears down the dividing lines and abolishes the categories of “us” and “them.” The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims “we.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims good news to the poor, frees the prisoner, gives sight, and sets the oppressed free.

The gospel of Jesus Christ lifts up the lowly and elevates children and women.

The gospel of Jesus Christ scatters the proud and arrogant and dismantles empire, bringing down rulers from their seats of power.

The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims, “whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ promises that those who are lost or forgotten are the guests of honor at his table.

The gospel of Jesus Christ declares that love of neighbor is inseparable from the love of God.

The gospel of Jesus Christ compels me to action. I can no longer stay silent. I can no longer stay still. I can no longer live based on a lie. I can no longer perpetuate a false gospel.

May God forgive me for my complicity and show me how to live differently.

– Cindy+


Here is a link to get you started with more information of how you might choose to take action in this moment.

 

 

 

What is Good?

Most people don’t set out to be the bad guy. Most people don’t commit acts of evil for the sake of evil. Throughout my college and graduate school years, as I studied philosopher-theologians like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, they helped me begin to understand that we, as human beings, are all motivated by our own perceived good. In other words, everyone acts to their own benefit; to their own good. Even those whose actions we would say are the most vile, like those of the Third Reich, or the Khmer Rouge, or ISIS, did not perpetrate evil for the sake of evil – it was, instead, for what they perceived to be good – for the sake of self-preservation, for the sake of power to further the (righteous) cause of the nation/party/ideology, and to eliminate perceived threats to their way of life. And yet, we can look at the actions of these three examples and say in clear and certain terms that the acts they committed were atrocities – immoral, unethical, repugnant, evil.

st-augustine-of-hippo-icon-703See, that’s the thing about sin. That’s the thing about our sin. It blinds us. It distorts our understanding of true Good and instead replaces it with our own self-perceived good. St. Augustine defined sin as incurvatus in se, which means we are so curved in on ourselves that we see ourselves before anything else – before God, and before others. Our first instinct is to feed our own desires. This can manifest itself in many ways. It can manifest in the ways we often think of when we hear the word “sin.” It can be evident in the ways we (read: I) act in gluttonous ways, gorging myself on food that just tastes too good, even when I know it is detrimental to my health. It can be evident in dysfunctional sexual relationships. It can be evident in excessive drinking, in gossiping, in lying. But sin can also be evident in our desire for self-preservation. Sin can be evident when I erect boundaries around myself and what I consider to be mine.

A couple of years ago I watched a movie called “Conspiracy,” which dramatized the Wannsee Conference of 1942, where Third Reich officials came together to strategize on how to deal with the “Jewish problem” as put forth by Hitler. What made the movie so chilling was the way in which the men who were gathered discussed and strategized in such a business-like way over this “problem.” As they shared in refreshments and conversation, they moved closer and closer to the “final solution,” which was the wholesale extermination of the Jewish population. For the officers present and participating in this meeting, they believed that they were working for the betterment of Germany – for the preservation of the German people. They so strongly believed that they were working for what they saw as the good of their people and their country that they were able to completely dehumanize a whole people group. “Better to eliminate the threat and protect our own,” they said. History has told us of the atrocities that followed.

“Better to eliminate the threat and protect our own” is something we see repeated over and over in our society today. We see it when we categorize people as “us” and “them.” We see it in “America first,” in our policies around border crossing, in the backlash American Muslims have experienced, and in the way we systemically continue to treat people of color. Most people don’t set out to be the bad guy. Most people don’t commit acts of evil for the sake of evil. Most people act for their own benefit or protection. This makes sense in a world mirred in sin. But, for people who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, for those who call upon his name, repent of their sin, and entrust themselves to his transforming grace, there is no longer any excuse. If, for St. Augustine, sin is being curved in on one’s self, then salvation, freedom in Christ, is the process of becoming uncurved – of having our spine straightened out – so we no longer look first to our own desires and interests.

Now that I have a child, I understand better than I ever have about wanting to protect something with everything that I have. I understand better than ever the desire to build up a wall of protection around him so that nothing bad will happen to him. I understand better than ever the power of fear and what that could lead me to do in the name of protecting me and mine. But I also understand that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). As a Christian, I am called, through the power and grace of God, to grow in love – love of God and love of neighbor. As a Christian parent, I am also called to teach my son what this means, and that means showing him. That means welcoming the stranger, caring for the vulnerable, working for justice. It means putting aside my own self-interests, my own perceived goods, for the sake of the Good of God. It means offering compassion and mercy for those in need. It means foresaking worldly powers, refusing to worship worldly regimes, and recognizing that unjust laws are no laws at all.

Mister Rogers says it well: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

fred rogers

The Christian story is one that shows us that God continually breaks down the boundaries that we erect. It shows us that the stranger, the outcast, the hurting, the least of these, are the ones who are brought from the edges into the center of God’s kingdom. The Christian story is one that shows us that love, not fear, is the most powerful force, and that Christ came not to be served or to claim power, but to serve and to give himself away for the sake of us, when we were still “other.” When we choose to follow Christ, the breaker of walls, we can no longer say, “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” I pray that what I perceive as good will come into alignment with what God deems as Good. May we all see with the eyes of God, love with the heart of Jesus, and move with the power of the Holy Spirit.

– Cindy+

Understanding Revelation: Only One is Worthy (Chapters 4-5)

Wilfrid J. Harrington writes, “The great throne dominates Revelation: a constant reminder that God rules even in our chaotic world.” As we move into chapters 4-5 of Revelation, the setting of John’s vision shifts to this “great throne”. In Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, revelationThe Heavenly Throne Room.jpgs are mediated to the human recipient in two ways: in the form of dreams/visions, and in the form of other worldly journeys. Chapters 1-3 of Revelation fall under this first type, while chapters 4-5 shift to something more similar to the second type where John is called up and shown a heavenly throne room. As John’s vision takes him to the heavenly throne room, he, and we, find this central theme in the text – that God alone is worthy to receive the believer’s total allegiance.

Again, as we explore the imagery of these chapters, remember that John is not attempting to present a blueprint for the future or a road map for the end of the world. His approach is not logical or sequential, but creative. His visions are variations on a few related themes. Revelation is a book we are meant to creatively experience, rather than to dissect line by line.

We find a number of symbols present in the throne room imagery, which communicate to us some truths about what it means to worship God and God alone. The following are some of the notes I shared during the Bible study:

Rainbow – reminds us of God’s covenant with Noah; a sign of God’s mercy that tells us there is to be no triumph for God’s sovereignty at the expense of his mercy

24 Elders – The identity of the 24 is not entirely clear – a common interpretation is the 12 tribes of Israel + the 12 disciples; another is a doubling of the 12 tribes of Israel, thus representing both Jewish and Gentile believers, ie. The totality of the Church. They are heavenly exemplars of pure worship of God, in contrast with worship of the emperor that is occurring on earth

Thunder and Lightning – conventional imagery used for theophanies (appearances or manifestations of God) in the Old Testament

Seven Blazing Lamps – similar to the 7-branched menorah in the Jerusalem temple; John says they represent the seven spirits of God – affirming the wholeness of God’s presence and work

Sea of Glass – ancient Hebrew cosmology (understanding of the world/universe) conceived waters as below the earth and above the firmament (the dome covering the earth), and water was seen as a representation of chaos, evil, and the untamed part of creation. Here, the sea is made calm under God’s rule and presence

4 Living Creatures – modified from imagery in Ezekiel 10; representations of the highest order of angels who stand closest to the throne of God; cherubim and seraphim are described as the highest orders of angels in the Old Testament, and they are usually depicted as winged creatures that have characteristics of both animals and humans

Scroll with 7 Seals – legal documents were often written on one side of a scroll, then folded, sewn together, and sealed, with a summary of the content written on the outside – this scroll could represent the kingdom of God that is conveyed by the work of the Lamb; it could also represent the purposes/plans of God for all of creation, which are effected through Jesus; seals were used not only to safeguard a document, but they also identified the source of the document – the only one who can open the scroll is the Lamb

Lion or Lamb? – Jesus is originally described as the Lion of Judah – an image of a fierce and conquering ruler. John looks around for this Lion, but instead of a lion he finds a lamb with the marks of its slaughter. “Lamb” is the most prominent title for Christ in Revelation, appearing 28 times

Lamb’s 7 Horns – symbols of power and strength

Lamb’s 7 Eyes – symbols of God’s presence and knowledge, demonstrating that the Lamb acts with the authority of God

At the center of these two chapters (and really the whole of Revelation) is a question about worship. Who do we worship? To whom do we give our allegiance? The Christians who lived during the time of the writing of Revelation were faced with some difficult decisions to make about how they chose to live, especially in relationship to the Roman empire.

The Roman empire was incredibly powerful – the emperor held ultimate authority over the empire, and he knew it. Roman emperors had even taken to claiming divine status, and demanded that Roman citizens worship him as a divine being. Christians were faced with this difficult choice: refuse to participate in the imperial cult of emperor worship and likely face some form of persecution, or go through the outward actions of participating in the imperial cult, even if they believed differently in their hearts, and avoid persecution. For John, the choice was clear. Faithful Christians can do nothing other than worship the one true God. To do anything other was a complete denial of faith.

Chapters 4-5 center around the absolute worship of God. The heavenly throne room is centered wholly around God, who is in the center. The attention of all of the creatures and elders is focused solely on the one whom they worship. There is no room for anything else. Worship, in Revelation, is a political act. Through worship, one declares one’s own allegiance and loyalty. Through worship, one reaffirms again and again that commitment. Those who worship God cannot give allegiance to Rome or its emperor.

Furthermore, chapter 5 gives us a picture of the character of this God that we are called to give our whole allegiance to. We find that the one who is worthy to open the scroll is the one on the throne – and the one John finds on the throne is the Lamb who was slain.

Lamb
Lamb of God, 6th C in dome of Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna 

This was a surprise for John, because he was expecting to see a fierce, conquering Lion, the Lion of Judah. But instead he finds the Lamb, bearing the marks of execution. As Mitchell G. Reddish points out, “Through this imagery, John declares that the only ‘conquering’ that is consistent with the values of God is conquering that occurs through self-sacrifice and love, not through violence.” At the center of Christian worship is a ruler who does not claim authority through violence or force, but through the giving of self for the sake of the other. This is fundamentally contrary to the ways that the kingdoms of the world, like Rome, work.

As the scene in the heavenly throne room continues to unfurl, we see who else is participating in the act of worshipping the Lamb – it has moved from just the creatures and the elders to include tens and thousands, and they sing a song of praise and honor, recognizing that people from every tribe, language, people, and nation are included in this new reality. There are no barriers; there are no divisions. The Lamb has broken all of those down.

We have much to ponder from these two chapters. They raise many questions for Christians today, living in America. To whom or what are we ultimately giving our allegiance? Where have the lines between worship of God and worship of empire been blurred?  How do we tell the difference, and how are we called to live faithfully in such a time and place? Read the two chapters again, and reflect on these questions. I’ll leave you with another word from Mitchell G. Reddish for you to ponder, a word which may or may not sit well with you. Whether it rubs you the wrong way, or whether it resonates with what you experience, take some time to pray and ask God to reveal what it is to be faithful to the Lamb today.

“American culture lays claim to the allegiance of the church. Patriotism becomes entwined with religious faith. American flags are placed in churches; churches hold patriotic rallies. Capitalism is seen as a divinely ordained economic system. Caesar demands to be worshiped, and too readily the church obeys. As a result, the message of the gospel is subverted, and the church becomes a willing participant in the deification of nationalism. To this situation, also, the book of Revelation declares, “You must not do that. Worship God!”

You can read the introduction here and the blog on chapters 1-3 here.