Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thoughts About Who's In and Who's Out ... and John Woo.

A friend of mine is right in the middle of reading Tim Keller’s book Prodigal God. It is a very good book and that coupled with a couple of other things tonight. I found out John Woo, the famous Hong Kong director, was a member of my faith family. That is to say, John Woo is a Lutheran. Its a little like finding out the M. Night Shaymalan or Brett Ratner is a member of your cliche. For some reason (and don’t ask me, I still don’t know how my mind works), I found that Sinbad, the comedian, was raised and may still be Baptist. I looked at famous Lutherans. I don’t know if they really believe or if they do not, but I have been thinking a lot about who would Jesus call his own.
Now, I am not a Universalist. I find Universalism intellectually problematic, spiritually unjustifiable, and emotionally uncaring; but I am beginning to find there is a chasm (I do not know how wide) between Universalism and being morally good. I have been trained since I was little by culture to believe in the American Civil Religion’s notion of good and evil being the determining factor of one’s salvation. Christianity doesn’t work like that at all though. Dietrich Bonhoeffer points this out in his book Ethics. Bonhoeffer seems to state that since we have the ability to choose between good and evil it shows that something is clearly wrong. Bonhoeffer believes that we have taken a judgment that was not ours and stolen it. It would be like us deciding the pros and cons of gravity. Sure we could justify our turning off gravity or suspending the laws of physics, but is it really our place to do so?
However, I wish to return to Tim Keller and another book of his, The Reason for God. Keller is right to point out a very important fact. We are going to find a lot of people in other religions are going to be morally superior to Christians. Therein lies the danger, because if we believe that our moral superiority (whatever our moral code may be) is our basis for salvation; we no longer believe in Christ because we no longer confess “Jesus is Lord.”
Now, if I am to condemn John Woo or Sinbad for not being good enough; I am a pharisee and a hypocrite. Recently a pastor friend of mine posted a picture of Jesus hanging out with a group of socially undesirables. Arranged in the form of the Last Supper it showed Jesus hanging out with people that “good Christians” would dismiss as “thugs” and “pimps” and worse. I am not saying that Jesus wanted people to live like that, but the whole point of Jesus coming to earth was that he didn’t want people to live like that. But that same Jesus is also pointing at me too. He doesn’t want me to live like that either.
All these years of worrying about being good were done not for the glory of God, but for the glory of me. I didn’t do good things because they fit into God’s plan. I did good things because they fit into my plan. Yet, when I judge. When I look away in disdain. When I fear being associated with some “undesirable”; I am no more a Christian than the most avowed atheist, because I have denied my Christ and the life he had chosen to live. The story of Jesus is simple. God decided to live with and die for sinners. You and me, but not just you and me. We have plenty of wonderful theology that tries to explain away that truth; because the simple story is so scandalous that it makes most human beings cringe, Christian or not.

I am just as bad as the worst person that I can imagine. And that is not a comforting thought. Oh sure, I haven’t done something like genocide or ethnic cleansing. I haven’t orchestrated a massive monetary scheme that left everyone destitute and me unimaginably wealthy. I haven’t done a lot of “bad things.” Yet this pride lets me believe that I can do good things and those good things will win me the privilege to look down on others and be God’s right hand man.

I know this may seem like rambling a bit, but I cannot stress enough. This could be the beginning of something new. Let us not just say, “oh we are all equal in God’s sight” while we cling to the belief that some are “more equal than others.” Let us not look at the moral superiority of Christian or non-Christian and declare who is better and worse. Let us love one another even when it makes us untouchable to American Christianity. Let us love one another even when it makes us feel we are wrong. Let us never forget that Christ loved us so much that he came to us while we were still sinners and died for us while we were still sinners and is worshipped by us while we are still sinners. Let us understand that the Christian change does not come from the paradigm of right and wrong. It comes from the grace of Jesus Christ. A grace that is big enough to cover you and me and even John Woo. A grace that sees us not as becoming morally perfect, but rather becoming lovingly changed. Our God wants not our good works or burnt offerings. Our God wants us and no amount of church-time, or soup kitchen volunteering, or weekly tithing is going to change God’s ultimate demand for our whole hearts, minds, and lives. Because we worship a God who could care less about our moral perfection when He can have our eternal relationship instead.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Our Love Affair with Victimhood

One of my good friends lamented recently that he felt like the atheists were being persecuted by the larger society. This is interesting because when one talks to liberal Christians or conservative Christians one hears the same thing. I would wager that if we were to talk to any number of people we would hear the same complaint. I confess that I feel the same way too. Recently, I lamented to my girlfriend that I felt like Lutheranism just didn’t have a voice in the larger society. Fortunately, she called me to the carpet and asked what it really meant to be Lutheran. Of course I gave her some answers, but when I thought about it, I really couldn’t offer too much.
Everyone likes to be the victim. The rich are the victims of “levelers” and the “99 percent.” Meanwhile, the “99 percent” are victims of the rich. Depending on your Christian persuasion, you are being persecuted by someone else. Diana Butler Bass finds herself having to fight against evangelicals while David Jeremiah laments that “he never thought he’d see the day.” Israel feels itself threatened by Arabs and the Arab states feel themselves threatened by … well … everyone. And obviously, they all have their cases, which is probably the problem.
Nothing loses friends and wins enemies quite like telling someone not to be a victim. Yet, if there is one thing I learned from my parents, it is not to be one. My parents came down pretty tough on me when I tried to play it and I find that life tends to do the exact same thing. This isn’t a blog telling people that they haven’t gotten bad hands dealt them or to just suck it up (much less to capitulate and roll over), but rather to think about what kind of life they are choosing.
We live in a culture that feeds on hatred. I am not talking about the kind of hatred that we think about as our pinnacle of hatred, but the subtle hatreds as well: The angry words about the person who cut you off in traffic, the poor service you received at the coffee shop (hint, hint), and even the nabob on the sports call in show. Subtly we have begun to turn away from people. We see them as nothing more than the sum of opinions. In a culture where opinion is king (or queen), did we expect anything less? And so we protect our opinions as if they were our very nature. God help any politician who comes to the bargaining table. God help the friend who speaks up for “the other political party” at a soiree we are having. God help the Christian who has a different belief than our own.
Yet again, it is important to have your opinions. It is important to understand that your opinions might be dead wrong too. However, more important than all of this, it is important for you to know that you are not the victim. There are going to be intolerant people out there, and rather than looking at it as an issue of you being persecuted by all the intolerant people, perhaps we should really look at it as “some days you are victim and some days you are victimizer.”

We are going to hurt people, but we don’t like to think about that. Whatever happened, they had it coming. We couldn’t help it. We were just being honest. Yet when the same thing happens to us, we are immediately at the Alamo. However, pride is an interesting thing. It is amazing how lonely it makes us. We don’t stop to ask ourselves, “could I be wrong here if everyone else is so sure.”

I remember the thoughts that went through my head when I decided to leave my church body. I think a lot of people (on both sides) thought I had made the decision in haste because of a knee-jerk reaction to a single issue. I worried about that myself. Later when I decided to leave my seminary it was less because of being angry and more because I wanted to find a place that would teach me to focus on my strengths. Do I think I am victim? Of course. I am human. Its what we do. But the fortunate thing is that I know that I am very proud person and very proud people succumb to victimization much more whole-heartedly. I am thankful that I know I am proud because its like an alcoholic who has made peace with that particular vice.

My point here is that we should never be defined by what we are not, but who we wish to become. I am not saying that if your goal is to become a thief or a murderer, than you have my blessing; but I am saying that human beings were created to be more than just victims. Augustine said God is forever changing and changeless. If we are made in the image of God, doesn’t a little of that rub off on us.

When I was in Haiti, I saw poverty that would put any American to shame. I found a people that indulged in the same virtues and vices as we in the first world enjoy. However, what marked the truly amazing Haitians is the same thing that marks any truly amazing human being. They allowed their circumstances to mold them, without allowing them to control them. They felt pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, love and loss; but they felt it as a human being and not as a victim. And if the noblest of the poor can weather the cruel storms of life, perhaps there is hope for us “wealthier victims.”

I am not going to lie to any of you out there. I still feel it. There is that nudge of pride that tells me to say that I am a victim and worthy of your sympathy. Yet I realize that if I indulge in that, I will lose a great deal. I will lose friends and loved ones. I will lose the ability to share my hope, faith, and love with people that I care about. We must always take a stand, but that doesn’t mean we should unnecessarily make ourselves pariahs. Jesus exemplified this best. He was willing to be with anyone and humble with everyone. The people who were victims in Jesus’ day never heard Jesus reinforce their victim-hood, but rather fight against their injustice. The ultimate victim took on the ultimate injustice and showed us all how to fight it properly. We must be willing to sacrifice our dignity, our reputations, and our very lives for what we believe is right.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Losing My Faith in American Civil Religion.

A little while ago I had listened to some of my conservative friends opine that the march on Wall Street was awful and being infiltrated by Communists and Socialists. Many of you would have applauded when I said … nothing. That's right, nothing. I am a person who has a tendency to opine a lot myself, but as I have gotten older I have become aware of the uselessness of this. The crazy people who come into various jobs I have worked and complain about this thing and that thing have taught me something. I should re-evaluate the way I talk to people.

It has not been easy; not by a long shot. And yet, reading through the pooled ignorance of Facebook posts (some of them my own), I realize that there is something to be said for the old adage, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." I can tell of numerous statements where I have spoken some opinion only to have someone refute it with the greatest of ease making me feel the intellectual equivalent of a paramecium or Hollywood celebrity.

Yet, I don't want to just roll over and play dead. I should explain what I believe and I should start off by stating what I did believe. I was blessed to have two very intellectually curious parents and to grow up in just the right places at just the right time. My formative years were in a rural Lutheran farming community. At this time in the 1980s, I cannot conceive of a better place to grow up. Lutherans are known for being advocates of simul justus et peccator, a phrase which means "both saint and sinner." Lutherans follow the laws and rules of their faith, but do not let that get in the way of grace. They were masters of common sense (since they were farmers) and of good theological sense (since they were Lutherans).

We then moved to the suburbs of Cincinnati, which was a bit of a wake up call because I thought everyone was Christian and everyone attended church on a regular basis. The desire for mission and sharing God's message of Jesus is Lord and Redeemer of a fallen world grows when one is surrounded by such a world.

However, Christianity was not the only religion that I was practicing. I had bought into American Civil Religion. As one of my great intellectual sparring partners, David Kamphuis (pronounced KAMP•vīs) has put it, "The Constitution and the government it produces are philosophical ideas, which means they are going to be in conflict with other philosophical ideas. That is why it is hard to be a Christian and an American." I would discover this later, but as a youth I flirted with being a Democrat (because I believed the poor should be looked after), a theocratic democrat (because I believed in a Christian state that was ruled by Christian Philosopher Kings), then a communitarian (read Amitai Etzioni), finally I became one of the most hated of all political parties in America. I became a moderate.

Moderates are hated because they take each issue and examine it. They cannot be counted on (read: trusted) to vote down the party line. Take a moderate position on anything and watch your friends disappear. Liberals think you are a conservative and vice-versa. It isn't that moderates aren't passionate about things. They can be unbelievably passionate about taxes, poverty, military spending, etc.; its just that they disagree with the pre-packaged answers. Here, then is the moment of decision and it is here where I lost my moderatism.

Moderates have a choice in the end. They can apathetically shrug life's requirements for belief in something greater then themselves, or they can find a new paradigm. This is when I lost my faith in American Civil Religion and I declare it to be a half-truth and therefore a dangerous lie. Lutherans talk of the two-kingdoms theory. Unlike Calvinists, Catholics, and Anglicans; Lutheranism began to define itself in theological terms and not in tribal terms. While Calvin was setting up Geneva, the Catholics consolidated their domains (and began exporting their religion), and Anglicans developed a theology of pseudo-Catholicism with anti-papism; the Lutherans took the moderate road and thus the more arduous. We declared, in the Spirit of Augustine, that there are two kingdoms: there is a kingdom of the left (the one of laws and civil governments) and the kingdom of the right (the kingdom of grace and the church).

In today's society is tempting to flatten the two kingdoms into one. The "conservative" camp (though by no means all of them) wishes to create a secular theodicy. They wish to have American society mirror 1950s Christianity. Their temptation is understandable due to the relative tranquility of that time period and the economic progress of America. On the other hand, the "liberals" (again a broad brush stroke is being used) wish to make a) to use the words of Milton Friedman, to make Christianity so small a part of people's everyday lives that it can be drown in a bath tub, or b) to mold Christianity into something more palatable to the countercultural movements.

One could argue that this shows there is no American Civil Religion to speak of, but rather two or more ACRs. Yet, a close examination of the two reveals that they are the same in one key aspect. Both believe that the state is the most important aspect of life and Christianity merely an appendage). The "conservatives" believe it is the state which will evangelize. It is the state that true redemption and "heaven" are found. It is the state that we are working towards. The liberals believe virtually the same things. I recall a conversation I had in one of my Church History classes where we got onto the subject of George W. Bush's Faith Based Initiative. I thought being in a class surrounded by staunch Liberal Christians, it would be a fore-gone conclusion that the Faith Based Initiative would be bad since it is an obvious violation of church and state and manifestly weakens both. I was shocked to find myself in the center of maelstrom as I argued every single person in class. What I found is that Liberal Christians are just as eager for government favor as Conservative Christians. Church and state is, like all human constructs, merely a useful tool to be discarded when it becomes an hinderance.

So where am I now? I have moved to the most radical position of all. I have become a Christian.1 It is the worst thing that could have happened to me too. Conservatives and Liberals can at least dialogue with each other (read: yell at one another), because their language is similar and their telos, that is "philosophical goal," is the same. They are both working to "make America better." The Christian doesn't care about America, Europe, Africa, Asia, etc. The Christian is loyal to God and God's Kingdom. This is why Muslims treated Christians with wary unease during the wars with the Byzantines and why Buddhists in the Far East pushed out or executed Christians in their realms. It is also why Christians in Europe would persecute other denominations. It wasn't because they didn't like their beliefs. It was because their loyalty lay to something, Someone, some place other than the nation-state.

A little while ago I went to school at a place where it was bad to have conservative thoughts. It was bad to not just be against but to question the roots of poverty, homosexuality, universalism, or ecclesiology. They may deny it, but faculty and student actions would say otherwise. (I know I can be pigheaded too. I do not have the open-hearted spirit of N. T. Wright though in my defense he has nearly 63 years to cultivate it and he is English and not an Irish-American Lutheran.) When we open ourselves up to the Gospel and to the Spirit we find ourselves forced to listen more and opine less. We realize that there but for the indwelling of the Spirit go we. I am not saying this with pride (at least I hope I am not), because I did not choose to follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit came into me in the life of the church and showed me a bigger world that is full of people living out "simul justus et peccator." I found that I did not have all the answers. I found that our programs and secular reconditioning of people (be it through the "secular theodicy" of the "conservatives" or the "state church" of the "liberals") is completely different from what Christ taught and by proxy from what God wants. So, I have written a great deal about why I am trying to learn to say nothing. I think it is best to let 1 Peter 4:11 say it best:

Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Notice I did not say I was "born again." I have always been a Christian. Christianity is not something that happens all of a sudden. It is something you are born into and grow into, so that talking about when you were saved becomes ludicrous. When are you never saved?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Answer for Christians Might be Easier than We Think

(I did not edit this properly.)

I hail from a liberal mainline protestant church. Immediately this conjures up in the minds of some people a group of wishy-washy non-thinking liberals who put their own ideologies ahead of the gospel or at least substitute it with a gospel of their own creation. I can also talk to another group of people and immediately get pigeon-holed as some backwards thinking nabob with who also substitutes the gospel for a God that looks very much like the ideology personified (or perhaps deified) that I wish to serve. And I do this too. Baptists, Catholics, Lutheran Church Missouri-synod attendees, or people who go to the ELCA church automatically get pigeon-holed, labeled, and then placed on their proper shelf. If you are anything like me, you probably realize you do it as well. Its okay, there’s hope for you too as there is for me. And its called the Bible.
Now, I am not talking about the Bible that takes one verse and expands it to mean the entirity of the Bible. How would we like it if our entire lives could be summed up in one sentence or one word? How does Good Friday carry any weight without The Fall or Easter Sunday? How does love your neighbor mean anything if you don’t know what it means to be loved yourself?# To back up this point pick up a Bible (English or Greek) and you will find that many Bible verses are linked to other Bible verses. There is a theme here, but if we wish to boil the theme down to mere sentences, we risk turning it into rules and regulations and pulling it away from it being a relationship.
Who am I? Who are you? Do you want to know the answers or do you want to live your life and discover that? I am a barista, a brother, a seminarian, a son, an American, and on and on. Do any of these describe me fully? Would you want them to describe you fully? This is the gauntlet which the Christian religion not only throws down in front of the world, but in front of the church as well. To live together as individuals in community doesn’t mean that the rest of the community must follow what you believe or that you must acquiesce to the structure of the community. The question isn’t some sort of either/or because what the church demands of you is that you is to be in relationship with Jesus. And this requires us to really believe in Jesus, not just the Jesus of our imaginations. If we think about our friends and loved ones today we often get the impression of people to whom our own will is enacted. We see them as characters in sitcoms who are placed into a situation and react in set patterns. Yet if we truly were to think about how we want to be treated, we would realize this all wrong. We want to have the benefit of the doubt and for people to seriously think about what we say not just when it happens to agree with them.
Liberal Jesus, Conservative Jesus, American Jesus, Liberation Jesus, they aren’t the real Jesus. We hang them up on our walls, place them on our bookshelves, and even see their marks in our churches. But not one of them saves us. That Jesus was a real man and is the real God. That Jesus didn’t proclaim an arbitrary law but spoke of the Torah that had been written on our hearts. That Jesus didn’t give up on the people he loved, but died for all of them. It wasn’t because he wanted us to follow his teachings, but to be in relationship. There is a myth that the church is divided, but this is a myth fabricated by people who don’t understand relationships. The church is united in its love of Christ. God sees us not in our divisions or groups, but in our unity under the blood which is called simply “The Church.”

Thursday, December 30, 2010

This is Christmas?

I am going to keep this brief. Which is to say, it will be longer than I expect it to be. However, the imperfections of our expectations and the let downs of our life are uncertainties. All human beings feel cut off from one another … and … whether we like to admit it or not, we feel cut off from ourselves as well. Our society is built on some pretty shabby myths. For the most part we accept these myths because to reject them, we fear, will cut us off even further from those around us.
Recently, I have been forced to ask myself a very frightening question, namely: What is an individual? The so-called "two-Americas" have two very different views about that. Some in this country believe that the individual is the center of his or her universe. Restrictions from government or society are viewed as things worse than impositions, they are viewed as downright evil. The other extreme holds that the individual is only as strong as everyone else in the community (whatever that is). These are the people who say "it takes a village." Let me be up front, in America, both these views are inherently wrong because they have a flawed idea of "humanity."
All human beings are sinners. That is to say, we are dysfunctionally programmed from birth. This is something only one institution that I know of has had the courage to say. If something is inherently flawed, no amount of tweaking it is going to get it back to normal again because there is no "ideal system" alive in the world today. Pursuit of our own paths to an "ideal me" or an "ideal community" all end in tears and many times death. Sociopaths and lone gunmen who view their "right" as one worth killing for are just as prevalent as the ideal societies of the U.S.S.R. or Nazi Germany. A person who murders for his or her own gain is just as ideologically driven as the person who has bought into an herd mentality. Murders and cultures of murder are the order of the day, and cannot be ignored. Indeed for the survival of our species, the must not be ignored.
Into this world, we have a lot of lies. These lies are the opiates of a world bent on suicide. Whether individually or corporately we are deceive ourselves and we don't have any truth living in us. This isn't the kind of message that sells. What sells is cheap Christmas stories about Rudolf coming to the aid of his community or "brotherhood of mankind" or gifts. I have just made it through another holiday season, but I can tell you none of those things did it for me. I drove constantly to be with family and friends. It was good to be with them, but sometimes I just wanted to have some time away. Then there were the times away from others that I desperately wanted to be with people. Eventually the gift cards will be spent, the vacation from school will be over, and I will notice that all the world's problems never went away. This is the same world that we all live in.
I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt this way or the early Christians too? I would answer this question with a resounding, "yes! Of course." Any Christian who doesn't acknowledge the true hardships of the world, doesn't believe in a Messiah, because there is no need need for one. The Christian is a realist. There is real pain in the world and real suffering. It won't just go away with full bellies and kind words about "individual liberty" and "universal fraternity." Those people will be hungry and desperate tomorrow. We have kept Christ hidden in a manger and left him hanging on a cross. Angels sang to worthless nobodies and women told men with nothing to live for that Someone came to us. It wasn't an idea they wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in a manger and it wasn't a new philosophy that was wrapped and laid in a tomb; it was the God of the Universe. It wasn't the plan for life, but the planner.
It doesn't mean anything if you don't believe. I know that. However, when I look at my life and my stuff, I can't help but wonder what the point of it is. Its easy to nod our head in agreement with Bond villains as they look for ways to destroy the world. But its tough to look at God and nod our heads in agreement that it should be saved. Jesus is the great affirmation that my life is worth saving; and your life too. If this world is a plan, then we fit into that plan, right? Somewhere in that plan, there is a place for you and me and shepherds and unwed Jewish mothers and frightened first time fathers. The point is that we can't be thinking of ourselves or our groups. The Christmas story tells us that. Mary should've been cast-out of society and Joseph should have followed his own path. But these people didn't look at themselves or the group, they couldn't help but look at God.
This is the story of Christmas. We can't help but look at the Christ child in the manger. It doesn't matter if you celebrate it on the twenty-fifth of december or the sixth of January; what matters is that you keep that image of child born to all of us to take away sin. We no longer have to be the ideal person, because the ideal person already came. He already told us we aren't good enough and didn't hold back when he said life was pretty messy. But he also said he would be with us forever and ever. He said the messiness has been pardoned. He said sin is still sin, but I am still I am. And that is very comforting news for a very uncomfortable season.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Advent: Isaiah 4 - 6

Isaiah 4

I do not feel qualified to speak on this particular chapter. To our contemporary sensibilities it feels very chauvinistic. It can of course be read that way. Yet, I doubt that Isaiah meant it as a way of keeping women "barefoot and pregnant" as it were. Rather Isaiah is advocating that we have really missed the mark as it were. In contemporary America we are taught we can do everything. To need a protector is to be weak. To be able to provide or give is the only measure that we Americans respect.

Isaiah looks at the weakest and most downcast people in society (the women) and equates Israel as that. He equates himself and all those around him as women. He is asking for God to give people an identity and a name.

There is something deeply humbling for both parties in a wedding when a woman takes her husband's name. The wife loses her family's paternal name and takes the name of the person God gave to her. The husband sees he must protect a person who has his name just as Genesis 2 states, "This one is from the self-same bone as me and has the same flesh as me, her name will be woman because she's made of the same stuff as me." The name and material forces a man to come to grips with taking care of his wife just as he would his own body.

For the rest of the chapter, Isaiah predicts a world in which God will bring produce to the land he started. The crops that were given by God will honor and glorify Him. This is sometimes assumed to be a reference to Jesus, but is more likely describing Israel.

At the end Isaiah shares this promise:

Then the Lord will create
over all of Mount Zion
and over its convocations
a cloud and smoke by day
and a bright flame of fire by night;
indeed a canopy will accompany the Lord’s glorious presence.
By day it will be a shelter to provide shade from the heat,
as well as safety and protection from the heavy downpour.

- Isaiah 4:5 - 6 (NET)

Isaiah 5

At the beginning of this, Isaiah talks about a his beloved God who plants of vineyard. Even though He has done everything to protect it, but this vineyard produced wild ones instead. God is so angry that He removes all that is protecting the vineyard and decides not to tend to it anymore. He will allow for the chaos and powers of the world to destroy the vineyard because He has already done everything He can for it. Briers and thistles will grow in in there as well. It will be a wild pasture land. God took delight in it, but the people did everything to displease God. Isaiah states, "He waited for justice, but look what he got - disobedience! He waited for fairness, but look what he got - cries for help!" (5:7b)

There are people who wanted everything, but their families will not fill their houses, vineyards will not fill their winepresses and their seeds will not fill their fields. Then the armies and powers will overrun Israel.

However, one verse struck out to me. In 5:7 Isaiah says, "Lambs will graze as if in their pastures, amid the ruins the rich sojourners will graze. " With all the references to lambs in the New Testament, I couldn't help thinking that we Christians might be the grazers in God's promise.

Isaiah 6

Isaiah 6 is probably full of some of the most well-known Biblical imagery. God is in heaven and the angels are singing "Holy, Holy, Holy." Holy means set apart and one cannot miss the paradox here. God is set apart from the world and yet the "splendor fills the entire earth." It is something that will be repeated later on in Revelation 4:8.

In the face of this Isaiah realizes just who he is by comparison. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Isaiah realizes he is unclean and lives among unclean people. It is interesting that Isaiah doesn't single them out for his uncleanliness. He seems to be saying, "I'm in trouble because I am just as bad as they are."

But one of the "burning ones" who is singing praise to God comes over and places a live cole on his mouth cauterizing the sin that issues forth and sterilizing the evil. Then God and Isaiah engage in, what looks like at first glance, a puzzling conversation. However, it is far from it. God says in an ironic tone that the people have been listening all the time but don't understand and look continually but don't perceive. The point is that people are making excuses for everything they do. They don't understand why they could have gotten it wrong. It is like when we get bad grades for a test and make up all sorts of excuses as to why we just didn't have the time, but a careful inventory reveals that we had time to spare.

Then God understands that people are going to try and get out of being punished. We know of many times when we ourselves didn't feel guilt, but instead felt a need not to be punished. God gets this and realizes the people don't want to be punished for their misdeeds. They think paying a little lip service and community service (well maybe not even community service) excuse them for their criminal neglect of God and neighbor. God says no.

God says that the people are going to be carted off and their home will be desolate. There is a sadness here. God had such high hopes for this people and this vineyard. However, in the end, like Noah, God will leave a little bit to start all over again.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent: Isaiah: 1 - 3

Chapter 1

What can you really do to make someone love you? Seriously. You are either loved or you are not. There is a need by many people to think that we are somehow or other doing God a favor when we go through the motions of worship. There is a belief that God likes our macaroni pictures when we feel we have been compelled to make them.

Isaiah makes it clear God is not happy with our lackadaisical attitude:

“Of what importance to me are your many sacrifices?”
says the Lord.
“I am stuffed with burnt sacrifices
of rams and the fat from steers.
The blood of bulls, lambs, and goats
I do not want.
- Isaiah 1:11 (NET)

How often do we think of appeasing God? God mentions earlier that He brought the people out of slavery, the wilderness, obscurity, nothingness; and for what? Do you think God did this to get burnt offerings? God, who has always been in relationship, wants to be in relationship with us. God wants us to be clean, not because He is a killjoy who wants to see us unhappy and doer, but because doing right brings us closer to Him and to one another. Its just common sense.

Because of this, God will allow the wrath of the universe be it chaos or order to consume this group of people. The notion is that God has been sheltering us and by turning aside (a common understanding of why bad things happened), God was taking away His protection for His people.

Chapter 2

This chapter sees something marvelous happening. It believes that God is something that the whole world is looking for and that Israel has it.

In the future
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will endure
as the most important of mountains,
and will be the most prominent of hills.
All the nations will stream to it,
many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain,
to the temple of the God of Jacob,
so he can teach us his requirements,
and we can follow his standards.”
For Zion will be the center for moral instruction;
the Lord will issue edicts from Jerusalem.
- Isaiah 2:2-3 (NET)

This is the centerpiece of what it means to be Israel. It isn't the trade relations or the nice houses or even the temple itself. It is the fact that God lives there and tells people what the world is like. Isaiah is trying to get the people to look at their most remarkable gift: God chose to dwell with them. Isaiah's vision of people beating "swords into plowshares" and "spears into pruning hooks" seems as far off now as it did back then. There was a notion that when all loved God and the Torah, all would be well finally. Israel was created to share this message just as friendships are nice in themselves but carry the responsibility of giving of what one has in the deepest part of the human soul. Israel has forgotten this though and so have we in America or in the church. There is a poignant plea made by the prophet in 2:5. He says, "O descendants of Jacob, come, let us walk in the Lord’s guiding light."

Instead we trust in idols or human beings. If God is a lie than we have trusted human beings all along and if we have done that, than why should trusting them without the illusion of God be any different? Isaiah looks for a day when all of our idols and hero worship are thrown away and we live in synagogue (the greek word means "bringing together") with, astoundingly, the Holy and one another. This is only made possible by God allowing it to happen. God has been here though, Isaiah is saying, but where are we?

Chapter 3

God gets personal when talking about the leaders we follow. In America we make sport of our leaders and it is not hard to imagine that the Israelites did as well. However, in America we think how we would make fine leaders or how someone who says all the right (or left) words to us is a paragon of leadership. We often ascribe the best qualities to these people. We put them on the same pedestal as God's messiah if only for a purpose. They become the filter of our religion, belief, etc. Isaiah is adamant that God will have none of that because in all this hero worship we disunite ourselves from God and from one another.

The Lord comes to pronounce judgment
on the leaders of his people and their officials.
He says, “It is you who have ruined the vineyard!
You have stashed in your houses what you have stolen from the poor.
Why do you crush my people
and grind the faces of the poor?”
The sovereign Lord who commands armies has spoken.
- Isaiah 3:14-15 (NET)

In the end God, asks us what legal right to we have? We have just been carrying out His Law. He hoped we would do better than we have, but we see what a mess we make of things. Isaiah is clear that there is an ultimate Torah (that is: Law) and that God is the only one worthy of Judgment. It is out of kindness and a desire for our freedom that we are allowed to be judges, but we don't ever do a good job. There are poor and oppressed. The moneyed, powerful, and influential all have more of the Law while those without are left with less. Behind this are the armies of heaven. God has all the power and it is His kindness that leads us to believe He is soft and a pushover.

Meanwhile, the wealthy live lives of, what one sociologist has called, "conspicuous consumption." That is to say, these people show off their goods. God gave these people their wealth not to rub it in other people's faces, but to use it to glorify God. God will take away all the things of beauty and replace it with things that will manifest their shame and dishonor. These were the things they were trying to hide and cover up. How often in America are our outward signs of power and prestige, really cover-ups for our feelings of inadequacy and failure? God's bringing about humility so forcefully leads us to deal with our issues without veneer of self-reliance. There is nothing wrong with wealth, but wealth built on the backs of brothers and sisters in our human family is sickening to God. Wealth used to glorify God and not adorn ourselves is what God wants. This is the notion of selling everything we have. We are selling something to get something we need. But strong men who die in pointless battles and women who try to cover up the fact that they have lost their beauty are lies that whither in the face of a God of truth.