On Fig Trees

Something I didn’t include in my sermon for this last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.

Jesus tells his disciples a short parable, about discerning the signs of the seasons from the trees — knowing when the summer is coming when the trees put out new leaves. So, we should also know, from the signs of war and in the skies, and the very sea itself, we should understand the Kingdom of God is coming.

At the same time, Jesus specifically mentions the fig tree — a tree that bears fruit. “Look at the fig tree [συκη], and all the trees [δενδρον].”

Now, Luke lacks the story of Jesus cursing of the fig tree right after his triumphal entry in Jerusalem present in both Matthew (21:18–22) and Mark (11:12–14). (MORAL: God hates figs.) This is a story, I think, designed to show what is about to happen to Jerusalem. It will be judged, and become barren. It will no longer yield fruit, and we know what happens to such barren trees — they are cut down and cast into the fire. (Matt 7:15–20)

Luke, however, does have a fig tree story. Long before the triumphal entry, Jesus tells his disciples the following parable:

6 And he told this parable:“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? ’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6–9 ESV)

There’s a whole host of meanings in this parable (patience and persistence, as well as hope, but also right judgment — some things cannot be saved), but I think the primary intention is to consider the coming fate of Jerusalem.

I think Jesus bids his disciples to consider the “fig tree” at the end Luke, despite not cursing the fig tree, very deliberately. Not only are we to consider the signs of the coming age just as we discern the seasons from nature around us. We are also to consider that some things have run their course. They bear no fruit, and thus they will be cut down and cast into the fire. Figs are not gathered from thornsbushes, and grapes are not cut off brambles. (Luke 6:44) The judgment of God is coming, and in the case of Israel, as the armies of Rome to destroy the city — take down the tree. Only those who discern the signs right are going to escape that judgment.

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SERMON — Nothing to be Afraid Of

I didn’t preach on Sunday — instead, I played some original songs for the folks of Payne AME Church in Chatham, New York — but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Advent 1 (Year C)

  • Jeremiah 33:14–16
  • Psalm 25:1–9
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
  • Luke 21:25–36

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 And he told them a parable:“Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25–36 ESV)

And there will be signs. In the sky. On the earth. The very creation of God will be in turmoil, the highest heavens and the sea itself bearing witness to what is happening. To what is coming.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples here of fear. Paralyzing fear. Conquering fear. Debilitating fear. Fear that leaves us incapable of moving, of acting, of thinking. Of even paying attention.

Fear in the midst of violence and terror. Fear in the midst of war. A war the Jesus says will befall Jerusalem, a war that will come in “the days of vengeance,” a war that will be wrath against the people of Jerusalem, and the city itself. And those people — God’s people, God’s stiff-necked, unfaithful, disobedient people — will, according the words of Jesus, fall by the sword, be led captive and scattered among the nations of the world, and will be trampled underfoot.

We’ve seen cities burn. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen cities burn. From war, terror attack, riot, and uprising. We’ve seen cities burn. Across the Middle East, cities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya smolder and crackle under the weight of siege and aerial bombardment. We fear terrorist who have so successfully — but very sporadically — unleashed violence in our midst, attacking us in our very own cities. Not quite laying waste to them, not quite surrounding them with armies, not quite leaving them desolate. But terrifying us anyway, leaving us uncertain about some of our neighbors — can we trust them? — and what the future holds in store.

Well, let me put you at ease. There will be more. More terror. More war. More death. More desolation. Lots more. The killing and the dying and violence will continue. Feel better now?

Do not be afraid. God speaks these words, or some version of them, more than any other in scripture. Do not be afraid. And God does this when Israel, when the people of God, are most afraid. And honestly, their fear is most warranted.

The time God says this the speaks to me most clearly is that moment when Israel, fleeing from their slavery in Egypt, is caught — water in front, Pharaoh’s army closing in fast. Nowhere to go. No forward, no backwards. Nothing is left. There is no future, just desolation, despair, and pending doom. “It is because there are no graves in Egypt that you, Moses, brought us out here to die in this desolate place?” Afraid, angry, desperate, Israel has lost all hope. There is nothing left to hope for.

This is when Moses speaks the words of God — “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. … The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

Fear not. Words spoken to a frightened people, a hopeless people, a people so overcome by fear that they have given up any sense they have a future.

This is when God speaks these words to us. Not on calm and peaceful mornings, not when life is secure and we are confident, but in those moments when we have lost all hope. In those moments when it seems most clear there is no hope to be had. Fear not.

Luke’s Gospel almost begins with this admonition, do not be afraid, spoken by an angel to Zechariah when his is told he and his wife Elizabeth — they had been long unable to conceive a child of their own — will have a son, John, who will become John the Baptist. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” And again, to the young Mary, betrothed to Joseph, who hears these very same words, “do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

Fear not, Jesus tells his tiny flock in chapter 12, for it is God’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. This after a long sermon telling his disciples not to be anxious, not to worry about their futures, about where their daily bread and their clothes will come from. God knows you need these things, Jesus says, and God’s got it. God has got you. God has got us. The kingdom is ours, and we who have been called to follow Jesus will have treasure that cannot be stolen and cannot rot or rust.

Fear not. Do not be afraid.

I know, this is easier said than done. I have been overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty, and sometimes I have been truly convinced I have no future. I don’t get excited much about current events anymore — about wars and rumors of wars, about signs in the skies — and I don’t do a lot fainting with foreboding over what is coming in the world. I do, however, sometimes wonder if God has led me all this way — through Islam, as a witness to the attacks of September 11, 2001, through seminary and the humiliating and painful mess that was candidacy for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — through all off this simply to die in some forgotten corner of the world, alone and unwanted. I wonder. I truly do. Because it has seemed, at times, like there is nothing left.

Nothing to hope for.

It’s in this moment Jesus tells us — stand up straight, raise your heads, look up. Your redemption is at hand. This is not the end. You do have a future! Walk and live with confidence in the midst of the violence and meaninglessness of the world. Your redemption — our redemption — is at hand.

Stand up. Walk confidently as men and women who know you — all of you — have lives that matter to God. All of you have futures. All of you have something to hope for. And someone to hope in. Jesus.

Do not be afraid. Stay awake, straighten up, and live. Like the redeemed people we are.

Sheep And Goats

Andrew Perriman over at P.OST has been thinking about the judgement of the sheep and goats as related in Matthew 25, and he has come to an interesting conclusion — one which I share:

The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46 is a good test case for how New Testament eschatology works. It is usually read as an account of a final universal judgment, on the assumption that we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of heaven at the end of history.

The implication is that at the final judgment people will be judged according to how they treated other people—“the least of these my brothers”—when they were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or in need of hospitality. It is sometimes put forward as a biblical argument for a social justice gospel. I have some sympathy for the missional end, but not for the exegetical means.

Perriman continues:

The problem with this reading is that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel “the least of these my brothers” are clearly the disciples (cf. Matt. 10:16–42), who would face great hardship and persecution as they went about their mission in the period leading up to the Jewish War against Rome. So what is the criterion for judgment? Quite specifically, it is whether or not the nations took care of the disciples. …

When the Messiah comes, he will judge the nations not according to general ethical or religious standards but according to how they have treated Israel. Nations which have not known Israel, and more importantly have not oppressed Israel, will be spared. Those nations, however, which have ruled over Israel and trodden down the seed of Jacob—Rome at the forefront—will be given up to the sword.

As I noted, I share this conclusion. “The least of these may brothers” is typically thought to refer to the poor and needy — the people we who are followers of Jesus are supposed to help. This passage is frequently used by supporters of the social gospel as a justification. And it’s a solid interpretation from power — this is, it presumes Christians are or even should be a people in a position to help others. But I’ve grown less convinced of that. I think Jesus is speaking about his disciples — about us, the church — when he says “the least of these my brothers.”

For Perriman, this is about God’s coming judgment upon the pagan world. I don’t disagree with that, but I also see a larger horizon to this as well. The implication is clear — God will judge the world according to how it treats the church.

Again, as we find ourselves living in an increasingly hostile post-Christendom world, in which the church finds itself powerless and in exile, this is one more thing we need to remember. There will be those who are not followers of Jesus who will visit us when we are sick, or in prison (yes … prison; you ready for that?), who shared basic necessities with us. Food, clothes, water. A hostile pagan secular world will also be full of people who will respond to us, the church, in our suffering with compassion and mercy.

God’s got this. The world, its peoples, will be judged by how they treat the church. However we might feel about the condition of the world, God has got it covered.

What Exile Looks Like

A few weeks ago, a reader of this blog asked,

Charles, what would exile look like today (or in the future). Can you sketch out what exile would (will?) look like?

I think I can, and I would like this to be my contribution (such as it is) to the conversation on The Benedict Option — the talk about what preserving the church from an age of “barbarism” might look like.

First, let me say this: I don’t like the term “Benedict Option.” I don’t like the term because, while it draws from church history — specifically from the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman state — it doesn’t draw enough (or at all) on the biblical story. It sees the situation the church is in as something potentially preventable (in the ways that the collapse of Roman civilization could have possibly been better managed), and thus the product of bad policies. It doesn’t diagnose the problem, the situation the church finds itself in, properly. It is, sadly, little surprise to me that the Benedict Option was concocted largely by Catholics more interested in the teaching and history of the church than the story of God’s people in scripture. Because the Bible isn’t so much a story of a people and their encounter with the divine, but the foundation for a series of moral and philosophical precepts.

Exile, however, draws upon a rich and deeply meaningful biblical story. It tells us who we are, who God is, and how to cope and have faith in the promises of our God in the midst of our inevitable and inescapable failure. It also helps we know how that story ends. So we do not need to to worry in the interim about our clear and apparent defeat. It is not a permanent thing. We know that our redeemer lives. And that we are redeemed.

GOD’S JUDGMENT ON GOD’S FAITHLESS PEOPLE

What follows is a sketch, and the product of roughly eight years of thinking about this on my part. This isn’t as systematic as I would like, nor as thoroughly researched. I don’t have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

The most important thing to remember is that exile is the end result of God’s judgment upon Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. Israel, through it’s worship and service of false, foreign gods, will suffer God’s brutal and violent judgment. This is laid out in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28–30, again in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In each of these, Israel’s future is laid out, blessings for Israel’s obedience and curses for Israel’s disobedience. In both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28–30, the curses are far more detailed (war, death, destruction, deprivation, suffering, slavery, expulsion from the land), with Deuteronomy contained both/and language — that Israel will be both blessed and cursed but after all is done, Israel will be redeemed. This is not, as it first seems, an if/then set of promises. Rather, it is a forecast of the entirety of Israel’s coming future. Blessings AND curses, not blessings OR curses.

So, the coming judgment of God on Israel’s faithlessness cannot be escaped. And it will manifest itself in history as Israel is conquered, plundered and ruled by its enemies (Deut 28:45–51). It begins during the conquest of Canaan under Joshua and the period of the Judges as Israel refuses to fully drive out the Canaanites (whatever that might mean, anything from expulsion to extermination) and instead simply enslave them (Joshua 16:10). (Actually, God promised to do the work if Israel made the effort. Israel stopped trying after a bit.) The failure to expel or exterminate the Canaanites mean their presence in the land will be a constant distraction for Israel — including that of their gods (Judges 2:1–5). Thus, Israel falls into a pattern of serving Canaanite gods, יהוה gives Israel over to its enemies, and then after a time, יהוה hears Israel’s suffering and raises a redeemer to rescue Israel. This is the pattern for Israel’s history and ours — God gives, Israel eventually responds faithlessly, God imposes judgement and consequence, and then hears Israel’s groaning and redeems Israel, frequently violently judging those who were the very agents of God’s own violent judgment upon Israel.

This is the history that matters. And it is the only history that matters. Jesus altered how this works, bringing it to a final end, and I will get to that. But when we who are Christians look at history, we need to remember that this is the only history that contains any meaning. It is the only history that has any real moral value for us. Everything else might be a good story, but no other history truthfully tells us who we are, whose we are, what we are promised, or where we are going. If we fail to read the history of the church in light of this story — in light of the truth — then ST. Benedict doesn’t have much to tell us.

Eventually, after the united Kingdom of Israel collapses in rebellion and civil war, God adds a rejection of David and his patrimony — through which the promise of final redemption of Israel (and eventually the world) is made — to the things that will curse Israel. The northern kingdom, formed by the rebel Jeroboam, rejects David utterly (1 Kings 12:16), and goes its own ways, worshiping false gods in much the same way Israel did in the wilderness while Moses was atop the mountain engulfed by the Glory of the Lord. Kings of Israel and Judah were frequently faithless, sometimes faithful, and their conduct could determine the fate of the nation for a generation or two. Eventually, Israel succumbs to the Assyrians, and disappears from history.

7 And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods 8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. … 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day. (2 Kings 17:7–9, 22–23 ESV)

Exile and annihilation are the direct consequence of Israel’s idolatry.

Judah eventually suffers this consequence at the hands of Babylon, a promise God swears for Judah despite the faithfulness of King Josiah, who cannot — despite his efforts — undo the faithlessness and idolatry of a previous king, Manasseh:

And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (2 Kings 23:27 ESV)

2 Kings ends with the conquest and exile of Judah’s elites (the poor were allowed to remain to till the land) after Babylon successfully besieges, captures, loots, and destroys Jerusalem. It is this long war against Babylon that several of the prophets — particularly Jeremiah — address. And I will get to that in a bit.

Israel’s story is our story, the story of the church. If we are facing conquest and exile — and I believe we are — it is because we are dealing with the consequences of our idolatry. Nothing can be done to escape this.

What do I mean? Enlightenment and modernity are false gods, idols to which the church has committed itself to serve. I don’t mean just some portion of the Enlightenment or modernity — I mean the whole damn thing, from the nation-state to economics to the social sciences to progress to the sexual revolution. The church could no more accommodate modernity, or come to terms with it, than Israel could successfully defeat Assyria and Babylon. As church, we grew comfortable with our wealth and power in Christendom, and like Solomon, we modern Christians were careless and promiscuous in who we “married,” allowing and accepting false worship (of science, of moral progress, or reason — name your idol) of gods who could do nothing for us but demanded much bloody sacrifice on our part.

There is no saving the church. Not now. Babylon is at the gates, surrounding the city. Like Jeremiah told the people of Jerusalem, and as Jesus repeated, anyone with any sense will flee. Will surrender. Because there will be nothing left when the Babylonians are done with their siege. Resistance is futile.

Now, at this point, I need to say that this reading of our history is purely metaphorical. It’s a metaphor because I think history — in the sense I’ve outlined it here, as the story of God’s redeeming acts in history — came to an end with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are no new redeeming acts to follow. Everything was accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb. We await the promised new heaven and new earth, but in this long moment between the ascension and the parousia, nothing else can or will happen. No judge will redeem us. No king will rule us in justice and mercy. Human history is fun and interesting and effectively meaningless.

Nonetheless, I do believe the crushing forces of modernity and enlightenment on the church do represent God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church. We will, at some point, stand powerless before our conquerors, and we will be sent into exile. This is has been long coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

THE CHARACTER OF EXILE

This realization frees us, I think, from thinking we need to save ourselves. That somehow we can. There are several ways to approach what living in exile means, and I think all of them will and should work.

The first is contained in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in their Babylonian settlement of Tel Aviv in Jeremiah 29:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4–7 ESV)

This letter comes a response to false prophets who are predicting a quick return. That everything will soon be as it was. God, speaking through Jeremiah, says it will not. Do not live like a people waiting. Wait like a people living. Because even as an exiled people, God tells Israel:

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11–14 ESV)

Patience. In the meantime, live like this place of exile is your home.

This is not a small thing. When God calls upon exiled Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” God is asking Israel to seek the welfare of the very people who have captured and enslaved Israel, who taunt and demand songs! (Psalm 137) Seek the welfare of your enemies, your conquerors, your captors, your tormentors. Not for their good (we are asking God to bless their conquerors, remember?), but for ours. And our posterity. Because our children may inherit our captivity, but their children (or some descendant of ours) will be redeemed. Will go home.

Then there is the call of Jonah. God sends him to Nineveh, the sprawling capital of Assyria, the enemy of conqueror of Israel, to preach doom. And Nineveh repents! (Nahum lays out the sins of Nineveh in great detail, and it is worth reading his small book.) It is possible that our enemies may hear sweet reason, may understand and take to heart the warning of God, and turn their lives around. Enough so that God will relent. Because God cares even about a corrupt and idolatrous modernity. So, there will be those called to speak words of judgment and impending doom to the modern world — it may be they will listen. (It is likely they will not, but we cannot simply take that for granted.)

Finally, and most intriguing for me, there are the examples of Elijah and Elisha, who as prophetic figures spend most of their time engaging the enemies of Israel rather than Israel itself. This shows me that we can be the faithful presence of God amidst our enemies — people at war with us — and yet still be grace to and for them.

In the call of Jeremiah to live ordinary lives, the preaching of Jonah and Nahum, and the deeds of Elija and Elisha, I see Jesus — we are called to be Jesus in the world. Not a kind, generous, compassionate world of friends, but a world in which we face murderous enemies bent on our destruction, enemies who have conquered us and torment us, enemies who do not share our faith or our understanding. We are not to be defensive, or combative (I know Catholics and Orthodox have Bible books that go beyond Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, to show God present in Maccabean war of liberation against the Seleucids, but I’m not sure that understanding of our fate is all that helpful or hopeful, given that ends up with Roman occupation and the eventually destruction of Jerusalem), but rather hopeful, humble, and faithful. Our attempts to save ourselves through the deeds of our own hands end in failure and tears — our history shows us this. We are to wait upon the redemption of the Lord, knowing we already have both the reality and the assurance of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Toward that end, I see several characteristics of an exile church.

First, we are to lives intensely and intentionally relational lives with each other and with those around us. One of modernity’s great sins — a human failing that mass, industrial modernity amplifies a thousand-fold — is that human beings are mere things to be managed. Objects to be used and discarded. It is not to be so among us. We must be fully human and fully children of God to each other. This will be hard, and we will regularly fail. But in order for this to work, the structures we build must be small, places where we can purposefully engage each other as persons united in and by Christ. It may be we are going to create networks of small churches, communities, businesses — an easy thing to do in any age, but especially in ours. We won’t all like each other, and we won’t always get along. But it is important that we not treat each other or ourselves as things for pleasure or profit.

Which means we need to reclaim Christian friendship. And deal with the tyranny of the erotic that so defines our age by learning to properly restrain our passions. (Note: we will fail.) I think the fictive family that life in Christ creates — “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” — is the place to start with this. Conservative Christians have idealized and focused so much on the biological family that they cannot appreciate the tragic aspect of family life. The fictive family, created by (likely informal) adoption and acclamation, united in friendship and common love, becomes a place where the unwanted, the unloved, the abandoned can find a home and belonging.

Second, we are not to care about the political order of the world. Because our salvation and redemption does not lie in governing arrangements. Partisan politics in the United States has long been a dead end. I personally do not vote, and have not voted for years. I won’t recommend that, but I will suggest it. This does not mean we do not work with government, to seek protection for ourselves and our institutions, but we do so remembering that the city whose welfare we seek is the city of our conquerors, and we have little or no say in its governing arrangements. As Christians, we are free riders on the order of the world — we have no obligations as citizens even as we have obligations as Christians to love our neighbor. We are solely to be subjects of order, and not participants in crafting it. The realities of exile will make this easy and likely make it very clear.

Which means we are called, I believe, to live profoundly non-ideological lives. Ideologies are incomplete truths, and they tell us almost nothing worth knowing about the world. They can be useful — like the other tools of modernity and enlightenment — but they pretend to be truthful ways of explaining how the world does and should work. An exile church should be neither conservative nor liberal, progressive nor reactionary, in any meaningful sense. An exile church should have no partisan political attachments or desire a say in how political or social power is used. Rather, as followers of Jesus, it is our call to show the world there is another way to live, a way of life grounded in the truth of a God who sacrificed himself for us, rather than demanding we sacrifice for him.

Power is being taken from us. So, let us lay it down our own accord. And walk away from it.

Third (and I forgot this initially), we need to embrace liturgy and the unreasonable/irrational things our call imposes upon us. And proclaim them. Jesus was God, he died, and he rose from them dead. He will come again. Every claim we make in the Apostles Creed is an absurd faith statement, none of which can be supported by anything remotely resembling reason or evidence. Too many Christians, from argumentative Evangelicals to wanna-be Thomist Catholics believe our faith is rational and reasonable — in fact, Christianity is the definition of what is reasonable. It is not. Nothing we believe is reasonable. And we should revel in that fact.

As part of this, we need to stay grounded in the liturgy of the historic church — that practiced by the church catholic and apostolic. This way of worshiping is as old as the church, and the form keeps us linked to each other in space and time. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, time ceases to exist, we are one with Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, and one with the church triumphant. Again, nothing about this is reasonable, but everything about it is true. Liturgy is a drama and story telling that connects us to God and to each other, a truth we tell every week that forms us as a people who wait like we’re living. Our redeemer has come. And he will come again.

Finally, we live with hope, knowing that if Enlightenment and Modernity are God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, then our descendants will be redeemed. Babylon fell to Persia (it was Persian soldiers bashing the infants of Babylon against rock!), which allowed Israel to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem. Rome, which was God’s judgment on faithless Israel, fell to the church. (This, I have come to believe, is the promise of Revelation.) We have both the promise and the realization of redemption in Christ, and we can know faithfully that modernity, enlightenment and secularism will themselves be judged, and will fall. This is how our history works. Even if Christ brought an end to any meaning in secular history, we still have the story, and we still know that the history that matters is shaped that way.

Exile, as I envision it, means living purposefully in the world and with each other. It means living know we have a redeemer, a future, and hope. We plant trees, beget children, and love our neighbors and wish the best for our enemies knowing that what is really important all belongs to God.

Teaching the Faith

A short note on the subject of داعش Daesh (The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria) and how it recruits young people from across the West (and likely the world) — because it is something I will come back to again and again as I consider the overall failure of the church the catechize, to instruct the young, on the faith.

Scott Atran was interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday last week, and he had this to say about how attractive the idea of a restores Caliphate is even to Muslims who do not support داعش and its war making:

Well, so far, the counter-radicalization or counter-narratives proposed in our societies have been pathetic. First, they preach things like moderation. I often tell them, don’t any of you have teenage children? When did moderation do anything? And they’re all often repetitive, mass messaging and lecturing at young people, whereas the Islamic State takes a very intimate and personal approach. They look at each individual and sometimes spend hundreds, even thousands of hours drawing out their personal grievances and frustrated aspirations and trying to link it to a larger story of how the world should be and what they can do to contribute to it. … [W]e’ve got to provide young people the possibility for some other mode of life that’s hopeful, adventurous, glorious and provides significance. Again, we don’t provide much of anything except belief in things like shopping malls. We don’t even listen to young people. There are no programs that I know of that really allow the ideas of youth to bubble up and cultivate an alternative that comes from them.

Give the whole thing a listen. It’s worth the time.

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/456989124/456989125

Karen Armstrong, whose work on Islam and the West I’ve been reading for more than 20 years now (along with Dilip Hiro, she’s one of my favorite authors on the Middle East and Islam), echoes something similar in a recent piece in The New Statesman:

Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. [Emphasis mine — CHF] Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning.

I’ve thought a lot about how churches teach the faith to the young. (Because I’ve done some of it.) The process of catechesis (at least in the United States) is generally a product of Christendom — it’s structured like school (books, assignments, papers, curricula, programs — none of it hefty in my experience, and little of it terribly impressive), it’s an adjunct to the worship experience, it’s largely impersonal, and it assumes a Christian/Christendom community that can otherwise support faith instruction. It assumes — and rightly, I think — that faith is learned everywhere, but that what is studied in church is supposed to give shape, sense, and comprehension to a generally already “Christian” culture and “Christian” community.

Even then, I would argue that the catechesis used in America from the 1950s onwards wasn’t much help in preparing American Christians for the things they would do and experience. As Christendom was unraveling, ways of teaching the faith did not keep pace (the WWII generation was almost completely unable or unwilling to show what it meant to live and have faith in a violent world, and that puzzles me), and thus a sense that the church had anything important to say about the meaning and purpose of life, especially life in difficult or troubling circumstances, slowly unraveled as well.

Daesh shows how to do this. We build relationships, one person at a time, slowly, faithfully, purposefully. Not to do violence, but to live out what I think is an adventure — the love of neighbor as Christ loves us, a love that takes tremendous risks because it loves enemies, goes after the lost, and seeks the good of even those who wish us harm.

So, here’s what is bubbling in my mind.

I’m thinking small. A small Bible study that is also a communion service — the simple words of institution that Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 10 along with bread and wine passed around. The study of the Bible will focus on the story. Yes, it will be the story as I have come to see it — that of the call of Israel, it’s rise, its fall, its conquest, and its redemption in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible story is a story of new life out of staggering failure — the conquest of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, the death of Christ. Because my hope is to find and gather the lost, the lonely, the unloved, the unwanted, to show them just how they are God’s people — how they are part of this story of new life, of resurrection.

We’ll do this by meeting people where they are, listening, empathizing, and accompanying. We do this slowly. Despite all that has happened to me, I am theologically, confessionally, and liturgically Lutheran (for the most part; please do not ask me about Law & Gospel, I’m liable to get all unorthodox on you, and then you’ll just hate me) and this worship community will reflect that. We focus on grace, on God’s unearned gift for the world, and the response to that grace of love and faithfulness to God. God meets you where you are, but God won’t leave you there. We will also remember, however, Israel’s story of repeated failure. Of Israel’s constant need for redemption. This is why we are utterly dependent on the faithfulness of Jesus — because we cannot be faithful enough ourselves.

My hope will be this study and this worship will equip the people I teach to go out themselves and find the lost, and begin this process again. And again. And again. I am most interesting in reaching out to people no one else seems interested in, and hope to find people who can and will do that to. I’ve said this before, but I will say it again — love will be both means and end for us.

This is not a program. I do not know how it will work, or even if it will. I don’t think a lot of the catechetical materials I’ve seen take young faith seriously. And I want to take young lives — and young faith — seriously. We are failures called by God to great work and actually empowered to do that great work. That, to me, is the amazing reality of our encounter with God.

Right now, I am in upstate New York. I could try to do this work here, but our being in and around Albany is something of an accident. After more than a year, I finally have a job — a serious job, one I would never have sought but something I think I can do and actually be good at — it is seasonal (the work ends in late April, though I will continue with the company if they like what I do), so I’m committed to being here. In New York. For the duration.

But I have fostered some close and very intense relationships with young people out West (one of those relationships has given me renewed purpose, has made this vision entire vision of ministry possible with a clarity I utterly lacked before we met), and I my hope is to move out there and begin this work with them.

Mostly, though, I want to build the kinds of relationships that will help people looking for purpose and meaning in their lives to find it in the Gospel, and in a community of people committed to living out the gospel call to love and find the lost and feed sheep. To use what I have started online and see if it can happen in the real world. Love as means and end.

But there’s also more work to be done online, too. I’m not sure what that might look like, or where we’d even start that. In part, it would be good to have a network of support, people praying for the success of By The Waters of Babylon, for all the people we meet, minister to and with. There may also be a place for an online Bible study too. I don’t know how many people, if any, would be interested in that. (I’m not looking for financial support yet because I’m not ready for it.) I started with online relationships, so that should continue. I know I have to be careful how many of these relationships I personally try to maintain, especially when I’m working full time.

Whatever it looks like, we will worship God, proclaim Christ crucified and risen, teach the faith, and meet people — one soul at a time.

Love as both means and end.

No Longer Strangers

For anyone who is interested, and is near Albany, New York, I will be playing this little original song — based on Ephesians 2:11-22 — for an interfaith/ecumenical Thanksgiving service at St. James Catholic Parish in Chatham, New York, on Tuesday, November 24. (Yeah, I know, no warning.) The service starts at 7 pm, so if you are in town, and want to hear me play, come worship God with us.

The Good Shepherd

Apropos of nothing, I was thinking about this ministry I do, about these amazing kids I have found — who have found me — and the bond we have forged over the last few months. I fear this is conceited, but it strikes me as so beautiful that it brought me to tears. It’s from the Gospel of John:

2 “But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:2-5 ESV)