How Long, O’ Lord?

A reading from Habakuk, the first chapter.

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
(Habakkuk 1:1-4 ESV)

How long, O’ Lord?

I suspect many of us have cried this, wondered this, whispered this. Words sent into the air, to evaporate, to decay, unheard.

How long, O’ Lord?

The world is full of violence. It is full of wickedness, and it goes unpunished. There is injustice everywhere. “Why do you make me see it?” This is our world.

This was also Habakkuk’s world. He is speaking to the later kings of Judah, kings who failed to follow the law and worship God, kings who put their trust in wealth and power and in the worship of false gods.

10 And the Lord said by his servants the prophets, 11 “Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, 12 therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 13 And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. (2 Kings 21:10–13 ESV)

Judgement is coming, and it’s coming because of Israel’s faithlessness. Because of Israel’s idolatry. Because of Israel’s sin. This is God’s message to Habakkuk too, as he stands and wonders how much longer he must see, must live with and bear, the violence and injustice of the world.

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
(Habakkuk 1:5-7 ESV)

Judgement is coming, in the form of Babylon, to to pluck up and destroy. “They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.” (Habakkuk 1:9) It is coming, and it is coming in God’s time.

To the question of “How long, O’ Lord,” God answers, soon and very soon.

It’s a judgment Habakkuk says he will wait quietly for.

But it is not a perfect justice that is coming. It is a rough justice, one of violence itself. It is justice because those who live in comfort and ease, who live and profit and get pleasure from brutality and violence, will themselves fall to the sword and will themselves become captives.

Babylon is the means, the hands doing God’s work, but Babylon is not free from that very same judgement. “Woe to him that builds a town with blood” God tells the prophet of the Chaldeans. The cup Babylon has made others drink will itself be passed to Babylon. And the Chaldeans shall be made to drink.

This is little comfort, however, when you live in the time of violence and injustice. When what you see all around will not stop. Cannot be made to stop. In which no one who wrongs you or anyone else will ever be held accountable. But perhaps knowing those who wrong you will themselves eventually fall by the sword — a sword which itself God will avenge himself upon — is enough.

… the righteous shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

We live by faith, in the promise of God, that this violence is not all there will be. Habakkuk did not live to see the promises of God fulfilled. But he trusted God. And waited “for the day of trouble” — knowing he would likely die waiting. Sometimes that is all we have.

It’s a terrible answer. To know that you may never be rescued, may never be redeemed. It is a terrible faith.

But the faith we have, the faith we confess, isn’t quite so hopeless. “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to the repentant thief dying with him. We believe in a redemption so real that we do not have to wait for it. We are saved, redeemed, right now, even if we can hold nothing in our hands and see nothing in our world that shows us we are redeemed.

We live, as Christ lived. We die, as Christ died. And we will rise, as Christ rose.

That is the only answer I have in the face of the violence and injustice of the world. It is the only hope I have. It is the only truth I can confess.

It is the only thing I know that’s real.

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How To Suffer

I was at mass Monday morning at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Moses Lake, sitting listening to one of the readings for the day when something hit me that I’d never considered before.

This, as an aside, is why scripture should be listened to and not just read. It’s a different experience, this listening, and different meanings come across. It’s how most early Christians got scripture, by listening to it recited.

By listening to the stories told, and the letters read. Out loud. In the assembly.

At any rate, the reading was from the first chapter of Job:

6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6–12 ESV)

He will curse you to your face. Such are the words of Satan, the adversary, to God in the assembly. And it came to me that Job is not so much an intellectual discourse on the meaning of suffering as it a guide, a how to suffer.

Job doesn’t curse God, at least not initially — “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” he says (1:21), and then he rebukes his wife later, saying “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10)

Later in the book, he does lament about his hopeless state, he does wonder where God is, even as he confesses his hope in his eventual redemption, he speaks words of despair and hopelessness, and the book ends with no real answer to Job’s suffering, save that God is inscrutable and who are we to question?

Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?

This is, I think (without doing a further study on the whole of the book, which I’m not doing here), a guide, how to think about and live into suffering — earned and unearned. Blessing and curse are both the gift and promise of God. Job speaks as one who had much, and thanks to the ministrations of Satan, has lost everything save for his life.

In this, it is perfectly acceptable to lament. To wail. To groan. To cry out. To wonder what the point of life is, and wouldn’t it have been better had I never been born? Where is God, and why is God silent? To even accuse God, as Job does, of working against what God in his goodness has willed into being.

All of this is acceptable. It is faith.

But Job never gives in to his despair. He never surrenders. He may wish he’d never been born (in this, I am reminded of a young woman who recently told me she wish her neighbor had actually killed her when he pointed a gun at her and threatened to do so), but he persists in living. Even as he breathes death.

That persistence in the face of a harsh, pointless struggle, is what matters here. It is Jacob, wrestling all night, not letting go, fighting so intensely that God has to play dirty to make it stop.

God here plays dirty too. “Who are you to even question me?” God asks Job. It’s a cop out, a lousy answer, one delivered from on high, spoken from impenetrable and unknowable authority. But it’s also true.

The point here, however, is not about God. It’s about us. It’s about tenacity. It’s about living. It’s about grabbing hold and not letting go. Even if nothing makes any sense.

Even if there seems no point, no relief, no salvation, from any of it.

SONG – Lazarus

So, one of this Sunday’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is one that has always made me giggle a bit.

4 “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
and calves from the midst of the stall,
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
6 who drink wine in bowls
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”
(Amos 6:4-7 ESV)

I’ve always found the bit about “idle songs” intriguing, since I spend a lot of time writing idle songs. I don’t have a harp, but I suspect in our day and age, the guitar and ukulele would work as instruments to call down woe upon the one who strums them idly.

Which would be me, I suppose.

And that reminds me, where is my bowl of wine?

At any rate, the reason I did not post a contemplation or reflection on this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 16:19–31, the rich man and Lazarus) is because I’d written a song about it — this song, “Lazarus,” and it’s the first Scripture song I’ve written in a long, long time.

I didn’t get to play it this Sunday, but I hope to play it soon.

Speaking of which, I want to come play my songs at your church. Let me know when I can come…

On Being Forgiven

I was perusing the first couple of chapters of Leviticus yesterday afternoon, between noodling on my guitar and reading online essays, when I noticed something beginning in chapter four that seems crucial to the whole system of repentance and sacrifice:

And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנִסְלַח לָהֶֽם (Leviticus 4:20)

Some version of this is repeated four times in chapter four, which describes sin offerings for sins by the priest (which brings “guilt upon the people”), the whole congregation, a leader, and one of the common people. In each instance, the priest will accept the sacrifice required, make atonement, and forgive the person who is seeking forgiveness.

This is for sins committed without intention to sin — accidents, mistakes, forgetful or thoughtless moments. It’s clear here intent is important. One who intends to sin is measured by a different standard.

Which makes sense to us.

What struck me here is how central forgiveness is here. The priest shall make atonement, and they shall be forgiven. There is no examining of the heart here, no querrying of intentions. To bring the required sacrificial animal to the priest, one without blemish, is enough. That in and of itself signals a desire to repent, to atone, and then have that atonement accepted and forgiveness — סָלַח — is required. At least here.

This is true for individual sin and collective sin:

If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally [make a mistake], and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known… (Leviticus 4:13)

Yes, this requires an understanding of sin — its being revealed, made known, and guilt realized — but that requires atonement made, and once atonement is made, the sinner(s) forgiven.

But forgiveness … is pronounced. To all who come, knowing they have sinned or having had their sin made known to them, and wish to repent.

yomkippur

This strikes me because the church (especially the liberal church) has confused inclusion with forgiveness. Yes, inclusion of those formerly excluded by the teaching from the community of God’s people is a prophetic promise and a gospel realization (Acts 8:26–40). Those who had been excluded may indeed feel themselves broken, unclean, cast out, rejected, and certainly understand the welcome of Jesus to eat at his table — even to sit at the head! — as long promised redemption.

They may also feel like sinners, having been told most of their lives they are sinful simply for being who they are, and excluded for their own good. And the good of those gathered at the table.

But sinners are also those who have done wrong, made mistakes, and through their acts, separated themselves from the presence of God in the tabernacle at the heart of God’s people. The church still struggles with that residue of pietism, of being the true body of Christ, of being a people pure and sinless, a people in no need of redemption to begin with. (If you need God’s grace, you clearly haven’t earned it!) The church — liberal and conservative — would still rather be that church, I think, than deal with this real, bloody, messy, gut-spilling work of atonement.

And forgiveness.

Belonging … Or Not

David Brooks is at it again.

This American creed gave people a sense of purpose and a high ideal to live up to. It bonded them together. Whatever their other identities — Irish-American, Jewish American, African-American — they were still part of the same story.

Over the years, America’s civic religion was nurtured the way all religions are nurtured: by sharing moments of reverence. Americans performed the same rituals on Thanksgiving and July 4; they sang the national anthem and said the Pledge in unison; they listened to the same speeches on national occasions and argued out the great controversies of our history.

All of this evangelizing had a big effect. As late as 2003, Americans were the most patriotic people on earth, according to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

Recently, the civic religion has been under assault. Many schools no longer teach American history, so students never learn the facts and tenets of their creed. A globalist mentality teaches students they are citizens of the world rather than citizens of America.

Critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates have arisen, arguing that the American reality is so far from the American creed as to negate the value of the whole thing. The multiculturalist mind-set values racial, gender and ethnic identities and regards national identities as reactionary and exclusive.

And he continues:

Sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism. When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America. We’re fortifying our foundational creed. We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us. We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled.

If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence we will have lost the idea system that has always motivated reform. We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives.

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms.

You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism, which erects barriers between Americans and which is the dark opposite of America’s traditional universal nationalism.

Brooks’ presumes participation in the rituals fosters both a sense of inclusion and actual inclusion itself. He cannot imagine an America built on deliberate exclusion, that participation in the rituals is a gesture often demanded and frequently compelled not because it makes us all fellow citizens in solidarity with each other, but because it is creates a hierarchy of who is worthy and who is not.

We can still be strangers when we sing and pledge.

kids-saying-pledge

The solidarity Brooks yearns for here is frequently nonreciprocal. Sacrifices, loyalty, and love are often demanded, but rarely returned.

Let’s think of the most important ritual of the church — eucharist. Many churches reserve it for insiders, for members, for those who have confessed their sins and gotten right with God. Being at the table, taking bread and wine, shows that you belong, that you have done the long, hard, purposeful work of belonging. That you have learned to “discern the body,” as Paul wrote, when you eat and drink. And thus take no judgment upon yourself.

I don’t argue much with this view, since it has deep historical roots and legitimacy (“The doors! The doors!” as the Orthodox say, harking back to a time when the unbaptized were ushered out of our most sacred mystery). Nor do I feel excluded when a pastor or priest tells me I cannot take communion. (Though I do get miffed when a Lutheran tell me no, since I believe I am entitled to an opinion on that matter and I think they get what it means to be church wrong.)

America’s nationalistic rituals — the rituals of our civic faith — feel this kind of exclusionary to me. You can be at the table all you want, but if the priest and the people around you see you as a sinner, for whatever reason, there simply is no belonging. And unlike religious ritual (though, sadly, like too many religious communities), there is no meaningful repentance and penance.

Once a sinner, always a sinner.

I get what Brooks wants. An America, united in purpose and faith, even as we are divided by creed and color. This is a powerful story, developed and honed in the 20th century as Americans struggled against forces that sought to extinguish difference in ideological or racial uniformity.

But he fails to appreciate there can be no in without an out. And often, that out is right in our midst, a reminder that enemies and nonbelievers lurk among us. I honestly have no idea how they are identified — how I was singled out — but it happens. We are not all happy members of some great ecumenical holding company, with our share of stock and our little vote.

Some of us are singled out. And no mere recitation of words, or singing of a song, can save us. Can make us belong.

Divorce & Grace

The lectionary reading for the coming week in Luke skips over an awkward bit of scripture (as if the parable of the dishonest manager isn’t awkward enough) and takes us straight to the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

Of course, I’d like to deal with that awkward bit of scripture.

14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.

18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:14–18 ESV)

The Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for the previous parable, for a tough teaching on grace and survival in the face of looming judgment (for the Pharisees were the dishonest managers being dismissed, and Jesus was essentially telling them how to save themselves and at the same time show grace to those they managed).

I’m curious about everyone forcing their way into the kingdom. What does Jesus mean? How does this relate to the parable of the dishonest manager, to the reaction of the Pharisees (who don’t think there is conflict in their service of God and their love of silver, and who do not want to believe judgment is coming), to the teaching of the torah itself?

I don’t have an answer. I’m merely asking a question. Musing on the subject.

And here is that teaching on divorce. As I’ve written before, I’ve come to believe that the church’s historic teaching on divorce — that marriages are indissoluble — is probably correct, if for no other reason that with all the sin, disobedience, and faithlessness (murder, rape, war, adultery, wife stealing), we have no examples in scripture of divorce itself. The teaching does not specifically prohibit it (except when a man seduces or rapes a young woman not betrothed, he must marry her and can never divorce her, Deuteronomy 22:28–29), but the teaching also doesn’t encourage it either.

More to the point, the history doesn’t.

But … suppose what Jesus is saying here is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Meaning that he isn’t banning or forbidding second marriages or even adultery. The Torah forbids it, and yet we have plenty of it in the history (especially when we get to David). What does one do with sinners? What does Jesus do with sinners? He receives them, eats with them, and forgives them.

divorce1

Perhaps this is just a statement of a fact — you who abandon wives to marry new ones, you who marry women who have been divorced, you have sinned. Are sinners. This giving and taking is not the faithfulness of God, who loves Israel despite her clear and abhorrent infidelity.

That is the measure of a marriage — self-giving faithfulness in the face of betrayal and abandonment. Few of us can live that way

Now, whether Rome is right to deny the divorced the grace of the communion table, I don’t know. I do believe that for all Rome gets right, its love of Athens and reason force Rome (and much of the rest of the church) to believe, justify, and explain a good, created order order that scripture seems largely unconcerned with. The teaching may tell us how to behave, and demand that good behavior, but the grace and presence of God seems contingent on our needing to be redeemed, which means we have to be suffering the consequences of our sin (or of those who came before us), rather than compliantly behaving ourselves.

Grace is for sinners. Adulterers. Murderers. Thieves. Those invested in and who profit from an abusive and rapacious social order. And those they brutally exclude. It cannot be for anyone else.

An Open Canon?

Andrew Perriman took on N. T. Wright’s five-act approach to reading scripture with this blog entry last week, and it’s worth reading.

Perriman has really influenced how I approach scripture, especially how we read ourselves into the overall story here. What strikes me most about this blog entry is how Perriman takes on the creation-centeredness of Wright’s — and by extension, our — theology.

I have complained in the past that out theologies are far too creation centered. That we take the literal start of the book literally — our thinking about our relationship with God (and his with us) must start with “In the beginning…” Perriman helped me see that all of that is a warmup to the real story, which begins with Genesis 12 and God calling Abram and his family either out of Ur or (depending on how you read the text) somewhere in the wilderness of Haran.

The church has put itself in a place where it has to explain and justify from creation, of God’s good creation and well-ordered world, which led to convoluted mess of natural theology and the wholesale adoption of Greek ways of thinking. God, in much of church thinking and teaching, is first and foremost creator, and redeeming in something we encounter later.

This also forces the church to attempt to explain redemption in ways that, frankly, aren’t helpful.

But if the story starts with Abraham’s call, then it assumes the creation. Indeed, scripture rarely attempts to explain creation or justify it as good or well-ordered. God is first and foremost encountered as redeemer, the one who calls and commands to “go” and “follow” and “do not be afraid.” Creation is mostly assumed, and the need for redemption felt and understood — often as a cry for help — but not theorized or intellectualized. Scripture is the story of an encounter with, an experience of, of God, and an attempt to make sense of that encounter, of who we are, given that God made Abram certain promises. It is not really a set of ideas, principles, or values.

We are God’s fallen people. We know we are fallen, we see the condition of our lives. We need to be redeemed. We don’t really need to understand why we are fallen, except maybe to know that we are bearing the consequences of not just our sins, but those of our ancestors, who set into motion through their sin and faithlessness the situation we find ourselves in. We cry out for redemption, and we know — God will redeem us. God always does.

The question is always: where is our God right now?

Perriman believes Christendom was a fulfillment of a promise given by Christ, and then again through Paul, that God would judge the pagan empire and subject it to Christ’s rule. I’m less convinced of this, though if we are faithful to the story of Israel, Christendom’s history mirrors that of biblical Israel. Because Christ fulfills all promises, however, the most that history is for us is metaphor. The rise and fall and exile and redemption of Israel gives us a way of understanding the rise and fall and failure of the church.

However, Perriman says something very interesting as he reconsiders the five-act structure of scripture:

Act 5 The people of God and global secularism: the people of God in the West is still struggling to come to terms with the collapse of Christendom, but slowly a new self-understanding, a new modus vivendi, and a new missional purpose are emerging. Where we go from here remains to be seen—and perhaps prophesied.

How we read ourselves into the story we have is what matters. And Perriman is suggesting here that we may have to be attentive to the presence of God in our midst in ways that make us far less scripture — or better, word — focused. That we have to be ready for prophetic voices to rise up, and proclaim both God’s judgment upon the church as well as God’s promise of deliverance (both fully realized and not-quite-yet in Christ).

It means the possibility of a reopened canon, or a partially reopened canon. Because it will be difficult to sort it all out as competing voices all claim inspiration, or at least prophetic faithfulness. We already do this, since we cannot read scripture without an interpretation, without an understanding of what it might already be saying, so this is nothing new. I doubt we will add to scripture, not formally, but Perriman understands it will take new prophets to help us here what God is saying to us in the collapse of Western Christendom, and how to discern the presence of God with us at a time when all seems to be slipping from our hands.