ADVENT 2017 — Disbelief

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. (Psalms 27:3 ESV)

I’m afraid.

I am not confident.

I suppose that makes me faithless.

I struggle. What exactly is the point of my life, given that I’m back almost exactly where I was 20 years ago? It’s as if everything that has happened since I turned 30 was of no great value. No great difference. Didn’t even happen.

Someone recently called me whiny and ungrateful. Yeah, I suppose I am. It has been hard for me to see my life seemingly amount to nothing. Or so little. Always so much potential — meeting Jesus, a new call, a book deal, ear worm songs — that no one much seems to be interested in.

But I have to remember something — I was never promised an outcome. Except resurrection, except eternal life, and for that, I have to die first. And not just metaphorically. I really have to die first. And I don’t want to die. Not today. Not now. Not alone, unrecognized, unappreciated, ignored.

Afraid. Doubting.

I would be called, given words to speak. No guarantee anyone would listen.

I have been called, spoken words. And some have listened. Occasionally I am reminded of this. It wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I hoped for.

Who heard Stephen the day he was dragged before the high priest and stoned to death for blasphemy? Saul was there, listening, enraged, inspired to his murderous work. He’d heard Stephen speak, and I suspect Stephen’s witness worked its way in him and with him until that Damascus road trip, when it suddenly all made sense, when Jesus struck him blind.

I am not going to die. That is too dramatic, even for me.

I can’t help being afraid. But I am not alone here. I have been called, given words, and sent. I am not alone. I don’t know why I am where I am, or why nothing seems to have worked out for me the way it has for so many I know. I doubt I ever will know.

I am afraid. I am not confident.

But one who is fearless called me. To whatever end makes sense for him. And that is enough.

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ADVENT 2017 — Unsettled

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John’s weird.

John would not pass muster in a Protestant confession in North America or Europe today. He would not be licensed, or approved, or allowed to administer sacraments.

He is not respectable. He does not live the way respectable people should live. Has he been to seminary and received proper accreditation? Does he have
(or even want) health insurance and a retirement account? Does he make hospital visits or spend time with shut ins? Does he used the most recent curricula in teaching our middle schoolers the rudiments of faith? Does he stroke the egos of his biggest donors so they keep giving? Does he understand the bourgeois need to live a well-ordered life as a sign of the grace of God? No.

John understands none of this. He would, at best, be politely shown the door, the kind of person our overflowing rhetoric of welcome would not actually welcome.

But John does understand something. Something the religious people of his day clearly don’t.

“And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins [ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.]”

John knows there’s a hunger in the land — in its town and cities, among the people — to know that sins can be forgiven. To confess that sin, and to receive a sign, the cleaning waters of baptism, that sin is forgiven, that God is proclaiming redemption and forgiveness right here and right now.

John knows. He proclaims this simple thing, and a world aching to have hope goes to him, in the wilderness, to receive a sign of that hope. From a man who has nothing but what God gave him — a prophetic word, a divine promise, and a place to show the very physical reality of both.

He’s also clear — “I am not the promise.” John understands this as well. He not only proclaims signs, he is a sign. His life, disreputable as it is, is a sign. Of yet more divine disrepute. Of death and suffering. Of rising and ascending. John will lose his head because he dared to point out the sinfulness of the man who ruled Judea.

But that is yet to come. Until then, let us go to the water with him. Let us hope with him. Let us confess with him. That one is coming. To redeem us. With fire and spirit and truth.

ADVENT 2017 — Enfleshed

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:25-26 ESV)

God will do this.

God will do all of this.

There is a lot of if/then in scripture. Especially when God promises blessings and curses upon is Israel in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. “But if you do not listen to me … [and] break my covenants, then I will do this to you,” says the Lord in Leviticus.

And the promises of God here are terrible.

But God also promises redemption, and a unilateral redemption at that:

44 Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God. 45 But I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 26:44-45 ESV)

It shows us what is to come.

But what God promises to do in Leviticus for the sake of promises made to our ancestors, God tells Ezekiel that “I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name.” God acts for God’s-sake alone.

The story of Israel is the long story of God’s realization that we, the people God called, are incapable of saving ourselves, of being the people God called us to be. And of God slowly working his way to us, to meet where we are, and not where God would like us to be.

It’s a long surrender, a steep learning curve, which begins with God’s fierce anger as newly rescued Israel whines and complains and worships a gold statue in the middle of the wilderness, an anger so hot that in Leviticus, you can’t even breathe in God’s general direction without getting struck down.

It ends with God incarnate, on a cross, emptied of power and majesty, a God who came as a child to a poor and powerless human family, who loved and walked with and lived with human friends, dying the death of a rebel and as criminal, showing us — this is who you are, and this is who I am.

Cruel. Implacable. Demanding. Angry. Frightened. Violent. Alone. Abandoned. Broken. Sorrowful. Despondent.

Hopeful.

“I will…” God says. And it is finished.

ADVENT 2017 — For the Love of God

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. (Jeremiah 1:7 ESV)

I am no longer a youth.

I haven’t been a youth in some time. I’m not sure quite when that came to end. It probably doesn’t matter.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ warning in the synoptic gospels here — Matthew 10, Mark 13, Luke 12 — “So when they arrest you and hand you over, don’t worry beforehand what you will say, but say whatever is given to you at that time, for it isn’t you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11 CEV) Jeremiah has complained he is young, too young to speak well, so who would listen?

Interesting thing God promises here.

“I will send you, and you will go. I will command you, and you will speak.” And Jeremiah will be given a full itinerary. Called. Sent. Commanded. Soiled underpants, stalking the palace in Jerusalem while the city is under siege, being tossed in a cistern, eventual exile in Egypt.

But God doe not promise that anyone will receive him. God does not promise that anyone will actually listen. Which is an interesting omission, since Jeremiah is coming to proclaim judgment upon Israel — a harsh judgment, an unyielding judgment, a brutal judgment in which many will suffer and many will perish. Jeremiah has to argue with happy prophets who proclaim the exile will end quickly, and all will be as it was.

But that’s not what Jeremiah preaches. All will not be as it was. The plans God has, for wholeness and not evil, for a future and a hope, involve going through and living in exile, finding meaning and purpose in the place where Israel finds itself scattered. “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness,” God speaks through Jeremiah.

And in this broken, ruined land, houses and fields and vineyards shall be worked and sown and harvested again.

But not today. Not yet. Not for a long time, maybe.

Someone listened to Jeremiah. The words he spoke were written down. His words of judgment and hope. And this is the most important thing to remember — judgment, harsh as it may be, is never God’s final word. Redemption is. Just as God’s final answer to sin is not death, but resurrection.

But whether anyone listens …


A CORRECTION: In my previous Advent musing, “Ruptured,” I said:

And it is not Babylonians telling Israel, “This is all your fault, if only you hadn’t worshiped Canaanite gods.” It is God who has pronounced judgement, saving the harshest for his very own people Israel.

The second half of that statement is true. The first half, well, I’d forgotten this little bit of Jeremiah:

My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, ‘We are not guilty, for they have sinned against the Lord, their habitation of righteousness, the Lord, the hope of their fathers.’ (Jeremiah 50:6-7 ESV)

So, apparently, Israel’s neighbors — including probably Babylonians — did taunt Israel about its sin. And even our enemies know that our failure is a result of our faithlessness.

ADVENT 2017 — Ruptured

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. (Hosea 6:1 ESV)

So here’s the deal.

You don’t get to tell me I’m completely, largely, or even partially responsible for the crap I’m suffering through.

Not unless you love me.

Do you love me? I doubt it. You may claim to, but you speak words of judgement and condemnation. You tear me, you strike me down. You aren’t healing. You aren’t binding.

You have no desire to do any of that. I understand, I think, but that means you don’t love me. Whatever you claim, you do not love me. You fear me. Or you hate me. Or you simply find me a perplexing inconvenience, a waste of your time.

It’s okay. You aren’t the first.

God loves Israel. Israel knows they are loved. They have been rescued and redeemed — not from mere misfortune, but from their own faithlessness, from their own stupidity and their own bad decisions, from their sin. There is no abstract, meaningless misfortune in the story of Israel — that is different, as Jesus notes in Luke 13 when he speaks of those who died in the collapse of the tower of Siloam.

The disaster Israel suffers is very purposeful. And Israel is different.

It is not Babylonians telling Israel, “This is all your fault, if only you hadn’t worshiped Canaanite gods.” It is God who has pronounced judgement, saving the harshest for his very own people.

The prophets of Israel constantly speak of us and we. This is not about individual suffering, but about the fate of the whole people of God. If I find meaning in it for myself, that’s because I have found that meaning, and it made sense, spoke truth, to me. I would never try to impose it on someone else. Especially if their suffering is truly unearned.

Our God redeems, but he strikes low too. This is something Israel came to understand in its long encounter with God. A lot of suffering and despair and death were needed to make these words possible, and they are not to be spoken lightly.

Or from afar, from a place of comfort and security. They are spoken … in the midst of the disaster. By those who cannot avoid it or escape.

This God who tears down, who has led an army to our gates, who rescued us from slavery once but has also promised us a slavery we cannot escape from as a consequence of our failure, also heals and releases and sets free. This God who promised war and destruction, who commanded no prayers for us, breathes life into our dry bones.

And promises that, “on the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”

ADVENT 2017 — Contempt

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us. (Psalm 79:4 ESV)

How do you lament when you are the cause of your own misfortune? When all you have done has brought it about.

In elementary school — from the middle of fourth grade through the end of sixth, to be precise — I was bullied. Incessantly. And fairly mercilessly. And by just about everybody.

I was miserable and scared.

And I felt friendless and alone much of the time.

It was not my fault. None of the abuse heaped upon me — especially from my fifth grade teacher — was earned. A time or two I got the hackneyed advice “to have friends, you must be a friend” but had no idea what that actually meant. Or how to do it.

I hate how we talk about fault and blame. I remember, back in the late 1990s, listening to a conversation among European leftists on the BBC about the Bosnian War. There was much hand wringing over how to feel about the Bosnians, because they fought back, and thus were not properly innocent victims.

The only proper victims, the only kind you could have any sympathy for, were those who went uncomplaining and unresisting to the gas chamber.

There is only innocence and guilt. Those who are innocent, who have done nothing to earn their fate, we move mountains and drain oceans for. To those who make poor choices, who bring their misfortune upon themselves, who struggle and rage, we owe them nothing. Not sympathy, not understanding, not mercy.

There is no damnation fiery enough for the guilty.

What happened long ago was not my fault, but I have come to believe it was also more complicated than that. I had a responsibility to figure out how to live in the midst of that community, and that community had a responsibility to show me how, and to make a place for me. We both failed. And I paid a terrible price.

Responsibility. We don’t like that word anymore, not when lawyers whisper that any admission puts authorities and institutions at risk. The ELCA had a similar responsibility to show me how to fit in and make a place for me, and they failed. I tried this time. I really did. But I was not blameless either, I made many mistakes, more than was acceptable, and it ended up being easier simply to cast me aside and throw me away.

I am 50, and it is too late for me now.

One of the reasons the story of Israel, the cry of the prophets, so resonates with me is that Israel is responsible for much of misfortune and suffering it experiences. Israel, through Joseph’s clever saving of the world during famine, built the Egypt that would later enslave them. Israel would then go on, whenever the opportunity presented itself, to worship something fashioned by human hands, something that had not saved them and never could. And pay a price for it. Every time.

We forget this. It’s easy to. We’ve turned the story of Israel into a law-giving triumph that ends with Jesus conquering the world, and we sympathize with Israel such we forget their sin.

And why Jesus really came in the first place.

Every lament Israel screams into the emptiness in scripture is a response to the suffering Israel has earned. That makes it no less painful to be taunted by neighbors, conquered by empires, and cast to the four winds. To know you will never live to see your promised redemption.

We forget that the lament of sorrow and pain, the wail for justice, the plea for rescue, is cried out by a people who are not merely unfortunate, but are guilty.

And who know it.

ADVENT 2017 — Perish

I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)

Now why do you cry aloud? Is there no king in you? Has your counselor perished, that pain seized you like a woman in labor? (Micah 4:9 ESV)

“Who is responsible for you?” It’s a question I remember some drill sergeant from another training company ask me when I was an Army recruit.

One of the assumptions of basic military training is that we recruits need to learn anew the way the world works, from top to bottom. We don’t think for ourselves, we don’t go anywhere alone, we don’t do anything without orders from someone. And we aren’t responsible for ourselves in any positive way.

Negative stuff, oh yeah. “Drop and give me twenty.” Yeah. Fuck-ups were always ours. But we weren’t allowed to think, to make decisions. Our welfare was always someone else’s responsibility. And there is nothing sadder on a basic training post than a gaggle of recruits without orders or a commander. They are lost and they know it. Truly sheep without a shepherd.

Why do you cry aloud, O Daughter of Zion? Have been abandoned? Do you now do this painful thing all on your own, without shepherd, without king, without wise counsel? Do you know what to do now that you face the terrors of the world — which are here, right here, right on top of you, gathered to ravish and defile you — on your own?

You are alone.

The word of the Lord here to the Prophet Micah is harsh. “Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in labor, for now you shall go out from the city and dwell in open country; you shall go to Babylon.” The pain is difficult, unbearable, uncontrollable, and we do this on the move, in hostile land, under a hot sun, against elements that would wish us as dead as those driving us, without anyone to comfort or give hope.

Driving us. Into exile.

But God through Micah gives us a word of hope about this place we are going. “There you shall be rescued; there the Lord will redeem you from the hands of your enemies.”

We will be redeemed.

But not now. Not today. Not from our fear or our pain. Not from our enemies at the gate. Not from failure and defeat. Not from the long march into exile.

We will be redeemed. Not from these things. But in these things.

We will face terror.

And hunger.

And cruelty.

And violence.

And war.

And humiliation.

And conquest.

And exile.

And death.

But we will be redeemed.

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow me afterward.” (John 13:36 ESV)