Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Death – Again

February 16, 2021

I’ve written repeatedly over the years on the topic of how a Christian approaches death and burial (here, here, here, here, and here). I keep revisiting the topic because the topic continues to be revisited in our larger culture. Burial was considered the norm for many, many years. In part because of religious tradition and no doubt in part to simply not having many other options. But these days, options are what people are all about. And as awareness increases of the rather unhealthy amount of chemicals normally used to prepare a body for burial and the amount of space dead people take up, options continue to evolve. Not surprisingly some of these options embrace some rather non-traditional (to say nothing of unBiblical) approaches to creating a palatable way of thinking about death and the great beyond (or lack thereof).

The latest article is here. As opposed to burying, burning, or liquifying the body, this option turns human bodies into compost in the span of 30 days by letting nature take its course, probably with a bit of eco/bio – friendly encouragement. The result is compost, literally. Fit for use in your garden or wherever.

Once again, when I die, I expect my body will decay. That will happen regardless of the particular means by which my body is disposed of. But how my body reaches that state of decomposition and why can matter a great deal, particularly as a Christian who hopes and trusts in the resurrection of the dead, and therefore of the Biblical beauty and dignity and sanctity my human body is imbued with. Unlike many other religions and philosophies the Bible is unilaterally pro-matter. Matter matters, you might say. We are created physical and spiritual beings. Our wholeness exists in the combination of the spiritual and the material. The Biblical picture of life after death is not immaterial or incorporeal but very, very human. Perfected, to be sure, but human – body and spirit.

If you’re interested, a handful of good Biblical reference points on this would include Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, John, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, just to name a few.

As such, I want those who live on after me to know what my hope is. What my trust is. What I look forward to. And therefore what I do with my body as well as why I do it matters. That’s much more what people need to think about rather than the particular means.

What we do generally is associated with a why, though, and we may not control that why. So the composting company has a why to go along with it’s what, a means of helping people be comfortable with the idea of death itself as well as the particulars of their own death and the aftermath. The article references the idea of a giant circle of carbon exchange moving from the universe and into human bodies and back into the universe. Goodness. Am I really just a collection of carbon molecules? Am I not also spiritual and unique from any other person in all of creation? The Bible isn’t clear as to whether a pattern of carbon exchange will end when my Lord returns, but I’d much rather people understood that there’s a Lord who is returning than provide them some sort of psycho-chemistry lesson!

Not surprisingly, the Catholics are the ones objecting to this new body-disposal system, though I’d argue all Christians should object to it. A brief doctrinal statement on this issue can be found here, and does a great job of explaining why Church traditions are more than just traditions, but means of ensuring the proper message is sent and received by those who live on after the deceased.

It may well be possible for someone to choose the compost option and still strongly convey their hope in Christ through their memorial service. But the problem remains that only the people present for that service are going to hear the Christian message. Others who find out about how my body was made into compost are going to assume – rightly so – that perhaps the company’s way of explaining such an option appealed to me and was somehow my belief as well. That would be more than just unfortunate, it would be unfaithful of me to allow that risk.

I’m not a big one for visiting grave sites. I don’t have a personal need to do that. But I do see a value in having a place not just to be remembered, but to remind people that, barring our Lord’s return first, we’re all going to die. How do we live our lives in a way that acknowledges this without obsessing about it or pretending that our death is somehow made better by being ecologically sensitive? My death is transformed by Christ and him alone. Without such hope, being ecologically conscious or not really makes no difference and has no lasting meaning as we’ll all ultimately be vaporized when our sun explodes.

Reading Ramblings – February 21, 2021

February 14, 2021

Date: First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021

Texts: Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 25:1-10; James 1:12-18; Mark 1:9-15

Context: The season of Lent begins. This takes us out of Ordinary Time, and marks the binding of the texts together thematically, something that will continue until June and the season of Pentecost. Lent is the season of self-examination and penance, an anticipation of both the inconceivable sacrifice of the Son of God on Good Friday for our sake, and his glorious vindication on Easter morning. It is the oldest and in many ways deepest season of the Church Year, predating Christmas. We are called in this season, whether we deprive ourselves of meat or some other pleasantry as was once more traditional, to consider our sinfulness that necessitates the blood of Christ to be poured out for us. In some ways this is awkward because Sundays are not technically counted as part of the season of Lent and remain mini-celebrations of Easter. It is awkward also because we live in Christ’s victory over our sin. Our self-examination then is not in uncertainty over whether or not God has forgiven us – He has! Rather it serves as an opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us away from sinful habits in our lives we might overlook, and to focus our hearts and minds more specifically on what we receive in Christ.

Genesis 22:1-18 – What God did not require Abraham to give – his only son – God the Father does not withhold in his only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ. The experience of Abraham in this chapter has troubled many people. It’s important to note that we are told immediately this is a test. We are to be under no illusions as to what is going on here or if God truly desired Abraham to sacrifice his son. God is testing Abraham. Translations vary as to how they translate the Hebrew, whether as test, tempt, tried, prove. Perhaps this chapter is valuable as a litmus test for our attitudes towards God. Is He truly the loving father who cares for us, or is He a trickster or a capricious entity? Abraham did not necessarily know at this point, but Abraham likely also did not see God’s request as problematic. Sad, to be sure, but child sacrifice was hardly unknown in that age and area of the world. And, as Luther asserts in his commentary, Abraham demonstrates a strength of faith that trusts God is capable of anything He desires, including restoring Isaac should He require Abraham to sacrifice him. Because of God the Son’s obedient sacrifice on our behalf we need never wonder whether God might as a similar thing of you and I. We are free in his grace and mercy to be advocates of human life from conception through old age.

Psalm 25:1-10 – The Lord must teach us his ways and we must want to learn them constantly as they often contradict worldly wisdom and expectations. Yet faithfulness insists that it is far better to listen to God’s Word than the dictates of human conscience or public opinion. Vindication will come, whether in our lifetime or not until our Lord’s return and all things are revealed for their proper worth (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). We rely on the grace and mercy of God that He continues to remind us of his revealed will. He continues to repeat his Word to us over and over, knowing both our poor memories and the active distortion sin causes whether from within ourselves or from the broken world and people around us. But we can be assured that God’s way is best. Not that it will be the most popular (it won’t be) or the easiest (it won’t be) or that following it might not entail sacrifices large and small. But of all the shifting sands of human ideas and conventions and desires, the Word of God stands as one firm rock we can cling to in confidence.

James 1:12-18 – What caught my eye in this reading are verses 12-15. In particular verse 14 which identifies temptation as an appeal by a person’s own desires. We typically say temptation comes from within, from the world, and from Satan. But the reality is that temptation is only really temptation if it’s something we want. The world or Satan might suggest to me the idea of starting an illegal dog-fighting business, but since I am disgusted by the very idea, it’s not a very real temptation. But if it’s suggested to me by Satan or the world that I do something I already have a desire to do, even though I know it’s wrong? That’s a temptation. Abraham was tested rather than tempted, in part because he had no internal desire to slay his son. God did not appeal to some sinful deficiency or proclivity on Abraham’s part but rather demanded obedience to a command. Thus, by James’ definition, God certainly didn’t tempt Abraham even had James not just asssured us God doesn’t tempt people!

Mark 1:9-15 – Jesus as the Second Adam must demonstrate his willingness and ability – as far as his human nature and will – to remain faithful to the leading of God the Father where Adam failed. His past obedience is affirmed and commended by God the Father’s exclamation of approval at his baptism. But that obedience is only the start – obedience must be maintained, and if perhaps Jesus was shielded from direct Satanic attacks as a young man, now that He prepares to launch his public ministry He must face Satan in the fullness of Jesus’ human weakness. He must face Satan as one of us. Mark does not record the interchange that occurs, and apparently considers even the outcome of that temptation to be so obvious as to not need stating! Matthew 4 and Luke 4 both provide fuller accounts of the nature of the temptations Jesus faced as well as Jesus’ fidelity to his heavenly Father.

If we rely on James’ (and the Holy Spirit’s) insights to temptation, it’s easy to see Satan’s offerings to Jesus find no footing for temptation. What Jesus desires is to be obedient to his father, and perhaps at this early stage of his ministry Jesus is not yet worried about the very real and very painful sacrifice He will be called upon to make. While Jesus may be weaker later on, and find temptation more difficult to resist (Mark 8), here He deflects Satan’s offerings with ease, relying not on angelic protection or some other unique power but rather with the Word of God.

Jesus enters the wilderness in a re-enactment of the Exodus. The Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness because they were too afraid to enter the Promised Land. Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, but is faithful and obedient while the Israelites were not. He functions here as a summation of Israel and all the people of God, being faithful and obedient where they and we can not and are not.

In verses 12 and 13 we hear elements of prophecy as well, particularly Isaiah 43:19-20. Jesus is accomplishing already what was prophesied, a restoration of the harmony and peace of the created order. That restoration is very limited for the moment, but reveals what Jesus is about, and what the kingdom of God He proclaims in vs. 14-15 will be like.

Breaking Good

February 8, 2021

The Supreme Court Friday determined the State of California could no longer enforce bans on indoor worship. This is good news for people of faith – Christian or otherwise – who over the past nearly year have by and large been unable to worship indoors and required to meet virtually or in parked cars, separated from one another by varying degrees of frankly arbitrary directions enacted by executive fiat rather than a due process of legislative evaluation and feedback. Good intentions to curb the pandemic, but good intentions which look at only the material, physical side of the suffering and ignore and even exacerbate the emotional, psychological, and spiritual sides.

Of course, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Some religious groups may opt to continue worshiping outdoors because they believe it safest for their members. Others will joyfully be back inside tomorrow – or today. This will be another test for congregations – to determine what the best course of action is for them and their people regardless of what congregations around them might be doing.

Further, while indoor worship cannot be banned any longer, additional limitations – such as stronger language prohibiting singing or chanting – may may outdoor worship the preferred option for many congregations, especially if (like ours) the weather makes such an option reasonable. Good news in this case comes tempered by additional restrictions which may ultimately make it less good.

Back in June when the first stay-at-home order was lifted, I pushed easily to have us move back inside. We had already polled our members on this and their response was nearly unanimous that they wanted to return to indoor worship. We didn’t yet realize the staying power of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it seemed the most reasonable course of action. Eight months later, the option to return to indoor worship is more complicated for me.

Firstly, we’re blessed to live in an area where the weather is temperate year round, rainy days are rare and snow days are practically non-existent. It might be nippy at mid-morning still – in the 50’s – but workable, particularly when the sun is shining and there isn’t a breeze. As such even though my congregation is comprised almost exclusively of post-retirement adults, they’re not only willing but able to handle outdoor worship with some layers of clothing. The seats aren’t terribly comfortable, but they weren’t happy with the 50-year old cushions on the pews inside either!

More than a few people have commented how much they like being outside. A change of venue perhaps, or the ability to enjoy our glorious weather a little more than they might otherwise. Because a small group of dedicated volunteers has committed to coming early to set out chairs and set up the sound board and microphones and electronic keyboard, our outdoor worship really is a beautiful setting, even in a parking lot.

The pandemic certainly appears to be affecting our county more in the past couple of months than it did the rest of the previous pandemic period. While I still personally know very few people sickened by COVID, the reported numbers for the county are far higher than they used to be. Those numbers have dropped dramatically in the past two weeks or so, but they’re still comparable to earlier rates we considered high.

While many of my parishioners have either begun or completed their vaccination cycles, some of them won’t. None of our members have had COVID at all, despite our continued in-person worship whether outdoor or indoor. Some dismiss the media frenzy about COVID and point to the overwhelming recovery rates from COVID, despite the fact they are in the highest vulnerability demographic. Some of our folks may not feel comfortable worshiping indoors again knowing not everyone is going to be vaccinated, but that will likely be a minority and moreover that shouldn’t matter if they themselves have received the vaccine.

Our denominational leadership at global, national and local levels has maintained a position since the pandemic began asking local congregations to adhere to all applicable restrictions and instructions from health officials. Our denomination does not see doing so as in any way restricting our ability to worship our God (since we can do so virtually, outdoors, or with other reasonable adjustments), and a failure to abide by instructions runs us afoul of admonitions to civic obedience in Romans 13. Every individual congregation must make their decisions in this regard for themselves, and the range of responses is a rather wide spectrum.

Thrown into the mix are varying ideas of what our obligations are to one another in terms of safety and Christian love. Is it loving our fellow-parishioners to return to indoor worship knowing if they contract COVID they are more likely to have complications from it – complications which could prove lethal? What is the duty of a Christian congregation in the pursuit of safety? Christians around the world routinely choose to worship together despite a host of very real dangers in terms of arrest, imprisonment, capture, or worse. Christians the world over and throughout history have prioritized Christian worship and fellowship as worth risking their lives for. How does that reality and history impact decisions we make today in relative safety and comfort? And how do our decisions balance the reality that we proclaim a God who created all things and sustains all things and is more than able to keep us safe, with the recognition that this God also gave us our brains and we should therefore use them?

So the possibility of worshiping indoors again is more complicated this time than it was eight months ago. At least for me. But I remain steadfast in maintaining that regardless of the decision made, it is the duty and privilege of that local body of Christ – my particular congregation – to keep loving one another. Even if we’re not thrilled with the decision. Even if we would have preferred to stay outdoors or return indoors. Our personal preferences don’t outweigh direct Scriptural commands to show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ in our patience and willingness to sacrifice our personal rights if it in any way might endanger the faith of a brother or sister in Christ (1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14-15). It sounds simple but it turns out to be quite challenging for many people. Pandemics apparently don’t make it any easier, either. I trust we’ll make a good decision. Maybe not perfect, but one our people can work and will work with in love for one another and their God.

Reading Ramblings – February 14, 2021

February 7, 2021

Date: The Transfiguration of Our Lord – February 14, 2021

Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:12-13, 4:1-6; Mark 9:2-9

Context: The season of Epiphany emphasizes the divinity of our Lord within his humanity. While fully human in every way (except for sin – original or otherwise), Jesus of Nazareth is also the Son of God, the eternal Second Person of the Trinity. This reality was evident throughout his ministry in small ways, ways that might allow another conclusion regarding his identity. But at certain key moments in his ministry his divinity was revealed and affirmed in ways that exclude alternate interpretations. His disciples were shown his glory, experiences which assisted them in confessing him as Lord. Brushing up against the divine changes a person, something the various readings highlight.

2 Kings 2:1-12 – Elijah and Elisha are two prominent prophetic characters in the Old Testament but they get little airplay in the lectionary cycle and therefore in my sermon writing. I chose this rather than the alternative text option from Exodus specifically to push me to interact with these characters. Like the disciples in the Gospel, Elisha brushes up against the divine, as Elijah becomes just the second person in the Old Testament to be transported directly from this life without experiencing death. As such the veil between the world as we normally think about it and the spiritual realm that is part of it but unseen is pulled aside briefly and dramatically. Elijah is not divine but is caught up in divine power. Like the disciples, the event leads Elisha to an exclamation that is difficult to understand fully. And through all of it, the glory of God is foremost.

Psalm 50:1-6 – This is the introduction to a psalm which describes God’s trial and judgment of his people in regards to their worship practice. These opening six verses form the introduction, emphasizing both the power and sovereignty of God. God is described as speaking, summoning, shining, calling and judging. This is not the final judgment of all creation, but rather God summons only his called people to judgment, those who bound themselves to him as his people through the Mosaic covenant. It is these descendants who must give an account before their God, a God they might have thought was far away and not very attentive. But now they discover He is so very near! The heavens and the earth are small in comparison – they are to serve as witnesses in regards to his people and his charges against them. The natural order we think somehow shades us or shelters us from the presence of God turns out rather to be watchful of us and accountable ultimately to when He demands a reckoning of us from them. God may opt to work through predictable mechanisms and we assume when we think we’ve identified those mechanisms we’ve somehow rendered them under our power. This is obviously mistaken. We are still bound in relationship to our Creator, who deserves our thanks and praise. The separation between what we consider temporal reality and spiritual reality is at best flimsy!

2 Corinthians 3:12-13, 14:1-6 – Light is a theme in the various readings this morning – the fiery light of the chariots that carry Elijah to heaven, God shining forth in the psalm, the light of Jesus’ radiantly glowing clothes, and the light Paul refers to here, the light of the revelation of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God, a light that eclipses the glory that even Moses experienced in the Tent of Meeting when the glory of God would descend onto the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant. Moses’ face would glow after those encounters, and he covered it soas not to frighten the Israelites, just as they were frightened in Exodus 20 by hearing God speak directly from the mountaintop. Paul compares the New Covenant of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit favorably to the old covenant at Mt. Sinai. The old covenant could only bring death through the Law, but the Spirit brings life through faith in Christ. Yet the old covenant was glorious enough to make Moses’ face glow! How incredibly glorious and powerful must this new covenant be that bestows life instead of decreeing death! What a privilege to carry this good news into the world! The news is so good there’s no need to alter it or adapt it. Not everyone will see or accept it, but that is hardly the fault of the message or even the messenger. Rather, the same blindness that existed in Moses’ day and prompted him to cover his face exists today. Some people will not accept the good news of Jesus Christ. That should not slow or alter our proclamation.

Mark 9:2-9 – So many elements of this account evoke images of God’s meeting with Israel on Mt. Sinai in Exodus. The fact that it takes place on a mountain, the presence of an enveloping cloud, and of course the voice of God the Father himself speaking directly to those present. A select subset of Jesus’ disciples are invited up the mountain just as a select subset were invited up Mt. Sinai in Exodus. Moses is present in both events, and is joined by Elijah. Many speculate Moses is there as the one through whom the Law comes and symbolizing Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law, while Elijah’s presence indicates Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. They also speak as three men in Scripture who have very unusual ends to their lives – Moses dying and being buried by God, Elijah being taken into heaven and Jesus who will rise from the dead and bodily ascend into heaven. Both also have prophecies regarding similar figures who will come after them – a great prophet who will arise after Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) and the coming of an Elijah-figure prior to the Messiah’s arriavl (Malachie 3:23). They speak with Jesus, three men but one of them more than just a man. Only Jesus is transfigured.

This account should also be read with Mark’s resurrection account (16:1-8) in mind. Both have a white-robed figure, both involve verbal revelation about Jesus, both document fear on the part of the witnesses present, and both involve some aspect or glimpse of how things will be at the end times – Jesus in his glory here in the reading for today and Jesus victorious over death at the end of Mark. As such it is not unreasonable to see Mark’s account of the Transfiguration as a sort of mini-Easter, a sneak preview of what lies ahead, and which will only be fully understandable in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Book Review: Live Not By Lies

February 2, 2021

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

I was looking forward to this book a great deal, remembering how I found Dreher’s earlier work, The Benedict Option thought provoking and important. Having finished his latest work I’m conflicted in my reactions.

First off, pay attention to the title. This book is primarily a political work. It has to do with resisting totalitarianism (soft totalitarianism, as Dreher describes what is gradually taking over in America and the West). This soft totalitarianism will likely (at least for the near future) rely on non-military, non-violent means to continue to shape public opinion and perspectives both through positive affirmation techniques as well as punitive efforts such as banning web sites, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds or Facebook accounts. Dreher sees in the history of Western Europe and Russia under both Stalinism and Naziism valuable lessons about how to endure this coming darkness in American culture. Granted, this darkness will hit the faithful Christian pastors, congregations, and families first and foremost, but it will affect all of American society and culture. Barring a miracle, Dreher doesn’t think this can be avoided, therefore we must learn and prepare now how to endure it and outlast it.

He writes to and for Christians, without a doubt, but this is a political book. The darkness of totalitarianism he rightly warns about are certainly nothing new in world history or Christian history. Christians have endured, outlasted and at times thrived amidst cultures that were directly opposed to them. And, also very true, countless Christians have and continue to lose their livelihoods, their health, their freedom, and their lives in such contexts. This is no small matter. But we must be clear that Dreher’s primary concern is political rather than religious.

Roughly the first third of the book is dedicated to supporting and illustrating Dreher’s assessment of our current situation in America and the rising tide of soft totalitarianism that will soon displace everything we’ve enjoyed in terms of freedoms and liberties. Much of this will be accomplished through socially active corporations and businesses rather than at the point of a government military bayonet. Americans already conditioned to value first and foremost personal achievement and comfort are increasingly unwilling and unable to endure even the thought of discomfort or adversity, and will willingly sacrifice more and more of their freedoms to ensure they maintain their comfort and are accepted as socially relevant and culturally admirable.

The next two thirds of the book cover the major points of Dreher’s outline for resistance – value the truth, cultivate cultural memory, create and maintain strong families, engage deeply in a faith, seek solidarity beyond faith boundaries, and embrace suffering as a necessary and sometimes valuable part of life. These are broad brushstrokes filled in not with specific how-tos but rather illustrative historical anecdotes gleaned firsthand from those who survived (or didn’t survive) the brutal repressions under Communist or Nazi governments.

The proof that this book is primarily political rather than religious struck me most fully on p.176 where, while emphasizing the importance of building and maintaining relationships and cooperative efforts with others who have not succumbed to the totalitarian state even if their beliefs differ markedly from your own, Dreher states “The Christian activist’s point: be kind to others, for you never know when you will need them, or they will need you.”

This might be a good activist motto, but it is patently unChristian and unBiblical. I’m not accusing Dreher of being either of those things, but it’s clear that his focus in this book is on resisting, enduring, surviving and ultimately triumphing over repressive political regimes that are hostile to Christians and others who do not accept their agendas. If I had thought more about the word Dissidents in the subtitle that might have surprised me less than it did.

My main disappointment in this book is that it is mainly ideological rather than practical. His many Eastern European and Russian anecdotes and interviews definitely support his major premises but do not provide anything close to a Manual. It is not a how to so much as you ought to do this. It is a manifesto rather than a manual, a call to awareness rather than instructive to those already seeing what Dreher sees or already convinced by his arguments.

This is not a bad book but it is mainly a political book. Christians should read this book as a means of recognizing just how bad things might get, whether by soft means or hard means. Prisons, torture, solitary confinement, economic marginalization and executions were all hard means by which Soviet and Nazi regimes attempted to force conformity to and acceptance of their ideologies and agendas. In the West it may never come to such harsh, crash measures when so many people are obsessed over their careers and maintaining a social media image dependent on continued purchases, extravagances, and travel. How many people in the US – Christians even – would be quick to accept whatever was told them in order to ensure their Twitter feed stayed up and their YouTube channel remained monetized and their Facebook account was never flagged as offensive or deleted as such. Additional pressures such as banks choosing not to do business with certain individuals or groups branded by the larger culture as offensive makes it even more complicated. In short order – and without the threat of violence or government interaction at any level someone could find their career ended and struggling to make ends meet. Does it sound far-fetched? Read the headlines more carefully. It’s already happening.

But there’s an element of truth in saying it has always happened. Or perhaps the roots just go back farther than we like to think. At one Dreher uses as support for his premise of the onslaught of soft totalitarianism a very practical litmus test – have you ever held your tongue and not said what you really thought because you were afraid of the consequences? It sounds like a water-proof demonstration of Dreher’s assertions. Surely most if not all of us at one point or another at some point in our lives has decided it was more prudent to remain silent.

Is this anything new? I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird to and with my family. I read it as a high school freshman but don’t remember the book at all beyond the character names. It’s fascinating to read it essentially for the first time and appreciate how good the book is on a variety of levels. It’s not easy to read, as some of the explicit language that was commonplace at the time has been judged never appropriate by anyone other than African Americans themselves. We have to check to make sure the windows are closed and the doors are closed so neighbors don’t overhear something and misinterpret it.

A side character we’re introduced to in the book is a white man who lives with a black woman and has children with her. His preference to live in the black community is a source of consternation to the white people in town, but they dismiss it because they believe him to be an alcoholic. However we’re told as the book unwinds that he actually isn’t an alcoholic – doesn’t even really like the taste of alcohol. But he maintains the appearance of a drunk – reeling when he walks and never to be seen without a brown paper bag that he drinks out of. His explanation for cultivating such a bizarre persona is that it allows him to live life the way he prefers without the outright ostracism or even violence of the white townspeople who, were it not for his alleged alcoholism, could never permit him to carry on his life with a black woman. Because he doesn’t hold the same prejudices as his white neighbors, he finds it more convenient that they dismiss him as a drunk rather than attempt to reform his unorthodox opinions, or punish him for them.

In other words, it’s undoubtedly true that in all times and in all places people have had to hold their tongues or curate a particular public persona that may not fully reflect their private beliefs. That this is the case has not always been indicative of a totalitarian agenda or regime, a fact others have noted. One might easily argue from the Bible that Christians should at all times feel as though they have to be careful about what they say and do because the world and popular culture will naturally be antagonistic to the full weight of the Gospel.

Dreher maintains the suggestion first voiced by Neil Postman that while Americans were busy vaccinating themselves against the evil external threat of Communism as articulated by George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm, we have actually fallen prey to the dystopia described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a situation where people don’t need to be imprisoned or threatened to behave a certain way because they’ve been conditioned to think the desired behavior is the behavior best for them and everyone else. I think this is a fair assessment. I think that people who continue to voluntarily sacrifice their rights and privacy for an illusory safety and convenience will ultimately be rudely disappointed with their choices. How long it takes them to wake up and realize that – if ever they do – is hard to say.

Finishing this book makes me want to go back and reread The Benedict Option (and I will), as I feel it was more specific to Christians and the life of faith not as a means to a political end but in and of itself.

Reading Ramblings – February 7, 2021

January 31, 2021

Date: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 2021

Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:16-27; Mark 1:29-39

Context: What perfect words as we near a year of pandemic fear and alarm! We search for hope in so many places, we anxiously await the latest pronouncements of pundits, politicians and physicians. Each of these vocations is a gift of God in a broken world, but each is limited and should never replace our God as the ultimate source of hope. A year of pandemic feels like an eternity but is nothing more than a breath in a larger historical context. We often look to God as a ready balm for our immediate needs, such as the people of Capernaum in the Gospel reading. But the scope of God’s plans is so much vaster, as the psalm and the reading from Isaiah remind us. This doesn’t detract from God’s individual love and care for every single aspect of his creation, but it should teach us to keep in mind the larger context we are a part of, and consider constantly that God is using us in the midst of our joys or sorrows for things that extend well beyond our awareness or even interest.

Isaiah 40:21-31 – We hear the opening verses of this chapter during Advent. God promises favor to his people (vs.1-5) as his people are reminded of their transience (vs.6-8). The greatness of God is then extolled and the ridiculousness of idols is asserted (vs.9-20). It sounds so easy to us, but to the people of God – surrounded by idols and with idols creeping into or alongside their worship of God, these are strong words in a time of great uncertainty. Can God be trusted? Is God capable of sustaining and delivering his people, or should they continue to hedge their bets with some side offerings to the local deities? God is the All Mighty one, and He alone holds all power over every aspect of creation, whether humanity (vs.21-24) or the heavens (vs. 25-26). This should be a source of confidence for God’s beloved, chosen people, but also a call to fidelity. God is fully aware of their lax faithfulness. But if they think they will be better served by other so-called gods, they are mistaken. It is God alone who sustains all things to his purposes, and no situation or cause is ever beyond the capacity of God to rescue or resuscitate.

Psalm 147:1-11 – We praise God for his all-encompassing power and authority. There is no aspect of creation beyond his jurisdiction, no series of events beyond his ultimate control. His care for his people is a matter of historical record, should memory fail or the fearfulness of present situations cloud our theology. In fact, singing the praises of our God should be a pleasant pasttime, rather than a command we obey grudgingly. As we enjoy relating tales of the heroic or noble deeds of various people in our lives or throughout history, we should also take pleasure in telling and retelling the stories of our God’s faithfulness and deliverance. This act of communal as well as private recollection should serve not simply as an intellectual reminder of historical events, but as encouragement and hope. As we remember God’s ultimate authority we should be able to endure the uncertainties of our individual situations better, knowing his love for us is eternal and so is the relationship created between us through the Holy Spirit’s fostering of faith in the forgiveness won by the incarnate Son of God, Jesus the Christ. We may not know our exact fate in temporal terms – the time of our passing or the cause – but we know that not even death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, and we know that ultimately whether things play out as we would prefer them to or not, the glory is God’s and we will celebrate his love forever.

1 Corinthians 9:16-27 – I’d much prefer that we read the first two-thirds of this chapter as well! Otherwise, it’s very easy to spiritualize what is an eminently practical chapter regarding the restraint we place on our rights rather than endanger the work of the Gospel in those around us. In the previous chapter Paul addressed the issue of rights (the ability to eat meat sacrificed to idols, since idols are nothing) as one less so of theology and more of love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ who might be endangered as we engage in our Christian freedom. Paul illustrates what this looks like with a personal example in Chapter 9 – the matter of his not asking for support from the Corinthians although he is entitled to it. The structure of chapter 9 is confusing at first as it seems such a major change from the previous chapter, but v.12b is the place where the first 11 verses of the chapter are put into context as personal example. Paul wants to make clear how serious he is in admonishing us to focus less on what our rights are in Christ and more on loving our brothers and sisters in Christ and considering their welfare constantly.

Mark 1:29-39 – Jesus begins his public ministry with demonstrations of authority in teaching (vs.21-22, 27), authority over demons (vs.23-27, 34) and authority over illness and disease (vs.29-34). Among people living essentially hand-to-mouth, the presence of someone who could offer such protection and deliverance would be a Godsend in every sense of the word! So it was that Jesus was busy late into the evening, after the workday and dinner time ended (v.32) and already He was being sought very early in the morning (vs. 35-37). Jesus no doubt understood the need and the desire of the people of Capernaum for him to stay. But Jesus’ purpose was broader than the temporal well-being of the population of one small town. Jesus makes this plain to Simon Peter and the other disciples. And even more specific, Jesus indicates his primary work is preaching. The Greek word in vs. 38-39 is often described as acting as a herald, announcing in a very public and obvious way, carrying a gravitas and authority, perhaps associated with the one commanding the herald’s announcements. Jesus has something important to announce – the need for repentance and preparation because the Kingdom of God is arriving (vs. 14-15). Jesus is preaching and a response is necessary – both repentance and belief of the good news He is proclaiming. Preaching has the same goal today, even with the people of God. Repentance is an ongoing necessity, as is an active belief in the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are always in danger of becoming lackadaisical in our faith, sitting too comfortably with our sin and not comfortably enough with the assurances of God’s grace and peace through Jesus Christ. We are too easily enticed away from reliance on God to casting our hopes on any number of other possible sources. Fortunately, the Gospel assures us of our forgiveness as it refocuses us on the Good News of Jesus Christ as our fullest and greatest hope.

Tell All the Truth

January 28, 2021

In high school I worked on the school newspaper. I wasn’t cool enough to work on the yearbook so I put my budding writing aspirations to work writing and editing news stories. It was a great experience and I moved quickly into the role of News Editor, responsible for making sure reporters got their work in on time and it was edited well, had photos with appropriate (and accurate) captions as necessary and that the copy fit the space available.

It wasn’t hard work. The essentials of good journalism as I learned them were to answer the what, when, where, why, who and how of a situation. Preferably within the first two paragraphs. Additional information could follow later in the story, but it was essential to give readers (our national literacy level is described as 8th grade) the main facts quickly so they could absorb that if they didn’t have time to read the bulk of the article. Not rocket science.

In fact, my first year on the paper I found out the staff was going to a convention of high school newspaper staff from around the state. I had never heard of such a thing but was more than happy to miss a day of school. We sat through various presentations and sessions I don’t remember a thing about. What I do remember is that I was informed there would be a contest for newswriting and I should participate. Again, nothing I had heard about. I was shown a room with dozens of typewriters (yes, I’m that old). We were apparently given some amount of information about a hypothetical event and told to write a news story about it. How unprepared was I? I had to borrow a sheet of paper from the person next to me, who was clearly disgusted with my complete lack of preparation. Mea culpa.

It took me about 15 minutes to type up the story and turn it in to the rather startled proctor, further irritating the person still typing away next to me. It wasn’t very hard. Tell the facts then fill it in. I won third place in the state. I’m sure that irritated the person who had sat next to me even more.

All that to say writing a newspaper story shouldn’t be complicated. Give the facts. But, give all the facts you have. Failure to mention facts can skew a news story into something else. Something that doesn’t just inform and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions from the data you’ve provided, but something that nudges (or shoves) the reader towards a particular response. Not necessarily an intellectual response – it can be emotional as well. Once you begin this (and it’s easy to not be conscious of it, depending on how you were taught to write a story or what the purpose of a news story as opposed to an op-ed piece or the purpose of a newspaper as a whole is) you’re not writing a news story, you’re writing something else. You’re guiding the reader towards a conclusion you either expect they already have or you think they ought to have. Sometimes the danger is confusing those two things or not seeing them as either distinct or intrinsically problematic.

I know writing for a high school newspaper doesn’t qualify me as a journalist. My top reporter went on to get her journalism degree and today writes and edits for magazines and other publications around the country. That required a lot of additional education and training. But the foundations were laid there in a high school journalism classroom, under the tutelage of a kindly and uncharacteristically patient old lady who put up with the crap routinely dished out by some of the cooler people in the class who clearly understood better than she what The Times called for in terms of journalism. She was a good teacher and as such was not properly appreciated. She taught me a lot about writing in a short period of time.

It rained here today.

It rained yesterday as well and is scheduled to rain a fair bit of tomorrow. The rain has been nice and steady and blessedly even. Only one short downpour. I live in a coastal desert so rain of this kind is pretty unusual. It’s also desperately needed. Our state was in a multi-year drought often described as the worst on record. And once the rest of the state received better rainfall levels our particular county remained drier and at greater risk longer. We reactivated a saltwater conversion facility that was built and mothballed decades ago at a cost of millions of new tax dollars. That’s how bad things were.

Then things got worse.

We received torrential rain right after a devastating, massive forest fire. A catastrophic mudslide decimated wide swaths of a community just outside town, literally washing houses off their foundations. Over twenty people died in the span of a few hours. The community is still rebuilding and recovering from that event and in places the landscape is permanently altered.

As such, some people here get nervous about large quantities of rain over prolonged periods. Understandable. But the fact remains that rain is a natural and necessary occurrence and that if we don’t get rain during our very brief November to February rainy season our water resources can run dangerously low. Rain is a good thing. A blessing from God. A necessity. Not simply a source of fear.

But you’d never know that from reading the news story about it.

The headline announced how drenched we were by heavy rainfall, and the subtitle recited flood advisories, high wind advisories, high surf advisories and beach hazards. The opening paragraphs (some of which are only a single sentence) scream out about all the possible dangers and warnings and advisories the county is under, and almost grudgingly admit that no actual problems beyond some minor road flooding have arisen. Then the story moved on to recount each of the major fires in the past four years and the unusual danger associated with those burn areas and the higher risk of debris flows and mudslides in those areas.

Then it detailed how warming centers were open and available for the homeless during this storm. Rain totals were provided but given no context (what those levels mean compared to our average annual rainfall totals). Then the story once again reiterated all the various warnings and advisories issued thus far and concluded with a summary of all the areas where flood warnings were in effect.

Now all of that is true, of course. But what’s the cumulative effect of a story like that, where the event – a natural if somewhat unusual event – is described and portrayed in nothing but negative language with nothing but warnings and alarms the topic throughout? It is an article of fear. Fear of what happened in the past. Fear of what might happen in the future. The reader should be aware, on alert, on edge.

Not a word about how badly we need this rainfall given how dry our rainy season has been thus far. Not a single observation regarding how much rain we’re getting but how gentle and gradual it is. Not a single word about how the air quality improves dramatically after a rain, or encouraging readers to appreciate the brightness and clarity of light that will follow. I know, I know, some of those things aren’t news, per se. But they are true. They provide a balance to the story that reminds people there is more to rain – even large amounts of rain – than fear.

The assumption seems to be people should be worried and afraid of this rain. The news story is validation of that assumed pre-existing fear. All these different weather advisories have been issued! Your fear is justified and healthy! No matter whether the advisories actually come to anything. Fear is appropriate! And as such the article contributes to an emotional state it presupposes or, worse yet, seeks to inculcate.

A single article on the weather may not contribute much towards this end. But couple that with all the other articles about politics, the threat of right-wing extremist terrorists, the existential dread that is COVID and the worries and concerns about whether the vaccines will be enough or will be taken by enough people.

The only positive news stories have to do with new administrations and changes of direction. There is unrestrained joy and optimism in those articles as things that a very large percentage of our country’s population apparently approved of are repudiated and gleefully dismantled.

Rain is natural. It’s uncontrollable, yes. But it’s natural. It isn’t something we do or manipulate. It is something we simply have to deal with and sometimes that means dealing with too much or too little of it. That’s fearful. Like viruses. Again, natural things. Sometimes very dangerous to us, to be sure. But things we don’t (generally) create ourselves and that our abilities to manipulate are decidedly ill-equipped for. So these things are scary as well. Live in fear of them, we are told. The only hope is that someone will come along and fix them for us. A pill or an injection – something we do and we control. That’s where our hope is. In ourselves. In what we can do and control. Anything else is fear.

Don’t live your life in fear. Live your life in a proper context. But don’t simply walk around being afraid of everyone and everything except for the narrow sliver of things and people the media claims will help and save you from your fear. They won’t. They can’t. Their intentions might be good or not, but they cannot save you from the uncontrollable. From the natural. They can’t save you from death, or from the gnawing fear and anxiety inside you they have helped create in order to ensure they retain control.

Only in understanding you are a creature and not a creator – just like the scientists and politicians and social activists so glorified in the media, and just like those same categories of people excoriated in the media for disagreeing, for contributing alternative assessments of the situation and alternative avenues of dealing with issues. All creatures. Hopefully doing the best they can, which sometimes is wonderful and sometimes completely awful. Sometimes doing the worst they can, because some people are like that, just like little pieces of ourselves are like that. Black and darkened with fear and anger and hatred and jealousy. We point the fingers and make the blames for those things inside us but they persist. And they persist in no small part because we feed them. Left or right, blue or red, we’re apt to feeding those ugly things inside of us with justifications and material that encourages them rather than weakens them.

Use the brains God gave you. Read, but also evaluate. Listen, but also reflect. Hope, but put your hope in the one place that can support it – the Creator of the Universe instead of fallible and broken creatures good and bad like yourself. And a key part of all of this is telling the truth. All the truth. As much as we’re able to see it and understand it. And in doing so reject the culture of fear that rapidly swells and grows around us at all times. Look for the details and then come to your own conclusions. A good news story should help you do that. A good community will help you do that. And a good baseline will give you the starting point to make comparisons and evaluations and conclusions.

Make sure your baseline can hold, even when the rain is heavy.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

~ Emily Dickinson ~

Reading Ramblings – January 31, 2021

January 24, 2021

Date: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2021

Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Context: The one to come after Moses. The one who must be listened to, or Moses himself will condemn those who ignore his words. Powerful prophecy. A prophecy Jesus will refer to in his disputations with Jewish leadership in John 5. One who speaks with authority as Jesus does in his ministry, not simply quoting and citing the great scholars and rabbis before him but speaking authoritatively about Scripture as the Word made flesh. It is easy to maintain all of this in the realm of doctrine and history and theology, but the Word made flesh continues to confront and challenge us today. Each of us is not only vulnerable to but guilty of assuming the world’s ways of thinking and acting, or trying to justify our personal preferences with cherry-picked Bible verses. Each of us must submit humbly in repentance and allow the Holy Spirit to show us where we are off base, where our theology is inadequate to the love of neighbor we are commanded.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 – In Chapter 17 of Deuteronomy Moses addresses the Israelites before his death and prophecies that some day they will have a king, something that is a considerable amount of time away! Here in Chapter 18 Moses prophecies as to another great prophet God’s people must be on the lookout for, who will bear God’s Word to them in a way they can hear, as opposed to direct, unmediated divine presence and communication such as what happened in Exodus 19-20 around Mt. Sinai. In Jesus’, the mediation will be his incarnation, his human nature. The Word of God is made man to dwell among us as one of us, while also retaining his full divine nature. As such Jesus speaks with the authority of God the Father himself, an authority that people marvel about even in the early days of his public ministry (see the Gospel reading). The Jewish people understood they should be watching for the prophet Moses prophecies to arise, but Jesus is not what they expect and so He is rejected by many people. Of course it’s easy for someone to claim the mantle of prophet or claim that God is speaking to and through them. Such claims are not to be made lightly. Hebrews 1:1-2 make it clear that the fullness of God’s authoritative speaking comes in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy, and the fullest proclamation of God’s Word to and for us.

Psalm 111 – This and Psalm 112 are considered related thematically and stylistically. The psalm is an acrostic using letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and consisting of twenty lines arranged in ten verses. The theme is the praise of God and both psalms start with Hallelujah (praise). The psalm dwells on various reasons God should be praised, centering on his acts of provision and power. But after such a praise oriented psalm the final line has a rather odd tone – a call to not simply praise God but to live according to his Word. This will become the dominant theme of Psalm 112.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – The subject matter here may seem odd at first. After all, it isn’t typical in Western culture to worry about food being sacrificed to idols. In other parts of the world this is a far more reasonable concern! It was a big issue for the Corinthians who lived in a pagan and pluralistic culture where meat was rare – particularly for the poor – and most likely available via pagan temples and markets. Likewise these pagan temples and markets were likely common meeting places for the wealthier members of society, and we have ample invitations to dinners hosted in the dining areas (tricliniums) of these temples in Corinth. The question is theological but Paul begins his response (which will cover chapters 8-10) by calling the Corinthians to look beyond themselves and their theological acumen to their brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not simply a matter of right theology but also concern for one another in the faith that dictates the best response to this particular issue. In love for one another we voluntarily hold back from exercising our rights or acting in ways that might be theologically correct but inconsiderate of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul will give more detailed responses in Chapter 10, but wants to lay the groundwork first in Chapter 8 and then illustrate what he means in Chapter 9.

Mark 1:21-28 – This may be Jesus’ first public teaching. It is noted first of all for his authority in teaching the Word of God, and secondly for his authority over unclean spirits. The Greek says the man is “in” a spirit rather than “having” a spirit. The man may not be possessed as we typically imagine it but is being influenced by the spirit’s presence. We were informed in 1:10 that the Holy Spirit of God descended upon Jesus, and we witness now a confrontration between the Holy Spirit of God empowering Jesus and an unclean spirit. While it is not unreasonable to swap out the word unclean with the word evil in describing this spirit, Mark likely chose his words carefully (inspired by the Holy Spirit as he records Peter’s own Holy Spirit-inspired preaching and teaching). Jesus was recently washed by John the Baptist. While Jesus had no sins of which to repent and be washed clean of, John’s washing does indicate cleanness as opposed to the uncleanness of the spirit now confronting Jesus. This is likely the semantic intention of Mark in choosing this adjective – cleanness vs. uncleanness as a condition of a repentant heart as opposed to some ceremonial or ritual definition. This spirit is not only outside the inbreaking kingdom of God in Jesus the Christ but actively opposed to it, and as the unclean spirit causes the man to speak aloud, the words it uses are intended to thwart or complicate Jesus’ efforts at establishing his rule. The spirit’s words indicate an awareness of not just who Jesus is (the Holy One of God) but what his presence in creation likely means (the destruction of all unclean spirits and hearts opposed to the rule of God). As we hear in other accounts of Jesus dealing with demons, the demons understand Jesus’ presence as indicative of judgment. We assume they fear it is the final judgment when they will be banished eternally (see Mark 5:7). They fear – and rightly so – their final defeat and the end of their limited power in creation. Their fear is rightly placed, but their timing is off. Jesus is not here to usher in final judgment immediately, so instead of destroying the unclean spirit He commands it to be silent and to leave the man. While Jesus’ purpose is not the final judgment, He does have authority to command the unclean spirit who has no choice but to obey, if not quietly or happily! The power of God the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus the Christ cannot be denied by any power in heaven or on earth. Satan and his forces may rage against the inbreaking kingdom of God but they are powerless to stop it.

Law and Religious Freedom

January 18, 2021

Religious freedom is a complicated thing. Efforts in the United States to redefine the First Amendment unofficially to mean freedom of worship instead of freedom of religion understand this. The practice of one’s faith intersects with many different aspects of larger culture and society, not always in ways either convenient or appreciated by the larger culture that doesn’t share the particular religious beliefs of the adherent.

As such, the temptation to pass laws ostensibly for one reason even when they directly impact religious freedom is ever present. And certainly as a society becomes less religious as a whole, such efforts are likely to increase both in frequency and scope, effectively limiting or curtailing religious freedom without officially declaring aspects of a religion unacceptable.

So it is that in Europe, laws restricting Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter methods have been passed – initially in Belgium last year and now upheld against legal challenges this year. Advocates maintain such restrictions are for the benefit of animals, ensuring they are slaughtered humanely. However ironically, advocates make no attempts to demand changes to how animals are raised and spend their lives, oftentimes in cramped, unsanitary and squalid environments. Critics of these laws interpret them as mainly efforts to eliminate religious practices of Jews and Muslims in Europe, and have little to do with whether kosher or halal slaughter rituals are actually inhumane or cause more stress or pain to animals than modern slaughter techniques.

Opponents to the legislation argue that ritual slaughter techniques are not necessarily less humane, and further protect animals not just at their moment of death but in their lives as well.

Specifically, the Belgian law requires animals to be stunned before being slaughtered, while both Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter requires the animal be fully conscious. Both religious traditions argue that done properly, their ritual slaughter techniques cause no stress or pain to the animal, while modern techniques of stunning can introduce great trauma and pain, briefly normally but for longer timeframes when done improperly. Critics also note the Nazi’s banned kosher slaughter in 1933.

Neither the Nazi law or the current law was religious in nature. The laws simply insisted that humane treatment of animals was the main issue. But without demonstrable research that ritual methodologies are unduly inhumane, that argument seems weak at best. Both Jewish and Muslim scholars insist that care for animals is of paramount importance to their traditions as well.

Such legislation is worth noting as similar techniques abridging religious practice are being rolled out in the US as well, such as efforts to eradicate long-standing religious practices and protections. Again, the legislation is not presented primarily as religious in nature, but rather claims to achieve ends that almost everyone would agree are good, while destroying freedom of religious practice – at least one aspect of it – in the process.

Losing rights and privileges can happen abruptly and brutally. But it can also happen slowly and piecemeal and under the guise of accomplishing important and good things.

Reading Ramblings – January 24, 2021

January 17, 2021

Date: Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24, 2021

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Context: How much do we trust the Word of God? We trust it as truthful, but do we regard that truth as inclusive as to it’s power? Do we trust the assertion of Isaiah 55:11, that the Lord’s Word accomplishes that which it purposes? Job doubted the power of God’s Word – or did he? Perhaps he actually trusted the power of God’s Word to turn hearts to repentance, and wished to withhold that opportunity for Nineveh, which was the heart of a pagan and dangerous empire? We see the power of God’s Word as men respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship, setting aside their lives and livelihood for the less practical role of disciple. Yet today I fear many Christians distrust the power of God’s Word, and resign themselves to the ways and tools of the world to accomplish their ends. They trust the power of princes more than the power of God for practical purposes. But God’s Word that accomplishes the impossible is also the Word that calls us to repentance for our distrust, and assures us of God’s continued love for our quaking hearts.

Jonah 3:1-5 – This is the only time a reading from Jonah occurs in the three year Revised Common Lectionary cycle. The book itself is short but dense with meaning, notwithstanding it’s enigmatic ending. Chapter 3 finds God speaking his Word of command to Jonah to share God’s Word of warning to the people of Nineveh. Recently chastened by the power of God’s Word in the belly of a whale, Jonah now obeys where he formerly presumed not to. God’s Word sparks repentance among the Ninevites at a level truly miraculous from the greatest to the least of them (v.5), which is better fleshed out in the next four verses we skip over where the King of Nineveh commands repentance of the entire city, not simply in thought but in action through sackcloth and ashes and fasting – and this is to extend to the animals as well! The power of God’s Word is also demonstrated in its reach – Jonah is sent to preach a warning to a pagan people, people who may have heard of the God of the Israelites but who do not acknowledge him as their god. Yet such is the power of God’s Word that it is capable of even striking concern into the hearts of those who despise or ignore him. How much more should we expect God’s Word to be efficacious in the hearts and minds of those who do claim to know and worship him!

Psalm 62 – Psalms 39, 62 and 77 each make a reference to Jeduthun. This may indicate he had some role in authorship but it might also be reference to a melody he is credited with. Psalms 39 and 62 are credited to David and Psalm 77 is credited to Asaph so perhaps the melodic citation is more accurate. He is noted several times in 1 Chronicles and in Chapter 25 is indicated as associated with worship (presumably) music, specifically harps, lyres and cymbals. The psalm itself exhorts to confidence and trust in God. Verses 1 and 5 are challenging to render accurately in English. The ESV uses the word silence, but that word has a different connotation in English than the Hebrew intends. The psalm is not talking about a parrticular form of waiting – waiting without speaking, for example. Rather the Hebrew word more closely connotates trust, reliance. Our concerns and fears are placed in God’s hands to await his response in faithfulness. Only God can be trusted this completely and fully – human beings are either willfully evil (vs. 3-4) or at best, transient and severely limited in power (vs.9-10), even forceful or violent power. Although we are called to trust God at all times, this really only becomes evident during difficult times, when we are confronted with our own lack of ability to manage a situation. In these times we are reminded that all power belongs to God (v.11).

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 – The Lectionary makes an additional three verses optional and I’ve decided to leave them off as I think these verses capture Paul’s intentions very clearly. I wonder how many Christian marriages would benefit from the Church actually preaching all of this chapter on a regular basis, as well as Paul’s other Holy Spirit-inspired words on marriage. Apparently that’s considered too risky or ill-advised or no longer pertinent. Although the Church would never say those things, silence in this area of Scripture seems to have done far more harm than good, given current divorce statistics. Instead we focus on broad theological realities which are of course very important but unhinged from their very tangible applications, such as marriage. Yes, the time is short. How short? We don’t know. Clearly it isn’t/wasn’t as short as Paul expected. Yet our basic attitude should be exactly what Paul espouses here. He is not espousing spousal neglect, which the rest of this chapter makes abundantly clear. Much of his letter thus far is practical teaching about how to live life in this world. This teaching is necessary to clarify sinful practices and establish holy guidelines because, of course, we are part of this world. But as Paul emphasizes here, the present form of this world is passing away! This is not escapism, but rather a practical reminder that what fills the majority of our days and hours is passing away. At the very least it passes away from us in a span of years or decades as we are drawn through death into eternity. But it is also passing away in that history and creation have a terminus. These things are not infinitely cyclcial but rather linear, part of a divine plan that includes a divine conclusion. With this in mind we live our lives and engage in our relationships, in Christian love and gentleness but also with the understanding they cannot bear the weight of our eternal hope (see Psalm 62 above).

Mark 1:14-20 – Once again the Word of God accomplishes powerful things, no less impressive than the repentance of the Ninevites, it calls ordinary people into discipleship, into personal relationship with the Triune God who creates, redeems and sanctifies all of creation. This relationship with God transforms and may alter all of our other relationships. It reprioritizes our entire life. Not everyone is called to discipleship in such a specific way as the Apostles (obviously) or dedication to the Church and it’s work.

Note also the similarity in what Jonah was commanded to preach and what Jesus preached! Both are a call to repentance, an acknowledgement there is a God against whom our thoughts, words and deeds are in a state of rebellion. Both indicate there is a judgment or reckoning coming, but that this judgment needn’t be feared if there is genuine repentance. It’s important to remember here the Biblical concept of repentance is much more extensive than our current notions of being apologetic or sorry. It isn’t simply lip service. It is both an honest acknowledgement of being in the wrong – being guilty – as well as a commitment to an opposite course of action, a course of action characterized by obedience rather than rebellion.

As such, the call to repentance is every bit as valid and urgent today as it was 2000 years ago or 2800 years ago. Judgment is not simply the objective return of the Son of God in glory to bring creation history as we know it to an end. Judgment comes at the end of our respective lives, the time and date and circumstances of which we are not privy to. As such, putting off the call to repentance is never the appropriate response. The call is always imminent, always relevant, always pertinent.