Scripture has some very challenging messages for us to wrestle with.
There’s one that comes from the book of Isaiah (1:10-18) and describes how very disappointed that God is with human’s intense focus on attempting to appease God through worship but doing nothing to change how they actually live.
It expresses the disturbing news that God has
no interest in prayers and offerings from a people who reject compassion &
instead embrace injustice.
The passage ends with the statement: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red
like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
Perhaps how we
come to understand how God would have us live can be found through engaging in
the difficult discussion of what we claim to believe and how we actually live.
willingness to encounter difficult truths through dialogue is the first step of
Stated another way, the “900 pound gorilla” in the room that nobody wants to talk about, is the justice dichotomy between how we pray/sing/worship & how we act/value/love.
Perhaps it is through this difficult dialogue, that real change in our lives is possible.
There’s a troubling book in the Bible with an especially troubling passage that just rings vividly true for our current times.
(Job 2:7) So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes. Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.”
Did we do something that deserved being on the receiving end of all the Evil befalling us right now?
Perhaps yes or perhaps not. Sometimes Evil just is and does and inflicts harm cuz well that’s how it earned it’s name. At least that’s what the book of Job kinda indicates.
The question more critical to these times is what will our response me?
Do we simply curse God & die?
Or do we persist in our integrity and continue to strive for a just & compassionate society?
Everyday, I get up in the pre-dawn hours because as an old man that’s what one does. It must be written down somewhere that old men don’t get to sleep in and that’s simply the way things are at this point in my life. So, accept it & get on with life, no sense in griping about for the simple reason who would listen, hey you’re the only up anyway.
Anyway, I get up and put on the coffee pot and while its working its magic, I turn to my computer and sure enough, 9 times out of 10, when I glance at the headlines, the words “How can these things be?’ are my first conscious thoughts of the day.
How can these things be?
Every-time you think that you’ve seen the worst depths that our human society can degrade to, well then what do you know here’s a new one to reset the record books on what are the known limits to our collective greed, depravity, insane violence or simply evil against one another or against God’s Good Creation, which by the way, includes every other human being among the rest of those creatures.
How can these things be?
Our collective response to these “new normal” news items is to shake our heads, utter a imaginative expletive or two, perhaps make an angry post on some social media platform or sign a petition, but ultimately as a society we choose to simply to sigh and move onto the rest of priorities of this new day.
How can these things be?
Is there another option? Is there perhaps a bit of Gospel wisdom to inform our lives this day?
In the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John, there’s a story detailing how Nicodemus is bringing essentially this same question to the radical new teacher in town, a guy we call Jesus.
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:1 from the NRSV)
It’s curious to note that Nicodemus waited until nightfall to seek out the wisdom of Jesus. Perhaps his motivation to wait, till he can’t be seen by others who would judge critically of him, is a little bit like our hesitancy to ask these questions out loud. We too hesitate to ask why things are this way for fear of reprisal from the numerous members of the “Make America Great Tribe”. Whether the members of this provocative tribe live next door or occupy the next office or even sit in the next pew, we hesitate to be seen questioning our society’s new normal.
How can these things be?
How did our civilization ever reach the point of unleashing such destructive forces which have placed the future of human civilization very much in doubt?
How did it happen so fast? Were we asleep at the wheel? (Short answer: Yep.)
So, every-day, I start out with a little bit of despair tugging at the corners of my soul.
A much greater confession to make, is that the new question formed out of my despair is “How is it even possible to change our society’s destructive course in time to save the multitudes including my grandchildren?”
Yeah that puts me right there next to Nicodemus saying the same things to Jesus: How is this possible?
Yep me and Ole Nick slinking in under the cover of night wondering the same fate-filled question: How is this possible? How is it possible to have the faith that somehow God’s Holy Spirit will awaken enough people of Faith in time that we can turn our society away from running like Lemmings into the chasm of ultimate destruction?
Jesus says it’s quite simple: you must be born again of the Spirit.
Here’s where all my evangelical colleagues slap their high fives and triumphantly say: that’s what we’ve been telling you all along.
Not so fast, I reply to my evangelical colleagues, it’s not simply sufficient to state “I believe and therefore I am saved”, because you remember in that passage Jesus went on to say: “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
You did not receive my testimony… There’s a difficult condemnation to receive this day.
Remember Jesus giving us the beatitudes?
Remember the commandments to care for the poor, to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, and if you have 2 cloaks you must give one away and then of course there are the numerous commands to love compassionately without limit told to us again and again throughout the Gospels?
We haven’t truly received Jesus’ testimony until we live the way he told us to live.
So, put your high 5’s down because very few of us are there yet.
How can it be possible to turn our society from the path of greed driven violence and destruction in time to save our kids?
So yes, I start my day with “How can these things be?”
How is it possible that we have freely chosen to live in our modern consumerism to the extent that it is destroying God’s Good Creation?
It’s been increasingly difficult wrestling with despair over our rapidly deteriorating situation. It’s hard to see much in the way of progress in the work that I’ve been doing. So, in a period of despair this Summer, I thought that God was calling me in another direction. But I was wrong. The frustrating but critically necessary work of awakening faith communities to the Climate & Sustainability Crisis is exactly where God is Calling me to do ministry.
I have to tell you that my secular colleagues have a tendency to roll their eyes at the prospect that people of faith will rise up to guide our society into an ancient, and yet for us, a new way of living. A way of living that sustains all life rather than wantonly plundering the life systems of this one planet that God has placed into our care. This amazingly beautiful, complicated interrelated but fragile home of ours that we call earth.
How can it be possible to believe that God will awaken people of Faith in time?
Well, go ahead and roll your eyes.
Yeah, you’re right to observe that the pews are pretty empty now and it’s mostly grey hairs sitting there while the rest of society has concluded that the church is no longer relevant to modern day life.
But hey I accept the Gospel truth that God’s Spirit is alive and at work among us, even now, calling us forth.
Someday soon, the Church will heart the urgent Call to respond and will arise to lead our society forth to a new way of life. A way centered in sustaining God’s Good Creation for all generations yet to come. It will happen simultaneously with secular society realizing that they are missing the greatest truth about what is truly important in this life and in desperation they will seek out this truth.
So yes, I still start out most mornings with the question of “How can these things be?”
But on my better nights after a day devoted to this ministry whether frustrating or enriching, I end with the prayer: “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” In time, a chorus of Faith filled voices will join in this prayer and together we will discern God’s calling us forth to guide our society to a better way to live. A way of life that nurtures instead of destroys, that loves instead of hates and that fills it’s days with acts of compassionate love.
Need some modern-day examples of following the way of Jesus?
Go to www.SustainingCreation.org and pick on the 48 actions towards a sustainable life, chose 2 or 3 and start doing them. Make sure you do these visibly in the bright light of day for all your neighbors to see the Gospel in action.
Perhaps it will help you to: “receive our testimony.” And be born yet again this day and all the remaining days of our lives.
Who knows? Our kids may even cherish our memories for the day we arose to save their future and live a life well lived following our example of the vital lesson that we finally learned before it was too late
Wipe off the vomit Jonah, you are needed now more than ever.
In my own life as a preacher, I have discovered that from time to time, I have acted very similarly to the reluctant prophet we know from the biblical story of Jonah. In fact, this past summer, I did that very thing yet again. In my despair over living in the 21st century version of the land of Nineveh, I came incredibly close to changing my Call (just like Jonah tried to do).
In the stunningly incomprehensible current day results of our woeful 2016 presidential election wherein we freely elected the modern day equivalent of the very worst of the Roman Emperors (albeit with some Russian collusion), it is obvious that currently, we are the modern equivalent of the land of Nineveh.
(Jonah 1:1-2) Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
For their wickedness has come to the attention of our God, yep that sounds like us. Racism, environmental destruction on a global scale, vulture capitalism, endless greed, xenophobia, fear of the other, sexism, ignoring the needs of the poor, purveyor of endless war etc. etc. ….
Yes, our wickedness has risen to the level that God is now greatly concerned. We have put in place a government that will only compound this issues to a level that frankly scares the bejesus out of any person capable of rational thought in such a time as this.
Is God concerned? We are living in a way that is currently threatening to cause the extinction of all of God’s Good Creation, so “concerned” is a tad bit of an understatement.
But the good news, is that God has a contingency plan for such times as these. He sends prophets to awaken the people to change their evil ways and come back into loving relationship with each other, with Creation and thereby with God.
So who is the prophet for these times? Why it’s the church of course! Well, it’s “The Church” as Jesus intended it to be, an unstoppable force of compassionate justice taking on the powers of “Empire” when they “harm the least of these”.
You do know that “The Church” isn’t simply all of those lovely now nearly empty buildings with tall spires that feature pot-lucks, collection baskets and the occasional funeral or wedding?
Nah, the Church is much more than that. The church as intended by Jesus is the prophet vitally necessary to proclaim to human society that your ways have fallen into wickedness and you must return to the path of compassionate love that God is calling you to live. Think John the Baptist writ large.
You didn’t know that? Well perhaps it’s because “The Church” (like Jonah) has decided to go the opposite way in response to the Call from God. Instead of confronting human society, we have decided our modern day role is to not make waves but to go along in order to get along. Instead of being prophetic, we focused solely on being the chaplain to society.
Don’t get me wrong, chaplains are vitally necessary. They help to heal us from tragedy. But there comes a time, when it cannot be the dominant role of the Church, or we all will die. Empty pews are a precursor to empty souls.
(Jonah 1:9-12)…he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”
So now in 2018 in American Society, “The Church” finds itself, like Jonah, thrown into the deep dark sea. We have been swallowed up into the belly of the beast.
We are about to be puked up onto a beach.
So, like Jonah, I now arise shaking off the whale vomit of despair and begin to take yet again my first steps on the journey to Nineveh to do what God has been calling me to do all along.
The question for this day, oh Church, is will you continue to lie in the beast’s vomit?
Or will you rise up, shake yourself off and join with me to do what God has commanded us to do in the land of Nineveh?
(Jonah 3:1-5) The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth
Now that’s an interesting question that I haven’t pondered in depth for a while.
So it’s worthwhile to return yet again to examine this “sense” of being Called by God to a specific role(s)-action(s)–life path.
First you need to understand that my theology is rooted in the simple fact that we are all called by our God to a specific role(s)–action(s)–life path. It is as profoundly significant as Jesus call to the first disciples to “come follow me”. This invitation as understood through the lens of my theology wasn’t to just a small group a couple thousand years ago but it is an invitation extended to the billions and through the ages to the present including this very day.
Our God is calling us to a way of life that uniquely rooted in compassionate sacrificial love for God, for neighbor and for ourselves. To hear this Call, as I experienced when I first recognized my Call to authorized ministry, involves what Gaelic Theologians refer to as a “Thin Spot”.
This understanding says that we are always in the presence of God but our lives are usually so busy/cluttered that we don’t recognize God’s presence among us. So we need a “thin spot”, something that thins the barriers that we have erected between us and God. Music, Nature, Prayer, Contemplation, Worship can sometimes provoke a thin spot. But often it takes a life event such as a birth or death or other life change. For me it was the death of my wife Gloria some 19 years ago that shattered all my barriers and allowed the sense of God’s presence to enter into my awareness. In that “thin spot”, I sensed God calling me to the ministry, a call I had heard as a youth some 40 years prior and neglected it for other life priorities.
One thing I can attest to is that God’s Spirit is tenacious and will keep extending the Call until we finally become aware of it, if we are but open to say “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening”. You will gather a deep sense that this indeed is the path our God is calling us to be on when you say yes.
So what’s the answer to the original question? Why everybody is. How else would a God of infinite love choose to act?
One of the most troubling aspects of visiting Dachau is the realization that it was right there all along.
I mean really, Evil has built a Concentration Camp located in middle of your small City, right there in your neighborhood, right on the other side of a simple damn wall that you drive by/walk by every single damn day and you are going to insist that you didn’t see it?
That you didn’t know?
That you didn’t suspect?
41,000+ is the officially recorded death count but since not every victim was worthy of making an official note of their demise there is a very real possibility that it was 3X that much.
So, you didn’t know?
Yeah, the wall was too high to glance over, but what about the smell? I mean really that many corpses had to stink, right? That many bodies crammed together under abysmal conditions had to have created quite a stink, no?
No, didn’t notice the stink huh?
Well what about the incinerator’s chimney black smoke when the fat from all the bodies drove the fuel mixture so rich that the sky turned black? Oh, you thought it was just bad coal huh?
Well then what about the sounds? Weren’t there screams? You know when they tortured and beat and shot and performed those terrible medical experiments, weren’t there awful sounds that disturbed your comfort level? Kept your windows shut, huh?
Well then what about all those prisoners that were marched from the rail station right in the middle of town to get to this Camp? Didn’t that make you wonder why so many go in & nobody comes out? Oh, right, as a simple everyday ordinary citizen, prisoners were not your responsibility to ask about.
What’s that? You are asking about our Concentration Camps? Well that was after Pearl Harbor was attacked and everybody was scared to death of Japanese spies and so it’s perfectly understandable what WE did way back then.
What do you mean not those camps of 80 years ago but the concentration camps that we’re building right now?
We are not building Concentration Camps.
We as the world’s most advanced nation are simply constructing temporary holding shelters for some of “those people” who have mistaken us for being a soft touch.
Why we even call them “Tender Shelters” for our special handling of infants and toddlers.
You know, you really should stop laughing & rolling your eyes at our answer.
No, your crying over the suffering of children isn’t helpful either.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:18