Peace and the Courage to Break From the Crowd

“The incense you bring me is a stench in my nostrils! Your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath day, and your special days for fasting–even your most pious meetings–are all sinful and false. I want nothing more to do with them. I hate all your festivals and sacrifices. I cannot stand the sight of them! From now on, when you lift up your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look. Even though you offer many prayers, I will not listen. For your hands are covered with the blood of your innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Let me no longer see your evil deeds. Give up your wicked ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows.” (Isaiah 1:13-17, New Living Bible)

       I’ve been watching the 2003 Martin Doblmeier documentary “Bonhoeffer” this week, and the above passage from Isaiah rang true as a bold, angry yet compassionate voice from scripture that is echoed by the courage of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu. It is a rare and possibly prophetic church leader who speaks of Christ and peace in the midst of angry mobs, those only out to shed blood and to get what they think is coming to them.

(Bishop Tutu of South Africa is interviewed in the documentary, and poignantly invokes Jeremiah as another biblical comparison to Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi German theologian and pastor. It makes sense. Bonhoeffer was more of an unwilling but obedient prophet –a friendly, thoughtful weeper like Jeremiah instead of a shouter and preacher and singer like Isaiah.)

Yet the social gospel and pacifist tenets of Bonhoeffer’s theology came more from the Sermon on the Mount than from these ancient prophets. Here’s an intriguing quote from the film (I don’t know if it comes from a personal letter or from one of his books):

“The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of adherence to the Sermon on the Mount, in imitation of Christ.” 

With the aid of immense contributions from Barth and Niemuller in Germany, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s social ethics in the U.S. (Bonhoeffer studied some with Niebuhr), Bonhoeffer imitated the healing, peacemaking God, the one concerned with the oppressed, the God of which Isaiah had spoken many centuries earlier. In imitating the merciful, monastic love that he preached, Bonhoeffer was one of the first German Christians to publicly speak out for the aid of oppressed Jews in pre-war Germany.

He was enthusiastically ecumenical and only 28, in the throes of birthing the Confessing Church and establishing its first seminary. And whether due to his young age or his natural humility and peaceableness, he asked his students to call him Brother Bonhoeffer, instead of Herr Director.

For me, having grown up Roman Catholic, it feels odd to have only recently discovered the spiritual depth and peacemaking theology of the ancient religious orders (the monastics… now suddenly in vogue again among the Emergent church and mainline Protestants, and with good reason). So to read the above passage and yet recall all the incense and pomp and whatnot of my early church experience, I get worried that maybe God doesn’t like the Roman Catholic symbolic practices that grew out of the ancient Jewish ones referenced in Isaiah.

On the other hand, the Benedictines’, Carmelites’ and Franciscans’ commitment to peace and to being –especially for the poor– a living Christ, a giving church, lived in community, seems so right. It also seems so similar to Bonhoeffer and Tutu’s own convictions and actions. And it strikes me that all of them –the ancients and the moderns– learned about the connection between contemplative prayer, worship and social justice from passages like the above section of Isaiah.

But now comes the tough question:

Who are the Isaiahs, St. Francises, Desmond Tutus and Dietrich Bonhoeffers of our day? Who in the churches and synagogues of 2009 has both the position of international respect, and the courage of their convictions, enough to speak up loudly like Isaiah — to organize, and break with ridiculous nationalism or hollow church tradition, to try to stop the unnecessary (and ineffective) bloodshed in the Middle East, the creation of still more orphans by yet another generation of so-called Christians?

Anabaptists: The Spirit-driven Reformers

And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Reference: John 20:22-23

Hopefully without beating the horse to death, as I often do… just some thoughts on godly “power”, or the charismatic aspects in the above passage:

The actual breath of Jesus as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit is significant here. It was not just a symbolic, psychological, linguistic or intellectual moment — it was truly spiritual or supernatural. What was contained in that holy breath was nothing less than the power of the Creator.

The other new development, also related to power: note the connection Jesus makes verbally and immediately with *actual* spiritual power over sin in other people, thanks to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The disciples needed this godly empowerment in order to spread forgiveness, healing and godly discernment/protection (the “not forgiving” portion).

To continue Jesus’ ministry, do miracles and otherwise re-establish humankind’s connection with the Creator, the Holy Spirit was and is essential, so that none can claim it as a fleshly effort accomplished on their own (and thus start heading down the road toward pride, and away from God). By extension of Jesus’  “breathing” act, he was at that moment opening up a new channel or space within the disciples’ hearts, so they could then keep breathing and pass on the forgiveness, almost like a holy contagion.  Thus at this moment in John’s gospel, forgiveness, healing and evangelism all emerged as part of the same miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, through the church as God’s new “body”. From here on out, beginning with those first disciples, the Holy Spirit began to reach out directly, to any person God brought into one’s path.

Here, finally, after thousands of years of the Law not working, human beings became spiritual agents themselves… agents of the Creator’s powerful grace, which was first delivered by Jesus himself. We remained sub-contractors, of course (to use another analogy). It was still the Triune God who held ultimate power and authority. But now every [baptized] Christian could finally claim genuine authority and power, by prayerfully living within and delivering GOD’s power, judgment, wisdom and forgiveness. 

I believe that even today, those who have received that same holy breath continue to help God pass the same powerful Spirit on to others. We participate in the work of the Spirit. We witness to the amazing grace, to the immense forgiveness being offered, but then we step aside and let God’s Spirit begin to transform all human beings whom we may meet. It’s mostly in how we hold, let go of, define or express that power, within us, that we get tripped up in denominational or theological differences.

This powerful transformation of humans is a process that the Anabaptists saw in the book of Acts and the early church. They took these Spirit baptisms in scripture to heart, and radically sought the same kind of transformed heart again, hundreds of years later.

That’s also why early Anabaptists were a threat to the earthly and well-entrenched religious and political powers. They had a competing “power” within them, even a joy that the Reformers recognized was less accessible to them in their own faith. The first Mennonites were a true reform movement, and perhaps the first “charismatic” movement. The Holy Spirit was offering forgiveness and correction even to those well-meaning Lutherans and other followers of Jesus who had made the attempt, but who had not gone far enough in letting the Spirit breathe, or in welcoming God back into the world and into their daily lives.

Baptised… By the Spirit… Into What?

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

Thanks, Carole, and all who have been in the Simple Desire discussion lately on such vital matters. The following is in part a very long response to the concise, good points you have already made.

I have read some of the blog comments about evangelism, and Jesus’ “instructions”, and various doctrinal stances from the past few days. I definitely lean more toward commenter Scott Yoder’s more typically evangelical end of the spectrum as regards the Great Commission and the gifrts of the spirit. And yet I also have had Carole’s feeling of concern over the “condemnation of unbelievers” piece suggested by the above passage (Mark 16:16). But I do not let questions about such mechanical matters as baptism or evangelism methods *dominate* my views on ministry, service, or any other form of witnessing to the truth of the gospel. Because we humans can make false idols out of just about anything.

First off, as an example, note that Mark’s Jesus does NOT say “whoever is not *baptised* will be condemned”. That already puts some current demoninations within the worldwide church on shaky doctrinal ground, by teaching that the unbaptised ARE condemned. So who’s got it right? Secondly, who’s to say what Jesus meant by condemnation? It need not automatically mean condemnation to hell (or permanent separation from God). It may simply mean condemnation in a worldly sense, like “by not believing, you are condemned to wallow in sin like a prison, with its separation from the One Source of love, truth, healing and other good fruits”. Or perhaps he meant “you will be condemned (and thus excluded from our community… and let’s not forget that whole “shunning” phenomenon within Anabaptism) by believers (and perhaps by God… though Jesus does not quite SAY that) for being so self-involved and headstrong“. Both interpretations would be criticisms of unbelief rooted in *this* time and place, not necessarily the eternal kingdom of heaven.

Some would say I’m splitting hairs. Perhaps. On the other hand, I think various denominations (Mennos very much included) are discovering in the dawn of the third millenium that it is actually okay –even preferable– to hold only *loosely* to certain doctrinal specifics, and then to trust God to sort the rest out later.

I know it’s hard to run a church this way, that historical precedent strongly suggests the institution and its leaders (the theologians, professors, on-the-ground ministers, and lay practitioners) have to take a firm stand on as many “points of truth” as possible. Yet unlike theology, the Holy Spirit defies being systematized. He is alive. And we, His Bride, can grow, change and increase in love and faith (and accuracy of belief) only by listening (including reading the Bible creatively) and then applying His loving ways IN RELATIONSHIP, like a salve to a wounded world. We can occasionally apply that love also to ourselves, for we cannot hate ourselves and yet profess to love the God who has humbly, graciously taken His place within us… thus ennobling us for all eternity. But relationship (the evangelical buzzword) is nothing like doctrine. Never forget that the message of Jesus always boils down to just those two great commandments: Love God fully, and love others as you would be loved.

And even then, growth, life and witnessing occur by way of occasional failure, followed by gracefully listening (to believers and unbelievers alike) and learning and trying again.

These failures, the realizations of our own wounds and limitations that we share with Christ, are actually some of the Spirit’s ongoing gifts from the Father.  Moses had a stutter. Paul had a thorn in his flesh, whatever that was. Thus we have daily opportunities to learn, to grow closer to God and each other, to act in the Spirit and let it overcome those relational disconnects that we feel, or that we create through sins like pride or greed. That we fail to agree, on how or why to bless Him and increase the family’s love (or size), is just one aspect of sin and our human limitations.

On a practical note: The building of ecumenical alliances often requires this theologically open attitude, so that we can actually learn something valuable from each other, while holding our differences in check and loving the “other” anyway (past doctrinal “enemies” though they may be).

Holding doctrine loosely is also a humble attitude, inspired by such Jesus-isms as “judge not” and “come to me as a child”. Coming as a child may mean not needing to know everything just yet, or to prove oneself, or even to be anything (Mennonite, evangelist, law-and-order Republican, generous and socially-conscious liberal, superior baker or carpenter or computer whiz). We come to God just to give and receive love and grace, and we are sent out to do the same, in whatever ways Jesus modeled for us.

I am less threatened by such debates, and by leaving these questions open, than I used to be. But it is hard to live in this “unsettled” state, I will admit. I would even go so far as to say I’ve caught better glimpses of the true Jesus from a select few Muslims and Buddhists of late than I have from “my own kind”. So I don’t know what to make of that. Yet I listen to the Holy Spirit, I stick to my own scriptures first and foremost, and I wait…
Of course, I can take this position because I’m not a from-the-cradle Mennonite, nor am I in any position of authority. I’m just a regular joe, a layperson with an occasional gift for crafting memorable prose. I take on this project probably moreso because I’m on a journey to integrate (as much as possible) the essence of Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical and Mennonite theology into something useful and truly generative. (Yes, I’ve always been a bit too spiritually/intellectually ambitious that way.)

In my life experience, I even embody some of this integration, and the tension. For example, I do believe the historic Jesus’ cross, his blood atonement for my sin, and his actual bodily resurrection were the centerpiece of God’s eternal plan for ALL humans. That makes me orthodox, right? And perhaps even conservative in my stance on the Bible itself (in particular, my stance toward Paul’s way of cooking up the stew of Old and New Testament history).

But I also feel called to throw off much of the modern conservative, evangelical (and Roman Catholic, though less so) literalist approach to the scriptures. And I’m charismatically freed up enough to try it out, which is a real challenge to do without the gifts of the spirit: the strain of walking the perimeter without walking away requires God “filling my tank” regularly. By contrast, a supremely rational, post-Enlightenment idolization of  the written word, and language, and science, has only put the church in bondage to the actual biblical text itself. There is no room in everyday evangelicalism for the supernatural Jesus, the unexpected Jesus. There is too much press for Him to conform to our Western wourdview.

By pressing for a linguistically narrow (quantifiable, repeatable, and systematized) interpretation of it, we have cheapened the spiritual richness and variability of the gospel. The keepers of “the word” have used it historically use to justify Inquisitions, wars, racism, exclusionary politics, colonialist paternalism, sexism, willful ignorance, unconscionable wealth and exploitation –all the non-loving systems and *power-seduced* behaviors that the Mennonites sought to critique in the first place.

So I suppose this attitude –toward the Bible and the actual church –makes me a liberal. An orthodox liberal.

So which is it? Social gospel or saving the damned? Healing the sick or donating money to Doctors Without Borders? Liberal Mennonite or conservative Lutheran (the category my current place of worship probably falls into). Do I baptise my unbaptised (but consecrated) six-year-old son to be safe, or do I let God draw him to Himself and be baptised in his own time, when he’s able to accept the whole Jesus package?

For me, it is not a question of either/or (when it comes to baptism, or evangelizing, or almost anything else that most systems would call imperative). It is typically what one of my mentors, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr (a huge respecter of Mennonites, by the way), calls a both/and moment. God is both firmly authoritative and gently expansive, powerful and peaceful, at the same time. As Rohr is also fond of saying, “everything belongs”. We just don’t know how, yet.

So I am a man with principles, and a slowly-focusing theological position, but with almost no one to agree with me except this Jesus fellow, who tends to look a bit fuzzy around the edges when I try to pin him down. And I am reminded quite regularly that He disagrees with some of my own imperfect efforts to apply those principles, or to live “in the Spirit”. He may appreciate the attempt, and even bless the effort. Or I may instead be confronted by sin in some new area of my life, and the need to be re-converted in that area, and to be forgiven my shortcomings for the seventy-seventh time.

But the moment I claim too much victory for myself, or too much ownership of “the truth”, or take too much identity from what I have done (gotten baptised, “saved” somebody, fed the homeless), or how “right” I am, it is at that moment that I have turned my back on Him. I have loved self, or recognition, or comfort, or ideology, or church, or belonging, or gift, all more than the Giver Himself. (A Giver, by the way, who actually contains both genders, or no gender, but we humans have to settle for masculine or clumsy neutral/inclusive pronouns and “Father”, because of our limitations as humans.) For Jesus said to take up my cross. I am not for myself anymore, but like Him, I am to be a gift to others.

The compulsive need to “get it right” (or to “do it right”, as if works can save us… as Scott Yoder may be accusing the Mennonites of attempting) is like Phariseeism. It’s a red herring as often as not.

Denominations and approaches to theology can learn from each other, and often in practice will grow and change through both internal reform efforts and external ecumenical conversations. But we may not be well-served anymore by “choosing sides” based on a flawed, fleshly history and an incomplete theology that has always existed (and been twisted within *every* tradition, in my opinion).

Lastly, I am prepared to be corrected and re-focused in my *own* currently unconventional beliefs, which refuse to conform to those classic categories (denominations, positions, etc.) On some of this, I’m sure I will turn out to be wrong. So I can yield to authority, or at least try to. I do it because Jesus says to do so. But that’s also what it is to be human AND to have faith: acknowledging that sin and error will always creep back in, and we (leaders and lay) need to self-correct, to correct each other, and to generally be re-converted daily, or why else did Jesus bring us the Holy Spirit in the first place? If it were simply a system, a formula, we’d have gotten it right by now. But it’s not. It’s belief with a touch of skepticism, faith with a steady diet of works, to keep up that tension, to keep it all in balance.

This tension is one reason I consider myself a Roman Catholic/Mennonite theological hybrid (and perhaps only the Spirit can accomplish such things). Yet currently I’m acting as a sort of “spy” in a mainline Protestant church, gently teaching or modeling some creative Mennonite principles, and some Catholic social gospel and ritualistic ones as well. I’m also meeting, in a separate context, with a bunch of Catholics and a few evangelicals, on broader spirituality and personal “conversion” matters, exploring some tactics or ideas our churches have in common with 12-step programs, Jungian psychology, and other faith traditions. I’m meeting Jesus at every turn, and also meeting a bit of opposition now and then as well, as can be expected. This integration and healing of our family is no touchy-feely project: it is still a battle for territory and authority with powers and principalities, just as Jesus and Paul said it would be. Evil is real, and God’s enemies may in fact be winning, …in the short run.

Yet I also believe God is expanding His “family” in unprecedented ways and unexpected directions (as the Emergent Church movement also attests). It takes the work of the Holy Spirit to do this kind of bridge-building and integration of the past (both its mistakes and its gifts). Yet we must hold even that past loosely, with an eye on the “post-modern” future and the real needs of our children and our church in a coarse, essentially non-Christian culture.

I also wonder if, for North American Mennonites, a closer look at that question of regular “re-conversion” is warranted now, on both the personal and institutional levels. Since the “official” re-structuring of the denomination (early 1990s?), in what ways have the hearts and minds of the members and their varous groupings been re-oriented, or not?

An authentic, internally-motivated reform of self-perpetuating (but limping) Mennonite and Brethren practices/structures (like the colleges?) could go a long way toward re-invigorating the individual churches. What kind of outdated religious or business models still hold sway? On the other hand, how can the original passion of the martyrs and founders be somehow reclaimed, un-fossilized by genuine love and courage in newly radical actions, generated by a movement of the Holy Spirit. This would provide some of the godly energy and enthusiasm needed to provide a genuinely effective witness.

Who, after all, wants to invite a new person into a clunky, weird, dysfunctional sort of family like this? And for children who grow up Mennonite, it may explain why they’re leaving. It’s not even “family” for them anymore. It’s an institution, with very few points of connection within the real world it is sincerely hoping to “save”.

There is reason for hope, though. I find that in this “social crisis” moment, the general population is vaguely curious about the counter-cultural aspects of Anabaptism. Intentional communities,  nonviolence and simple living are becoming sort of “hip”, in certain sectors. Mennonite leaders are being invited into conversations with high-ranking Iranian religious leaders, and even political figures, who see our historic view of Jesus as more authentic than that of the saber-rattling evangelical community. And the Anabaptist community’s loving response in the wake of the Amish school shootings a few years back was a reminder to the U.S. population that we’re still here, in their midst, not just some tourist attraction out in rural Pennsylvania.

But we Mennonites now have to follow that up, and prove we’re actually following Jesus, that we’re practicing what we preach and that we can function well, or all credibility is lost. Unfortunately, in an evangelical-created *marketplace* of religion, that high ground message of “personal salvation = giving your heart to Jesus” was abandoned by most Anabaptists long ago in their public stance, where “joining the community” is seen as the fare one must pay. In going that route, the Mennonites chose not to compete at all, or at least not on the flawed, shallow terms that the megachurches would set for the competition. Mennonites chose instead to build a “city on a hill”, and then just see who would come to join. But few are joining… in Europe and North America, anyway, where the “cost” of discipleship under the Anabaptist flag tends to be pretty high and daunting to consider, for a new convert. And so, for better or worse, the Third Way is genuinely a third way… perceived as “not for the faint of heart”.

Whether the U.S. denomination is headed the “right” way is not for us to determine, or at least not for me to determine. If I know Jesus, and I hope I do, then we will know the Anabaptist tree by its fruit …define that fruit (or famine) however you will. We may be chastened, but we will never be abandoned by our loving God.

Bearing Fruit = Becoming Humble

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7-10 )

Anyone who has watched a fruit tree through the course of a year, or has looked closely at the gnarled bark, knots, and middlin’ fruit of an older tree, can tell you that not all trees –even of the same species– are equally beautiful or frutiful. Not to mention, their beauty is fleeting. The beauty of a fruit tree’s blossoms in the spring often passes very quickly, so that the energy it takes to later bear fruit in those same spots can be redirected toward the production of something more useful: food.

The piece of this gospel passage that intrigues me is the call for the leaders to be more useful, not by “stepping up” and lording their blossoms over their flock as a model to aspire to, but by stepping back and repenting of their pride.

I was considering these matters (aging, pride, character) on  my other blog today, in a post about the retirement of football coach Tony Dungy, a man of deep faith. He’s a classic example of someone who has borne much fruit, and achieved much goodwill the world over. Yet he’s also as humble as they come.

It takes humility and wisdom to actively repent. We don’t often go there eagerly. Yet it often takes repentence to achieve renewal and better fruitfulness as well. Similarly, the way to a good harvest is through a kind of death in winter, with the promise of rebirth in the spring. Sometimes through the humiliating, hard work of enduring “cold” periods in our lives, or aging, or being beaten by the elements (hard rains that knock off our blossoms, hot sun that scorches but gives nutrients), we achieve a kind of peace and identity that is rooted not in what we’ve accomplished or who our family/team/nation is, but in what we’ve given up or endured for the sake of others and for God. 

And finally, for the tree that has aged gracefully but is perhaps not without its “wounds”, even in death there is still potential for fruitfulness and beauty. So not even all “bad” trees are destined for the fire. As a woodworker who occasionally builds furniture with cherry or walnut wood, I can attest to that beauty firsthand. Burled or wounded wood (and fruit/nut tree wood in general) is some of the most prized raw material for woodworkers the world over.

God is certainly the “What have you done for me lately?” deity, as Jesus suggests to the Pharisees. But He is also the God of second and third and seventy-seventh chances, of forgiveness and repentence.

Jesus Turns the Tables

Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?” But you have made it a den of robbers. Mark 11:17b

Reference: Mark 11:12-25

In an age where the marketplace tries to play God at every turn, I’m more grateful every day for the above passage, and the context in which Jesus said it.

Yet even with this instructive and dramatic moment in Jesus’ life — one of the few times he ever got physically “aggressive” (by overturning the moneychangers’ tables) –we often forget that we have but one Master, and that Mammon is not it. The church is not immune, especially in America, to the temptations of substituting convenient, compartmentalized tithing for genuine sacrifice, or hollow ritual for meaningful worship.

I heard recently that some megachurches are installing credit-card scanners in their lobbies, to make tithing a quick, relatively painless process. These are lobbies which also, let’s remember, sometimes serve as profit-making coffeehouses, bookstores and mini-malls. Now, I know it’s easy to take potshots at the most extreme examples of how materialism and general shallowness has infiltrated the church. So that’s not my intention here. There are probably less obvious examples in every church.

I also know things have to be paid for, that ministry costs money. But the above examples are just a few of the many signs that the modern “money makes the world go around” attitude has supplanted the prayerful giving and use of money within the church. It was a temptation in Jesus’ day, as we see above, for people to get distracted from the object of their worship, even in their obedient and worshipful actions. So in overturning the tables and saying the words above, Jesus’ real intention is to overturn the hearts of his followers, to return the hearts of God’s people to their proper focus and expose the enemies in their midst (who are selfish userers, corrupt, …or maybe just distracted themselves from God’s original vision for sacrificial temple offerings).  

Put more than money, or the proper kind of “dove”, into God’s offering basket. Put in your heart. It’s the only investment that pays good dividends for the kingdom.

You Can’t *Handle* the Truth (About Peace)

“Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace. Therefore thus says the Lord God: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out.”

Ezekiel 13:10a, 13

Apparently there has always been a public relations industry, and spin doctors to put a positive face on a steaming pile of lies. If I read this passage correctly, that is.

Yesterday at a simple desire, we had a good look at the difference between exaggerated, metaphoric violence and actual physical violence, between “outer” peace and inner peace among the people of God. I think today’s verses make the case pretty clearly that Ezekiel’s is a story of the battle in the heavens for our souls, not the ones on earth for our property or ideologies. In verse 5 of Chapter 13, the Lord uses the image of the false prophets as those who have not repaired “the breaks in the wall”. This way of equating physical objects (a destroyed temple, a city, a whitewashed tomb) with the spiritual identity of a follower of Yahweh (one who is under threat of attack, who must guard his or her heart from sin, lies and false deities) has precedent throughout both the Old and New Testaments. For example, Nehemiah and other minor prophets put the rebuilding of Jerusalem in this same context: the city IS the people, and vice-versa.

Here, Ezekiel’s Lord talks about “flimsy” walls covered with “whitewash” (v. 10) , walls that will not be strong enough to stand in a coming battle. It’s not much of a stretch to see that they’re not talking about brick and mortar walls here, so much as a religious and political house of cards, based on lies and denial, that will not stand against the coming opponents. It reminds me of something… a battle entered into with faulty, made-up information from the leadership, … a shoddy, patched-together, whitewashed mission thought to be “accomplished”, … where have I heard this before? Ah well, it will come to me later.

Chapter 13 ends, on the other hand, with a merciful God, a saving Lord. He’s still angry, yes — and not only at the liars but also those foolish enough to believe them. But He just wants His people restored, his family set back on the right path. Here’s more of what He tells Ezekiel to convey to the false prophets, the pundits of that era, making up predictions off the top of their head:

19b By lying to my people, who listen to lies, you have killed those who should not have died and have spared those who should not live.

 20 ” ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds, and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare like birds. 21 I will tear off your veils and save my people from your hands, and they will no longer fall prey to your power. Then you will know that I am the LORD. 22 Because you disheartened the righteous with your lies,… 

As a disheartened peacemaker in the 21st century, I take hope from this. The veil behind which a liar hides can always be torn away by our protective Father, revealing what was hidden and scurrilous (but often seductive, complete with flashing graphics and seemingly plausible statistics) about the false prophets’ message. Except nowadays, instead of “peace”, they say “War!” when there is no war… at least not the kind of war — with nukes and guns and IED’s — that they’re telling me we need to fight. 

I may or may not be righteous, but at least now I know that I’m not alone and abandoned here, utterly unable to sort out the truth from the lies, on the eve of still more battles for the hearts and minds of God’s people.

An Unfamiliar Biblical Neighborhood

“Keep away; let us work on this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site. “

Ezra 4:1 – 6:22

One of the hidden benefits of following a lectionary or breviary like the Third Way Cafe’s Sip of Scripture –aside from the discipline of daily study and the spiritual help it provides — is that a lectionary sometimes takes you to places you would not normally go if left to your own choices. Like today’s scripture section, in the book of Ezra, which I confess I have never read. 

If you’re like me, you probably go back time and again to a “favorite” gospel, a couple of favorite major prophets, one minor one, one or two sections of the original Torah, a dozen Psalms, and a couple of Paul’s letters. What can I say? We like what we like, and we know what we know, and we can never know it all. I hope that’s okay with God, because I might never read the book of Numbers cover-to-cover. I hope that won’t get me a rap across the knuckles with God’s ruler for not having done my homework.

Nevertheless, when we are lead by a church lectionary or a teacher toward biblical themes and stories that challenge us, or that we simply have not experienced yet, there’s something potentially powerful about that. It’s the type of submission and development of new habits that can keep one’s faith fresh. It’s a way of being open to the Spirit, Who speaks through the entirety of scripture to the entirety of human history, myself included.

I do not worship in Jerusalem anymore, nor have I any practical need to stay connected to God through that holy site, thanks to the work of Jesus and His Spirit.  So the rebuilding of the temple to which Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah refer seems more of secondary historical importance to me than of primary theological importance. Yet I still worship the same Lord as Ezra, and because that great temple mattered to Him, it also matters to me. Not to mention, the rebuilding of the temple of Solomon is one of the central metaphors throughout the Christian and Jewish traditions. Even Jesus makes use of it, when he says “this temple” will be torn down, then rebuilt in three days (referring, of course, to his body, not the brick and mortar temple in which he stood at the time).

In this, the springtime of the year for the northern hemisphere, a time of renewal, let the struggle to rebuild the temple according to God’s instructions be a reminder that the temple of our own faith needs regular renewal and rebuilding as well. And the scriptural bricks for that rebuilding project can sometimes come from an unlikely location, a biblical neighborhood we’ve sometimes heard about, but never visited.

On the Shedding of Blood

But God said to me, “You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.”  – I Chronicles 28: 1-21

Here we have a very similar scripture to the one from Maundy Thursday. Except in this case, it is David retelling the story of what God said to him in Chapter 21 about building the temple in Jerusalem. So this passage is one of example of why the Bible –particularly the Old Testament– is such a work of genius: for it uses stories, and allegory, and historical records, and poetry, and songs, and prophecies, and (in this case) stories within stories, all to reveal the basic nature of God, and the character of human beings in His sight. It’s as if, by any means necessary, God wanted to be absolutely sure we understood His simple, two-part message: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. This two-part message is repeated, in brief and at length, over and over again in various forms and contexts throughout the scriptures.

So on Good Friday, this passage is notable because it is a repeated message on the spiritual importance of blood (the blood on David’s hands, and therefore on his conscience). From the time of Abraham, and of Moses –who spread blood on the doorways to keep his people safe — bloodshed has been the main symbol of a relationship with Yahweh, and the main method of salvation, for God’s people. Blood is the reason that Jesus’ death had to be on the cross, as a sacrifice (like Abraham’s sheep which subbed for Isaac, or the firstborn of Egypt).

For the Messiah’s holy blood was the necessary and ultimate shedding of blood — shed during Passover –to ensure our final deliverance into God’s hands. It also made a way for bloodshed to no longer be necessary as a way of honoring God. For as we see in His words to David, God is not a fan of bloodshed, He just uses it to complete His work. Therefore Jesus’ blood  was shed to complete the plan of God — a plan that started with Abraham, passed right through David and Solomon, and ends with you, me, and our children.

Let us pray that we never shed another drop of unecessary blood –not in God’s name, nor for any other reason. May God rebuild his temple in our midst, pure and holy.

Our Own Place: Staying Rooted in God’s Soil

“I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more….” (I  Chronicles 17:1-15)

This passage is both encouraging and –in some less obvious ways– troubling. It is encouraging on its surface, because it is a promise from God (to King David through his prophet Nathan) that David’s kingdom, and that of his son Solomon, will prosper and be blessed. And indeed, there was some stability and blessing to be seen in the rise of Jerusalem as the main “place” where God’s people were finally and firmly planted.

But a closer look at the nation of Israel after the reign of Solomon shows that this peace and prosperity were only temporary. There were actually plenty of divisions and “disturbances” that followed quickly on the heels of Solomon’s reign. Early on, these disturbances were more about disobedience within Israel and its leadership, and about infighting, instead of oppression by outside enemies. But eventually Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and outside enemies from Babylon prevailed once again.

So what is one to make of this promise from God to David, in the whole broad scope of Israel’s history and the entire biblical story?

Only this: that the Kingdom of God is not a place, not a plot of land, not some fertile valley filled with milk and honey. Not anymore at least, if in fact it ever was. No. God’s kingdom is a less tangible (but still very real!) place in the midst of God’s people, as we relate to God and each other in a loving and respectful way that honors the Creator, a way that honors God as the only true and righteous king, beyond reproach, beyond human weakness and our capacity for evil.

It would also be dangerous to look to passages like the one above to “prove” the biblical basis for the modern state of Israel –with all of its own political challenges and its oppressive, warlike tendencies. For the conflicts that exist in the region of Palestine to this day are the direct result of people misunderstanding God. 

People with their own agendas, on both sides, are placing their hopes in a geographical location, rather than in a relationship with the Most High. Until they aspire to the peaceful, loving relationship with one’s neighbors that the Most High desires for us, they will most likely continue with this conflict, and with their rhetoric about what God has ordained.

Elijah, Ralph Nader, & the First Resurrection

 Steve Sabella -Palestine Photo Bank

“O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son? …O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again! ”

                                                                  I Kings 17:20b, 21b

       And you thought Jesus was the first man of God to resurrect someone from the dead? Heh, heh, heh… Elijah’s got another think comin’!

This passage, which introduces Elijah at the beginning of Chapter 17, falls smack in the middle of the long, sad, drawn-out tale of Israel and Judah’s succession of separate, parallel, competing kings. Ahab, who “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him”, was king of Israel/Samaria at the time. He was was warned by the prophet Elijah that, presumably as punishment for his evil deeds, no rain would fall in Israel for the next several years unless Elijah called upon God to send it. Predictably, that put Elijah at odds with the king (which contrarian prophets often are… including the likes of Ralph Nader and any number of strong critics in our own age). So Elijah had to hide out with this widow even further out in the boonies than they all were already.

It was there that the widow’s son took ill and soon died, prompting the woman to blame Elijah for bringing calamity on her household. We often blame others for what we see as God’s wrath, even if we don’t call it God’s wrath. But God’s always got a plan for transforming those calamities into blessings, if we stick by God and have faith. Elijah knew this, and showed a faith that had not been seen in those parts for many generations, which prompted God to answer powerfully by brining the child back to life. It was probably one of the first great, mountain-moving miracles of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. And it was witnessed by just two people: Elijah, and this poor, unnamed widow.

God has never performed true miracles at the drop of a hat, despite what our modern, easily-impressed culture might label as a miracle. (“What’s that? You see a picture of Jesus and Mary burned into that piece of wheat toast? It’s a miracle!”)  No, the more frequent and numerous witnesses to God’s power, and God’s plans, are those who must endure three years of drought like Ahab and his countrymen.

Here we read how God’s grace– and what Flannery O’Connor once called God’s “severe mercy”– can be seen much more often in what is done to soften the hearts of the hardhearted, than in any grand miracle or huge movement of people.