Monday Theme - Calling
Monday Scripture - Isaiah 6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Isaiah is serving in the temple when an amazing and terrifying vision interrupts. A vision of God sitting on his throne and angels attending. Isaiah hears a voice. Jeremiah does not describe what he is doing when the word of the Lord interrupts him, just that the word of the Lord came to him when he was a boy. The word is a vision that contains a message for Israel. Moses is living the life of a simple shepherd when a bush bursts into flame. Ezekiel is sitting on the banks of a river in a deportation camp. He is with a group of Israelites being sent to Babylon. The heaven's open up. He sees a vision, hears a voice, and is grabbed by the Spirit of God. Mother Teresa was a teacher in Eastern Calcutta but was deeply disturbed she saw in the surrounding neighborhood. Dr. King heard the voice of God after receiving a phone threatening the lives of him and his family, 'I will be with you always,' God said. Thomas Merton read a book on Gerard Manly Hopkins and suddenly felt the call to follow Hopkins on the path to priesthood. Dorothy Day's call was a long ongoing process with engagement in some form of faith all of her life. It was in prayer at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. that she began to put together her faith, writing ability and passion for social justice.
In my own experience, God's call comes in mysterious, frightening and beautiful diversity. I was called to ministry by 'the voice' of God when my thoughts took an unexpected turn. I've felt the warm embrace of God's call when feeding a baby, the exciting urge to action at a rock concert, danced before the Lord when I listen to Carlos Santana, and a sick feeling in my stomach when hearing the news of the shooting at the nightclub in Orlando. All, the call of God. All different emotional reactions. And most intimately, I hear the voice of God when some call me to come sit and pray with their dying loved one, or their sick infant or when they invite me to celebrate a dedication or baptism or birthday. God's call is usually for me at least, unexpected and beyond reason and nestled in the every day. Sometimes it is unusual in response to a particular event, like Orlando, and sometimes it is interwoven in the everyday, like when my daughter takes my hand as I walk her to school.
This past Sunday's story about God's call shows that the message is not always easily received or accepted. Jonah is deeply troubled by the call to offer the possibility of reconciliation to the enemies of his people. Moses is afraid because God's call will send him to confront the most powerful man in the known world, the Pharaoh of Egypt. Elijah is called to confront King Ahab, Nathan with confronting King David in his infidelity. Dr. King to call to America to realize the great unfulfilled promise 'all men are created equal,' and Dorothy Day to advocate for the poor. But then again, the voice of God came to Jesus and called him 'Beloved.' So the call of God is both message of love and invitation as well as the unsettling insistence that the one called accept the risk of advocating for the unloved. The call both affirms and challenges, heals and disturbs.
Allow the story of Isaiah's call, and all these other calls to shape us by beginning with the affirmation. Regardless of the imperfection and even unworthiness of these people God trusts and believes that they can carry out the vital task God has chosen them for. So begin by watching and listening for the many ways that God reveals God's great love for you. Sit in stillness and be loved by God. Prayerfully reflect on the gifts and strengths that you were created by God with. But then, also allow these stories to shape you in their risk. God is calling us to respond in some way to the pain of the world, to the plea of the vulnerable, the exploited and the expendable. So listen to be healed and then to be an agent of healing in the world, no matter the risk.
Tuesday Theme - Revealing
Tuesday Scripture - Isaiah 1:15-17
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
The message that Isaiah is called to bring, the new voice he is empowered to exercise, is revealing. God appeared to Isaiah to give him the courage and ability to speak about an uncomfortable truth. Religion has itself become and idol, enabling privileged Israelites to ignore the pleas and plight of impoverished and vulnerable Israelites, perhaps even profit from it. So Isaiah's new voice is rich and complex mixture of God's displeasure, an amplification of the voice of the poor, reminder of that which Israel is supposed to love and trust (which some have evidently forgotten about) and an invitation to repent and return. But in its essence, it reveals aspects of the lives and culture of Israel that they would rather not accept or admit.
Moses is sent to reveal the ugly truth of slavery and violence which is the foundation of Egypt's power and prosperity. Elijah is empowered to reveal to one of Israel's own King's, Ahab, that his lust for power impoverishes the lives of his subjects. Nathan is sent to reveal the moral emptiness of David's murder of Uriah. John the Baptist is assassinated for revealing the moral bankruptcy of Herod's reign at the time of Jesus. I mention this because it can be particularly disturbing to read the prophets. Their rhetoric is angry and at times violent and seems far removed from the love of Jesus. Isaiah's language too can be troubling. On Sunday we heard Isaiah speak these words from God, “Until cities lie waste, without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate." Why such abrasive words and images? I would suggest because it is hard to be heard, especially when the message will not be popular. The prophets are called to reveal what people do not want to hear. They speak in a shocking manner in order to be heard.
But we also know that inflammatory rhetoric is dangerous. It can lead to speech that does not build up, but tears down. The Apostle Paul reminds us to speak the truth in love. I'm uncomfortable with prophetic speech myself. I don't like confrontation and the prophets including Isaiah, seem particularly confrontational. I want my words to bring peace to people, not cause discomfort. And in our current climate culturally, incendiary speech certainly seems to contribute more the problems we face, than to their solutions. Now more than ever Republicans and Democrats not only disagree, but fear one another according to research and don't see each other's views as merely a reasonable difference of perspective, and instead as dangerous for the nation. In the context of church, there are many who use the pulpit (television, the internet) to demean and castigate those with whom they disagree with righteous indignation. So what are we to do with this dilemma. As humans, we ignore the worst in ourselves and must at times be shocked into realizing an uncomfortable truth. On the other hand, shocking speech can create real damage (not just hurt feelings, but wounded spirit) and even lead to wounding action.
Perhaps we need to begin to allow the mission of the prophets to reveal to shape us by teaching us to listen. If Moses is speaking for the enslaved and Elijah the impoverished and Isaiah those denied justice, then the revelation of Isaiah shapes us by challenging us to practice NOT dismissing that which is discomforting. Furthermore is teaches us to give consideration to the lived experience of those whose journey is unlike our own. It expands our view from our own self-interest to compassion for those more vulnerable than ourselves. Isaiah is challenging the wealthy elites to consider life from the perspective of those who struggle to feed their families. Then this story shapes us by showing us the importance of amplifying the voices of those most often dismissed and so unheard and devalued. So how do we help the unheard be heard, the unloved to know they are loved.
Wednesday Theme - Lamenting
Wednesday Scripture - Isaiah 6:5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips;
Walter Brueggemann suggests that in the First Testament, one of the tasks of the prophet is leading Lament. Lament is not something that I or even we as a culture are comfortable with. I could not count the number of times when journeying with a family through the loss of a loved one at a funeral service, that those left to mourn express their desire not to 'lose it.' Why are we so afraid of lament? I've noticed it on a grander scale. I remember that early on in my ministry an African American police officer was shot and killed in Providence by his colleagues who mistook him for a perpetrator or a threat. The immediate response by the mayor was for 'us' not to blame, but to move on. Why move so quickly on? Shouldn't we take the time to lament? But I confess that I too resist lament. It is painful. It hurts to sit with my own shortcomings and failures. It is painful to sit with the hurts caused by those I love and respect. It is painful to accept criticism or to acknowledge the unintended consequences of my actions.
Yesterday we pondered the prophetic role of revealing. The unknown or unacknowledged or frankly ignored sins and injustice are unveiled. Times of tragedy offer us opportunity to take an honest look. But it is painful, so we move on. Perhaps that is why we are so uncomfortable with Lament. It is honest. But the truth sometimes hurts. Perhaps this is why prophets lead Israel in lament. Because it is the painfully necessary process of seeing ourselves. This seems to be what is happening with Isaiah in our verse for today. He and his people are unclean. And the presence of God shines a bright light on what existed in shadows. I am immediately uncomfortable again I admit. I am uncomfortable with any story in which the presence of God brings up feelings of shame and unworthiness. I am much more comfortable with Jesus, whose presence inspired hope and courage. Having said that, what kind of hope and courage is inspired if that only given to those who deserve it. What makes the good news good is that God loves us while we are yet sinners. We are not loved and chosen only when we deserve it, but also when we don't. Lament then seems to be the process of being graced by God.
Lament is also important because it is a pause. As I hinted at above, we seem to either sink into despair or rush into action when discouraged, defeated or criticized. Lament is a pause. A pause to feel, to know, to experience and to grow in wisdom. A wise therapist once encouraged me to stop ignoring or ameliorating my negative emotions and instead begin to look at them as wisdom. I am trying to tell and teach myself something (or more theologically, God is trying to tell or teach me something.) Lament is that learning. It is important for us to remember here, God's response to Isaiah's lament of his uncleanness. God purifies him, cleanses him. When we pause for lament, this story promises, we can grow, stronger, better, more faithful.
So we allow today's story to shape us by giving us a safe space to admit our sins and imperfections. The overwhelming confrontation with our unwanted faults is a gift from the God who loves us and wants to make us whole. This is part of the process. So allow yourself in prayer to admit your faults. As you confess them, hear God call you beloved. Lament also gives us the gift of deep knowledge. It rescues us from despair and dismissal. Allow yourself to listen to the wisdom that comes from acknowledging the deep hurt in the world around us. Don't dismiss it, don't rush past it. Listen to it.
Thursday Theme - Imagining
Thursday Scripture - Isaiah 54:1
Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord
Isaiah's message that we heard Sunday was one in which sin and injustice were revealed, warnings and consequences issued. And while that is a part of the prophets task, it is not all that the prophet does. The prophet also imagines impossible possibilities and invites those who listen to dream new dreams and engage in realizing them. Isaiah does this too and today's verse is part of a much longer passage, later in Isaiah, for Imagining. I chose this example of the many in which Isaiah moves from revealing to imagining because we have heard the stories of barren women quite a bit this fall. From Sarah to Leah to Hannah, the pain and despair of women who could not have children has been a palpable presence the story of God and Israel. Sarah, Leah, and Hannah reveal to us a God who is intimately invested in the lives of the meek and mourning. God hears their cries and responds with powerful promise because God is love. But these stories also reveal God to be invested in the mission of creating and redeeming a creation that is lost and wandering. Sarah, Leah, and Hannah are drawn into that mission. The children that they impossibly birth become key components to God's plan. So a reference to the barren one in Isaiah reveals to Israel both the compassionate God and the insistent God. God cares about Israel but God also calls Israel to be a part of God's plan for creation.
Isaiah pens this poem sings this song of the desolate woman at a time when Israel feels most hopeless. Israel now exists divided. Some of God's people still abide in their homeland, but Isaiah writes to those who were taken into captivity in Babylon. The people have witnessed the destruction of their city, temple, and kingdom, the loss of freedom and self-determination, the loss of power of their kings, and the death of friends and family. Faith and spirit two are destroyed. God has abandoned them, revoked the covenant of everlasting love promised to David. All that they have believed, all that had made sense of the world, is lost. It is to this experience that Isaiah writes today's words. He is urging them to imagine, after such complete and total loss, a new birth. It may help us to remember that Israel wrote down the creation stories of Genesis at this particular time in history. And it is helpful for us to imagine that Israel responds to Isaiah's urging for them to imagine new birth, by writing a story of the birth of all things. From chaos and darkness came the beauty of the universe, the earth, all creation.
The hope and the challenge of this passage are that this new creation is rooted in the promised action of God. God will do this. God will make Israel a source of life once again. There is hope because Israel feels not only hopeless but powerless to act in any way that can restore to them their righteousness or their freedom. This is the promise that a power from beyond them will act on their behalf. And when we are exhausted, defeated and overwhelmed it is important for us to experience the empowering presence of the Spirit and its great promise that what God calls us too, God equips us to carry out. But there is also a challenge in this passage. The challenge for us is to live into what we imagine even though it seems impossible. By this, I don't mean that we believe the impossibility of resurrection. This isn't conceptual. It is real. Remember with me that moment when the wealthy young man comes and asks Jesus about eternal life (concept) and Jesus responds by challenging him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. The challenge is to believe that these real life risky choices to forgive, to share generously, to turn the other cheek, to welcome the stranger and pray for enemies, are not just pointless actions that leave us vulnerable, but instead the building blocks of the kingdom. It is very easy to rush past these direct teachings of Jesus to something more practical. But Isaiah urges us to dream that when we take these teachings seriously enough to live them, new life lies ahead.
Today's scripture shapes us by freeing us from the certainty that the past controls the future. It frees us from the assumption that the ways things are is the way things they will always be. And it frees us from the dangerous idea that we are in complete control of the future, that change will only come from our action because we too often act out of fear or anger. We are free from our desolation by the God who is always creating from emptiness and chaos. We are encouraged to believe the impossible. It also shapes us by challenging us to live today as if that promised future has arrived. By unleashing the promise of God we are free to dream that our risky decisions to welcome, forgive, share and love are the ways that we participate with God in a new birth, in the creation of the kingdom. Isaiah is urging Israel to dream of a renewed future. What is the future that God is calling us to dream of and then live into?
Friday Theme - Persisting
Friday Scripture Scripture - Isaiah 43:2
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Isaiah the prophet is called to reveal sin and injustice, to lead the people in lamenting, which is both experiencing and voicing pain and regret, then to imagining something new. But the new is not immediate. Eugene Peterson once wrote a book about the Christian life entitled, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. This is what Isaiah is calling Israel too. God's promise of renewal is not immediate. It is a long obedience. And this is challenging to us as we are accustomed to rapid turn-over and immediate satisfaction and grow easily dissuaded if renewal does not happen quickly. So another part of the prophet's message is to encourage persistence.
Another word for persistence in our faith tradition is faith or trust. After God had freed the Hebrews from Egypt and Moses led them out, came the hard lessons of faith and persistence. The Hebrews wanted immediate relief and struggled when food was scarce and water a luxury. When we go back to those stories we see God teaching the Hebrews about the importance of persistent faith. God always provided, but the Hebrews grew restless. Another of the prophets, Elijah comes to mind. His struggle with persistence was personal. The immediate effect of his obeying the call of God to speak to Ahab was not a clear victory, but the continued resistance of the King. And this resistance was directed at Elijah. The King wanted him dead. Elijah goes, despondently, into hiding. Jeremiah is rejected by his family, arrested, his life, too threatened. He cries out for God to release him from the call. Each of these stories of obedience to God, of accepting the risk of discipleship, reveal that faith in God is not always an easy road, nor will it always be one of personal blessing. Jesus adds to this theme when he urges his disciples to take up their own cross. Which is why the prophet Isaiah's voice often encourages persistence for Israel.
Isaiah's encouragement comes by way, once again, of poetry. When you pass through the waters, is most certainly meant to remind Israel of the stories of their past, when, standing between Pharaoh's army and the Red Sea, God made a way. Isaiah reminds Israel of their liberation in the admittedly distance past to encourage them to persist in dreaming of a liberation for their future. Elijah is given the gift of a still small voice to encourage him. Jeremiah does not receive God's sympathy, but a challenge. God basically tells Jeremiah to stop whining and get tough. Jesus, well, Jesus would apparently sit down to dinner with his disciples and many many others. All of which give us hints as to how it is that we maintain a persistent faith. We gather together in community. We serve one another and share with one another and encourage one another. This is the foundation of faith, community. We cannot persist as a justice-seeking people in solitary. We need one another. When we gather we share the stories from our past in which our faithful persistence was rewarded. We recall both our own experiences of doubt, fear and God's intervention and empowerment and share those recollections to encourage one another. Like Elijah, we pause, in solitary, to listen to God's voice. We pray and listen to God in scripture. And then we act, as Jeremiah was urged. It may be is simple actions of love and kindness. It may be hesitating first steps of reconciliation and generosity, but we act. And then the process starts again. We reflect, we encourage, we pray and we act. Always with the faith that these simple steps of fidelity are magnified by the God who loves us. Always with the faith that God takes these small kingdom seeds and can make them grow.
So we allow Isaiah's words to shape us by teaching us patience with defeat, resistance and failure. Flood and fire, symbols of the challenges of faith, so not simply no longer exist for the faithful. They are a part of our experience, a part of the journey. But they hold no power over us. God's work will not be thwarted. So we learn to be patient. Isaiah's words and the stories of the other prophets give us a process which empowers us to be faithful while we wait. Serve, Share, Reflect, Pray, Act and start all over again. This is how we persist in faith.
Monday Theme - Forgiveness
Monday Scripture - Jonah 4:1-3 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Is it wrong of me to be relieved that Jonah resists God's insistence that Jonah forgives and be reconciled with the Assyrians?
After all, Jesus makes it very clear that mercy and forgiveness are THE core value and practice of those who dare to follow as his disciples. His insistence is repetitious. He begins with 'forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,' when he teaches us to pray. He moves on, relentlessly with the reminder that we should love our enemies and pray for them. Then he goes so far as to suggest that when someone strikes us on one cheek, that we turn the other as well. It is all presented to us without acknowledgment of the challenge and risk of being that forgiving. And that is something I have always struggled with.
So when Jonah resists by running, grumbles through the mission he is called to and voices his displeasure when Ninevah repents and God is merciful, I am relieved. Sometimes it feels as if Jesus think's forgiveness and reconciliation are easy. How are we to live up to the example of a man who can hang from a cross and ask God to forgive the Romans who drove the nails in his hands? But Jonah. This is a character I can identify with. Miroslav Volf reminds ' whenever the miracle of forgiveness happens, it is a miracle of grace.' In the story of Jonah, that is very apparent. It will be a miracle for Jonah because it is counterintuitive for us to believe that mercy and forgiveness will lead us to reconciliation and security. This frees us from the expectation that forgiving will be an easy or natural response. It is, supernatural, a call from beyond. Like the call to Abraham it is a leap into darkness, a step on a path that is unknown, untested and risky. So I need not beat myself up with guilt and shame when mercy and forgiveness are not my first response and reconciliation, not my highest goal.
Having said all this, there is the unmistakable irony of the story of Jonah. When he was in the belly of the whale he cried out and God was merciful. Jonah himself lets us know that this whale belly represents more than the gastrointestinal system of a large sea creature. 'I cried to you from Sheol,' Jonah prays. From the place of death. So the belly of the whale represents that place where we feel abandoned, where doubts plague us. Even more, it represents that place where we have failed and feel unworthy. There is no future in Sheol. But Jonah calls out desperately and suddenly, there is a future for him again. Which is surely meant to remind us that in those moments when we not only felt lost or alone or abandoned but when we felt worthless in our failure, God still loved us. This is the great good news of the story. When we see no value in ourselves, God still believes in us. That is the challenge of the good news. If God has loved us this much, how dare we deny that kind of loving mercy to others?
Allow this story to shape you by prayerfully recalling the second chances God blessed you with. Remember the times you felt a failure, worthless, yet God's love intervened.
Go further spiritually by being Jonah. Consider who your Assyrian might be. Not only what person do you find it most difficult to forgive, but what group of people is a threatening other? Lift them up in your prayers as well. Finally, accept the risk of considering how you have been the Assyria. But do this with the gift of grace that when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.
Tuesday Theme - God's Insistence
Tuesday Scripture -Jonah 1:1-3 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
The opening verses of Jonah reveal one of the great thematic elements of the Bible. God interrupts the settled every day of Jonah's life and Jonah must decide what to do. Moses watches his flocks and goes home at night to play with his son and life is settled until one day a bush bursts into flame and a voice delivers the news that he has been chosen to confront the cruelty and injustice of Egypt's Pharaoh. Isaiah is quietly praying in the temple until a vision appears with a message that will criticize and challenge his own people. Jeremiah too receives the unsettling interruption to speak a harsh and unpopular truth to his neighbors and friends. Mary is visited by an angel as she is picking out wedding dresses and planning the seating arrangements for the reception with the news that she has been chosen to bear the Messiah, the son of God.
Which leaves me with a terribly uncomfortable question. Is Jonah free to refuse this mission? It certainly doesn't seem so. God is incredibly demanding and insistent in this story. And this irritates the popular cultural view (popular Christian view?) of a God who is kind, gentle and generally unobtrusive until we invite God in. The lyrics of a popular hymn illustrates this well; 'O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee…' Which is, in the midst of troubling, stressful and demanding times, a valuable and healing way of thinking about God. In the midst of trouble, we find rest. But there is also Jonah's God who does not bring rest, but instead, disturbs our inertia, unsettles him in his comfort, demands risky change. As much as I appreciate the God of shelter (shield, fortress, shade) there is no denying the God who expects and enjoins.
Faith in God is not only about rest and relief and also about action and irritation and that is well, irritating. The story of Jonah illustrates this when in the brief episode from his life that is revealed to us God calls Jonah to go to unfamiliar and even disturbing places, to confront and interrogate his own very natural feeling of vengeance, speak in ways that challenge the status quo (In Assyria) and then learn to live in the new reality that God creates. The power of the Jonah story is that we get to watch, in detail, an illustration of the 'God the potter' metaphor for the life of faith. Many of us are familiar with Isaiah 64 where we read the comforting and encouraging words, 'Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.' But Jeremiah also uses this metaphor for the life of faith and his use is more confrontational, 'Then I went down to the potter's house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.' This gives us a beautiful but challenging image of faith. In it both God and the clay (Jonah, us) struggle, wrestle, with and against each other, shaping, perhaps, a new creation. It is hopeful. Its promise is that when we work with instead of against God's insistent interruptions and relentless enjoinders, we are becoming the image of God we were created to be. But Jonah is honest. Faith will not always bring peace. Faith will also trouble us at times.
We allow this story to shape us when we begin to ponder the ways that we have been shaped by God that bring us joy, peace or a healthy sense of satisfaction. How have we seen God's hand shaping us by bringing us through difficult time and situations? We allow this story to shape us when we then move on to prayerfully reflect on the ways and times in which we have resisted. What, even now, troubles us about God's insistent call? Finally, how do we balance in our spiritual lives the natural need for a faith that comforts and heals, and a faith that challenges and provokes?
Wednesday Theme - Reconciling From Vulnerability
Wednesday Scripture - Jonah 3: 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
On Sunday I suggested that the story of Jonah challenges us to not only accept the challenge of interpersonal forgiveness ( a challenging enough task for sure) but also to accept the role of reconciling and creating peace on a larger scale. In Sunday's story, God is creating a situation in which Israel and Assyria can move toward reconciliation after a time of great conflict and cruel exploitation. In Jesus's life, we often see Jesus among the Samaritans and even at times the Romans. The book of Acts has the early church as a place where jews and gentiles formed a community, and where disciples were sent far from home to make community among a great variety of people. Philip is sent to an Ethiopian (eunuch) and Peter is challenged to have dinner with a Roman centurion and his family. Paul will do the same thing and finally proclaim that in Jesus 'there is no longer any jew nor greek, slave nor free, male for female.' New communities are being created in all these stories, among vastly different people.
I ran across a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while reading the other day. King said, 'If physical death is the price I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive, (quoted in James Cone, 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree.') I'm hesitant to say much about this. After all, it feels fraught with danger. Not only the danger to his life, which is what Dr. King is reflecting on. But also the danger to exploited and oppressed communities. The possibility of triggering further pain. The possibility that the oppressor will continue on in blissful irresponsibility while the oppressed continue to carry the weight, not only of suffering but healing? Why should it be their duty to offer redemption to their oppressors? This is surely what Jonah is struggling with. Why should it be his responsibility to offer a second chance to Assyria?
These are important questions and issues that must not be rushed past. But we have little space in our devotional to unpack it all. But I also wonder if Jonah's crying out and Jesus's lesson on turning the other cheek do not offer some wisdom to these questions. Jesus's insistence that the oppressed and abused turn the other cheek is too often interpreted as inaction, as a weak and defeated acceptance of their fate. But that isn't what Jesus is suggesting. To turn the other cheek, many have commented including N.T. Wright is to stand with dignity demanding respect. It is a confrontation of abuse and oppression that both brings attention to injustice and further is a refusal of the abused to become the abuser and oppressed to become the oppressor. Dr. King called it 'Soul Force,' influenced not only by Jesus but the teaching and actions of Gandhi. It is natural to respond with an eye for eye, anger for anger, cruelty for cruelty. But this, Jesus, teaches time and again, is a death spiral. The system of oppression is not interrupted or changed. Anger, fear, violence, simply gains power and force as more and more people are drawn into them. As for Jonah, he does get to cry out. Ninevah is not left insulated from the anger and pain that they have caused to Israel. Jonah confronts them with it. And that is important. Reconciliation is a complex process where the oppressed, who are ignored and silenced, are given a chance to be heard, their perspective honored and dignified.
Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5, 'From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...' Jonah reminds us of the complexity of such things. In Jonah we experience God's insistence that we become a community engaged in the complex but vital work of reconciliation, insisting on dignity for all the Jonah's and mercy for the Ninevah's. But Jonah's vocal resistance reminds us to be prayerful and thoughtful in this reconciliation, that we not further silence the Jonah's in our rush to a new community of grace.
Thursday Theme - Reconciling From Privilege and Power
Thursday Scripture - Jonah 3:6 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
It is tempting to read the story of Jonah from the perspective of Jonah. By that I mean, we imagine ourselves to be like Jonah. But as I said on Sunday, we also need to entertain the idea, uncomfortable as it may be, that there is wisdom for us in this story when we accept the challenge of reading it as the Assyrians. After all, as the majority of us (at Berean Baptist Church) are of European heritage, we are the privileged in American history and in the world today. This isn't to deny that we too have struggled, face challenges, some still struggling to make ends meet. But compared to the rest of the world we are well off. And there is no way to deny that in our nation we have benefited from the process of racialization while others have suffered.
In large part, the story of Jonah teaches us about reconciliation from above by the example of the King. When he hears Jonah's testimony, he does not deny, dismiss or ignore. His immediate response is to listen to the truth, however, uncomfortable about the actions of his nation and its horrible impact on the life of Israel. We began to rehearse that on Sunday by recalling white American history of lynching and the burning of black churches. And we confronted the fact that it isn't just history. Although blessedly less common, these cruel and violent acts continue. In so doing, we enter the belly of the whale. We inhabit, even for a moment, the darkness of our history and our story. If we question how history has impact on us today, let's remember that the church burning in Mississippi from this week is now official being labeled 'voter intimidation.' Decades of voter suppression, intimidation, and exclusion, as well as the stress of violence or its threat, do not disappear quickly. We dare not dismiss this history because we are living it today. It cannot be denied. It is tempting to dismiss, if not the history, then its continued influence on the present day. The King offers an example by not dismissing Jonah's testimony. Let's remember both that Jonah cried out to God while in his belly of despair and was rescued. Let's also remember the metaphor of the pottery. While it may be shattered, it can still be reformed. I say this not so that we can rush past and out of the discomfort of our privilege, but so that we can confront and acknowledge it with the courage of knowing we are being loved and shaped while in the whale's belly.
Second, the King sits in sackcloth and ashes. In other words, he doesn't just listen, he responds, he acts. Sackcloth is particularly itchy and uncomfortable. It is a ritual in which the pain one has caused is taken upon one's self. It is an acknowledgment of pain and that the pain of others effect's 'me.' Ashes are a symbolic representation of being unclean. In a sense, they are a way of saying, 'I've made a mess for you, and now I have to experience that mess myself.' The King places himself in the experience of Jonah and Israel and does so in a real way. Yes, it is symbolic. But he takes action as opposed to simply acknowledging the pain and distortion of life conceptually. There is, symbolically, a connection made between Jonah and the King, Assyria, and Israel. In attempting to practice reconciliation from a place of privilege, it is important for the privileged to work to establish a connection.
Today's devotional consideration of the King of Assyria helps us to image what confession and repentance look like in real life. Confession is not merely a church ritual. It is a way of living in a community or maintaining healthy relationships by admitting when we have wronged another. Repentance, much the same, is more than an apology. It is the difficult but important work of creating a new way of being in a relationship with others, a way that is healing and wholesome. Today's devotion shapes us by encouraging us to think about confession and repentance as ways in which to create and maintain healthy personal and communal relationships. Neither are about shame and guilt as such, but instead about accepting the gift of grace and imagining a new way of being a community together.
Friday Theme - Prodigal Son & the Hauntingly Beautiful Love of God
Friday Scripture -Luke 15:20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
So Jonah ends up being an unsettling story. No wonder our Sunday school teachers stuck with the miracle of Jonah surviving in a whale and being rescued by God! As Jonah, we are urged to live lives of reconciliation and forgiveness, with the both the courage to demand our dignity and peace to demand with love and mercy. As we have already discovered, God is much more demanding and even confrontational than we are comfortable with and faith as much provokes as it comforts us. Furthermore, the story asks us to consider that we have been the Assyrians and embrace the practices of confession and repentance. This has been a challenging week!
Which is why we turn to a parable told by Jesus, a parable in which he deals with similar themes of God's demanding mercy and troublingly wanton love. But it reminds us of the purpose for all this unsettledness.
The verse for today sets the tone. The prodigal son, having failed miserably in making his own life, squandered his privilege and fallen to the pigs (think the belly of a whale) returns home. His intention is to cry out for mercy (remember, Jonah cried out in the belly of the whale.) But his confession and plea are pre-empted by his father who has apparently been watching for him all along. We get the impression that the father has left all other household duties behind and devoted himself to watchful, hopeful waiting for the return of his ungrateful son. And when he catches a glimpse of his son, he runs to greet him. This is meaningful for a couple of reasons. First, the father is wealthy and a man of high esteem in the community. Running is NOT a dignified action, especially running to the son who has treated him so shamefully. But he does run. Some have suggested that he runs not only out of emotion and affection, but to protect his son. The son's demand for his portion of inheritance would have caused economic distress among the other household members and their families. They would not have been happy to see him return having wasted all that money. He took money out of their pockets and treated them all with disrespect. So his father runs to shield him from their (justified?) anger and vitriol. The next thing we know the father is bestowing gifts (more wealth wasted some might say) and planning parties (throwing good money after bad, the neighbors think). But this is the point Jesus makes. The father is, of course, God. And God's mission great desire, the purpose of all God's unsettling, interrupting, insistent action, inconveniencing us, is to get to this point, a joyful reunion with God's beloved creation. It is reconciliation, a happy family reunion that drives God. And that is the point of all this. That we are the agents of this overwhelmingly generous invitation. No matter who you are and where you've been or what you've done, God just wants you to come home.
It is, of course, troubling to think that God just wants the Assyrians to come home. They have wandered far, and fallen into deep darkness and done shameful harmful things. And this is why the older brother is none too pleased. He is the Jonah in this story. He resists this gracious embrace and wants nothing to do with it. It's too much. It's undeserved. It isn't fair. But there it is. And it is hauntingly beautiful news. That God would go to such great lengths and forgive so shamelessly. This is what all that we have waded through this week brings us too. The risk of forgiveness, the challenge of confrontation, the trial of confession and repentance, the test of God's insistent interruption of our plans for God's own… all focused on a joyful family reunion, the creation of a wholesome community where none are left out or left behind. And yes, it is utopian. But in our times, it is certainly a better dream than the ongoing fear, anger, and division we are presented with.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.