Salvation (Isaiah 40-43)

For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant,
and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.

Today’s selection is Isaiah 40-43.  It connects with me much more than stories about kings praying for angels to come down and slaughter an army or get an extra fifteen years of life.  This passage is about hope.  The following imagery has made it into pop culture in some contexts.

The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

I feel weary.  I feel like giving up sometimes.  President Trumps hostility toward transgender people serving in the military, to equivocation from the leader of my own denomination, to a friend relating a story in which her ten-year-old daughter’s teacher found an excuse to use the n-word in class.  
I also feel alone sometimes.  I feel small and discouraged.  But then I remember, according to Isaiah the world will be saved by a remnant; to quote Shakespeare, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”  
But salvation, deliverance from mean existence into living in the way, the path for which we were designed, is not to be kept as a secret.  Isaiah reports in 42:6, “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,” or as NVI states it “como luz para las nacciones.”
This salvation is important. But it comes only from God. Per Isaiah 43:25, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”
Of course, my version of salvation is not Isaiah’s version of salvation any more than it is that of a Christian fundamentalist who believe he will walk streets of gold in the sky.  What does salvation mean to you?  Can someone who has a different understanding of salvation than you, nonetheless provide you valuable information about salvation and access to it?

Prayer aka Speaking to the Universe (Isaiah 37-39)

Mom & Dad moved to Arizona in May 2008.  His cancer had miraculously disappeared, which honestly didn’t make much sense to us.  They rented a house directly across the street from us.  Things were going to be good.

Within ten days of his arrival he went to the hospital for pain in his side.  The following day, the doctors reported that his cancer had filled his body.  No one understands why the doctor in Indiana thought the cancer was gone, even though Mom & Dad remembered it was in response to specific test results following his last round of chemo.  He was told he had between a few weeks and maybe three months to live.  No treatments could possibly be effective.

My son was thirteen and an atheist.  I heard him praying and asking that Dad should live the three months.  Not asking for a cure, but asking that Dad live to the outside edge of the prognosis.

We left King Hezekiah with the expanding Assyrian empire at his doorstep. The king claiming that YHWH himself had ordered the King of Assyria to conquer Jerusalem.  This is Hezekiah’s Prayer:

“It is true, Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste all these peoples and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are the only God.

Isaiah 37:18-20.  According to the rest of the passage, and as foretold by Isaiah, the King was called away to another battle.  But not until an angel of the YHWH put to death 185,000 Assyrians.  Isaiah 37:36.  In that other battle the Assyrian King would be killed.  Judah was delivered from his hand in answer to Hezekiah’s prayer.

Dad died a few days after my son’s prayer.  Earlier than the earliest prognosis–although I suspect saying someone can die in a few weeks really means any time.

I don’t believe in intercessory prayer.  I don’t believe the Universe will answer my requests either–the spiritual but not religious version of prayer.  This didn’t happen because of my son’s experience; it really didn’t.  But the event surely seems to reinforce my world view that God is not a wish giver on a cloud.  I’ve shared before what I think God is, but today I really am interested in what others think about prayer, or looking to the universe for answers.

Do you believe that the natural world can be altered by prayer?  Have you experienced the Universe moving within you in a way other than via your own thoughts?  

Many people I respect greatly and care about deeply feel differently than I do on this topic.  I honestly don’t know if my feelings on intercessory prayer are a virtue or a shortcoming.  I would love to read responses.

Last proviso–I believe in lots of kinds of prayer.  I give prayers of thanksgiving almost everything morning. I participate in weekly communal prayer of joys and concerns.  Prayer as a way to open your heart to enable you to do what must be done and to discern the will of God.  There are probably others I’m forgetting.  This post concerns asking God to deliver someone and God either sending an angel to kill 180,000 Assyrians, or letting a cancer patient die earlier than expected.


Equality In Christ Is Not Politics

Newly elected General Minister and President Teresa Hord Owens needs to clarify her remarks provided here in the Christian Century.  The Kingdom will not be reached by letting some folks in and keeping others out.  It doesn’t work that way. All bigotry is evil.  The privileged need to stop it.  The marginalized need to stop. And damn it, the church needs to stop it. 
Here’s the context.  First a discussion of nonessential.

Her particular role is to lead people in efforts where they can agree, especially given the Christian Church’s history of making room for “widely divergent viewpoints concerning ‘non­essentials,’” as denominational literature puts it.

Good.  Fine.  

The Disciples have had conflict over LGBTQ inclusion, though a previous General Assembly passed a resolution in favor of it. She noted that the calls she has received have not been about her views on Black Lives Matter, but about sexuality and politics. She emphasized that her desire is to care for the vulnerable, not to align theology and politics.

Is the Black Lives Matter movement politics?  No.  Only if you think it is a political matter to believe Black kids should not be killed in disproportionate numbers by the police.  Is LGBTQ inclusion politics?  No.  Only if you think what God has made you can declare to be unclean.  If your cultural background teaches you that women, or gays, or trans people, or people who speak Spanish or Black people are lesser, then–and, let me be perfectly clear–fuck your culture.  I give zero shits about your stupid culture. And I certainly reject any notion that such bullshit is theology.   

“We’re disciples of Christ, not of any particular ideology,” she said. Further, since denominational polity lacks emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy and places high value on congregational discernment, “we have no hammer to lay down.”
She noted that her congregation displays banners with the motto, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.” Unity, she clarifies, isn’t consensus, including in scriptural interpretation. Owens stressed the importance of biblical literacy: wrestling with the text in the pews as well as the pulpit.

I’m not sure what to make of this.  I really like Biblical literacy as you can see from almost everything else I’ve written in this blog.  But how will it help us care for the vulnerable?  (P.S. are LGBTQ folks not the vulnerable?) How will it make us a pro-reconciling/anti-racist church–something Reverend Owens claims later in the article to care about.  

“The church really does have to be able to hold all those things in tension and be able to take a stand when it needs to, and keep calling people to account on that issue of love—that cuts through a lot of disagreements about what’s essential and nonessential,” she said. “Unity is not possible if love isn’t right up there with it.”

The church does not need to hold in tension whether my friends are people.  The human beings God made and that I love are people, and I’m not going to be tolerant of any nonsensical garbage that suggests otherwise.  And all humans–let alone all Christians–being treated as people loved in the eyes of God sure as shit is an essential.

Hope (Isaiah 35-36)

Today’s selection of reading has two faces of hope.  The first comes from a vision of God’s return to the world.  Consider this excerpt from Isaiah 35–a passage special to me as I once recited it during Advent at Chalice Christian Church:

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

The following chapter has another face of hope.  Irrational faith in the face of attack.  It recounts the same events captured in 2 Kings  of the Assyrian king threatening the people of Judah.

“‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? You say you have counsel and might for war—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? Look, I know you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him. But if you say to me, “We are depending on the Lord our God”—isn’t he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed, saying to Judah and Jerusalem, “You must worship before this altar”?

A couple of things worth point out.  the “high places” and “alters” were to Baal and Ashera.  So, the outsider is either mocking, or more likely, misunderstanding the religion of Judah.  The King of Assyria goes further, when his messengers quote him as saying, “‘Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.’”  YHWH told the Assyrian King to march against Judah, really?

As I think I’ve made clear, I see our current systems as deeply flawed.  I believe that we cannot bring wholeness to the broken world without passing through a time of painful truth and reconciliation.  Thus, I think we are like the Judeans standing on the wall of Jerusalem listening to the foreign invaders mocking their faith. 

What are the characteristics of a hope or promise that is sufficient to enable one to willingly endure suffering to get to it?  Surely we all have experienced deferred gratification; can those models be transferred to a society?


The Path to Peace (Isaiah 31-34)

He has in his hand 100 mL of reactor coolant. On the lab table sits a beaker with a small metal chimney. The teenage sailor’s job requires him to deftly turn the 100 mL bottle into the metal chimney on the beaker. So long as the lip of the bottle is quickly under the top of the chimney, physics will prevent any coolant from spilling out. Hesitation results in radioactive fluid spilling over the chimney, onto the lab desk, and the relatively modest rad levels notwithstanding, spilling the fluid will result in an “spill” announcement and sounds of the ship’s general alarm.
The sailor needed to trust in gravity and physics and smoothness. Isaiah discusses the need to trust, writing, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord.”  Isaiah 31:1. It is not easy to trust so completely in that which is unseen.  
Curiously, Isaiah makes it clear that this call to trust in the unseen reaches the whole world. In Isaiah 34:2 he writes, “The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter.”  Note, too, that God’s wrath is against nations, no just individual sinners.
The path to peace is provided well in Isaiah 32:16-17.  “The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.”  The process begins with JUSTICE.  You cannot have righteousness with justice, and justice does not permit inequity.  You will not achieve the divine quiet confident existence otherwise.
For the one in power, this seems insane.  However, like the sailor who timidly turns the bottle and ends up essentially pouring radioactive liquid into a very small chimney leading to a spill, the one who tries to give up only some power for justice will not achieve righteousness.  It requires a reckless faith.  Abandoning rational reliance in favor of faith.
Have you ever had to abandon rational thought to do what is right?  What paradoxical life lessons have you learned that others may not believe?


Part II (Hosea 4-14)

The Second half of Hosea is a series of oracles alternating between condemning Israel, and sort of Judah, and predicting the return of Israel to God’s fold.

This selection ties in interestingly with a couple of themes.  First, I’ve noted elsewhere the evolution of the merging of the northern and southern religions. It connects them by reference to both Israel & the religion beginning when leaving out of Egypt. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea 11:1.  However, later there is a strong suggestion that YHWH only began to be there God after Egypt, “But I have been the Lord your God ever since you came out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me.”  Hosea 13:4.

Also, there is some significant retroactive Christianity temptation in this prophet.  Toward the end of the oracles, we have this promise from YHWH:

I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
Where, O grave, is your destruction?

Indeed, this is the lyric to a Christian hymn sung on Easter.

Otherwise, Hosea’s oracles reflect the theme of other prophets, weeping for the coming doom for Israel & Judah.  Honestly, Hosea focuses much more on fidelity to the worship of YHWH than social justice in comparison to Isaiah.  Although, we do have this from Hosea 6

6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
7 As at Adam, they have broken the covenant;
they were unfaithful to me there.
8 Gilead is a city of evildoers,
stained with footprints of blood.
9 As marauders lie in ambush for a victim,
so do bands of priests;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
carrying out their wicked schemes.
10 I have seen a horrible thing in Israel:
There Ephraim is given to prostitution,
Israel is defiled.


Intimate Betrayal (Hosea 1-3)

The Prophet Hosea speaks doom for Israel & Judah in two major sections.  First is a truly peculiar story about Hosea marrying a prostitute and naming the children bizarre names.  My daughter joked that it would be like naming a kid today, “hashtag notmypresident,” and in fact, the third child is named “not my people.”  Ultimately, Hosea stays with his wife saying that she must no longer sleep with other men, nor will he sleep with her.  “Then I told her, ‘You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.’”  Hosea 3:3.

We who have squandered the blessings we have are like Israel betraying God.  This betrayal is deeply wicked.  It is the sort of soul destroying wickedness that the prophet uses prostitution to establish the metaphor.  It’s not enough to betray a contract or covenant.  It is like prostituting yourself.

The other message from this, is that some betrayals have consequences.  Hosea doesn’t end up living happily ever after with the prostitute.  Her debasing herself meant that even after Hosea returned to her, they could not reestablish an untarnished relationship.


Celebration and Tragedy (2 Kings 18; 2 Chronicles 29-31; Psalm 48)

This picture is of two of the several years that I shaved my head for charity.  I raised somewhere in the neighborhood of $10K for childhood cancer research.

Even as Israel was about to be carried off to Assyria, Judah had a new king.  ” Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses.” 2 Kings 18:5-6. Such high praise for this king late in the life of Israel.

The Chronicler, takes some time to remember the festivals after Hezekiah returned the people to righteousness, even getting rid of the pagan alters and Asher poles.

Hezekiah spoke encouragingly to all the Levites, who showed good understanding of the service of the Lord. For the seven days they ate their assigned portion and offered fellowship offerings and praised the Lord, the God of their ancestors.  The whole assembly then agreed to celebrate the festival seven more days; so for another seven days they celebrated joyfully.

That’s what it felt like at the St. Baldrick’s events. We shaved our heads in the midst of a festive public event.  We drank beer.  We were joyful.

The author of Kings jumps pretty quickly fourteen years down the road when, “Hezekiah king of Judah sent this message to the king of Assyria at Lachish: ‘I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.’” 2 Kings 18:14.  Hezekiah was the best king of Judah, and he couldn’t turn the tide.
This photo is full of tragedy.  I got involved because my friends’ seven year old son lost his life to cancer.  One of the boys in the top right picture would die the year after in a tragic accident. And as a result, his very shy younger brother, pictured in the bottom left took his place the next year to honor his brother.  But, rather than lessen, I feel like the comingled tragedies may actually intensify the impact of the celebration.  Looking into the eyes of disaster, whether a couple of guys or a nation, and say, “No, we will not forget our joyfulness,” seems even more powerful than celebration alone.
Have you ever celebrated in the face of disaster?  Have you found space for joy in sadness?  


Going Global (Isaiah 23-27)

This selection makes clear that the merging of YHWH and El has no culminated in a vision of a God of the World. First, after prophesying the destruction of the Mediterranean nations, Isaiah conveyed this for the World:

See, the Lord is going to lay waste the earth
  and devastate it;
  he will ruin its face
  and scatter its inhabitants—
it will be the same
  for priest as for people,
  for the master as for his servant,
  for the mistress as for her servant,
  for seller as for buyer,
  for borrower as for lender,
  for debtor as for creditor.
The earth will be completely laid waste
  and totally plundered.
The Lord has spoken this word.

 But, luckily it doesn’t end there.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
  a feast of rich food for all peoples,
  a banquet of aged wine—
  the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
  the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
  the sheet that covers all nations;
  he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
  from all faces;
  he will remove his people’s disgrace
  from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken

Now salvation is available to all peoples, and all nations.  


Why Equality

This is a story I’ve told often, but it still gives me chills.  I believe this is why equality is so important to me.

When I was in junior high school, I met Jeff. Jeff had Down Syndrome, and I vividly remember recognizing the kindness of kids in our Indiana neighborhood for letting him play basketball. Similarly, I thought my dad’s finding a Bible that Jeff could use demonstrated his compassionate nature. It made me feel good that we accepted everyone. The previous pastor, I understood, did not allow Jeff to join the church because he felt that Jeff would not have understood the process. What an ass.

On a Palm Sunday in the mid ‘80s, Jeff came forward in response to Dad’s alter call, as planned. Dad looked him in the eye and asked the question we all knew by heart: Jeff, do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?

I don’t know what woke me up. Perhaps Jeff said it louder than others. Perhaps he said it with an uncommon confidence. Perhaps he answered in a heart and soul manner than cannot be described with pitch and volume. But when Jeff answered: I do! I woke up.

I woke up to all the condescending, patronizing bullshit that I had directed toward him. His words brought my humiliating arrogance to surface, but simultaneously blew it away. Like impurities subjected to the heat of the crucible, my trivializing the value of another child of God, could not stand heat of Jeff’s faith. When Jeff responded with just as much verve to the second question—And do you accept him as your personal savior—joy filled my soul in a way that it never had before.

Jeff’s Good Confession permanently transformed me. I became a new creation. I could no longer ignore that each of us contains the divine and the capacity to tear the fabric of ordinary existence to make a way for the presence of the Almighty. Thank God for Jeff.