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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Bleak (Jeremiah 10-22)

In America today, racist nationalists, including but not limited to Nazis, emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, the poster child for white mediocrity, threaten the security of our union.  Uniformed bigots cannot face the truth of being unable to succeed, despite every imaginable advantage.  America's failure to live up to its promise of equality for all manifests itself in these oppressors who pathetically paint themselves as victims.  In the past, when festering, systemic violence gave rise to racist power structures such as chattel slavery and fascism, America lost unthinkable quantities of blood and treasure to put them down.

The people of Judah similarly turned from justice. They chose idolatry over the one true God. God's advice to Jeremiah, “Do not pray for this people or offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress. . . . Do not pray for the well-being of this people."  Jeremiah 11:14, 14:11. How bad does it have to get for God to tell God's prophet not to pray for God's people? Well, "They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal — something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind."  Jeremiah 19:5.

God poses an uncomfortable question to Jeremiah, a question I ask myself as I read Donald Trump's response to Nazi attacks on American soil, "Can a leopard change its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil."  Jeremiah 13:23.

Speaking metaphorically of the solution, God offers Jeremiah this parable:
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.
Jeremiah 18:1-6.  Less metaphorically, God promises to keep a remnant, but as for most of them:
“‘In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them.’

Jeremiah 19:7-9.   Is there a way to right the evils of unjust distribution of power, without violence?  Is history actually full of societies redeeming themselves without cataclysm, but the only stories we remember are the dramatic ones?


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Recovery & Redemption (Jeremiah 1-9)

Our youth group took found a seat with a view of the river and broke out our sack lunches.  The rather on-the-nose Credence Clearwater Rival tune drifted across the public park. 

If you come down to the river
Bet you gonna find some people who live
You don't have to worry 'cause you have no money
People on the river are happy to give

Big wheel keep on turnin'
Proud Mary keep on burnin'
Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river
Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river

A homeless guy approached our group.  Dad greeted him; as they exchanged small talk the man sprayed Lysol into its cap and took a drink.  Dad's fearlessness gave us permission to not be afraid.  We shared our lunches with him.  In between drinks of Lysol he shared the story of a tough life. We listened.  Then Dad said, "Hey John, put down the Lysol."  John couldn't do it and walked away.  

Unconditional love is a component of faith, but it is not the same as faith.  Dad knew that John needed more than just compassion; even though he probably also knew that John was by now incapable of taking that next necessary step.  Likewise, the Prophet Jeremiah brought word to the people of Judah who could no longer merely rest of being the chosen--even sufficient response was no longer possible.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:

“‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?

Jeremiah 7:1-10.  The charges level against Israel are both spiritual infidelity and social injustice.  Earlier, Jeremiah warns Israel that all but a remnant will have to be destroyed.  He describes the process like a woman giving birth.  
I hear a cry as of a woman in labor,
a groan as of one bearing her first child—
the cry of Daughter Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands and saying,
“Alas! I am fainting;
my life is given over to murderers.”
Jeremiah 4:31.  Jeremiah's laments rings hauntingly true, today.

Do you think there is hope for America to avoid disaster and step back from the destruction brought on by unchecked greed and marginalizing massive sectors of its population?

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Being a Bummer (Zephaniah)

The people of Judah knew that under Hezekiah, Sennacherib's Assyrian army was at the walls of Jerusalem and had been repelled--or outlasted.  King Josiah had returned the nation to the ways of YHWH--the God of Jacob and Moses--and while the Babylonian Empire was on the rise, I suspect some of them were attracted to the idea of a day of vengeance would come when YHWH come in judgement.

Zephaniah had this to say about the Day of YHWH:
The great day of the Lord is near—
near and coming quickly.
The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter;
the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry.
 . . . . 
Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
Her prophets are unprincipled;
they are treacherous people.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.
The Lord within her is righteous;
he does no wrong.
Morning by morning he dispenses his justice,
and every new day he does not fail,
yet the unrighteous know no shame.
So, when you have to keep correct your friends for their nonsense, you're in good company.  Zephaniah does let up at the end and leave open the possibility of a remnant of people true to God remaining through God's wrath.  Still pretty depressing. 

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Consequences (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chronicles 34-35)

I have this memory fragment of entering my parents' bedroom.  Mom is making the bed, and I sheepishly make some observation.  She looks at me and says, "You hurt my feelings.  You can't just come in here and pretend you didn't and make things better."

You know how you have family stories that you tell over and over, so that you remember the story but not the event?  This ain't one of those.  Mom doesn't remember it.  I was probably five; Mom would have been only a few years older than my son is now.  It hurt to realize that I could be genuinely sorry but that did not eliminate the pain I'd caused.

In today's selection Judah finds itself in a similar place.  The back and forth of good and wicked kings continued: Evil Ahab, Good Hezekiah, Evil Manasseh, Good Josiah.  But, the people have permanently damaged their relationship with God.

After a half century of evil rule, Josiah takes over (at age 8) and begins restoring the temple. Having rediscovered the book of the law, Josiah's religious leader went to the prophet Huldah to seek guidance. 
She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’ 18 Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’”
2 Kings 22:14-20; compare 2 Chronicles 34:22-28.  Notice that the best God can do, is delay the disaster until Josiah is dead.  Happily ever after is off the table.


Photo credit.  Sometimes, as the saying goes, there is hell to pay.  In criminal justice settings we talk about one's debt to society.   Before speaking sweetly of malice toward none and charity toward all in his second inaugural address, Lincoln considered whether the Civil War needed to continue "until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword."

Consequences.

Of course, how foolish would it be to continue amassing debts for fear of the consequences for the debts we already have.  If today all who benefitted from systems of privilege somehow instantly ceased to benefit from such systems, it would not mean that the wounds would be healed.  It would not mean that there was no reckoning to be had.

If you have been wronged, what must happen for you to be made whole?  If you have wronged someone, what must you do to restore your relationship?  Are there scars that remain even after healing has taken place?  And finally, do these relate to community as well as individuals?

Friday, August 04, 2017

Where Is Meaning (Nahum)

In a recent post I retold the story of my dad selling his beloved '67 chevy for $1.  There is more to that story, of course.  There are complex forces that went into Dad's thinking that may have included things like needing to move soon, who knows how good the good offers were, and perhaps ego around a grand gesture played a part in Dad's choice.  A few days ago I gave away a bobble head to a kid who got to the game late and didn't get one.  My pastor accurately noted that I got to be a hero AND didn't have to carry home a bobble head I didn't want.  The guy he sold the car to ruined it, making it undriveable only a few months after the sale.  And, although acts of kinds should not be limited to the "deserving," absolutely evil behavior of the man would later come to light that added pain to the relationship and are conveniently omitted from the story.

So what does the story mean?

We have read in Isaiah, 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles of the siege of Jerusalem at the hands of Sennacherib and Jerusalem's subsequent deliverance.  This article from the Metropolitan documents several Biblical and other sources, such as Sennacherib's Steele, that recount the unsuccessful siege shortly before Sennacherib's assassination.


Here's what the prophet Nehum, writing after the fall of the Assyrian capital, had to say about the reason for Assyria's demise.  From Nehum 3:

Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!
The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots!
Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears!
Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses—
Okay, and why did this happen?
all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.
“I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty. “I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.
I will pelt you with filth; I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.
All who see you will flee from you and say, ‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’ Where can I find anyone to comfort you?”
Per Nahum, Nineveh fell because of its wickedness.  For Nehum, Nineveh is a cautionary tale.  Nehum makes an even more outlandish claim.  Nehum's oracle provides that the rise and fall of empire is not an endless cycle. "Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news,
who proclaims peace!Celebrate your festivals, Judah, and fulfill your vows. No more will the wicked invade you; they will be completely destroyed."  1:15.  Like the other prophets, Nehum predicts it is possible to break the cycle and no more be invaded.

Historically, Nineveh fell as the neo-Babylonians began to rise.  There was exactly a cycle that had continued from the end of the late Bronze age collapse around 1200 A.D.  With the Hittites & Egyptians in decline, Israel rose.  Then Assyria came back only to fall to the rising Babylonians, then Persians.  Eventually the Greeks and finally (only for Biblical purposes) the Romans.  So, in a very real sense, internal decline is at least an incomplete explanation.  

Nonetheless, is there value in learning a lesson that is incomplete?  Is it valid to use an experience as a metaphor?  



When Should You Offer Your Son For Sacrifice? (2 Kings 20-21; 2 Chronicles 32-33)

The end is coming for Judah.  Hezekiah--for the third time now--is dying.  As good as Hezekiah was, his son Manasseh was as bad as his father Ahaz.  It reads particularly disheartening because Manasseh actually replaces all of the shrines that God opposes.

Consider this list of indictments from 2 Kings 21:5-6. "In the two courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger."

Ignoring the weirdly casual reference to infanticide, it struck me that when Abraham did this, he established the faith for all time.  Of course, God called it off, but wasn't it required that Abraham intended to go through with it.  

To me, this means that the substance matters.  Why was it bad what Manasseh did?  Because the god to which he was sacrificing wasn't real.  And, my point is precisely that from a rational analysis there is just no way to distinguish.  

Mixed Messages (Isaiah 56-66)

Completing Isaiah, we move through what is called Third Isaiah--the oracles written most likely from Babylon.  Like the rest of Isaiah, it contains a dizzying mix of hope for a distant return to chosen status of God's people, revenge fantasies, and laments for disobedience. This oracle comes very near the end of the final chapter.
For this is what the Lord says:

“I will extend peace to her like a river,
   and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
   you will nurse and be carried on her arm
   and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
   so will I comfort you;
   and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”
When you see this, your heart will rejoice
   and you will flourish like grass;
   the hand of the Lord will be made known to his servants,
   but his fury will be shown to his foes.
See, the Lord is coming with fire,
   and his chariots are like a whirlwind;
   he will bring down his anger with fury,
   and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For with fire and with his sword
   the Lord will execute judgment on all people,
   and many will be those slain by the Lord.
The promise is not merely for military victory.  It includes being comforted in the same way a mother comforts a child.  They will not just flourish like grass, but hearts will rejoice.  

So what relation does this have to the Lord coming with fire and with his sword?  I think it means that one does not reach this state easily.  There is suffering that cannot be avoided.  Hard work cannot be short circuited.



Thursday, August 03, 2017

Earned? (Isaiah 54-55)

Mid 1995, I walked off USS Billfish after my first time a sea, a short ten week run to the Mediterranean and back.  Among the families greeting their loved ones, I took my ten-month-old son into my arms; he struggled reaching for Mom.  He did not recognize me.  We drove home pretty much in silence, holding back the confounding mix of emotions that we would come to recognize as typical for returning to port.  Once home, I took out the Dr. Sues book that I had read on the video tape before I left.  After the first rhyme his eyes lit up.  Soon enough he was smiling and happy for me to hold him.

I made sacrifices for my country during those five years in the Navy.  And, had I not worked hard and mad those sacrifices, I would have suffered consequences.  I earned the right to stand up during Diamondbacks games when they honor veterans.  I deserve to walk with my daughter in the Veterans' Day parade.

Of course, some of the advantages I enjoy are not the result of something I earned.  I did not have much to do with my dad being a scout leader who encouraged me to be an Eagle Scout.  I did not have much to do with my mom knowing how to fill out financial aid forms and assuming out of the gate that I would go to college.  Nor did I earn having my opinions taken more seriously when I spoke up in class, or people assuming that I'm one of the people in charge, both of which have much to do with my gender and race.

That's the thing about being the privileged, or the chosen--it doesn't mean you don't work for what you have nor does it mean that you can't do stupid things to lose what you have--it merely means that in addition to all of that, there is an element of luck prior to anything you ever did.

The nature of Israel's chosen status is examined at the end of what is called Second Isaiah sometimes.  Chapters 40-55 were likely written after the Northern Kingdom had been taken into exile by the Assyrians, but before the Southern Kingdom had been taken into exile by the Babylonians.

Israel longed for a return of its special status, perhaps.  Isaiah 54:6 says, "'The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,' says your God."  Note, in this metaphor, the wife doesn't really deserve to be called back.  It is an act of love rather than a transactional response. In Isaiah 54:17, "'This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me,' declares the Lord."  Inheritance is not earned.

Despite Israel's longing, as the Southern Kingdom stood on the precipice of what would seem like eternal defeat.  Not just exile, but a destruction of the temple, the faith of Moses and of Abraham would survive by transforming from a local religion to a global one.  As Isaiah would write, in 55:8, "Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.”

How does Israel's demise relate to White Male Privilege?  The faith of Abraham survived because the chosen gave up their chosen status.  The chosen recognized, transformed, revised--whatever--the faith to be a faith of the world.  Imagine if those who benefit from our societal structures could both recognize the advantages they have received and work to reorder systems so that such unfair advantages would be removed.  How cosmically powerful is such a notion that the privileged in our society could let go of that chosen status for the betterment of the entire culture.  It would be as grand a change as the followers of YHWH seeing their God as the God of the world.

Israel wouldn't give up its chosen status until absolute, apocalyptic, cataclysmic destruction was imminent.  What would it take for the privileged in our society (like me) to be willing to surrender their privilege?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Appropriating Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 49-53)

This passage, Isaiah 49-53, contains material that has been adopted in Christian consciousness.  The Book of Isaiah is the product of a school of prophets urging Judah to remember its roots as a people of God.  Isaiah speaks harshly against the people.  Both the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah), but now without hope.  Consider these two statements.

"The Lord made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me."  Isaiah 49:2.
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Matthew 10:34.

Then there is this, from chapter 52 to 53.

The Suffering and Glory of the Servant

13 See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.


53:1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors
Is it legitimate for Christians to pull meaning from Isaiah and put it on Christ?  Reading Isaiah makes it clear that's not what Isaiah meant, but does that matter.