Daily thoughts from our minister.
BUT I SAID I WAS SORRY
The world is full of people and families that gained fortunes off the backs of others through all sorts of legal but unethical means. When one must resort to checking if something is legal or not to gain an advantage, the cause of justice is already lost. Conversely when one must do something illegal to see that justice is done society is judged. There is a good reason for taking care of wrongs as soon a possible, especially from the standpoint of the offender. If is not addressed, those wrongs will haunt the family for generations. Even as they enjoy ill-gotten gains and continue to pass laws to maintain advantage.
I want to be clear – this is not about governments or economic systems. They are as good or as bad as their leaders. They are all subject to corruption. This is about the behavior of any individual in any system.
Being a believer is not only about being a good citizen. Sometimes it may mean being a bad one. Being a believer is about having a conscience formed by something greater than a nation-state, a culture, current trends, or a legal system.
When we realize we have done something to harm another it is necessary to do more than apologize. Apologies today have become legal tools and are pathetically weak. They have even become acceptable in some churches – “I said I was sorry, now you have to forgive me.” Ridiculous.
An apology is not repentance. Apologies require no further action except to not do it again. Repentance means making amends to the one that was harmed. Even that is not enough. It requires a sacrifice. Reading Leviticus one realizes that “once for all” when referring to Jesus’ sacrifice has broad implications indeed.
"If any one sins and commits a breach of faith against the LORD by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found what was lost and lied about it, swearing falsely -- in any of all the things which men do and sin therein, when one has sinned and become guilty, he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by oppression, or the deposit which was committed to him, or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he has sworn falsely; he shall restore it in full, and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs, on the day of his guilt offering. (Leviticus 6:2-5).
There are well-known summaries of what is expected of people who worship God. The Ten Commandments. The corrective needed in Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”, and Micah 6:8, “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
These are more than just sentiments and rhetoric. They require courage and action. They require stepping in when uninvited from time to time. They require speaking truth to those who would not hear it or actively try to keep it from being said.
The Bible is not a tool for virtue signaling. It is a witness to what is good and true, which necessarily will include some wretched and uncomfortable stories of catastrophic failure. It is a call to live as peacefully as possible with others but never to suffer injustice. It demands that we generally choose speaking up over silence when something is amiss.
I have a lot to answer for and am pretty sure I would have run out of livestock by now if it was required of me to follow the Levitical code. God give us courage, it is severely lacking in your people – or at least in this one.
"If any one sins in that he hears a public adjuration to testify and though he is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter, yet does not speak, he shall bear his iniquity. (Leviticus 5:1, RSV)
"If you sin by not stepping up and offering yourself as a witness to something you've heard or seen in cases of wrongdoing, you'll be held responsible. (Leviticus 5:1, The Message)
LET ME CLEAN THAT UP FOR YOU
There have been several terms for the over-involved parent – “mama bear”, “helicopter”, and “bulldozer.” They are terms for parents that attempt to remove obstacles and consequences from their precious children. It is a powerful tool for producing privileged, entitled, and obnoxious human beings.
It starts young with justifications like, “it was an accident,” or “they can’t help it.” What follows is a parent cleaning up a mess they didn’t make and teaching the child they can count on such behavior in the future. This happens in all families (mine included) to some extent. It happens in friendships, churches, and civic organizations. There is always someone willing to rescue others to be the hero while thwarting the growth of the one they are helping.
Here's an example. If something is dropped and broken, it must be cleaned up. It does not matter how or why it happened – it still must be cleaned up. Somebody’s got to do it. It still has to be paid for. The challenge with children is that they may not have the knowledge or skill to clean up their mess. That’s ok – help them do it. Teach them to do it. Show them how to lessen the odds of it happening again. At least have them stand there and watch, which may be harder in the short term, but pays dividends later.
The short term for this is taking responsibility for one’s actions and mistakes; intentional or not. We can smooth the way. We can teach. We can help. But blocking consequences does not help others grow.
Christianity demands that we take responsibility for our actions. It demands that we clean up our own messes – accidental or not. Fortunately, we have help, but we will never appreciate it unless we look straight at the consequences with nothing standing between us and the mess we have made.
There is precedent for “unwitting” sin in the Old Testament. “I didn’t mean to,” is no excuse – the mess is made, get out your broom and look at the cross. Help is there.
And the LORD said to Moses, "Say to the people of Israel, If any one sins unwittingly in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then let him offer for the sin which he has committed a young bull without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering. He shall bring the bull to the door of the tent of meeting before the Lord, and lay his hand on the head of the bull, and kill the bull before the LORD. (Leviticus 4:1-4)
FOOLS, TROLLS, AND EDITORIALISTS
Engaging in conversation with others improves us as human beings. It helps us to understand the world from a different point of view. However, no one likes to talk to others who provoke as a sport. No one likes to approach another person knowing that they are going to be poked in the eye or personally insulted or laughed at.
The Psalms and Proverbs has some things to say about fools. One definition might be, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” In Psalms this is connected to wretched behavior. It is a strong word and, personally, I don’t like it.
There are two other groups of people that I think are worse than fools. Many of them would claim to believe in God, but their behavior suggests something else. There are those who enjoy entering a conversation and harmfully stirring strife. They will use all sorts of personal attacks and logical fallacies just to keep an otherwise engaging conversation from moving forward. The best response is to ignore the immaturity of such people.
Then there are those who are paid a great deal of money to editorialize in such a way to turn people against each other. Some editorialists do not hesitate to call another human being – uneducated, stupid, bigot, hater, or any other label useful in diminishing them as a person. Carrying such thinking is a burden for both those who spout such nonsense and those who listen to it. What is distressing to me is that there are obviously millions of us listening to the drivel or it would go away – you know, the money thing. It is one thing to talk like a fool, but quite another to live in a world where one can get rich doing so.
May God help us to be free of it.
“A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
but a fool's provocation is heavier than both.” (Proverbs 27:3)
SOMETHING HAS TO DIE
In the story of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, I wonder if they understood what had just happened. I doubt it. The implications were as far-reaching as anything that has ever happened. The trade-off for learning about “good and evil” is still being worked out.
There is, however, one detail in Genesis 3:21 that fascinates me, “He clothed them.” For God to cover their embarrassment and shame something had to die. The opening verses of Leviticus are detailed in their description of how atonement was to be made. A leading representative of the family was to bring an animal (without flaws), lay his hand on the head of the animal and then kill it, throw the blood against the altar, and cut it into pieces.
What a graphic reminder that if someone fails to keep faith with God, something must die. I am not in favor of such a system today for all sorts of reasons. However, I do think that it can be easy for us to fail to see the implications of our bad behavior (a.k.a. “sin”). When we fail to keep faith with others. When we mistreat other people for whatever reason.
I am also not a great fan of “remembering the Lord’s death” during communion (or eucharist) to the exclusion of celebrating that all are welcome at the table.
However, when we neglect seeing or remembering the consequences of our sin we are a short trip away from becoming a nominal, power-of-positive-thinking, independent, self-righteous apostate.
This is ultimately a powerful argument, for me at least, for why it is so important for believers to gather for worship. It puts us in front of people with whom we have relationships. We have let each other down. We have helped each other. We have hurt each other. Every time a congregation gathers, our salvation and our sin is right there in front of us. Our need to forgive and be forgiven is sitting in the same room with us. When we get this right, if we ever do, we will be the light we are called to be. We don’t have to be perfect. We have to be faithful.
“The LORD called Moses, and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, "Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When any man of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of cattle from the herd or from the flock. "If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD; he shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. Then he shall kill the bull before the LORD; and Aaron's sons the priests shall present the blood, and throw the blood round about against the altar that is at the door of the tent of meeting.
And he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces; and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar, and lay wood in order upon the fire; and Aaron's sons the priests shall lay the pieces, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire upon the altar; but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn the whole on the altar, as a burnt offering, an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the LORD.”
So quick we are to “pray” for our struggling brothers and sisters. Or to “pray” for someone with whom we are upset. Or “pray” for someone that they might change: Or for the world, or a nation. First let me say that most any prayer is better than none. Second, it would be wretched of me to suggest that we stop praying for any one whom we care about, or hope might find some needed light in their lives. So, I won’t.
What I do think is important is for us to occasionally make an attitude, or perhaps identity, shift when praying. So much of our prayer for others separates us from them. Maybe it is because we truly can’t identify with their situation. Maybe it is because we think we would never do such a thing.
When it comes to confession of sin, especially sin of past generations, we are very quick to say, “It wasn’t me!” Or maybe we hear a story about how a church or a person claiming to be a Christian has mistreated someone – I mean a legitimate complaint. We are quick to distance ourselves from such behavior.
Ezra did not do that. The details of the sin involved would require more words than you may want to read, but let’s look at the attitude that Ezra had about the sins of his fellow returnees to Jerusalem. It was not, “It’s them and not me!” It was, “I am ashamed . . . for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads.” Ezra had done nothing wrong, and he was not avoiding the guilt – past and present – that was causing trouble.
We may occasionally pray for “the church”, but keep it just close enough to third person that we can avoid identifying with all her failures. If we are a believer it is ‘us’ we should pray for. We are guilty. I am guilty by association and so are you – and so was Jesus. Thank God, Jesus solved the problem, we just have to learn to live with it until we finish our work here.
“Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered round me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle rent, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God, saying
"O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to thee, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt; and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as at this day. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant, and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage. For we are bondmen; yet our God has not forsaken us in our bondage, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.” (Ezra 9:4-9)
DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE?
From the days of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, the time of the judges, the kings, seeing their northern brothers destroyed, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonian captivity, and the rise of the Persian empire, the sons of Abraham had kept records of their families. At least the official ones.
We may be impressed by the genealogical rigor of royal families today, but these have nothing on the rigor of the Israelites in the ancient world.
We are not so good today at carrying the weight of our ancestors. This is as true on a personal scale as it is on a national one. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the heterogenous nature of many nations today. Still, something important is going on here. Knowing where we come from is an important part of our identity that we ignore to our detriment. When we do not know where we come from, we lose the ability to give that part of identity to our children and grandchildren.
This is just as true for nations and congregations as it is for families. The temptation is to occasionally rewrite history by leaving out those who embarrass or shame us. The Bible never did that. Just look at the genealogy of Jesus – those who might have been deleted from many lists are highlighted.
Knowing who we are carries with it responsibility and weight. This is not to be avoided. It is to be embraced because whether we like it or not, it cannot be avoided. Too many who try to shed such weight and responsibility end up enslaved to previous generations’ mistakes. Better to own it and overcome it. How? Follow the example of Ezra and Solomon; get wisdom, get skill.
The thing with circumcision is that one is marked long before one can choose. Once done there is no denying that heritage. Ezra the scribe was part of a heritage of people who contended with God. He gained skill. He knew who he was – “this Ezra.”
“Now after this, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest -- this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the LORD the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was upon him.” (Ezra 7:1-6)
I KNOW WHAT THEY’RE LIKE – BUT THE KING SAID
The people of Jerusalem were busy building the temple and were offered help which they declined. The response of those who help was rejected was swift and effective. They wrote a letter to Darius, the king, reminding him of the rebellious and troublesome nature of those who were rebuilding their temple.
The people kept working until the answer came back from Darius that they should cease. He had investigated the matter and learned the truth about Judah.
What happened next is amazing. They did not deny that they were rebellious. They owned the fact that they had angered their God. This was the reason that they were conquered. It was not because of the superiority of the foreign gods. It was not because of the superior armies. It was because they refused to listen to the prophets to repent. Then they made an appeal for Darius to look in his archives.
He did and found the decree of Cyrus to rebuild the temple and return the temple treasure. This left the opponents of Judah with no more options. Just like that they had the God of heaven and the King of Persia turned against them. Problem for them was they told the truth about God’s people. Didn’t matter – The king said they could build, so they built.
There is no charge that could not be levelled against God’s people today that would not be true of at least some (perhaps most). There is no wretched thing that people do to each other that has not been done in the name of God or Jesus. There is no punishment for those things that would be adequate. Two things need to happen. First, admit the rebellion. Second, build because the king said build.
Believers need to stop resting on their morality which will continue to get us in trouble and be the target of justified accusations. We must start resting on grace and faith, at which point our morality will also improve. When THE ACCUSER points at me and says, “He’s a rebellious failure.” I hope the response will come back, ‘I know what he's like, but the king said . . .”
If you are so inclined read Ezra 4-6.
LET ME HELP YOU
The adversaries of Judah wanted to help rebuild the temple. After all the worshipped the same God, according to themselves, anyway. The response from the king/governor, the priest, and the rest of the leaders the response was quick and terse. “You have nothing to do with this – we’re good.”
It was the response to the answer that gave the game away as to their motives. If they couldn’t get on the inside to “help”, then they would use all their tricks and resources to keep the rebuilding project from being successful.
Not everyone who claims to want to help is being honest. It is hard to know which of Jesus’ statements “If you are not for me you are against me,” or “He who is not against us is for us,” to apply as we live our lives.
I might suggest history and attitude. A history of bad behavior without true repentance is likely a source of help that we do not need. Keeping an open mind and heart to change is important, but so are boundaries. We allow them to be violated at great risk.
“No, thank you.” Is a great boundary response because it has the potential to press out a person’s true motives. One who is genuinely wanting to help and from a good place will not be offended and will still be ready offer help if needed.
“Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' houses and said to them, "Let us build with you; for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here."
But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers' houses in Israel said to them, "You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us." Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (Ezra 4:1-5)
The foundation of the temple was being laid. The people who had been in Babylon could see clearly how the new building was taking shape. The old ones that remembered the former temple wept because it was not like the old one. The ones who had not seen it were rejoicing because God had blessed them again.
Haggai tells us that even though the new temple “Seemed as nothing in their eyes,” it was not how it looked that mattered most. What mattered was God’s presence with them.
Such it is when change happens. Such it is when something is destroyed and restored. It is never the same. The older generations weep for what is not longer, and the younger generations rejoice because of what is being built. Ezra tells us that the noise of weeping and the noise of rejoice could not be distinguished. What a scene – weeping and rejoicing over the same event. Change happens every generation. The older generations can weep for what has gone away or rejoice that the new generation is building or rebuilding. For those who wept, God had encouraging words in Haggai. He still does.
`Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts. (Haggai 2:3-4)
But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy; so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard afar.(Ezra 3:12-13)
Comparing a statement about “rulers” in the Middle East at least 2600 years ago to our modern democratically elected representative republic should be taken with a grain of salt. That, however, is the power of Proverbs. They invite us to do exactly that.
When I read about a land with many rulers in Solomon I nearly immediately think about the wretched time of the Judges when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” It was catastrophically horrible. A land with many rulers today might be divided into groups of followers willing to bully their way (via courts, property destruction, corruption, or legislation) to power.
When I read about “a land transgressing” in Proverbs I might think of all the things that my nation (whichever nation happens to be yours) is doing that is contrary to my understanding of what is right. That specificity of “transgression” is, however, part of the problem. Idolatry of any sort produces its own specific set of sins that allow self-righteousness to flourish with a clear conscience.
We need rulers with repentant hearts who understand it is all of us who create the environment for the specific “sins” to flourish. But more than that, we need to allow our leaders to repent (as in change direction) without punishing them. Our transgression is that we do not allow our leaders to change (a.k.a. grow) – we are not wise in this regard.
When a land transgresses it has many rulers;
but with leaders of understanding and knowledge
its stability will long continue. (Proverbs 28:2)
Nobody likes to be restrained by either rules, other people, or consequences. We have come up with a vocabulary and legal framework around the concept of rights. “I have rights!”, or “I know what my rights are!” The United States has a founding document called the Bill of Rights.
We have laws and regulations that attempt to protect those rights while preventing those rights from infringing on the rights of others. This is a dynamic process fraught with danger. Over time we have added to those rights. We have decided which people (nearly always based on ethnicity and gender) have full access to those rights. We have fought wars over rights – one of which we shot at each other. We protest. We riot. One group is angry, and the other is afraid – often for good reasons.
Here we find room for that maligned group of people called the prophets. In the Old Testament they were shepherds and court officials. They were prone to eccentric behavior. They were emotional wrecks. Yet they did their job. They warned and encouraged. They preached judgment and offered hope. They explained why things were happening. Using today’s language, they kept the rights of everyone in view. We always need prophetic voices, but when they are not heard, do the right thing anyway.
“Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint,
but blessed is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18)
There is room for all sorts of speech and rhetoric in the world. I would even say that we need it. Too many of us seem to enjoy lobbing uninformed but emotionally genuine verbal bombs. The more accusatory and hurtful to the target the better. Beware of joining in that game. It reveals something about the speaker while saying nothing about the target. On the positive side, it locates the speaker in a world of ideas and generalizations – which is likely the point.
What is needed is more talking to each other. There are those who believe that action should take the lead. I believe that talking to those who experience the world through different eyes will cause actions that promote healing and peace. But we must talk without assuming we understand the world and the other person does not.
The poor man and the oppressor meet together;
the LORD gives light to the eyes of both. (Proverbs 29:13)
Human beings make decisions before even we are aware of it. How we respond to various situations is a result of how our brains have been trained. It happens in microseconds. From a survival point of view this is a good thing. It is important to recognize danger or an enemy. It is important to be able to act in a way that will preserve our health and our life.
Those impulses must be disciplined. This is why we train our teachers, soldiers, pilots, doctors, and engineers. This is why we train anyone who works with tools and builds things. Our responses must be trained so that we can overcome fear or revulsion or confusion and move toward the trouble or the damage. We need the confidence to solve problems rather than walk away.
Doing hard things and making wise decisions requires us to have a ready arsenal that automatically kicks in and overwhelms everything else. The wisdom literature (often called poetry) in the Old Testament does this for us. Getting wisdom deep into our minds will help us make better decisions. It will help us be less anxious about the details of life and guide us through difficult times.
Here are a few sayings from Proverbs 10:8-12
The wise of heart will heed commandments,
but a prating fool will come to ruin.
He who walks in integrity walks securely,
but he who perverts his ways will be found out.
He who winks the eye causes trouble,
but he who boldly reproves makes peace.
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.
Hatred stirs up strife,
but love covers all offenses.
The road we travel is full of potholes, hairpin turns, and an occasional break in the pavement. There are times when we need to turn left and others when we need to turn right. If we don’t vary our speed, we will drive off into a ditch or off a cliff.
There are warnings in the Bible about speaking too soon. It doesn’t seem to stop us from sharing our ignorance – especially those with an audience who will exchange money for “secrets.” (I am talking to religious charlatans here.)
There is value in silence if we use it to listen and learn. There is value in speaking with humility and changing one’s view when we learn more. None of us know enough, but we do know the answer to the question of Agur in Proverbs 30:2-4.
“Surely I am too stupid to be a man.
I have not the understanding of a man.
I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son's name?
Surely you know!” (RSV)
June 29, 2022
Following wisdom requires wisdom. Wisdom in the hands of a foolish person is dangerous. Wise words brought into the service of ideologies leads to taking up good words for a flawed cause. We are in a much different world than we were in just four years ago. Do not be too quick to proclaim, “Amen.” Please stop spreading stupid, half-truth, hurtful, and logically flawed information because your position won or lost.
There are some situations in which there are no winners – divorce, war, unwanted pregnancies, abuse, addiction. In all these, human beings are faced with situations beyond our capacity to comprehend. In all these there are no outcomes that will make us feel good or satisfied. And in all these it is the voiceless, the children, and the powerless who are sacrificed. Too many of us are too quick to speak for them without ever listening, much less hearing their complaints. There is hope for healing – but it may take decades.
This is not a time for Christians to gloat. It is a time for prayer and reflection. It is a time to take compassion seriously.
Following wisdom requires wisdom. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the right of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov. 31:8-9).