Sunday, December 25, 2022

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Advent: What does God look forward to?

While he (Joseph) considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

This week we read what happened when Joseph learned of Mary's pregnancy. We know of Joseph's thoughts from Matthew, and of Mary's from Luke. Here we also see the Lord's thoughts through the voice of the angel: the point of all this is to save God's people from their sins. 

When I hear about saving "his people from their sins", the plural makes it easy for me to think of someone else's sins. That's human nature -- or self-preservation, if you'd rather. If we acknowledge our own faults at all, it is still easy to believe they are caused by someone else's faults. (Say what you will about Genesis 3:12's historicity, it has realism about peoples' reactions.) But what if the problem isn't your sins *or* my sins. What if it's both, and our tendency to blame each other, and the whole web of sinfulness that undermines all our human interactions? What if it's everything that keeps the world tense and fearful, hostile and distrustful? 

God's plan is to save us from all that. And whether I'm ready to acknowledge it or not, I need it deeply. 

Lord, come quickly in our day!

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Advent: Looking forward to Restoration

Looking forward to the Day of the Lord, the prophets described how all things would be restored. All things, not just the things we usually consider. Deserts would blossom. Arthritic hands and old knees would be restored. The fearful would be encouraged. Disabilities would be healed. Danger and captivity would become things of the past. All this would be brought about because of the Lord's arrival.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,

the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

They shall see the glory of the Lord,

the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.

He will come with vengeance,

with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,

the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,

and it shall be called the Holy Way;

the unclean shall not travel on it,

but it shall be for God’s people;

no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there,

nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;

they shall not be found there,

but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,

and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.


Lord, come speedily in our day!

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Advent: Looking forward to safety and security

Advent is a time to focus on what is coming. It is easy to focus on problems in the world, or plans of our own. In today's lectionary reading from the prophets, Isaiah describes the days of the Lord by focusing on the ruler who is to come: 

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

In him, justice spreads over the world. Righteousness will be the undoing of the wicked. The poor and oppressed will receive their relief. 

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

In that day, the natural order will have a complete safety even for the young: 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

As much as this prophecy is full of hope, it did not start out with worldly power. Time and again, God starts out gentler than we would expect: 

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

This happens when the ruler comes with the spirit of the Lord. 

May it come speedily in our day!

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent: Looking forward to peace

Focus. Advent is about looking forward, calling us to focus on God's promises. So many things compete for our attention that it takes an effort to clear out the clamor and focus on what God has said. Life can have too much noise, too much distraction, for us to hear the words of God clearly unless we mute our worries for a time and listen. 

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
   and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

(From Isaiah 2)

I consider what these words would mean today: "They shall not learn war anymore." No more boot camps. No more recruiting and training soldiers. No more seething hostility and debate about who stole whose homeland. No more shockingly large military budgets. No more disturbing loss of life. The nations' disputes shall be settled by an arbiter who knows how to deliver justice: "He shall judge between the nations, arbitrate for many peoples." 

And all the resources that had been dedicated to destruction and hostility will become resources of growth and prosperity: even the weapons will be scrapped and turned to other uses. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks." In our days, the money channeled to war could bring food to the hungry and warmth to the cold. We are told that the threat of nuclear war is closer than it has been in many years -- yet even those weapons could be repurposed or dismantled one day. 

Before we lay down our weapons, the hearts of the world would have to change. I expect that nothing short of God's presence will do that. 

And so here at the beginning of advent, we look forward to God's presence. 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Wisdom and Righteousness

One focus of the book of Proverbs is on righteousness. Righteousness is a word that is not currently in common use outside the church. It involves walking with God in the justice, mercy, and humility that are attributes of God himself. 

Here are twelve proverbs that speak of wisdom and righteousness: 

  • (Pro 2:9)  Then you shall understand righteousness, and judgment, and fairness; even every good path.
  • (Pro 8:18)  Riches and honor are with me; even durable riches and righteousness.
  • (Pro 11:4)  Riches profit nothing in the day of wrath: but righteousness delivers from death.
  • (Pro 11:10)  When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices: and when the wicked perish, there is shouting.
  • (Pro 11:23)  The desire of the righteous is only good: but the expectation of the wicked is wrath.
  • (Pro 14:34)  Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.
  • (Pro 15:9)  The way of the wicked is an abomination unto the LORD: but he loves the one who follows after righteousness.
  • (Pro 16:12)  It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness: for the throne is established by righteousness.
  • (Pro 18:10)  The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runs into it, and is safe.
  • (Pro 23:24)  The father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice: and he that begets a wise child shall have joy of him.
  • (Pro 29:2)  When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked rule, the people mourn.
  • (Pro 29:7)  The righteous considers the case of the poor: but the wicked does not to know it.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Ten Proverbs on Heart's Wisdom

So much Western discussion of knowledge and wisdom is guided (misguided?) by an assumption of hostility between heart and mind. As with the Shema, so with the Proverbs: the heart and mind are best when they work together with integrity. One without the other is easily led astray. 

Here are my ten favorite proverbs that speak of the role of heart in wisdom: 

  • (Pro 2:10)  When wisdom enters into your heart, and knowledge is pleasant to your soul;
  • (Pro 3:1)  My son, forget not my law; but let your heart keep my commandments
  • (Pro 3:3)  Let not mercy and truth forsake you: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart:
  • (Pro 4:21)  Let them not depart from your eyes; keep them in the midst of your heart.
  • (Pro 14:30)  A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.
  • (Pro 14:33)  Wisdom rests in the heart of him who has understanding ... 
  • (Pro 15:28)  The heart of the righteous studies to answer: but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
  • (Pro 16:23)  The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, and adds learning to his lips.
  • (Pro 22:11)  He who loves pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend.
  • (Pro 27:9)  Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart: so does the sweetness of a man's friend by hearty counsel.
In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is seen as beautiful, desirable -- and drawing on more than mind alone. Truth and mercy -- the first casualties of so many disputes -- are singled out to be valued and remembered. Wisdom's domain includes pureness of heart, rejoicing, friendship, and graceful speech. I could benefit from more wisdom!

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Ten Proverbs on Wisdom as a beautiful treasure

The book of Proverbs seeks to frame our view of wisdom not as a joyless duty, instead showing wisdom as something desirable. Time and again it speaks of wisdom as a treasure: a lost treasure, or gold, or silver, or jewels. They are prizes worth seeking, worth the effort, worth the search. These things are not merely valuable but beautiful in a way that lends beauty to their whole environment. 

Here are my ten favorite that portray wisdom as desirable, beautiful, and enriching in a way that matters: 

  • (Pro 2:4)  If you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures ...
  • (Pro 3:14)  For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.
  • (Pro 8:10)  Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.
  • (Pro 8:19)  My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold; and my revenue than choice silver.
  • (Pro 10:20)  The tongue of the just is as choice silver ...
  • (Pro 16:16)  How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to gain understanding is preferable to silver!
  • (Pro 20:15)  There is gold, and a multitude of rubies: but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.
  • (Pro 22:1)  A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.
  • (Pro 25:11)  A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
  • (Pro 25:12)  As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear.

The proverbs aim both to challenge our priorities and to inspire a better quest. The book of Proverbs portrays wisdom as one of the chief treasures of life. 

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Ten Verses on the the Tree of Life

The tree of life is mentioned ten times in Scripture*: 7 times in the Old Testament (3 in Genesis, 4 in Proverbs), and 3 in the New Testament.  

Gen 2:9  And out of the ground the LORD God made grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Gen 3:22  And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

Gen 3:24  So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Pro 3:18  She [wisdom] is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retains her.

Pro 11:30  The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that wins souls is wise.

Pro 13:12  Hope deferred makes the heart sick: but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.

Pro 15:4  A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.

Rev 2:7  He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches: To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

Rev 22:2  In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, there was the tree of life, which bore twelve crops of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

Rev 22:14  Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.

The references in Genesis and Revelation discuss a tree, and are taken to mean something that God provides his people to preserve their life and health, along with their strength and vitality through the years. From the standpoint of these texts, it is another way of being like God. 

The references in Proverbs take a different turn, and these things are also called a tree of life: 
  • wisdom
  • the fruit of the righteous
  • desire fulfilled
  • wholesome speech
Based on the first of these where wisdom is called a tree of life, there is an ancient Jewish teaching that the tree of life in Genesis was wisdom, in contrast to the other tree with its knowledge. The book of Proverbs explores how wisdom does what the tree of life does, preserving life and health. 

* As far as I have been able to determine. If there are other references I'd be glad to hear of them. 

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Book of Proverbs: Word Cloud as an objective check of its emphasis

I often use a word cloud to get an objective overview of a document. I may have my preconceptions about it, but the word cloud software does not share them. Here is an overview of the Book of Proverbs generated by my go-to WordCloud software: 

created at

This overview can guide my insights: there is a contrast of opposites: foolish or wise, death or life, wicked or righteous. It is grounded in humanity and relations: father and friend and neighbor. The top focus is on a man and the Lord. The book is about the value of being upright, heeding instruction, seeking  knowledge and understanding. These things bring righteousness and honor into life. 

An overview -- much less a word cloud -- is not meant provide a full picture a book, but it can ground our approach. 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Point of the Sabbath (Since God never gets tired, why did he rest?)

It is easy for me to think that the Sabbath is about the kind of rest that I am so aware that I need: physical rest after a long week, a break in a busy schedule. For me, the rest is welcome because I am tired. I need the time and space for my mind to lie fallow, the time to refresh. 

Yet God does not tire, as if his strength would be taxed, as if his energy would fade or be consumed. And the text makes no suggestion of that: 
So the heavens and earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made, and rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because in it he rested from all his work which he had created and made. (Genesis 2:1-3)
For God, it is more about completion. Just previously to that, we read: 
God saw all that he had made and found it very good. And there was evening and morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)
For us to enjoy the gift of the Sabbath, of course we rest to enjoy that blessing. Unlike the Lord, we have limits to our power and strength, and we know our human frailty on a daily basis. These passages suggest enjoying the completeness of our work, and the goodness of our work. They also call us to enjoy the completeness of God's work, the sufficiency of the world he has made, and its goodness. From its goodness, we are also reminded of his goodness. 

That is a Sabbath that can refresh me today. 

Sunday, October 09, 2022

Grace as our spiritual orientation

I think of "grace" as a relationship.We usually speak about "grace" when discussing our relationship with God: his kindness, his love, his benevolence, his forgiveness. Because we're dust, it takes grace to build a relationship that has any permanence, one where we are safe and welcome. 

In Christian circles there are debates about what a human is like apart from God, whether grace is "missing from" human nature and then "added to" human nature -- with details on when and how the grace is given or extended. I think those debates are misguided. If grace is a relationship, then we can't look inside ourselves to find grace: it's about how we're related to someone else, to God. It's about the shift when we stop thinking of God in terms of a force or a perfectionistic judge, and instead him call Dad (Abba, Father). It's a shift of relationship, of trust, knowing that we are safe and we are welcome. 

There is a way that medical doctors speak of "orientation" that is about mental awareness. Is the patient tuned-in enough to navigate the world? They may ask questions like, "Do you know who you are and why you're here?" Someone who is disoriented is likely too confused to take care of themselves. We need a certain level of understanding before we can steer our way through the world safely.

Without grace we are spiritually disoriented. Without grace -- that is, without trusting that relationship with God -- we can have a difficult time thinking about who we are and why we are here. The mind without grace is often frightened and angry. Trusting God is a game-changer. We begin to understand that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ. If we confess our wrong, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us. We begin to understand that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We begin to understand why an angel's first words are generally "Fear not!" -- not because this world is trouble-free, but that Christ has overcome the world. We need a certain level of understanding in order to steer our way through the spiritual realities around us. Trust in God's goodness leads us to hope and to peace-of-mind. 

With grace we move from being isolated to being connected. And we look differently at other people and their faults. It takes grace to build a relationship that has any permanence, one where someone is safe and welcome.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

The light of the righteous

The book of Proverbs has much to say about wisdom. It also has much to say that is not self-reflective about wisdom, that continues on to observations and understanding that we gain from wisdom. Here is a keen insight on the human condition: 

The light of the righteous shines brightly, but the lamp of the wicked is snuffed out.
(Proverbs 13:9)

Being "snuffed out" is a conventional metaphor for death, and of course the righteous die too. Yet their light continues. Heroes from previous ages are remembered for their light -- their actions or, often enough, simply their words. Things that continue across the years -- across the centuries -- are acts of wisdom in establishing things that last, acts of courage, words of courage and hope and faithfulness. Those kinds of things bring an honor that outlasts us, where the "light of the righteous" continues after the people are gone. 

Solomon built a Temple, and wrote many proverbs. He built a temple that was demolished, rebuilt by others, and is gone again. He wrote proverbs, and many have written proverbs after him: the proverbs remain.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Temple of Solomon

The Temple which Solomon built was a fulfillment of his father David's wish that God might have a worthy place for his presence among his people. In our day, it is hard to imagine a ruler's focus on a project like that. This was a kingdom where God was welcome, wanted, and treasured. The beauty of the Temple was similar to the Tabernacle before it. The architecture contained works of breathtaking art to convey reverence for God and the holiness of his presence. Solomon had the Temple constructed before his own palace, where in his wisdom he placed priority on giving glory and honor to God. So long as a king would place the holiness of God above his own desires, the kingdom had hope and the king's heart would stay away from corruption. So the king's honor of God was the cornerstone of that kingdom. 

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Solomon's Proverbs had a mission

I'm continuing with the questions, "What does wisdom look like? What does wisdom do?" I'm focusing still on Solomon, whose prayer for wisdom struck me as one of the most moving prayers of the Bible. When I continue reading of Solomon's life, there are passages about the king's advisors and his cabinet -- about how he organized and administered the land. The account continues about both Solomon's wealth and about the nation's prosperity. 

Judah and Israel were as many as the sands by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and being merry. (I Kings 4:20)

The nation's prosperity is mentioned nearby to more of Solomon's accomplishments:  

He spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were a thousand and five. (1 Kings 4:32)

I'd rather not be distracted by the questions of whether the numbers were literal or symbolic, or whether it refers to the Book of Proverbs where most of the book is attributed to Solomon. Regardless of those questions, Solomon was famous for proverbs. He spent much time and effort considering what was a wise course of action in all the day-to-day decisions that people face. He distilled that into short sayings that could be remembered fairly easily. It takes focus and clarity to get to the heart of the matter quickly and clearly; the more complicated the situation, the more insight is required to cut through the fog and see the best way through. It is easy to mistake many words for deep understanding; sometimes the best insights are brief. 

All his pondering was not for himself alone. His proverbs apparently brought fame in his lifetime, and visits from the rulers of neighboring lands. (What would it be like to live in an age where rulers of the nations sought wisdom among each others' prized imports and exports? Where a man of deep insight was a pilgrimage destination for a nation's leaders?) The proverbs were also for his own people. I have the passing thought that I'm sure a nation is easier to govern if each person acts wisely, and each has understanding so as not to cause hardship to themselves or their community. The account is clear that both Solomon himself and the nation under him flourished -- that managing things wisely was a blessing to them all, and that the more wisdom, the more blessing. 

Solomon worked on multiple levels: he arranged good, orderly administration for the government and the land, and yet he did not suppose that the quality of life in the land was given top-down from the throne. Each proverb was a seed of wisdom that could be planted throughout the nation so that every home would have its own supply. As in the ruler, so in the home: the more wisdom, the more blessing. 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Solomon's Wisdom in Practice: Justice

Solomon's love of wisdom has been an inspiration to me over the years. It seems that God heard and honored his prayer for wisdom, since Solomon's desire was to bless his people. 

The first time we see Solomon's wisdom in action is in the courtroom. The king was asked to judge a case where one woman had accused another of kidnapping her baby because the (alleged) kidnapper's baby had died; the other woman in return said that her accuser was lying, that the accuser's baby had died. Cases in which there are no other witnesses -- only the accuser and counter-accuser -- are notoriously hard to judge. There have been times in history when a case like that might be denied a hearing for lack of witnesses. One woman was losing her child -- an irreparable harm -- but what proof did she have? 

Those familiar with the account will know that Solomon devised a test: he suggested that the living child be cut in two and divided between the women. The accused thought those terms were acceptable, but the accuser said she would rather lose the child than have it die. So by that test, Solomon was able to discern which woman was truly the mother of the living child, and returned the baby to the mother. 

I'm not confident how the test would have appeared to Solomon's contemporaries thousands of years ago. Was it making a point that there is a kind of so-called justice that is barbaric and harsh, which does not deserve to be called justice? That account shows that true justice brings restoration, that true wisdom brings clarity. It shows that wisdom does not settle for an appearance of justice (a mockery of fairness in which everyone loses equally); wisdom persists until it can reach righteousness. And the two women were said to be prostitutes. To the people who heard this told thousands of years ago, did it send a message that nobody in the kingdom was beyond the king's protection, that justice was extended even to the most poor and outcast? Justice here shows itself as a blessing to ordinary people in their daily lives, and one of the pillars of a prosperous kingdom. 

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Solomon's wisdom and his predecessors

If Solomon prayed for wisdom, if God heard that prayer and blessed Solomon with wisdom, then how did that wisdom come? I'm not here interested in the failures of Solomon's later years, in playing "gotcha" with fallen heroes. We all stumble at times, and Solomon's stumbles are too often used to distract from how he served when at his best. I'm interested in understanding more about the gift of wisdom. 

When reading and considering the wisdom of Solomon, I was surprised to see this phrase: 

And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. (I Kings 4:29)

"As the sand that is on the sea shore". That phrase is similar to God's promise to Abraham that his offspring would be "as the sand that is on the sea shore" (Genesis 22:17), so similar that it seems an intentional reminder of that earlier blessing. A search shows that those words are also used to describe Joseph's administration of Egypt preparing for the famine: "And Joseph gathered grain as the sand of the sea, exceeding much, until he ceased numbering for it was beyond counting" (Genesis 32:12). Here the wisdom and blessing grow to match the people and their need; and the hallmark of God's blessing is the generous outpouring to meet their need. Abraham, Joseph, Solomon were key leaders in establishing and preserving the nation -- and in inspiring the nation; they receive blessings that echo each other. 

By the days of Solomon, Abraham's offspring have grown -- and they need a guiding wisdom that has grown to match. Solomon's wisdom was given as understanding and largeness of heart. The one who can lead wisely takes time for understanding, devotes and pursues understanding. The one who can lead wisely also has a large heart, with depth of empathy and feeling. Without that largeness of heart it is not wisdom, and falls short of the blessing that God intends. 

Solomon's wisdom does not stand as a solitary moment in the history of his people. It is a continuation of the blessing given to Abraham, and the wise rule entrusted to Joseph: the overflowing generosity of God's promise to provide for his people. 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Inspired by Solomon's Dream

I have mentioned before that on my very first read through the Bible, I was deeply moved when I read of Solomon's dream. Here is a recap, as a refresher on the details: 

5 At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” 10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. (I Kings 3:5-12)

Remembering my first read, I was struck by the beauty of Solomon's wish, the purity of his heartfelt desire. I was heartened by the faithfulness of God in recognizing that prayer's purity and rightness. With more years of experience now, I'm familiar with more stories of people attaining power and how they use it. So many people, suddenly in power, would have seen to their wealth, their egos, their personal scores to settle, silencing their enemies, neutralizing rivals as perceived threats. Even the more civic-minded can easily have their thoughts firmly fixed on their own vanity projects, convinced in their own mind that they already know what is best. Solomon's humility leads to an honest self-appraisal, his heart is for his people, and his eye is on whether he can discern what is good and what is evil. Any one of those seems a rare trait in a leader; the combination of all three is a delight. In Solomon's early rule he is passionate to do what is right. And the Lord faithfully promises wisdom and discernment. 

Our current secular culture is a mocking, irreverent culture, hostile toward the idea of wisdom. "Wisdom" here does have specifically religious implications -- the necessity of humility, the rightness of acknowledging God's ways, the desirability of that understanding. 

From what I have studied before, I think of wisdom as knowledge guided by love. I desire for our world to be guided with more wisdom. That means for God's people to become more deeply immersed in it, directed by it. I think it starts here: that we desire it, and seek it.  

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Lilies and Lantana

Occasionally I find that my devotional time turns toward the beauty of nature. Today's meditation was on lantana, a beautiful complex flower composed of more than one color of flower. I think "Consider the lilies of the field" likely includes all the flowers: they have no day jobs, make no clothes, and not even the richest of kings can compare. Therefore, we need not worry: that's how God clothes the grass of the field. How much more will he care for us.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Discipleship, friendship, and brotherhood

Jesus had roughly three years when he directly taught his disciples. When he sent them out, he sent them in pairs, two by two. There may be practical or strategic advantage to sending out people together, but there is also spiritual advantage. In pairs, they could encourage each other, steady each other through unfamiliar situations, keep each other grounded. They could develop and deepen friendships. When family relations already existed, Jesus often encouraged those bonds: we see Peter paired with his brother Andrew, and James paired with his brother John. For others, Jesus helped forge new bonds. No one was left alone or excluded from fellowship, and human connections were made as a matter of course. There are no fifth wheels in the church.

Consider that, at times, Jesus told the disciples not to take extra clothing, extra food, or extra money -- but to take a companion. Having a companion was seen as the most necessary preparation for the journey: more necessary than funding, more necessary than food or a change of clothes. There was no material thing needed for equipment. But spiritually, the journey did not start without a companion. 

My own journey in faith -- modest though it is -- began that way. I started my journey when a friend invited me to Sunday school, and I was not alone. My own journey started with a companion -- and started because of that companion, who included me. 

There are many divisions in our world, many things preventing fellowship. Most of them are needless, pointless divisions. When we follow Christ and Christ alone, we walk together.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

The Holy Spirit v unclean spirits

I've mused before that holiness has more to it than we often credit, more than our irreverent age can easily understand. One thing that we can see is that the Spirit of God is holy, while other spirits are often referred to as "unclean." Is there a sense in which "holy" is the opposite of "unclean"? 

As mentioned, places in the Bible speak of "unclean spirits" on the one side, and the Holy Spirit on the other.

There are places in Paul's letters that use holy as the opposite of unclean, for example: "otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy." (1 Corinthians 7:14)

David prayed, "Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me." He spoke as if being clean and pure were part of what it means to have a right spirit. 

In some well-known passages of Scripture, the Holy Spirit is associated with baptism. There the Holy Spirit is associated with water -- especially in washing and cleansing.

Holiness starts with making us clean and pure; a clean heart is one of God's great gifts, and an honest person's heart-felt desire.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Praying "Your will be done" -- how does that affect our own petitions?

Previously, considering unanswered prayers, I wondered: Did God actually consider Abraham's request when he rescued Lot and his family? Or was Abraham simply right from the beginning, "Far be it from You to slay the righteous with the wicked, that the righteous should be as the wicked, far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" God's will was always to stop evil and save the righteous; Abraham did not introduce that thought to God. (It may be that one reason for stopping the evil was to save the righteous.) So it may be more that Abraham knew of God's justice, and God's justice led Abraham's prayer. 

At first glance Abraham's prayer appears unanswered -- Sodom was destroyed. It seems like a technicality that Abraham never asked for Sodom to be spared unconditionally, that he only bargained down to 10 innocents in the city, and there were not 10. But it is more to the point that the innocent were, after all, spared. That was Abraham's original and persistent concern. If Abraham had simply prayed "Your will be done," wouldn't the result have been the same?

It is easy for me to look at some of my own unanswered prayers, to focus on things that I wished differently. But in the end, wasn't the outcome good? When I pray, "Your will be done," doesn't God's will include compassion for the struggling, and healing for the sick, and reconciliation for the estranged, and peace for the troubled? And more. I think that might give me comfort and consolation even if the details of a prayer are not granted, that God's will still encompasses all the good that I wished and longed for. Even if my own plans do not work out, God's plans continue.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Abraham's Great Unanswered Prayer

Every third year about this time, the lectionary brings us to consider the time when Abraham prayed for Sodom. He showed faith in God's goodness, confidence that God would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked. He showed humility in recognizing God's right to take no notice of his request in the matter, "since I am but dust and ash." He showed persistence, "What if there are only 30? 20? 10?" At the end of the day, God did not spare Sodom -- but he did spare Abraham's relative Lot and his family. (We are not told whether Lot was counted as righteous -- so there is room to wonder whether Lot was spared for Abraham's sake or for his own.*) 

Was Abraham's prayer misguided? The Bible never speaks of it as misguided. God mentions no fault in Abraham's prayer: Persistent, humble, faithful -- and not granted. God still valued Abraham, still kept his promises to Abraham, still honored Abraham -- and yet that prayer was not answered. Even though Abraham's request to spare the city was not granted, his request to spare the innocent (or spare his family) was heard. 

I am not sure whether God considered Abraham's request, or whether Abraham's view was right from the beginning: confidence that God would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked. It gave him the boldness to speak. But it may have also meant that our Father in heaven knew what we needed before we asked him.

* Update: A reader has pointed out that 2 Peter 2:7 calls Lot righteous, so the interpretation of the ancient readers was that Lot was spared for his own sake.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Psalm 119: A Deep Dive into Different Aspects of the Word of God, which the Psalmist praises

Psalm 119 talks about the word of God in different ways. It talks about God's law, precepts, testimonies, judgments, commandments, statutes, or simply the "word" of the Lord. There are even more Hebrew words behind those translations. The differences can seem technical or elusive. A closer look shows some differences which can help deepen our own understanding. First a quick note on that "deep dive" into the underlying words, and then some comments on the different aspects of the Word of God. 

Tools for the "Deep Dive"
First, I determined which original Hebrew word(s) are in each verse. Next, I ran a most-common-words analysis of just the verses using each word (or pair of closely-related words), again using TagCrowd as an analysis too. I looked for words that are associated with the other at least 3 times, to establish a pattern. Here are the basic findings, with the parenthetical numbers showing how often a certain association is found: 
  • Law (Hebrew: Torah): Lord (4), delight (4), love (4), keep (3)
  • precepts (Hebrew: piqqud): Keep (5), quicken (3), understand (3)
  • testimonies (Hebrew: edah and eduth): Keep (4), kept (3), understanding (3), heart (3)
  • word (Hebrew: imrah) According (6), comfort (3), eyes (3), merciful (3), servant (3)
  • judgments (Hebrew: mishpat): Lord (6), righteous (6), according (4), mouth (3), praise (3)
  • commandments (Hebrew: mitsvah): Delight (3), loved (3)
  • statutes (Hebrew: choq and chuqqah): Teach (7), Lord (4), keep (4), heart (4), servant (3)
  • word (Hebrew: dabar): According (6), hope (6), Lord (5), keep (3), servant (3), soul (3), live/quicken (3)
Take-aways from that review
The Law is is seen as worthy of love and delight, not merely obedience. Walking in the Law (Torah) is a way that is pure and undefiled. Loving the Law carries abundant peace, and guards against stumbling.. 

The judgments of God are associated with justice: they are not mere acts of power but of empowered righteousness, and so they inspire praise. As wickedness is a cause of grief, its redress through justice is a cause for celebration. 

One aspect of "word" is sometimes used almost like "promise": he gave his word. In this sense, the word of God is associated strongly with hope. Another aspect of "word" is often associated mercy and (possibly therefore) with comfort. 

Other aspects of the word of God consider aspects of teaching and understanding, or how the Lord quickens us / brings life. The Word of the Lord is also thought of as expanding our ability to love: it "enlarges the heart". 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Why the fate of "Roe" is not the most important milestone: The more meaningful victory is not about law

I have mentioned previously that my brother and I grew up as unwanted children, born in a pre-Roe-v-Wade era. Before Roe, each state had its own laws governing when a developing human life was recognized as legally human and therefore worthy of legal protection. The Supreme Court has returned that decision to the states once again, and each state is in a position to consider or reconsider its own laws. The laws will likely range the whole spectrum -- protected from conception, or from the detection of the child's heartbeat, or from quickening, or from the age of viability, or from birth. (From time to time, a handful of people have advocated for "from some days after birth", though that has not gained serious traction at this point). There may even be room to build consensus around heartbeat laws, quickening laws, or viability laws.

I have seen celebration among those who believe a developing human life is worthy of legal protection. I find myself unable to join the celebration just yet because of this: Those who argue that an unwanted child's life can be miserable -- they aren't wrong. Over the upcoming years, I would expect to see many state legislatures take up the question of what laws are good and right. Even when the law protects the child from a reasonably early age (for example, heartbeat laws), the law does nothing to promote good parenting. Neither is it the law's place to promote good parenting; that's a question of culture rather than law.

For those who have prayed for the day when human life is better protected, I think we do those lives a disservice by focusing only on the legality or illegality of abortion. Until it becomes normal to expect mothers to love their children, until it becomes normal to expect fathers to stand by their children and the mother -- until that happens, protecting the child from abortion is an incomplete victory.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Psalm 119: The meditative, contemplative act of worship

The Book of Psalms contains prayers, laments, songs of praise, and psalms for special occasions. Through  all their variety, they share this: they are all recorded acts of worship. Psalm 119 is distinctive in this: it mentions meditation more than any other chapter of the Bible. In fact that one chapter, by itself, contains a sizeable portion of all the mentions of meditation in the entire Bible.* As I read that Psalm, the author's meditation draws me into an act of meditation which is shared, holding fellowship across a considerable distance in time.

I have heard a distinction that I find helpful: "meditation" can be the kind of meditation in which we still our minds, or it can be a meditation in which we engage our minds -- for example focusing on something blessed, spiritual, holy, or wondrous. The meditation that engages the mind is called "contemplation". Psalm 119 is the most extended contemplation in the Book of Psalms, focusing the mind on whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is noble, whatever is worthy of praise within the word of God. 

All the Psalms, as poetry and songs, can rightly be counted as art. In that collection, Psalm 119 is a masterpiece. This is not merely for supporting the acrostic 22x8 structure. While some acrostics struggle with quality in order to fill the contractual obligation of the acrostic form, the author of Psalm 119 reached exceptional content in depth, in spiritual beauty, and in engagement with his own human condition. And so the acrostic here does the rare job of fulfilling its promise: giving order and structure while lifting up the idea that every part has its value, and that staying the course is worthwhile. 

As mentioned previously, this one Psalm is the single most instructive chapter in the whole of the Bible on the topic of meditation. It is unlikely that a poem of such length and structure was written in one session. The author leaves us some insight into his private life: "My eyes anticipate the night watches, that I might meditate on your word" (119:148). He prized his hours of meditation, not as an obligation but as refreshment. 

* I am aware that there are those who assert that the Bible is not the book title of the Bible and so should not be capitalized. While acknowledging some unique situations to be considered, I think they are essentially wrong; it is the title by which I call the book, and there is no other title by which I call the book. And so I continue to capitalize. 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Psalm 119: Word Cloud

Continuing with a contemplation of Psalm 119, here is a word cloud of it: 

created at

I like a word cloud for an objective double-check of the main focus. Since the text I used was King James "Authorized Version" text, I excluded the old-era equivalent of words that would normally have been excluded automatically in modern English (art hast hath mine thee thou thy unto). Since Psalm 119 is well-known for focusing on various aspects of the Word of God, it's no surprise that the word cloud shows a focus on the ways in which we refer to the Word of God: commandments, judgments, law, precepts, statutes, testimonies. We also begin to see the connection to the author: concern with shame, or seeking understanding, with an emphasis on "heart" and "hope", "love" and "mercies", "meditate" and "teach". 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Psalm 119: First encounter

On my first read through the Bible, when I came to Psalm 119 I winced at a quick scan of its length. Then I started reading it and was so caught by the author's passion and reverence that I was finished before I gave another thought to its length. It remains to this day one of my favorite Psalms. (My first read-through was before I learned about some of the artistry that didn't survive translation: it's an acrostic poem in the original Hebrew. I remain impressed that the urgency and pace and devotion did survive the translation.)

Like the Sermon on the Mount, this Psalm begins with a focus on God as the God who blesses: The opening line "Blessed are the undefiled" is much like "Blessed are the pure in heart" from the Sermon on the Mount. And the Psalmist doubles down on beginning with blessings, as the second verse underlines the theme again: "Blessed are they who keep his testimonies." (It's not only this Psalm and the Sermon on the Mount that begin with blessings. God's first words to people, as recorded in Genesis 1:28, are likewise a blessing, as it says "God blessed them and said to them", etc.)

From the start, the Psalmist sees the blessings that come to us through God's word: being undefiled, being unashamed, and gaining an upright heart. Freedom from shame and fault come from respecting and delighting in God's commandments (mitzvah). Since the author uses the word mitzvah at that point (v 6), there's a nod also to delighting in God's righteous works. 

There's is more depth in this Psalm that I hope to explore. While the Psalmist may have been an engaging enough author to write such a lengthy work without trying peoples' patience, for my own part I think I'll pause here.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Why we trust the beauty of nature -- and where it leads me

Some things approach being a human universal: one is an awareness of the beauty of nature. When we perceive it we experience joy or wonder, sometimes awe and reverence. And it brings a deep sense that underlies many spiritual traditions: the certainty that the original order of the universe is good, wholesome, beautiful, and holy. In a similar vein, the Psalmist wrote, "The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows the work of his hands. ... There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard." (Psalm 19:1, 3). Meditation is respected in most spiritual traditions though it can be seen as either a chore or an acquired skill. But the times when we are overtaken by beauty has led many people to unplanned moments of meditation, where duty and skill are irrelevant and we are carried by the realization alone. I have tried sketches of some of those moments, where an experience of wonder can be caught partially in art. The imitation -- or commemoration -- is worthwhile but I have never quite captured the whole feel of the original moment. (I am not quite sure that it can be done, though it can be close enough to validate the effort.)

For me, one of the deeper draws of Christianity -- of the teachings of Christ -- is that I find the same resonance, the same beauty, the same voice in his teachings as I find in those moments in nature. Every now and then another voice in Scripture will also attain that height and depth and feel: some passages in the Psalms or the prophets or in Paul's writings, Mary's Magnificat, Solomon's dream. And some places in Scripture will draw me especially for the insight into the character of God. But nothing draws me so consistently as the words of Jesus. The unplanned meditation overtakes me again with the same sense of peace and connection, the same certainty about the reality that gives rise to our world. That would be enough to ensure my attention, but he keeps going to address the aching gap between that primal good and lived human experience. He brings words and matching actions that the underlying goodness behind the world is deeper than the problems that we see (and cause). And in the words of Jesus, he speaks of healing to come, and justice to come, and mercy to come, and the treasure that is mercy in this world, for this world. I may not have quite captured the whole feel of the unity between the unfiltered beauty of the world and that of the Word of God, but for me it is enough to trust they come from the same source. 

Sunday, June 05, 2022

At Pentecost, remembering Peter

"Laying aside all malice, and treachery/guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and slander, as newborns desire the pure milk of the Word, that you may grow from it: if you have tasted that the Lord is gracious." (1 Peter 2:1-3)

Sometimes I have a tendency to think of Peter as the Apostle who was a little too eager to talk, and ended up with his foot in his mouth. I see his journey -- and his public mistakes -- and tend to forget that he spent three years learning from Christ himself. Who could come away from that unchanged? 

Somewhere there is a line between staying humble about our human leaders who all have human faults, and refusing them respect. Even the high priest had to offer sacrifices for his own sins; who among us is without faults? And so it is with some late-remembered humility of my own that I think twice about the layers of depth of what Peter wrote. 

The evils that he mentions are evils that come into the world mostly through words: malice, treachery/guile, hypocrisy, envy, slander. He contrasts the with the Word, and quickly draws a contrast that God's word is logical, healthy, pure, growth-promoting, and gracious. He leaves the listener to work out that the opposite is true of our sinful words: unreasonable, unhealthy, impure, corrupting, and ungracious. And we know the difference by the taste they leave in our mouths. He doesn't focus so much on whether we are consuming words or speaking words or pondering words; he focuses on whether they are words of purity and God's grace. If there is a source of pollution which we can address by our smallest actions, here it is: the words we hear, the words we amplify, the words we use to grow our souls in the direction they grow. 

Thank God for the words of Peter.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The lure of anger

"Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Do not give the devil a place." -- Ephesians 4:26

At times I find it easy to become angry. And anger is such an intoxicating emotion. Because we are moved to anger by danger and injustice, because anger empowers us to stand with courage and even ferocity when needed, it is easy to ride that anger and hold onto it. And yet that is not how Scripture teaches us. We are to make good use of it to address the problem -- and then let it go, and promptly. Anger soon becomes a tool of evil -- that's a thing that is so easy to spot in other people, and so easy to miss in ourselves. 

"Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry" (James 1:19). 

When we are angry, we are generally done listening -- but have we heard everything that matters? "Be quick to hear, slow to speak" is such sane and healthy refreshment for our age. 

Anger can appear righteous. But sustained anger is malice or hatred; if it is no longer tightly tied to the day that brought it, then I should be wary of it. 

Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Lutheran Visits a Christian Scientist Church? It was a surprise ...

Some years ago I wrote a series of posts on other churches I was visiting -- it was a blend of curiosity, and fellowship / ecumenism, and a quest for my next home-congregation that (even then) I understood was becoming necessary. I had not planned on continuing that series -- until last weekend when I was traveling. At a graduation party for my son and some of his friends, I heard a couple of the parents discussing church services in the morning. I mentioned I was interested in joining -- why should I miss Sunday celebration and worship merely because I was in a different city? After all the arrangements had been made, they mentioned: it was a Christian Scientist service. I knew nothing directly about them except by reputation, and had no idea if their reputation was fair. And so I followed through with the plans to see what there was to see. 

The worship space

The worship space was pews and piano and organ, and a space for the readers. It gave an impression that was pleasant but unremarkable. 

The readings

The readings were extensive and substituted for the sermon, lasting around the same amount of time as a typical sermon. There was an introduction that made it seem that extensive readings were the norm, an intentional practice to keep doctrinal purity as they saw it, that the readings / sermon at each congregation should be distributed from a central location, with each location reading the same readings as the sermon. The majority of the readings were taken from a denomination-specific book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by their founder Mary Baker Eddy. In format, the readings were broken into a number of sections: each section began with a few short Biblical verses or portions of verses and continued with longer quotations from Science and Health which interpreted and expanded on various topics. For my part, I found the readings from the Bible to be so short as to lack their own context, and the readings from Science and Health to be difficult to reconcile with Scripture. 

The leadership

The leadership was mostly a pair of readers -- one man and one woman -- and most of the service consisted of listening to them read, alternately. 

The congregation

It was a small congregation -- the smallest I have ever joined for the main weekly worship service. I wasn't sure how much was due to being in a smaller city, or a smaller denomination. I could easily count on my fingers the number of people under thirty. (Those over thirty probably outnumbered them two- or three-to-one -- to give an idea of the modest size of the congregation.) The people were friendly without being pushy, and did a great job of welcoming and including me without crowding me. 

The Christian Scientist particulars

The Christian Scientist particulars do seem very particular. While they did not hand me a theology book, there were consistent ways of wording things that made me wonder if we had compatible views on the identity of Jesus, or the goodness of creation, or even the reality of creation. There was a recurring undercurrent suggesting the physical is illusory, and a clearly recurring theme that if God is spirit, and the image of God is spirit, then man is truly spirit. At several points I had to shush the little voice in my head saying, "Wow, they're Gnostics!"

The worship space, reprise

After noticing the direction in which many readings slanted during the service, I took a second look around the worship space and did not find a baptismal font, or communion rail, or altar. 

Lingering thoughts

If I were to speak about God to someone from the Church of Christ, I might start with the goodness of creation, that we taste and see that the Lord is good, and that the created world declares the glory of God. They seem to understand the love of God -- that God is good. That might be common ground on which to build. 

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Personal: Traveling, no regularly-scheduled post

Today I am spending time with my son out-of-state, and there is no regular post today. I intend to be back behind my keyboard next weekend. Wishing a blessed week to all. 

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Mother's Day: The greatest command of parenting

At Forward Progress, Michael Kelly's recent post on parenting is on my mind as today is Mother's Day in the U.S. He brings up the "dirty little secret of parenting," as he calls it: that we don't actually know what we're doing. He makes some fine points along the way. My children are now grown, and what I say comes with the benefit of hindsight, and knowledge that I need grace for a job that was flawed. 

Here is what I see of our job as parents: 

  • Treasure our children
  • Nurture our children
  • Edify our children
  • Guide our children
  • Pass on faith, hope, and love

There will always be room for more to say because there are so many details of how to live that, and so many decisions every day about what is the best way forward. There will always be room to grow in understanding like there is always room to grow in love. But as in life, so in parenting: the greatest of these is love. 

Sunday, May 01, 2022

The beatitudes: A challenge to the spirit our age

Jesus' beatitudes have been translated into our language long since: they are not in a foreign language to ours, so much as a foreign spirit to the times in which we live. "Blessed", blessing, a trust in benevolence of anyone or anything, seems foreign to us. The beatitudes tell us about God's values: Purity, humility, righteousness, peace, mercy -- these are not among the values of our times. The beatitudes are spiritually beautiful -- in an age which has deadened tastes for spirituality and for beauty. Reading them washes our minds, washes our spirits, re-baptizes us with the Spirit of God. 

The most important battle of our day is spiritual: regardless of which person comes out on top of any particular conflict, that person will not last long. It is "the way of all flesh": rulers come and go. But will hatred win, or love? Will honesty, or falsehood? Will debauchery win, or purity? So the beatitudes do not need to be translated into our culture by a linguist, they need to be transposed into our culture by souls who live them in faith. "Faith" is another word that is out of phase with our culture; only when we live in faith can our culture be reacquainted with faith.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The presence of God

A small word of encouragement today in a troubled world: 

"The Lord be with you." It's an integral part of many Christian worship services. "The Lord be with you" was recorded as a blessing and a greeting in the days of Ruth and Naomi in the generations before King David was born (Ruth 2:4). It's a treasured and familiar greeting among God's people.

Scripture teaches us that God's presence reaches all the world. That is a promise that no place is beyond his providence, beyond reach of his blessing. God is present whether we see him or not, whether we recognize him or not. Yet his presence brings us peace of mind only to the extent that our minds hold thought of him. 

We live in troubled times -- the most troubled I have yet seen, with a possibility that things may get worse before they get better. Even more prosperous times feel empty and pointless without being grounded in the presence of God. Without that presence, troubled times can become overwhelming. 

It follows that our awareness of God matters for our peace of mind.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Redemption through death and resurrection

Without forgiveness, eternal life is not a prize. Look at any family gathering where there is no tradition of forgiveness. There is either open enmity or secret hostility; those are about the sum of available options, without forgiveness. Forgiveness is the acceptance and love that values us even through our imperfection. Without it there is either a requirement to meet a standard, or the desperate pretense that there are no problems of any significance. Forgiveness brings with it the better likelihood of honesty, where admitting a problem isn't a deal-breaker and so problems can be addressed rather than masked or ignored. It may be counter-intuitive, but admitting to problems leads to fewer or smaller problems: there is a safe way back, so they can be addressed.

Without redemption -- and making all things new -- our lesser holiness doesn't survive first contact with a fallen world. We easily adopt the things we are cautioned against, whether doubt or enmity or strife or factions or discord or envy, bitterness or pride, or any number of pitfalls in this life. They can all start as strategies for making things better; the problem is that they don't. The Psalmist's cry, "Create in me a clean heart" is one of the most beautiful in Scripture. There comes a time when we are as interested in becoming pure and holy, as we are in being accepted or forgiven. 

To God be the glory for making all things new, and first for the death and resurrection of our Lord. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Forgiveness: The no-shows at our big moments

This continues a series on forgiveness. 

 "But Thomas, one of the Twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came." (John 20:24)

Thomas is one of Jesus' chosen Twelve apostles -- a high honor in this world. And yet he is most famous for doubting. Who was he doubting?* Did he doubt the women's story? He might have convinced himself that Mary and the others were confused. Did he doubt the other disciples? He must have; they carried the word to him also. He was likely to have heard the report of Mary and the others who had gone to the tomb. Thomas chose not to be there in the upper room that night; he may have been expressing his doubts already by his absence.

So Thomas missed Jesus' first supper with his disciples after the resurrection. Thomas missed the joy, and continued in grief. He wasn't there for Jesus; he also wasn't there for his fellow apostles to console each other in their sorrow. We're not sure where he was when his fellow apostles found him, but as they brought him the news of Jesus' resurrection, Thomas made his doubt and skepticism plain: he didn't believe them, and wouldn't take their word. ... Not entirely. He did believe them, or want to believe them, just enough that he was in their company the next time that Jesus came to see them. And Jesus met Thomas' skepticism with compassion, with a willingness to relieve his doubts and fears, to spend some extra time to strengthen him.

There are times when people have been no-shows at my big moments in life -- or, I wonder, have I sometimes been a no-show at theirs? Jesus' patience with Thomas is encouraging -- even knowing his doubt, he meets it with understanding. He considers it worth the effort to reach out, and (to their credit) so did the other apostles. 

Lord, in someone's absence, may I withhold judgment and consider that I may not know what doubts are on their minds. At the right time, may we see each other and resolve the doubts. For those where I have been absent, may I seek the new occasion to be there for them again.

* Yes, I'm aware that it's still officially on English style-guides that it should be "Whom" at the start of the flagged sentence; that's also (in practical use) considered at least semi-archaic. I choose to use "who" in the hopes that future style guides will adopt what is becoming de facto standard, if not yet formal standard. Even if the style guides do not adopt that standard, it is likely that less formal readers already have.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Forgiveness: Those who scored personal points at our expense

This post continues the Lenten series on forgiveness. 

As soon as he (Pilate) knew that he (Jesus) was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod who was himself also in Jerusalem at the time. ... And Herod with his soldiers despised him and mocked him, and dressed him in a bright robe, and sent him (Jesus) again to Pilate. And that same day Pilate and Herod became friends: for before they were at enmity between themselves. -- Luke 23: 7, 11-12

People trade favors all the time. In this broken world, mistreating other people or passing around a famous prisoner could be a token of friendship, a way to curry favor. And so the man who would soon authorize Jesus' execution became friends with the man who had ordered the death of John the Baptist. 

Jesus endured another round of needless mocking and manhandling by the soldiers, and interrogation by arrogant officials with nothing (they thought) at stake. It was a favor, some blend of power trip and bonding exercise, where two officials scored points at the expense of their prisoner. 

The stakes for me have never been that big. Still in my own way I have been on the short end of mocking where people bonded by joining together to make fun of me, or scored points at my expense. In some earlier posts in this series it is unclear whether there was intentional wrong-doing so much as weakness or fear. Here, there is the arrogance of people who used another human being as a pawn, the callousness of enjoying someone else's troubles, the indifference to justice. Here, forgiveness needs to be made of stronger stuff, and repentance would see the person gaining more humility -- and compassion -- than when they had begun. It's very worldly to be carried away by a thought of our own advantage, or enjoyment, or entertainment, or opportunity; it's very human. It's not one of humanity's finer moments. It is Jesus' humility and compassion which brought him there, to a place where he could work out our forgiveness. 

Lord, may I seek a greater measure of humility and compassion. May I see my own repentance as gain rather than loss, as freedom from an unhealthy and unkind spirit. And may I consider, "We all do pray for mercy, and that same prayer teaches us all to render the deeds of mercy" (Shakespeare, in case the quote is unfamiliar to anyone, with the wording slightly modernized). 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Forgiveness: Those who counted the cost -- and ran

This continues a Lenten series on forgiveness, focusing on all-too-human sins that Jesus encountered and forgave. 

We have looked at Jesus' understanding of Peter, James, and John's weakness in the garden. We have considered Jesus' compassion for Peter's denial. For the rest of them? When faced with a squad of soldiers, to put it plainly: most of the disciples ran. Jesus was facing an arrest on capital charges -- with a speedily-held trial in a politicized court where innocence didn't matter, and sentenced to death in a manner that was designed to terrify people into compliance. It largely worked. The disciples were afraid. When they saw the price tag of sticking with Jesus on that night, most of them ran away. 

Jesus had known they would. He told them in advance, at dinner that night, that all of them would leave him. And still they went to the garden with him. He still wanted their company, and they wanted his. The Gospel of John regards the disciples leaving as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Jesus had lost none of those the Father gave him (John 18:9) -- that their lives truly would have been in danger if they had stayed. Had he told them in advance so that, from the safety of their hiding place, they would know that he had understood? 

There have been times in my life when I have been in need. So far those times have been few and far between, though they have stood out in my own mind. A few years back I took a blog break for health reasons, when for a few months I was nearly a medical shut-in until a health issue was resolved. The memory of people turning away can lead me to some uncharitable thoughts toward people that I had hoped would be there for me, and who decided that they just couldn't or wouldn't be there for me, not right then, not in that particular hour of need. No way to get groceries? There are delivery services. No way to get the yard cut? It's possible to get that hired. It's not necessarily other peoples' problem that I was in need. Those who take care of their own concerns may have valid concerns. Have I never turned down a request when my own life was tricky, or someone asked more than they seem to realize? Those who did stand by me in times of need are especially close to my heart. Those who did stand by me -- that's a gift, not an obligation. 

Lord, may I forgive the sins -- whether real or perceived -- from those who did not stand by me in my troubles. May I let go of grudges or bitter thoughts, and have the courage to face troubles graciously. 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Forgiveness: Those who tapped out when we needed them

This continues a Lenten series on forgiveness, focusing on the same kinds of sins that Jesus encountered and forgave. 

On the night in which he was betrayed, we know so many details of what Jesus did. And after dinner, he and some of his disciples went to a garden called Gethsemane. Jesus prayed. He asked his disciples to stay with him. His closest disciples, he asked them to stay close by him, to keep watch with him as he prayed. And they kept falling asleep. Over and over again. How often does Jesus ask for moral support? At the all-too-human moment of facing his own death, even as he prays, he asks for the company of his friends. And he keeps finding them asleep. It is an honor to be asked to watch with someone in their dark hour; that's easy to forget when it's late at night.

Are they unwilling? That's not the problem. He asked and they came with him. But after a good meal, and as the night wore on, their human frailty got the better of them. As Jesus said when he found them napping, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."

There are times when I am angry at the people who were not there in my hour of need. As we see with the disciples, that can happen even from a simple thing like a late hour and a good meal: the eyelids grow heavy, and we truly hope nobody needs us because we will not be awake. I tend to imagine that people would be there for me if only the other person really cared -- but Jesus teaches me better: sometimes it's not right to doubt the sincerity of their compassion, so much as to remember the weakness of our humanity.

Lord, help me to forgive those who did not do what they could, when I asked for support. May I call to mind their willingness, and the weakness of humanity that we share.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Forgiveness: Promises not kept

This continues a Lenten series on forgiveness. The series follows kinds of sins that Jesus encountered and forgave, and if I could find the grace to forgive others for the same. 

  • "Even if all should fall away, I will not." -- Peter, on the night in which Jesus was betrayed
  • "I don't know the man!" -- Peter, within 24 hours ... outside the place where the trial was held
Peter tried. He really did. When Jesus was arrested, most of the disciples scattered. Peter didn't run away, he followed. He said he'd be there for Jesus even if it cost his own arrest, even if it cost his own life. He wanted to have that much courage. He watched the others run to avoid arrest, even his own brother Andrew and his old fishing partners James and John. He watched his leader arrested, watched him being mocked and slapped around by the soldiers. He was the only one of Jesus' followers there, but he wasn't alone. He was surrounded by people who were on the other side, and they were starting to turn their attention to him. At some point his nerve failed. 

It's easy to blame him, and maybe easy to forgive him. The reason we see his failings -- and his alone: honestly, wasn't that because he was the only one who was still there? Yes, he fell away, but everyone else had fallen away sooner. 

There are times when I look at people who made promises they did not keep. Am I sure I've never been the one who fell away? Am I angry or disappointed when someone makes a promise they didn't keep -- but give a pass to people who didn't even try? Sometimes we hit our limits. We're human. As we remember in Lent: We are dust, and to dust we will return. 

Lord, may I forgive the promises not kept. May I remember the hope and well-wishes that were the intent of the promise, and forgive the human weakness that prevented its fulfillment. May I remember how easy it is not to know quite what we're up against, not to know what the future holds -- and show mercy gladly and willingly for those who offered a promise that they had intended to keep, but later did not. 

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Forgiveness: Sins committed in ignorance

Jesus often focused on forgiveness. If the central focus of his life is found in his journey to the cross, then forgiveness deserves a more central place in my own thoughts and my own life. When I think of forgiveness, I often think of the forgiveness that I need to receive. How often do I think of the forgiveness that I need to give? 

First I will focus on something that may be easier for me: sins against me that were done in ignorance. 

"Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." -- Jesus, at his execution

In the Bible, the Law of Moses has a thread of teaching that sins of ignorance are more easily forgiven than sins of defiance (see, for example, Numbers 15:22-30). The apostle Peter speaks of sins committed in ignorance (Acts 3:17), as did the apostle Paul (Acts 17:30, 1 Timothy 1:13). Most notably, Jesus spoke of it at his execution, praying that his executioners be forgiven because they did not know what they  were doing (Luke 23:34). 

Of the times that other people have wronged me, were some of them done unknowingly or because of mistaken information? Once I heard someone make a passionate speech for action and I wanted to find a way to help, asking "What can we do?" She publicly mocked me for being defeatist. Looking back, I know that "What can we do?" is sometimes used in a defeatist way, but I had meant it sincerely. It stung to be publicly held up to ridicule, especially when my meaning was very much the opposite. Again, once I knew some people who were continually hostile to me, and I did not find out til years later that someone had been telling them tales which were far from true. I suppose it's possible the tale-teller believed the things they were saying -- that didn't make it right, or any more pleasant to find out that anyone believed it. Confusions and misunderstandings, missing information and missed guesses, they're all part of the world we live in. If I were the one who made the bad assumption, what would I think if someone held a grudge against me for it? 

I consider when Jesus was being executed. The judges had ordered him to be put to death. How were the soldiers to know the rest of the story? They were caught up in other peoples' mistakes or lies or corruption. Jesus forgave them. So if someone misunderstood or misinterpreted my meaning, if someone believed a lie told about me -- am I willing to forgive them? 

Lord, may I forgive the sins committed against me in ignorance. May I remember how easy it is to simply not know the truth, or not know the fullness of the truth, to trust the wrong person -- and show mercy gladly and willingly for those who have wronged me, not knowing what they do. 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

One gentle breeze at a time

Today is the first day that has felt like spring -- at least the afternoon has. I spotted a cat and a lizard sunning themselves ... while I was out sunning myself and catching a few deep breaths of air that didn't smell indoor-stale from a long winter. 

I cleaned out some unwanted plants, planted some seeds, and generally enjoyed the hope for new beginnings that comes with spring. 

I think there are more layers than I have appreciated when Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a seed that is planted, and compares faith to a mustard seed. Every year there is another chance. Every year there is more growth. Every year the harvest continues. "A harvest of righteousness," and first-fruits measured in terms of people. 

In the upcoming weeks I plan to post a Lenten series, as I do in many years. But for today, before the penitential season of Lent, my spiritual "Mardi Gras" is to love the milder world of spring, one gentle breeze at a time.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Is self-hatred a sin?

If you are one of those fortunate people who has never struggled with self-hatred, you may find this topic outside of your experience and might consider skipping it. But if you know the struggle, maybe take a walk with me through some thoughts on the topic. 

I think "Is it a sin?" can be the wrong question. First, if "too much self-condemnation" is the problem, then "even more self-condemnation" cannot be the answer. The question is more about how to exit the turmoil inside when thoughts of self-hatred come along -- and cling like burs in the spring-time. 

Because of the place of love and forgiveness in God's judgment, I see self-hatred as against God's will; and yet not everything that is against God's will falls under the category of "sin." If we look at the world to come as a guide to things that are fully God's will, then the world to come has no death or illness -- but these things are not sinful themselves; it is not a sin to be sick or die. Mourning has no place in the world to come, but for today, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

And there is a kind of intentional self-hatred that I expect is a sin. If I see a train of thought starting and turn my thoughts against myself by design, if I set about self-hatred willingly, I have no doubt this is wrong, and in a way for which I'm responsible. 

But self-hatred can also be a form of spiritual malnutrition: if we lack experience of acceptance and love, if we have not seen a mistake met with compassion and understanding, then we may need more spiritual tools and spiritual growth before we have the ability to respond with compassion and understanding. 

Condemnation and accusation are among the tools of evil. One of Satan's titles is "the accuser." So there are times when self-accusation and self-hatred are the front lines of a spiritual battle. (I'm not usually one to talk of "spiritual battles." That phrase has unfortunately picked up common usage in settings where every thought is dramatized in a way that loses my patience. Still, there are certain times where certain things feel like battles, and for me this is one of them.) So it may be more useful to think of self-hatred as something of a spiritual battle, one where nobody has handed me the spiritual tools or training to fend off that attack, and yet it can be done. It can be more helpful to think of arming up with the Lord's tools for the fight: truth, faith, righteousness and the like. 

Coming back to the point about spiritual malnutrition, it can be helpful for the spiritually starving to be guided to faith, hope, and love. These are found in Christ, found in the confidence that we have value in the eyes of God, which brought Christ to fight for us. The Scriptures are full of reminders of our value in the eyes of God, of the shepherd looking for the sheep, of the woman who would not stop looking til she found what she had lost, the father who would not give up hope that one day his lost son would return, ready to welcome and celebrate. 

Those who preach God's love for us, they feed the sheep.