Daily Devotional: Let’s Not Lose Sight We are Talking about Real People Here, Y’all

king saul curse1 Samuel 14:16-30

Saul’s poorly thought out oath, vowing his troops would not eat until the battle was won, is an example of poor leadership. He thought of his honor, his image, more than the needs of the troops. Without food they would be too weak to fight the battle. Without food, just the journey itself would exhaust them.

To me this reminds me of the need to see how our actions may influence others, seeing them as human beings with real needs, feelings, and desires.

We forget this. I think of last year when we had so many parentless children standing at our border in need of food, water, clothes to survive.   Many politicians sat and argued to politics of immigration, getting caught up in ideology – not seeing the hurting children in need at our door. Not hearing Christ saying to us “I was a stranger and you took me in….”   Our politics threatened to keep us from having compassion on others.

unaccompanied immigrant childrenWe saw this in the discussions of LGBT rights. People would argue about the history of marriage, about abstract theology, all the time forgetting the pain and heartache people faced … People like elderly couples together for decades who could not be there for each other in their final days due to their relationship not being recognized. People like children who could not have their parents’ health care extended to them, or their parent’s right to care for them recognized.

We see it too in our debates between left and right, where we paint those we disagree with using a broad brush as if all people who hold another view are so very hateful, hurtful, or wrong-headed. We forget we speak of other human beings, with real feelings and real needs.

God reminds me in this passage to remember the humanity of all those around me, of all I encounter.

Let’s never forget that.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Daily Devotional: Hearing the Call to Reconciliation

reconciliation-artActs 8:10-19a

I am struck by the courage of Ananias of Damascus here. God calls him in a dramatic way to reach out to Saul of Tarsus, a man who has been systematically discriminating against Christians, even planning their deaths. He is told to reach out to Saul in love, welcoming him into the community of faith.

To be honest I have trouble continuing to hold out hope for family members and once-friends who’ve cut me out of their life for differences or wronged me in far more minor ways. When I hear the voice of Spirit calling me to continue to reach out for reconciliation, my heart is pained and I want to say “God, are you serious? What’s the point?”

I can’t imagine what it would be like to do what God calls Ananias to do here.

The closest I could imagine is someone who had been a person of color in South Africa under apartheid reaching out for healing and reconciliation with those who ran apartheid. Of course, that is what happened, isn’t  it? Desmond Tutu writes in No Future without Forgiveness of how during and after apartheid the religious leaders like himself fighting for an end to the race-based oppression kept reaching out to those who oppressed them, inviting them to change, because they believed the oppressors were also losing their humanity. He says  that they tried to set them free, inviting them to rediscover their own humanity.

mandelaquoteI think this is why the late Nelson Mandela invited his former jailers to his inauguration and why South African chose a Truth and Reconciliation commission aimed at restorative justice rather than hangings and crimes against humanity trials.   They knew that ultimately both oppressor and oppressed had lost some of their humanity in the system of oppression that had ended and that only in healing that rift together could they get to God’s future for them

So I hear a call in this example to not give up on anyone, no matter how much they have hurt me or done injustice. I hear a call to be open to seeing God transform all involved, and to be open to a voice for and agent of reconciliation.

I know for me I still need to work, as Ananias had to, on my own inner resistance. But I know if the Spirit can transform Ananias and Saul, She can transform you and me, too. Let it be so, sweet mothering Holy Spirit. Let it be so

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Faith Forged in Blood, not Faith That Sheds It

1 Samuel 13:19-14:15

This text includes both pieces of inspiration and also horror to me as I read it

fiery furnace danielWe see inspiration in that Jonathan has such faith in God. He trusts that he and his armor bearer can go forward in faith against any enemy of God and have victory. This is the same kind of faith that we see later in Daniel who stands down King Nebuchadnezzar’s call for him to abandon his faith to save his neck, so that Daniel risks death by fire and lion, believing that one or a few people of faith and God together are a majority. It is the same faith you see in Christians willing to resist the pressure of Rome by sharing their faith, by welcoming children with disabilities into their homes abandoned on the hillsides to die, in serving the poor and sick against the standards of pre-Christian Roman culture. It is the same faith you see Hildegard of Bingen have when, inspired by her visions from God and by anger at clergy and royalty abusing their power, she refuses to follow the medieval church’s rule for women to be silent and spoke out publicly in the streets calling for rulers of church and state to use their power not for selfish means as she saw them doing so but to help the least of these among Christ’s brothers and sisters.   We saw it too in the 1800s as believers like Sojourner Truth and the Grimke sisters stood not just against the society at large, a society built on slave-labor and SojournerTruth-e1416933637125theft of Native American lands, but also against the church which said women ought not to preach. These women spoke up inspired by the Spirit of God proclaiming all are equal, condemning both racist structures like slavery and also the patriarchal structures in church and society that kept women oppressed.   Raising their voices they called the world to see their own humanity in cries like Sojourner Truth’s message “Ain’t I Woman?”   It is this same faith that led to the Civil Rights movements of the 20th Century and its continued legacy today in work like the Moral Monday movement.

Yet the horror to me as I read this text is that Jonathan’s actions which are inspired by this faith is to slaughter many, many people.   His hands are dripping red with blood by the end of this text. In his mind, faith in God’s power ought to be expressed in killing God’s enemies.   As a Christian, I find such an application of faith disturbing. This is largely blood on your handsbecause of what our Lord teaches in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.   There he teaches us to have compassion on all people, including those we experience as our adversaries. We are to not return evil for evil, but respond to their injustice and evil with love. We are to seek to do them good, not evil; to pray for them; to not lose sight of them as also children of God who are of infinite worth. As one bumper sticker I recently saw said, “When Jesus said ‘love your enemies’, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean kill them”.

Many Christians will try to seek to defend these pictures of holy violence in Scripture. They will say “well, it was the time or place”. “Well, those people fell under God’s judgment”. “Well, they were at war. You don’t win war by making friends and holding hands.”   Although I don’t think we have to go so far as to say that we never defend ourselves and others from those who would harm us, I think we need to face squarely that the violence done in the name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures are far out of proportion to self-defense. At points it verges on genocide. Such heartless violence flies in the face of the clear teachings of Jesus.

The book of Hebrews tells Christians, “In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times sermon on the mount laura jamesand in many ways. In these final days, though, [God] spoke to us through a Son.   God made [God’s] Son the heir of everything and created the world through him The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being…”   Our Scripture includes the message of God but imperfectly recorded by some women and mainly men who were inspired by God, but like Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, who include some parts that are God’s very own words to us and some parts that are their own ideas.   This is why God has spoken finally to Christians by the Son. It is why when this Son appears in Jesus, He consistently says of the Scripture written so far “You have heard it was written … but now I tell you”.

Jesus clearly differentiates between the true message of God and some of the human ideas, even in Scripture, that have collected around it. Clearly God’s call to covenant, to be a people who are salt and light in this world making a difference by going against the tide is God’s message. But Jesus makes it clear that the God He reveals and knows is not a God who calls humanity to do violence in God’s name or anyone’s name.   Any human death is a tragedy of enormous proportions, to be avoided whenever possible. And never done in the name of God.

We need to face that attributing violence to the name of God, even calling it a crusade or holy war, is the original sin of our Abrahamic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. One need not believe in Jesus who clearly proclaims this to see that reality. One need only look at the history of holy wars such texts inspire if treated as if the violence is truly inspired by God. We see the killing of heretics by the Roman and European powers starting with Augustine’s time to now. We see the bloody Crusades that slaughtered Jews, Muslims, and Christians in cold blood. We see the religious Bible Not a Weapon 4wars of Europe before and especially after the Reformation. We see the history of Christians killing Jews that began before the Inquisition, was brought to a new height in it, and culminated in the Holocaust. We see too in Islam times in which its texts were used by governments to justify war-fare and violence. We see Christians who used these texts to justify acts of terror, lynching, and violence done by the Klan in the American south who said God justified this violence.   We see it in the abortion clinic bombings. We see it I groups like Al Qaida and the so-called Islamic state. I could go on… but it is easy to see there is nothing holy about this approach to Scripture. Jesus’s warning that if you live by the sword you will die by the sword, and that one must choose a different path than violence rings true after a look at this history.

For individuals wanting to explore how to understand Scripture and faith in this way – a way not wedded to violence savage textand oppression, but as Jesus calls us to see it as a force of liberation – I recommend Adrian Thathcer’s book The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible.

I feel a call as I read this text to re-discover the faith of Jonathan, the faith to move against the tide and to live out my faith in ways that change this world. I also feel a call to examine my own faith to see how much of my own prejudice, fear, hatred, and personal issue I am projecting onto God. When I move with God forward in God’s work of transforming myself and this world, such beauty can emerge but, as with our history of religious violence and prejudice, when I project my own prejudices onto God I can produce such heartache.

Let’s move forward in this journey together.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: What if I stumble? What if I fall?

coffee-prayer-scriptureLuke 22:31-38

What stands out to me in this passage is love in the midst of tragedy.   Peter’s love of Jesus makes him want to promise never to give up on Jesus, never to fail, and never to leave his side. Yet Jesus sees what Peter cannot.  Jesus sees the power of the forces of oppression Jesus has chosen to stand against and knows it will seek to sift his friends like wheat. He knows, despite their love for him and their well-meaning words, that they lack the strength to stand against that pressure.   So Jesus warns them of what is coming, including their rejection, to let them know of his love for them. Aware of what they will endure, Jesus lets them know his love for them does not waver nor will it ever. I believe Jesus does this in order to let them know that his love for him will remain strong no matter how far they fall. Jesus plants the seed for them which will blossom into their realizing reconciliation with him is possible when they encounter him through the experience of the resurrection. In my mind Jesus’ resurrection appearances are scenes not just of hope beyond death but also dramatic depictions of the disciples’ discovery that God’s love transcends death, running out to pursue their reconciliation with God relentlessly.

As I think on this story, I cannot but think of times I failed to live up to what Christ was leading me to do because my ability to remain strong against the world’s pressure to conform just simply wasn’t enough.

falling-into-a-black-holeI remember in college having been friends with a fellow student who was horribly put down and harassed at my Christian college for being different. I never put him down, but I remember pulling away from him even when I felt “he needs support right now” deep in my soul out of being afraid of how others in school would view me.   Deep in the pit of my soul, when I prayed, I felt I was going down the wrong path. I would make good intentions to not leave him in the lurch, but I still ended up doing so. Though our college was a “Christian” one, none of us were living up to the way of Christ in how we treated this young man.   Though I can’t confess anyone else’s failings, I can confess my own sorrow and shame about letting the crowd influence me in the way it did.

I could list other points of shame where I know I did not live up to the high call of Christ-like love and I’m sure you could too from your own life. Because of these experiences I can relate out of those moments with the sorrow the disciples later share at abandoning Jesus.   The feelings I felt in those moments help me relate with the haunting words of this old DC Talk song –

The reality is, though, that all of us shall fail. We all will have areas of our life in which we lack the strength of spirit and courage of our character to live with consistency. We like the disciples and the words of this DC Talk song, will face into the reality that we stumble, we fall, and we lose the path.

Jesus’ promise to the disciples before their stumbling of a love from him that will not give up even as they falter should remind us, too, that God’s love will not waver to us in our stumbling. It will remain firm.

One day early in my Christian walk, feeling certain I’d stumbled beyond rescue through a failing I now cannot understand how I thought would be beyond forgiving, I read the following words from 2 Timothy 2:13 – “if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself”. In some mysterious way God has cast God’s lot with us, so that God will not give up on a one of us, even when we falter, fail, and are faithless. To do so is as if God were giving up on God’s self.

The way I have come to understand this is picturing Jesus’ Incarnation like a mother becoming pregnant. When Jesus entered this world, God cast God’s lot with all of humanity – taking on our flesh, blood, bone, limitations, feelings. In doing so God cast God’s lot with you and me.   God wove together God’s future with our own so that God’s future is intertwined with our future, God’s life with our life. God cannot get to God’s future without us and us to ours without God.

pregnant motherIt is like a woman who chooses to become pregnant, chooses to become a mother. Now a new life is in her body, and forever afterwards her life is intertwined with that life, her future with its future. “I will always be your mother,” my mom once told me and it is true.  As any loving mother knows, once that life enters into your body, and especially once you hold that child in your hands, no longer can you imagine a future as it ought to be without also imaging a future for your child.   Your life, your future, and this new life’s future are intertwined.   You cast your lot with this child’s lot. You cannot abandon this child without in some sense abandoning a part of yourself.

Of course God’s casting God’s lot with us in Christ’s coming is even more unbreakable, for mothers do for various reasons, though it go against all that is natural in the mother-child bond, abandon their children either as little ones or when they disown them as adults for their choices. Though rare, it happens. But our God shall never disown a one of us, always keeping room for us like the Prodigal Child in Jesus’ parable to come back home again.

This gives me hope, and I hope it gives you hope. I will let myself down.   I will fail myself and others. I will let God down. But God will never give up on me.   God will never give up on you. God’s love has no limit.

The relentlessness of God’s love for us to me is beautifully pictured in the song “Mercy Came Running”. May its words remind you of the relentless love of God that will not let you, me, or a one of us go.

And I’m sure not whistling Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Living Beyond Mere Appearances

Matthew 21:23-32

yes no maybeTo me the key to understanding this section of Scripture is the concluding parable Jesus shares: two people are asked to go and do some work. One says “yes” to appear cooperative, but then slinks away into the shadows without putting the hand to the plough.   Another argumentatively says “no” but, later, thinks better about it and gets about the business set before them. Jesus suggests the second, not the first, person is the one of these two who is the best example for us to follow

The reading contrasts two kinds of individuals: First, the outwardly religious, highly educated scholars of Scripture who pepper Jesus with hard questions.   They present themselves as if they are close to God. After all, they can quote Scripture from memory, always show at worship, and say long beautiful prayers. Yet they feel threatened by Jesus’ words and example.   It challenges their status quo, questions their privilege, and calls them out of their comfort zones.   They won’t have it.   So instead of asking “how can we take up our cross and follow?” they devise complicated theological questions in order to justify things staying as they always have. They demand Jesus prove to them by theology his authority.

In contrast, Jesus describes another group.  These are the seemingly unreligious whom those in power have deemed sinners, outcasts, and undesirables who see Jesus’ lifestyle, hear Jesus’ message, and know God is breaking into their life through his life.   They can’t quote the coming to jesusScriptures, don’t know the theology, and couldn’t care less about the ritual and fancy words. But they know love. They know justice.   They know too their lives ought to mean more, and choose to transform their lives so that they can become people of this beloved community of peace, love, and justice Jesus describes as the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ words challenge us to ask about our religion and our spirituality. Both can be venues through which we open ourselves up to encounter God. They can be means of hearing Christ’s voice and becoming transformed. They can be ways to becoming people made new, transformed into the hands and feet of God, exhibiting God’s healing grace, reconciling justice, and loving compassion.   They can also become masks we put on to convince ourselves and others we are good people.   We can say to ourselves “I prayed the right prayer, so even though I don’t do or say a thing, I’m forgiven”. We can tell ourselves we are better than “those people”. We can isolate ourselves through our religion to any people not like us.

For me the reality Jesus is showing – that it is better to embrace the transformation Jesus shows and not hold onto the trappings of religion than to hold to religion in a way that hides from ourselves and others our need for bikertransformation – was demonstrated to me by a man I’ll call “J”. While pastoring in a military town, Kat and I had a church member come face to face with their need to confront their addiction. They joined a twelve-step meeting and invited us to come as a show of support. Through the twelve-step meeting, we came to know “J”.

“J” was a grizzled, hardened biker guy.   He had a sharp tongue, and didn’t do much with religion. But when his life hit rock bottom from his drinking, he realized he needed a higher power and got involved with twelve-step spirituality.   Now he still didn’t look the part of a religious man. But I’ll tell you what, he was spiritual. He’d become a man, too, of compassion. The church member whom we were supporting had lost it all – job, home, their significant other – due to their substance abuse.   “J” took them in, letting them stay in his home. He would give folks the shirt off his back if it would help them.   I saw him do that – actually give people clothes from his closet – on many occasions. And give them food, and rides on his bike.   And though he didn’t wear it on his sleeve, he was a praying man, praying for every downtrodden person he faced. Why? Not because of some abstract theology, but because he knew what it was like having hit the bottom himself, needing a hand from others and from above to get up again.

About a year ago, “J” passed. But “J” left an impression on everyone he met, one that many people who claim the title of “Christian”, “Jew”, “Muslim,” or whatever religious title fail to do since far too often we use our religion not as a means of confronting who we really are and how we can be transformed into people of compassion but as a means of hiding our failings and appearing better than we are.

“J” became a model for me, an example of what Jesus is saying.   Learning such openness, willingness to change, and compassion for others is the point of our religious teachings and our spirituality. Jesus calls us to follow such examples by becoming people who are authentic, true to who we are, while also true to the call to love, to serve, to care selflessly.

In doing so, we fulfill the spirit of our faith and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Let it be so for us this day.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: It Ain’t Just About You, Friend

time running out1 Samuel 13:5-8

The message I get from this text is to be careful not to rush ahead. In our society, there is pressure to get ahead. To get the next big thing. To buy the better car, phone, house. To get the better job.   There is an impatience to have forward momentum. Waiting, being still, can seem like being left in the dust by others who are faster, bigger, stronger, more successful.

I’m reminded of when I used to help kids struggling in school and I’d see one rushing through their school work so that they didn’t get it done right. “It’s not a race,” I’d say.

Saul felt impatient. He wanted things done on his time, in his place. So he took on the job of the prophet and the priest. He offered the sacrifice to God.   God had to move on his time table, and those God sent to support him in faith were taking too long. Ultimately this choice was the turning point to Saul’s downfall.

A part of why this is wrong was Saul was bringing down the division between church and state. He as king was taking on for himself the role of prophet, priest, mediator between humans and God. This is the role kings outside of running-lateIsrael had, some not just declaring themselves mediators between the gods and humans but some a god in the flesh themselves. God appears to want some distance between the kingship and its statecraft and the prophet, priest, or religious center.   They need to be somewhat separate so that the faith of the people of God does not become manipulated like puppets on a string to declare as God’s word the wishes of the monarchy.   As such it can become a tool of oppression. Likewise if the religious leaders are too caught up in the politics of the day, they can become taken with and drunk on the idea of power forgetting their call to be faithful to love, justice, and mercy.

Another reason it is wrong is there is a desire to leash God here, like God is a pet of the king. God is not a pet we can contain. God is not a dog to be taught tricks. Rather God is wild, uncontainable, like the ocean waves.   God moves freely like the wind.   To move toward God’s plans one must learn to cooperate with God, to partner with God. This does not mean always blindly waiting, doing nothing, for the prophets of Scripture often challenge God, question God, and argue with God and so affect God’s plans.   But it does mean recognizing God is God. You might question, argue with, or wish for different than God’s timing, God’s plan, but ultimately God is God. God sees a bigger picture than you or me. God sees how what is happening will impact not just now but millennia in the future. God sees how our direction will not just impact us personally but also the live of countless others.

runningSaul is not concerned about the future but what he wants now. He is not concerned about all the others who are impacted by his choice, but only how it makes him look in this moment.

Saul lost the big picture.

We do too, when we are unwilling to wait upon God, to let God’s timing and plans influence ours. We lose the big picture when we are so insistent on our own way we forget that listening to and waiting for God is about also how we impact others – our families, our neighbors, our communities, people we have never met our choices may impact.

Let’s learn to wait on God, to trust in God, and to partner with God.   It may seem the one God sends is running late, but if we can learn to see through the eyes of God we will know they are right on time.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah