A necessary discipline for anyone serious about engaging his/her cultural context, it to learn to do what is designated as: exegeting the culture. But this is also most essential when one reads scripture. The scriptural accounts were written in specific cultures in time and space. That means that we need to step outside of our present western understanding of the culture in which we live, and to enter into the culture of the Middle East of those millennia ago. One person who has helped so many of us to grasp this is New Testament scholar, and Middle Eastern inhabitant for most of his long life, Kenneth  Bailey. He has written on Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, and it is his insights that provoke this blog.

This came to mind yesterday driving across town and observing all the tacky (though well-meaning) nativity scenes in church yards and neighborhood houses. All of these, have essentially read the nativity accounts in the gospels through their western experience, and failed to grasp fascinating pieces of the story.

Let’s begin with Bethlehem and Joseph. The Roman government had mandated a census, and everyone was required to register in the town/city of his family heritage. So, Bethlehem was the city of David, and Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David.” That has become an almost insignificant piece of information to us, … but what that meant was the Joseph was actually of royal blood. He was an heir of the Davidic line. He would have been an honored person in the homes of Bethlehem.

Next, Kenneth Bailey reminds us of how prominent in Middle-Eastern culture was the practice of hospitality. Yes, there was an inn in Bethlehem, but when it was full, where did one turn? Middle-Easterners were (and are) hospitable people. Homes were open to receive guests in a way that is difficult for us westerners to grasp. But every home in Bethlehem would have been open to one of royal blood, such as Joseph. And the home-owners who received Joseph and Mary didn’t consign Joseph and the pregnant Mary to a cowshed out in the back yard. Rather they would have been honored guests in the home.

Third, Kenneth Bailey describes for us the normal home, which was quite small but very functional. It would have consisted of, basically, a larger multi-purpose room and a smaller room perhaps for sleeping or other purposes. But then, in something like an attached garage in our culture, there was the place where the family animals were kept, such as the family cow, etc. These animals were a necessary part of the daily provision for the family food supply—but also they provided some of the heat in the winter. The animal shelter would have been divided from the larger room by only a divider, where there would also have been a rack/manger for the storing of food for the animals (but also would become a convenient place to lay the infant Jesus). It was all very functional and economical in space since towns were compact.

It would, also, not have been considered an imposition for Mary and Joseph to have resided there for some weeks (or until Herod ordered the slaughter of all the infants under two years of age, and the angel warned Mary and Joseph to flee). I wonder who the family was who took Mary and Joseph into their home? Could they have had the remotest notion of the eternal consequences of their warm hospitality? But then there is the word given to us: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:1-2). Yes, in a culture where there are so many strangers, those of different nationalities and religions, it is worth looking at the stewardship of our places of residence and notice how much hospitality is to be a gift of the Spirit, and to be practiced by God’s people, and especially by its leaders, and to ponder that those strangers whom we befriend, may be angels unaware? Stay tuned …

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Then there’s the humorous story about the guy who said that there were three things they never discussed in his church: sex, politics, and religion. We can laugh at the ludicrous contradictions in that, . . . but what with all the stuff we are observing these days about inappropriate sexual behavior by so many very public figures, it’s time to take a deep breath and look at human sexuality in the design and purpose for which God created it. Most folk inside the Christian church have some notion that God created humankind, male and female, in his own image and likeness. And yet, so often, we put the figurative fig-leaf over the reality that a hugely prominent part of that human body is the sexual, hormonal, and reproductive package (and genetic code) with which we are all endowed (though, admittedly, sometimes confused and confusing).

Human sexuality is never muted in scriptures. It appears in so many stories, sometimes heartening and heart-warming, and sometimes in its distorted and grotesque forms. Reproduction of the species is a presupposition. The secularists of our own culture are correct when they observe that we are “hard-wired to reproduce our gene-pool into the next generation.” Scripture contains beautiful love stories, along with stories of rape, incest, harlotry, and unbridled lust. The story of Ruth is a beautiful story of caring love. And then there is David, who is obviously “sexually active”. The prophet Hosea is commanded to marry a prostitute to exemplify Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Israel is likened, in graphic terms, as being like a promiscuous woman who opens her legs to every new invader. Add to all of that, the fact that early on the church renounced the heresy of Docetism, which heresy denied the full humanity of Christ. The church insisted that Jesus was fully human, … and as the scriptures assert, he was “tempted in all points like we are”. One must assume that this includes his sexuality, though most church folk would blush at the thought.

If you remove the spiritualizing filters and read the gospel stories candidly, Jesus was unique. He engaged in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and she was the town “hooker”. She engages Jesus in talk about religious traditions, and it is only an aside remark that indicates that Jesus is quite aware that the man she was currently living with was not her husband. As she is evangelized, and becomes an early evangelist, she rushes back into town to tell of him. There is a hidden bit of humor in that she announced that she had met a man who “told me all that I ever did.” . . . Don’t you just know that such a report sent a chill of fear through some of the town’s menfolk?

Or, again, in the (controversial) account of Jesus dealing with the woman caught in the act of adultery, and her accusers wanting to see how Jesus would carry out the law regarding adultery (stoning), you can almost perceive a twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he responds: “Any of you guy who have never been guilty of some such inappropriate behavior, you can cast the first stone.” And they all slunk away and left the woman to receive Jesus’ word of absolution. Or, take a look at the one-liner in I Thessalonian 4: “This is the will of God for your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (fornication). Which indicates that the problem was pretty rampant.

Ah! But take note of the very significant passage in Romans 12. “I appeal to you brothers … to present your bodies (including one’s sexuality) as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship … transformed, renewed, the will of God. God’s design is that the human family become the basic communal building-block of society, in which communication, love, discipline, caring, worship, and nurturing into God’s new creation takes place, and where sexuality is cherished as a gift, and celebrated within the purposeful disciplines of purity and faithfulness. Worship and human sexuality should absolutely be connected. Human love and sexuality should unquestionably be formed as an act of worship. I’d love to hear from you …  Stand by.

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BLOG 12/5/17. “HOW LONG, O LORD?”

BLOG 12/5/17. “HOW LONG, O LORD?”

Some weeks back, I posted on this site a blog on the importance of the Book of Revelation in scripture because it is an overview of human history, and the warfare between “the beast and the Lamb.” What was surprising was that it got one of the largest discernable responses of any blog I have done. That comes back to me today particularly as we look at a nation and a world that seems so inextricably engaged in destructive behavior. It brings me to the poignant picture in Revelation 6:10, where God’s people are being assaulted by warfare, famine, poverty, martyrdom, and seeming hopelessness. The observer sees, under the altar those who had been slain for their witness, crying out: how long before you will judge and avenge our blood?

Then step back with me, and look at the reality that our current existential setting mirrors that cry. In this nation of which I am a part there is political cowardice, wickedness in high places, unjust incarceration of multitudes, discrimination against so many minorities, shootings in churches, … and there seems to be no solution. But then, look at the reality that in this world of ours, God’s people, who are our fellow-citizens in the kingdom of God, are experiencing horrendous terrors—some seen, and most unseen—among Arab Christians in the Middle East, affliction at the hands of ISIS, inhumane affliction of minorities in Myanmar, Afghanistan, and so many other nations. Don’t you know that there are a huge host of our persecuted Christian kinsmen, not to mention that huge host of those of other religions suffering, who are crying out: “How long, O Lord?”

From the perspective of the Book of Revelation, the interpretation gives hope, and gives to us a course of action that is (in merely human terms) totally impossible. It is the insight that it is these prayers of near despair from under altar that determine the course of human history! (Revelation 8:1-5). That sounds crazy to our culture so captive to rationalism and human solutions to problems. What is our response to be to all the darkness and governmental chaos in our own, and so many other nations? Prayer. Humanly, it is laughable. But we are reminded that the seventh piece of God’s whole armor for us in this battle, is “praying always” (Ephesians 6:18). Prayer is the most pragmatic and effective weapon we have.

I also commend some hymns, as good prayers: Take, for-instance:

God is working his purpose out,
as year succeeds to year,
God is working his purpose out,
and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.


O God of Truth . . .

Still smite; still burn; till naught is left
But God’s own truth and love;

Then, Lord, as morning dew come down,
Rest on us from above.

Cultural and political chaos is not new, . . . nor are those who distort the message of Jesus in denial of his clear teachings for their own political purposes, but rather that we are God’s new creation committed to peace and order and justice, … and the walking talking incarnations of his love. Stay tuned … [and invite your friends to tune in also. Thanks.]

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A generation ago Richard Halverson was the pastor of a large congregation in suburban Washington, D.C. I was always taken with his ‘spin’ on the final benediction at the end of Sunday morning worship services: “As you go out into this week, know that where you go, Christ goes, what you say, Christ says, and what you do, Christ does. And, now may the grace of God go with you.” Yes! Such a prayer commissions God’s people to engage in their incarnation as his New Creation people in the midst of the complex and dismaying context that so often surrounds us in this present scene.

Jesus told his followers that it was by their works that people would know that they were his disciples. Thoughtful observers and scholars viewing the present scene are quick to note that people are not impressed with our faith affirmations by some theological system, but more by our practice and behavior. Jesus was the epitome of what he called his followers to be and to do. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, in that you love one another.”

Those who profess to be Christian, and yet engage in racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, vitriol against other religions, or any of the others who are different, . . . actually deny their ostensible Christian identity. Jesus taught us the we should love our enemies and do good to those who despitefully use us and persecute us. Jesus modelled this, and he prayed for the soldiers who were following out orders to crucify him. Paul would give us the beautiful picture that those who follow Christ are to be the sweet aroma of Christ unto God, and that we are to spread the fragrance of him everywhere.

It is so dismaying that so many of those who sing songs about the return of Christ, or about going to heaven when they die, … seem to miss the point that Jesus has already come and has left us with an unmistakable mandate that we are to be obediently and lovingly carrying out in this present age: to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome strangers, to visit those imprisoned, to heal the sick, to be peacemakers, to be agents of mercy … and to take the consequences. All this praxis in addition to being the heralds of the gospel of grace and forgiveness.

And he makes all of this with the sobering reminder that when he does return that it will be this evidence of our true faith that is the criteria of our welcome by him. Wow! We are to be intentionally counter-cultural, and to be the sweet aroma of Christ in this present confusing and often sordid cultural scene. We cannot ignore the huge humanitarian crises that exist with the sixty-four million refugees, or the attempts at ethnic cleansing abroad, … or the violations of the commands of Christ that are before us in the daily newspapers and in the realities of social and political darkness.

As Dick Halverson knew and practiced, when the people of God gather for worship, authentic church leaders and teachers will know that the purpose of such is to encourage, re-evangelize, equip, and refresh those people to be the presence of Christ in their work-a-day world, i.e., to be very intentional in our awareness that where we go, Christ goes. What we say, Christ says. What we do, Christ does. Jesus would say: “As the Father has sent me, even so do I send you.”

Such a high and holy calling is ours by virtue of our baptismal vows to be the whole-hearted and obedient followers of Jesus Christ.

Got it! Then, go for it.

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A few weeks ago here in Atlanta, the ambassador from Argentina bestowed, on former president Jimmy Carter, Argentina’s highest award for his role as a major international voice in opposing the brutal dictatorship of Juan Peron, while Carter was president of the United States. It brought to my mind how the Washington establishment and so many of the pundits still have a difficult appreciating what a remarkable role-model Jimmy Carter was in his one-term presidency. I suppose that I am more than a little biased, living as I do in Atlanta where the Carter Presidential Center is such a dynamic part of this city’s life, and in its very fruitful international ministries of monitoring elections in troubled nations, in eliminating the plague of guinea-worms in under-developed nations, and in Mrs. Carter’s efforts on behalf of mental health. I am more aware of some since my late wife was a docent at the Carter Presidential Center for fourteen years, and on several occasions, with her, I was able to engage President Carter in brief conversations, and found him such a friendly and transparent person.

But he was never accepted in Washington. First of all, he was a Southerner, which still carries with it some subtle discrimination among many. Jimmy Carter was a South Georgia farmer, a graduate of the Naval Academy, a respected citizen, a state legislator then governor of Georgia. In that role, he looked at what was taking place in the presidency in Washington, and decided that he could do better than that, and so ran for president, and, remarkably, won. But he was an outsider. He exacerbated Washington’s suspicions by taking his own “peanut brigade” with him to be his White House staff. His own Democratic Party (Tip O’Neill, et al) never really accepted or supported him, even though Carter was in every sense a political progressive on social issues, such as the party espoused.

Early on, on being interviewed by the press, he candidly professed to being “a born-again Christian” which designation didn’t compute with the reporters. What he was saying was that he had an inertial-guidance system in himself that came from his relationship with God. These years later that inertial guidance system is still giving him energy to engage in so many fruitful ministries. He obviously made some mistakes and mis-judgements. Every president does. But he pulled off the Camp David Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat. He reminded the two them, in that intense confrontation, that they were both from religions that traced their roots back to their common ancestor, Abraham. For this accomplishment, President Carter ultimately received the Nobel Peace Award.

Given the dismaying chaos that is currently present in the presidency, it is refreshing to remember what a model of integrity Jimmy Carter was and is. One can point to his failures, but one never doubted his integrity, that he was a person of truth, and a champion of peace, order, and justice. And when he was defeated after one term, he did not pout, but immediately put together the Carter Presidential Center to engage the world problems of peacemaking, reconciliation, and global health. Abroad he is still one of America’s most revered leaders. Add to that, that his involvement in the work of Habitat for Humanity in providing homes for low income people. At 93 years of age, he still participates regularly and physically in these home building projects.

Some presidents are actors, or political personas, or politicians who simply must win at any cost, and leave one wondering what they’re really like—whose integrity is always in question. Not so with Jimmy Carter. He is modest, principled, caring, and still bearing fruit in old age. And yet he is still so under-appreciated as a good role model for leadership. I couldn’t resist writing this blog and celebrating my appreciation for him. The award from the Argentine government reminded me of this. Stay tuned … [And invite your friends to subscribe to this blog. Thanks.]

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Yes, to be sure, it’s like missing the awesome conclusion of the great drama of human history! What’s missing? Let me bring you back to a piece of church history. Somewhere back in the mists of the church’s life, there emerged something of an annual pattern of reminding itself of the great events of the life and ministry of Jesus, known as the liturgical year. That annual pattern begins with the celebration of Advent and Christmas (the birth of Christ), then on the 12th day after Christmas begins the celebration of Epiphany (when the star appeared to the oriental wise men). This period is followed by the Season of Lent (which records the passion and death of Jesus).

Then, the great celebration of hope: Easter (in which Jesus triumphs over death and the grave in his resurrection from the dead. Easter is followed by the celebration of Pentecost: the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the infant church. (To insert here, my own sense that this also is a much overlooked and under-rated celebration, and deserves more attention from the church, since the whole Christian enterprise in the world is totally impossible, humanly, apart from the supernatural empowering by the Spirit.)

Pentecost is followed by the months-long observance which is entitled: the liturgical season of Trinity, which ordinarily begins right after Pentecost and ostensibly continues up until the conclusion of the liturgical year. . ..  Now stay-tuned for what should be that awesome conclusion. What should be the consummation of such reminders? It was only in the mid-1920s (according to my sources) that Roman Catholic Pope Pius XI declared that the conclusion of the liturgical year should take place the Sunday before the beginning of Advent, at the conclusion of the liturgical year, and be entitled: The Celebration of Christ the King. It only makes sense. The consummation of our Christian faith is that “Jesus shall reign where ‘ere the sun, doth it’s successive journeys run,” as the hymn so beautifully states it. It celebrates that fulfillment of human history when Jesus “shall have put all his enemies under his feet, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death . . . that God may be all and in all” (I Corinthians 15: 24-28).

Without such a fulfillment, such an awesome conclusion, the celebration of the life and ministry of Christ is like a book without a conclusion, or a mystery without an answer. So, then, following the pope’s declaration, not only Roman Catholics, but Anglicans, and most main-line Protestant traditions adopted the Celebration of Christ the King as the grand conclusion of their liturgical year.

Having said that, however, it needs to be acknowledged that almost no one actually even knows that it exists. It is seldom celebrated, even in communities that otherwise follow the liturgical year. It gets buried in the uninhibited consumer culture, and frenzy of football fever that comes along with and after the Thanksgiving observance. So, allow me to lift my voice in protest.

This coming Sunday, November 26th, is the Feast Day of Christ the King. I want to rejoice in the reality of my faith that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that given all the chaos of human history, I (and we) are not primarily citizens of any earthly nation, but are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of Our God and of His Christ. We are fellow-citizens with all of those in whom God dwells through Christ. We are those whose great anticipation, by faith, is that day when the heavens open and we behold a white horse! “The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. . .. He is clothed in a robe, and on his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19: 11ff.).

Pull out all the stops. Lift up your voice. This is the consummation of God’s New Creation when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Yes, and Amen!

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Living, as we do, in a post-Christian culture, in which all Christian/religious terminology seems to be a foreign language, we need to take a moment to think how to respond when someone becomes curious about whatever it is that makes us a curiosity to them—like, maybe, something we say or do. Labels can not only be confusing, but the tend to change meaning from time to time, . . . or lose their meaning altogether. Even the designation of Christian can convey very negative implications to many, if they have witnessed or experienced something disturbing by those who wear that label.

For-instance, early in the 20th century, when philosophical rationalism was in its heyday, and there was an assault on all the supernatural components of the Christian faith, and of the integrity of the Bible as some kind of an inspired document, it was primarily a group of theologians from Princeton who put together a defense of those elements of the Christian faith that were, indeed, supernatural and were critical components of the faith. They termed these components: the fundamentals, and hence the emergence of an honorable designation of those who embraced those orthodox Christian components as fundamentalists. But with the passage of time fundamentalism became identified more by a kind of anti-intellectualism, that probably became publicly ridiculed in the famous Scopes trial over evolution in East Tennessee, when William Jennings Bryan, the eloquent fundamentalist lawyer tried to defend an anti-evolution position, and lost miserably and became  the object of ridicule.

The same distortion of what was, originally, a very descriptive designation of those who were the adherents of the joyous news of Jesus Christ as evangelicals. The four primary documents of the New Testament are known as the evangels, i.e., the thrilling news of Jesus’ life and teachings. But in very recent times the term as been co-opted, or hijacked, or prostituted by those who take an alt-right conservative stance politically, so that the press regularly lumps them together as evangelicals (which they are anything but …).

Where those of questionable or offensive beliefs and behavior designate themselves as Christian, even that label becomes a stumbling-block. Add to that, that the obvious reality that identifying yourself by your denominational affiliation doesn’t register with most in this post-Christian era, when an increasing percentage of the populace are self-satisfied humanists.

At the same time, those with whom we rub shoulders still have lots of unanswered questions lurking in their sub-consciousness (and meta-consciousness) about the meaning of life, about relationships, about the unknown future of their lives—maybe about the possibility of life after death. They may also be curious about us, and our daily behavior, if, indeed, we are living out the teachings of Jesus. And they may sidle-up and ask us about what it is that makes us tick? That’s something we should be prepared for. And our first response should be to listen and to ask questions: Why do you ask? What gives your life meaning? Is there some authority that you look to for decisions and direction? Etc.

I can only share my own response, since I live with people from all over the map, from nature worshipers, to secularists, to those consumed with the present and with careers, and are essentially irreligious. When I get asked that question, I simply respond that “I am an incorrigible follower of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,” . . . and leave it there. If they want to pick it up they can. The point of my response is to point them to the source, not to adopt some religious label. Hopefully, later, over coffee or beer they may pick up the discussion and we can go into it more deliberately with the focus on them. But I avoid labels.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Do you know what? I find Senator Al Franken’s confession of his sexual molesting of a young colleague . . . to be most refreshing (his confession,mind you, not the molestation) . Does that sound crazy? No! Senator Franken, when confronted with that episode did not deny it, did not equivocate, did not dissemble or make excuses, but rather was most forthright and candid in saying essentially: “Yes, I did it. I apologize. It may have been intended to be funny, but it is inexcusable, as are all assaults on women.” And then, he welcomed examination by the senate ethics committee. Wow! Would that all his colleagues were that honest and transparent.

And further, Al Franken is, by heredity, a Jew (though admittedly, not a practicing Jew), and his forthrightness is a compelling testimony to the teachings of the Psalms, like: “Search me, O God … and see if there is any wicked way in me.” It is the questionable motives and self-righteousness of his critics in the press and in congress that are more distressing. If the secret sins, the misdemeanors, and peccadillos of such were made public, it would pretty much leave few standing.

The Biblical records don’t allow for any claims of sinless-ness, but it is full of promises of grace for those who come forward and confess their sins. The Psalms are attributed in large part to the iconic King David of Israel. David seems to have always had an oversupply of testosterone, and was, admittedly, quite sexually active. But an episode in his mature years in which he committed adultery, and then tried to hide it by having Bathsheba’s husband murdered, comes to mind. The prophet Nathan confronted him with the sin, and David’s heartfelt contrition is recorded for us in Psalm 51. That heartbroken candor in acknowledging how his sinfulness separated him from God is poured out: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

That is precisely what Senator Franken has done. That same principle of transparent honesty about our sinfulness is also a New Testament foundation stone: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins …” (I John 1:8 ff.). Every time many traditional Christian communities gather for worship, there is just such a mutual acknowledgement/confession that we are a community of grace, of real bona fide sinners: “We have done those things we ought not to have done and left undone those things we ought to have done. There is no health in us. We are most miserable offenders. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy.”

So, with the members of congress. Who of them would like to have made public the ways they have sought to destroy their political opponents, or accepted pay-offs from PACs, or engaged in dubious sexual encounters? Who has nothing in their past of which they are ashamed? But Senator Franken demonstrated the Jewish-Christian open-ness to confess, and welcomed the judgment of the ethics committee. I do find that most refreshing. May he be an example to the rest. And, if the people of Minnesota are not convinced, they have opportunity to replace him in 2020, but they are unlikely to find one so transparent as he.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had strong words for those who wanted to be in a Christian community in which there were no real sinners. There is none such. Thomas Merton chided those monks looking for the perfect monastery. We live with reality. We come to God as those who in all kinds of expressions reveal ourselves of those who have sinned and come short of the glory of God. God’s forgiving grace is given to those who begin with such a confession. “Search me, O God!”

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Mercy! It seems like nothing could get worse, . . . and then it does. Reading the news of moral lapses, lying, political cowardice, genocide, gun violence, shady ethics, greed, misogyny, racism, prejudice . . . Where does it stop? Or better still, where do we, where do I begin? Where does the infusion of righteousness find an incarnation? We sing that lovely hymn about our Father’s world, with birds singing, and flowers blooming, . . . but then comes the reality-check: And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. That sounds heartening, but it doesn’t quite resolve my own presence (and maybe complicity) in some of this wrong. So, what does my faith in Jesus Christ require of me in order to be salt and light in the midst of these multiple dimensions of ‘wrong’?

A good beginning place might be to reclaim the radical repentance that Jesus’ calls us to, that acknowledges not only all the bad stuff we think and do, but also our complicity in larger patterns of wrong. From the very beginning of God’s intervention into human society there is that discipline of purifying those who follow him. There is the metaphor of God’s working being like a refiner’s fire that purges the impurities out of gold, and such. There is the graphic illustration in David’s life when he was guilty of adultery and murder and tried to hide it, since he was king. But God sent a prophet to expose that corruption, and David was totally demolished and repentant, and his confession (Psalm 51) is always good for us to own since he cries out to God to have every imperfection exposed, he longs to be washed and purged of every wicked way (I love Peterson’s paraphrase of this psalm in The Message).

God’s calling of those who follow Jesus is to be a holy nation, to be the demonstration of his own divine character. When John the Baptist was announcing the imminent arrival of Jesus as the Messiah, he says that: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and ultimately all that is alien (chaff) he will burn with fire (Matthew 3:11). In Christ, God also is determined to recreate us into Christ’s likeness in true righteousness.

But then comes the discipline of radical repentance when we open our lives to God, and expose all the dark corners of our thinking and behavior. God doesn’t have much use for God-talk and for our spirituality on display. What he is eager for is what Henri Nouwen calls transparency, or clarity of person. Trying to hide our secret sins is vain, and true freedom comes when we give to the Holy Spirit that role of being in us a refiner’s fire, and purifying us so that we are authentic through-and-through. Add to this that the Spirit is also the life-giving Breath of God. From all of this I have extrapolated a daily heart-felt petition that the Spirit will come upon my life as a Refiner’s Fire, and a Life-giving Breath – no holds barred! “Spirit of God search out my secret sins, all the darkness that lurks in my prejudices and subtle departures from your calling.” I don’t do this lightly. And God often answers in painful but cleansing interventions in my life. Refiner’s Fire and life-giving Breath.

But now, let me drop the other shoe. I also pray this for the nation in which I happen to live and of which I am a citizen. I pray that God will come upon this nation and its leaders and influence-makers as a Refiner’s Fire and Life-giving Breath, that he will expose and destroy those agents and influences of greed, and power, and sexual promiscuity, . . . and that God will raise up leaders and influence makers of peace and order and justice. I pray this fervently. I am not a person of political influence in the ordinary sense of that term, but I have access to: “God is the Ruler yet” of the hymn we started with. The Book of Revelation points to the reality that it is the prayers of God’s suffering saints under the altar that determine the course of history. Stay tuned …

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On a neighborhood street that I drive from time to time here in Atlanta, is the impressive campus of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church, and it regularly causes me to chuckle at myself. You see, I was reared as a typical Protestant kid, with the built in anti-Roman Catholic proclivities of that tradition. But somewhere between then and now . . . Mary, the mother of Jesus, has become my model of true faith, and it grows on me as I reflect on who she was and what she demonstrated. When the messenger of God revealed to her that she was to bear the long-awaited messiah, she was incredulous: “How can this be since I have never had sex with a man?” Then the angel informed her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and that which was conceived in her body would be from God.” Her response? “I am your servant, be it unto me according to your word.” There’s true and profound faith.

Then, you must fill in the blanks. With all the miraculous components of Jesus’ birth, the exile into Egypt, and then the many years back in the village of Nazareth, Mary was the most formative person in Jesus’ youth, and the remarkable evidence of that was that when they took the boy Jesus to the temple when he was twelve years old, . . . the priests were amazed at his knowledge of scriptures. Fill in the blanks. What you come up with was the faith of Mary and the depth of her understanding of Jewish writings, and the implications for what she was called to be and to do. Is it any wonder that those within the Roman Catholic tradition give to Mary high praise: Hail Mary, full of grace? Our Lord is with you.

Are you still with me? OK. But, if I read the teachings of the New Testament apostles correctly, there is a counterpart to that in Christ’s calling of me/us—don’t rush past that reality. His promise is that in our embracing him through faith, we also become born of God, that we become the dwelling-place of God by the Holy Spirit, that we become the possessors of the divine nature–as humanly impossible as the virgin birth! We become, by true faith, those who also receive Jesus’ commission: As the Father has sent me, even so do I send you. Connect the dots. As one theologian put it (I think it was Karl Barth), we are the continuing incarnation of Jesus. What is created in and through us are to be those persons, and that community (the church) that is to demonstrate in our daily contexts Mary’s faith: I am your servant. Be it unto me according to your word.

I reflect on that each morning as I begin my day, and especially when I am gathered with others of those who profess Jesus in our weekly times of worship and reflection. I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? What does this moment, my life, this gathering have to do with my calling to be the dwelling-place of God by the Spirit?

Focusing particularly on our (ostensible) ‘worship services,’ it is so easy to slide into an empty traditionalism and become immunized and indifferent to our divine calling to live out the radical teachings of Jesus’ new creation in the vicissitudes of our 24/7 lives. I am persuaded that if ‘worship services’ are to have viability, they must be that regular occasion in which I and the others are re-evangelized, equipped, encouraged, and sent-out afresh each week. I and we need to express Mary’s faith which acknowledges that what we are called to be and to do is humanly impossible, and yet that for which God comes into our lives as the Creator Spirit, so that what is expressed in thoughts and intents, in the behavior, and mission-focus of our lives is only explainable by God’s divine working in us.

So, I add my praises: Hail Mary!  You are an encouraging model for my faith.

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