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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

And the Kings of the World will enter the City

I imagine a great parade, a procession full of color, music, pageantry, and the greatest of human glory.  Picture the “parade of nations” at the opening of the summer Olympics.  Now envision it on scale 100 times larger.
            “And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  … And the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory.  And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city” (Revelation 21:2, 24b, 26).
            When reading a passages like this one, does it make you pause?  Similar ideas are found in the Psalms and Isaiah.  The great potentates of the world, the emperors and czars and presidents, will come as those paying tribute to one much greater than themselves: God.  Do you ever stop and try to picture it? 
            What is the expression on the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he leads his retinue right alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his entourage? 
Where in this procession of the “kings of the world” is the “king” of the United States?  How close in the line is he to the “king” of North Korea?  Each in their own way has had demigod status attributed to him.  What is the level of confidence and bluster as they walk into the presence of the actual God?

Recently the United State President Donald Trump met with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.  In their public dialogue, both expressed appreciation for the other.  President Kagame said ”It’s always a great honor to meet the President of the United States, President Donald Trump. And we had good discussions of those two levels –the bilateral relations between Rwanda and the United States. Rwanda has benefitted tremendously from the support of the United State. In many areas where there is (inaudible) support operations we have carried out in different parts of the world, we had the United States, on our side, supporting us.” 
Just a week prior to this meeting, in a session with members of congress, President Trump expressed frustration at the number of immigrants coming to America from poor, Southern hemisphere countries.  Some in the meeting report that he is used an expletive to categorize these nations, mostly populated by dark-skinned people as he juxtaposed them to the more fair-skinned Norwegians as he pined for more of the Norsemen to come to America. 
The whole exchange was fraught with racial overtones and elitism and was one more opportunity for the president’s political rivals to pounce. 

What if we held in our minds these presidents (N. Korea, Iran & Israel, Rwanda & the United States,   pick your country  ) as we read Revelation 21?  What if we held Revelation 21:24 and the procession of kings in mind as we read news stories?  Does the word of God help us remember that presidents and kings and dictators are mere men and women, flawed human beings? In the light of the Kingdom of God, standing beneath the glow of the New Jerusalem, the United States is an impoverished, backward, place. 

However one may feel about our president, followers of Jesus are to pray for him and extend him grace.  This was true from 2000-2008, from 2008-2016, and it is true now. It always has been.  We who are in Christ don’t need to overreact every time the president say something stupid.  We see the glow of the city on the hill.  We’re walking toward it.  

Monday, January 29, 2018

Daniel 4 - Nebuchadnezzar's Madness

            Dream interpretation.  Giant statues of gold, silver, bronze, & iron. The fiery furnace.  The lions’ den.  Can you think of short stories anywhere as captivating as those in Daniel chapters 1-6?  On websites, on TV, on Twitter and Facebook, there’s so much noise.  There’s partisan division; a lot of shouting without much listening. 
            I wanted us to begin 2018 looking at stories in the Bible.  Stories hold our interest.  If the story is good, we listen, we absorb it.  We don’t need to talk or argue.  We can receive what the storyteller has to share.  If that good story is in the Bible, then we meet God in it.  And my hope is that we can focus less on the noise of angry politics and more on the God we meet in the stories of the Bible – the only true God. 
It doesn’t mean we ignore the world around.  God has something to say and God often speaks through His church who is meeting Him in the Bible and in worship and then speaking from that encounter. Current events are always on the table, but we speak to our day from God’s perspective and a primary source for God’s perspective is the Bible. 
We could have gone to the Gospels or great stories of David or some of the fascinating accounts in the book of Numbers or Judges, but, felt God leading us to Daniel.  Here’s a curious question.  Who was the first worshiping body to hear Daniel as Holy Scripture, stories of God, read in its worship gathering?  How did congregations before ours receive the word of God as we have it in Daniel?
The first group was the gathering of Jews in Jerusalem in the 2nd century, the 170’s – 150’s BC.  Israel was land God promised to the descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people, but they had not governed that land for a long time.  They were subjugated by the Assyrians in the 8th century, and then the Babylonians in the late 7th and early 6th.  Power passed to the Persians, and then the Greeks under Alexander the great.  It became really bad for the Jews in the second century as Alexander’s empire was divided among his four generals and Israel fell under the cruel hand of Antiochus Epiphanes IV.
He set up a statue right in the second temple, the temple of Haggai and Ezra.  In that space, holy to Jews, dedicated to God, he put up idols and performed abominable acts.  He persecuted and even killed Jews who would not renounce the way of Abraham and Moses.  The persecution under Antiochus was as bad as any the Jews had known.  In that context of humiliating oppression, Daniel was read as Holy Scripture for the first time.
Feeling powerless, worshipers could look to this Jewish hero who defied the might of Babylon and then Media and Persia.  While an exile, with no voice, Daniel and his friends stayed faithful in their worship of God and their refusal to participate in Pagan worship practices. 
In Daniel 1, they refused unclean food and ate only vegetables.  Maintaining proper dietary restraint as their tradition dictated, Daniel and his three friends outperformed all other Jewish conscripts and rose in wisdom and prominence before the Babylonian king.  In chapter 2, when death was the penalty for failure, Daniel successfully recited the king’s dream.  Daniel was praised even though he prophesied the king’s downfall. 
In chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship a statue of the king.  For such a brazen revolt against the king’s edict, the three young Jews were thrown into the furnace, and in an enraged act of overdoing it, the king demanded the heat be raised and it was to the point that some of the guards were consumed by flames; but not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Accompanied by an angel, they strolled around unharmed. 
Chapter 3 ended with the self-aggrandizing King, Nebuchadnezzar, declaring that anyone who blasphemed against the God of Israel would be ripped limb from limb.  Ironically, he couldn’t see that his own edict violated itself.  God didn’t need to make such macabre threats and God did not generally rip people limb from limb.  God allowed those who turned against him to fall into the destruction that came as a result of their own bad choices.  He needed no help from Nebuchadnezzar.
Chapter 4, this week’s Daniel story, continues the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar.  It is true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in Nebuchadnezzar’s case, absolute power also scrambled his own brain and completely distorted his perspective.
Essentially what happens is the king has another dream.  This time when his own palace wise men and wizards cannot interpret it for him, he does not kill them.  Instead he moves on to Daniel.  Why he didn’t start with Daniel is anyone’s guess considering Daniel’s previous dream interpretation abilities.  In the dream, the king sees a tree – the great tree of the world.  All the world was blessed under the great tree.
However, a holy watcher (v.13) descending from Heaven declared the great tree should be cut down leaving only the stump.  The great tree will be but a stump, unprotected against the elements for seven years.  The voice of the holy watcher declared this would happen so that all the world would see that God most High is sovereign over even the great kingdoms of the world (v.17).  Those who rule kingdoms are no better than the poorest peasants and anyone who has power, has it because God has allowed them to have it. 
Daniel knew this dream was about King Nebuchadnezzar.  He didn’t want to tell the meaning because he knew it was bad news for the king.  However, Nebuchadnezzar encouraged Daniel, so he told him.  “The tree that you saw – it is you, O King” (v.20, 21).  Daniel went on to explain that Nebuchadnezzar had become the greatest king on earth, but by decree of God (v.24), he would be reduced to madness.  Nebuchadnezzar would leave human society and roam the wild fields, sleeping out in the open like an animal.  He would grow his hair and nails long and unkempt.  He would graze on grass like cattle.  He would lose the power of speech and logical thought.  This insanity would last seven years.  That’s how long it would take for King Nebuchadnezzar to see that God and not he was the all-powerful one. 
We aren’t told how the king reacted to Daniel’s interpretation.  The next word from the story teller is that all happened just as Daniel said it would.  Striding in all his royal finery along the roof of the royal palace, the king heard a voice from heaven declare all that had been said in the dream.  He was immediately driven from human society, stripped of his vestments and robes.  He became an inhuman creature, a mindless beast, and he stayed that way for seven years. 
Please note the progression of the story in Daniel 4.  It begins with King Nebuchadnezzar openly praising God.  “The signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me I am pleased to recount.  How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders!  His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his sovereignty is from generation to generation” (4:2-3).  It is self-centered.  Look at what God’s done for me.  But it is praise directed toward God.  Then in the middle of the story, Nebuchadnezzar sings a different tune.  Verse 30, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” 
What a pivot!  The king moves from praising God for his wonders to praising himself for his own might and power.  The story ends with the king once again praising God.  “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are truth and his ways are justice; his able to bring low those who walk in pride” (4:37).  It’s a true statement and of all people, King Nebuchadnezzar would know.
What moves the story from self-serving praise to an unabashedly arrogant boast to humble praise?  There comes an interruption – and we all have these interruptions in our lives.  We don’t know if King Nebuchadnezzar heard the interruption.  We aren’t told.  We know King Antiochus Epiphanes IV did not hear God’s warnings.  He relentlessly terrorized the Jerusalem Jews in the second century BC and is thus forever vilified by the symbolism in Daniel.  He ranks with the worst of villains, Antiochus Epiphanes IV right alongside Hitler and all the malevolent despots of history.  No one is worse. 
Setting aside Antiochus, the interruption we see in Daniel 4 should be an interruption in our lives.  What matters for us today is when God interrupts our stories, to remind us that He is God and we are not, do we listen?  See Daniel’s fearlessness in verse 27.  He says right to Nebuchadnezzar’s face, “Atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed.”  Daniel was in Babylon.  Back in Israel, people were starving to death because their cities had been toppled and left as rubble, and their crops had been burned.  The people were oppressed because of the way Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers acted.  Now Daniel tells him, it is time to atone. 
Have we benefited because others have suffered.  Do we drink coffee made from beans harvested by laborers who are paid slave wages?  Do we wear clothes made in sweatshops were workers don’t get paid enough and have no option of leaving?  “Atone … for your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed.”  That’s the message at the heart of Daniel 4.  Verse 27, to show that you know and honor and bow before God, show mercy to the oppressed. 
Daniel left the wicked king a way out.  He didn’t have to crawl about on all fours like an ox or cow.  He didn’t have to lose his mind.  That’s where self-obsession and power-obsession leads: mania.  Daniel, anointed by God, pointed to another path.  We, readers of the story have that path before us. 
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink.  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when, O Lord, was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?  And the [King of all kings] will answer, ‘truly I tell you whenever you did it to the least of these my children, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:37-40).
Do we see the interruption, hear the warning, and take the path opened before us by the word of God?  King Nebuchadnezzar did not.  He ignored the prophet’s word because he thought he was the ultimate one, the one favored by God.  He disregarded the warning, boasted of his own greatness, and ended up insane.  After his boast, he discovered that Daniel, whom he said he trusted, was right.  The prophecy Daniel gave came true. 
The crazy, grazing king returned to sanity when he lifted his eyes to heaven.  He strutted around when he should have bowed in humble worship, and so God, brought him low.  When, having been brought low, he raised his eyes in humble worship, God allowed him to stand once again.  The way we experience life is directly related to how we respond to what we know to be true about God.  
We know God through our knowledge of God’s son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Note the difference between Jesus and the evil king of Babylon.  Nebuchadnezzar was a man who thought he was on equal footing with God.  Jesus was God who had become a man. 
Philippians 2:5-11:
Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
            In life, when we are up against tremendous challenges, maybe under the heel of our own Nebuchadnezzar or Antiochus Epiphanes, we praise God because we know God is in control and will carry us through our hard times.  In life, when things are going well, and we find ourselves on top, doing the winning, we bow in humble worship and praise God, thanking Him for our successes as we work to be generous in uplifting those around us who wallow in their struggles.  When we’re up, when we’re down and at times in between, we praise God.
            Anne Lamott has write book titled Hallelujah Anyway!  The idea is that even when life is thoroughly crud-filled and painful, was praise because God is there.  Based on the idea that God is there and that we have the Daniel opportunity before us – to take the path of worship and mercy – I proposed a modification on her title.  God is God and we aren’t.  God is here and it is a good thing that God is here because God can and will help us. 
            Maybe on a hard day we say Hallelujah Anyway!  But, knowing God is with us, we say, Hallelujah Always.  God is in Babylon and God is here, and in control.  That’s good news, the very best of news. 


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Review: Faithful Presence (David E. Fitch)

David Fitch presents seven disciplines for the church; disciplines that, when lived out, synthesize the organized Missio Dei approach to mission first described by Newbigin and an incarnational approach to ministry.  Fitch believes he has a finger on the pulse of what it is for the church to be a faithful witness to the Kingdom of God in the world.  I think he is right.
            The disciplines he proposes are, the Lord ’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the Gospel, being with the ‘least of these,’ being with children, fivefold gifting, and Kingdom prayer.  In addition to these disciplines, he talks about four postures, submission, receiving, ceasing, and socially engaging.  His most compelling words are his description of mutual submission.

            I wonder what the world would look like if more churches committed to the disciplines Fitch proposes and lived in the postures he describes.  I think I know.  I am sure I know what Fitch would say.  We would see the in-breaking of the Kingdom.  What a sight that would be … will be.

The Lord of History (Daniel 2)

Who has the power? 
I recently read the highly acclaimed novel Purple Hibiscus.  In it, Kambili, a teenaged girl in a wealthy Nigerian family knows that all the power is in the hands of her father, Eugene Achike.  The novel is the story of this quiet, insightful girl discovering her own soul as she navigates the scary world of her oppressive dad’s abuse and benevolence.  He can be either, abusive or benevolent, because he has all the power. 
Look around your life.  At work; at home; out and about, around town; at extended family gatherings; in dealing with public officials; who holds the power in your life?  Are those who hold power heavy handed?  Do you feel pushed?  Do you have the power to push back?  Are the powerful generous?  Do they empower you, or keep you down?  If they keep you down, is there anything you can do? 
What is our understanding of power? 

In the book of Daniel, we find young Jews, forced into exile in Babylon.  They are subject to the whims of the mighty Babylonian king.  Remember, this story happens away from the land of Israel.  The Babylonians, intended to transform these Jewish they had taken into the way of Babylonian nobility.  Among the exiles were four friends, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  These four were exceptional intellects and fiercely loyal to God.
As we enter the story, imagine the power holders in your life.  When you think ‘power,’ do you envision President Trump?  Does a bully from school who has lorded over you come to mind?  Do you think of your mom or dad, or an authoritative grandparent, someone to whom your entire family defers?  As we step into Daniel keep in your mind, your own sense of who holds the power.   

            It begins,
1-3 In the second year of his reign, King Nebuchadnezzar started having dreams that disturbed him deeply. He called in all the Babylonian magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and fortunetellers to interpret his dreams for him. When they lined up before the king, he said, “I had a dream that I can’t get out of my mind. I can’t sleep until I know what it means.”
The fortunetellers, speaking in the Aramaic language, said, “Long live the king! Tell us the dream and we will interpret it.”
5-6 The king answered the fortunetellers, “This is my decree: If you can’t tell me both the dream itself and its interpretation, I’ll have you ripped to pieces, limb from limb, and your homes torn down. But if you tell me both the dream and its interpretation, I’ll lavish you with gifts and honors. So go to it: Tell me the dream and its interpretation.”
They answered, “If it please your majesty, tell us the dream. We’ll give the interpretation.”
8-9 But the king said, “You’re wasting time. You know that if you can’t tell me my dream, you’re doomed. I see right through you—you’re going to make up stories and confuse the issue until I change my mind. Nothing doing! First tell me the dream, then I’ll know that you’re legit with your interpretation.”
10-11 The fortunetellers said, “Nobody anywhere can do what you ask. And no king, great or small, has ever demanded anything like this from any magician, enchanter, or fortuneteller. What you’re asking is impossible unless some god or goddess should reveal it—and they don’t hang around with people like us.”

            Now, note this!  The fortune tellers may be frauds when it comes to actual spiritual insight, total charlatans; snake-oil salesmen.  However, what they tell the king here is completely true.  There’s no way they could look into his head and know his dreams

12-13 Their frank admission of their own limitations set the king off. He lost his temper and ordered the whole company of Babylonian wise men killed. When the death warrant was issued, Daniel and his companions were included. They also were marked for execution.
14-15 When Arioch, chief of the royal guards, was making arrangements for the execution, Daniel wisely took him aside and quietly asked what was going on: “Why this all of a sudden?”
15-16 After Arioch filled in the background, Daniel went to the king and asked for a little time so that he could interpret the dream.
17-18 Daniel then went home and told his companions Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah what was going on. He asked them to pray to the God of heaven for mercy in solving this mystery so that the four of them wouldn’t be killed along with the whole company of Babylonian wise men.

            Daniel’s first act was to pray and to invite the community of the faithful to join him in prayer.  When we come up against the power holders in our lives, how much time do we spend worrying and how much time do we spend praying?  You can do both.  We can pray while carrying burdensome worries. And we should.  But how much time do we spend just worrying without even give a bit of attention to the power held by the creator of the universe who, in the Holy Spirit, is with us all the time?  God is real, is present, loves us, wants to help, and is able to help?  Do we trust God or simply surrender to the powers around us that would control us for their purposes, not for our good?

19-23 That night the answer to the mystery was given to Daniel in a vision. Daniel blessed the God of heaven, saying,
“Blessed be the name of God,
    forever and ever.
He knows all, does all:
    He changes the seasons and guides history,
He raises up kings and also brings them down,
    he provides both intelligence and discernment,
He opens up the depths, tells secrets,
    sees in the dark—light spills out of him!
God of all my ancestors, all thanks! all praise!
    You made me wise and strong.
And now you’ve shown us what we asked for.
    You’ve solved the king’s mystery.”

            We need to know the King’s dream so Daniel can interpret it and avoid a violent, painful death.  But, the writers of Daniel don’t think that’s the most important thing.  Before telling us how Daniel avoids suffering and destruction, they tell us how Daniel praised God.  Praise of God is more important than easing the anxiety of a pagan king.
            Daniel said of God. “He knows all and does all.  He changes the seasons and guides history.”  Anything King Nebuchadnezzar has, he has because God allows it.  That king was evil and did evil things.  God did not cause him to do evil things.  There are evil power holders in the world today and when they say stupid, racist things and do evil things, they are not speaking and acting on God’s will.  But, they are only able to act on the evil in them because God allows it.  In God’s perfect timing, the powers in the world are toppled. 
            At the end of history, the overthrow of evil happens permanently and the Kingdom of God, which began coming in Christ, comes in fully.  Why has this not come to fulfillment yet?  I don’t know God’s timing.  But I believe in God’s wisdom.  In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, Jesus tells a story of wheat growing alongside weeds.  The wheat is the fruit of the Kingdom of God and the weeds are the presence of evil in God’s good world.  Jesus says that for the time being, the evil and the Godly grow side-by-side, but at the last judgment, the wheat will be gathered into God’ “barn,” the New Heaven and New Earth joined in perfect harmony.  
            Until that time, the Lord of history, the true power in the world, our God, is with us in the form of Holy Spirit, guiding us as we live as His people, inviting the lost into his family.  That’s how Daniel navigated the paganism of King Nebuchadnezzar, as an enslaved exile.  He lived as God’s child in an evil environment by keeping his eyes on God, fully trusting in God’s presence and God’s power.

The story picks up in verse 24.
24 Daniel went back to Arioch, who had been put in charge of the execution. He said, “Call off the execution! Take me to the king and I’ll interpret his dream.”
25 Arioch didn’t lose a minute. He ran to the king, bringing Daniel with him, and said, “I’ve found a man from the exiles of Judah who can interpret the king’s dream!”
26 The king asked Daniel (renamed in Babylonian, Belteshazzar), “Are you sure you can do this—tell me the dream I had and interpret it for me?”

Note that at this point, Daniel essentially tells the king the same thing all his magicians and soothsayers said when they failed to know the king’s dream.

27-28 Daniel answered the king, “No mere human can solve the king’s mystery, I don’t care who it is—no wise man, enchanter, magician, diviner. But there is a God in heaven who solves mysteries, and he has solved this one. He is letting King Nebuchadnezzar in on what is going to happen in the days ahead. This is the dream you had when you were lying on your bed, the vision that filled your mind:
29-30 “While you were stretched out on your bed, O king, thoughts came to you regarding what is coming in the days ahead. The Revealer of Mysteries showed you what will happen. But the interpretation is given through me, not because I’m any smarter than anyone else in the country, but so that you will know what it means, so that you will understand what you dreamed.
31-36 “What you saw, O king, was a huge statue standing before you, striking in appearance. And terrifying. The head of the statue was pure gold, the chest and arms were silver, the belly and hips were bronze, the legs were iron, and the feet were an iron-ceramic mixture. While you were looking at this statue, a stone cut out of a mountain by an invisible hand hit the statue, smashing its iron-ceramic feet. Then the whole thing fell to pieces—iron, tile, bronze, silver, and gold, smashed to bits. It was like scraps of old newspapers in a vacant lot in a hot dry summer, blown every which way by the wind, scattered to oblivion. But the stone that hit the statue became a huge mountain, dominating the horizon. This was your dream.
36-40 “And now we’ll interpret it for the king. You, O king, are the most powerful king on earth. The God of heaven has given you everything: rule, power, strength, and glory. He has put you in charge of men and women, wild animals and birds, all over the world—you’re the head ruler, you are the head of gold. But your rule will be taken over by another kingdom, inferior to yours, and that one by a third, a bronze kingdom, but still ruling the whole land, and after that by a fourth kingdom, ironlike in strength. Just as iron smashes things to bits, breaking and pulverizing, it will bust up the previous kingdoms.
41-43 “But then the feet and toes that ended up as a mixture of ceramic and iron will deteriorate into a mongrel kingdom with some remains of iron in it. Just as the toes of the feet were part ceramic and part iron, it will end up a mixed bag of the breakable and unbreakable. That kingdom won’t bond, won’t hold together any more than iron and clay hold together.
44-45 “But throughout the history of these kingdoms, the God of heaven will be building a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will this kingdom ever fall under the domination of another. In the end it will crush the other kingdoms and finish them off and come through it all standing strong and eternal. It will be like the stone cut from the mountain by the invisible hand that crushed the iron, the bronze, the ceramic, the silver, and the gold.
“The great God has let the king know what will happen in the years to come. This is an accurate telling of the dream, and the interpretation is also accurate.”
46-47 When Daniel finished, King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face in awe before Daniel. He ordered the offering of sacrifices and burning of incense in Daniel’s honor. He said to Daniel, “Your God is beyond question the God of all gods, the Master of all kings. And he solves all mysteries, I know, because you’ve solved this mystery.”
48-49 Then the king promoted Daniel to a high position in the kingdom, lavished him with gifts, and made him governor over the entire province of Babylon and the chief in charge of all the Babylonian wise men. At Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to administrative posts throughout Babylon, while Daniel governed from the royal headquarters.

            Living as a slave, forced to be in Babylon, Daniel rose to the top of the government.  He put all his trust in God as the overseer of all. 
Power has many faces in our time – the president; entertainment figures and business moguls.  In our town, powers appears to lie with the people who are bigwigs at the university or the leaders of the companies where we work.  In our social circles and in our own families, certain people seem to be the ones to whom everyone else defers. 
God is over all and God is with.  God may not elevate us to the top of government or the top of the company, but will elevate us.  God will comfort us, redeem us, and empower us.  As we are the voice of God’s compassion, insisting upon God’s truth, and speaking out in the face of oppressive powers, God walks with us, guiding us forward.  God will be faithful in meeting our needs as he was with Daniel.
“Truly, your God is a revealer of mysteries,” the king told Daniel. 
Daniel agreed saying of God, “He reveals deep and hidden things.” 
What will God the Revealer, reveal in our lives this week?  We find out as we look to Him in all things and in all places.  We don’t think as much about people around us, supposedly powerful people.  We don’t have the space.  Our brains and hearts are full of thought of God, love for God.  We turn to Him and He shows us the way.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review: The Hate You Give

            I’ve just read the book that all white people living in America in the year 2018 must read.  Must.
            The book is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. 
            She tells a story of a young, unarmed black man shot and killed by a police officer in the inner city.  This is a story of a quest for justice when the unthinkable happens.  But it is much more than that. 
            This is the story of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Philando Castille and so many other unarmed black man killed by the law enforcement.  As the book shows (not tells), not all police officers are racist.  Not all police officers killed unarmed black youth.  Many, maybe most, want to ‘protect and serve.’  But black people in the city have way too many bad encounters with the police.  This book shows how one such bad encounter looks from the perspective of communities are majority black. 
            This story gives the white reader a glimpse into a world he/she cannot understand.  I have not lived in the inner city.  I have not lived in communities like the one Thomas has created.  If white readers would just take the time to read the story, enter this world, fall in love with the protagonist Starr, the witness to the shooting, and see the humanity of the community we brazenly dismiss as the ‘hood,’ our perspective would quickly change and our attitude along with it. 

            Thomas educated the white reader (the white person willing to be taught) by showing, not telling, what the inner city, mostly black world is like.  I am grateful to her for doing that.  I am also grateful to my friend Deidre Riggs who insisted I read this book.  Now, I pass that insistence on to you.  Read it!  Then, join in the struggle for equity and justice.  

Monday, January 8, 2018

Die to Self

I continue to be grateful to the church I serve, for allowing me a 4-month Sabbatical in 2017.  This week, I looked back at my journal from that time.  On one of the early days of my time away from the church, searching for a passage to be a theme verse for the Sabbatical, I stopped at Matthew 10:38, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Jesus here, and in other passages, talks about this idea of dying to self.  At our church, the three foundational pillars of ministry philosophy are safe space, to be made new, and sent into the world.  The “safe” pillar is our commitment to being a welcoming community that loves people “as they are.”  We say, “All are welcome.” 
The “sent” pillar is our commitment to carrying the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to a lost and hurting world.  When we think of the term ‘evangelical,’ we do not have in mind how you vote or what your politics are.  We mean evangelistic people, people who go out into the world motivated to help people they meet become followers of Jesus. 
The middle pillar, “be made new,” is where I lived during the Sabbatical.  It is what I think is happening in Matthew 10:38 when Jesus commends losing one’s life.  One of the things I have heard from people a lot is this question.  Can I follow Jesus and still be my “whole self?”  The answer from Jesus is “No, you can’t.”  Jesus promises to love us as we are, but when we follow Him, we do not remain as we are.  We don’t come to Jesus hoping to be our “full selves.”  When we come to Jesus and follow Jesus, we die to self.
I have relearned the depths of this concept over and over in my own life as a Christ-follower.  As a thoughtless college student whose brash words hurt others, I had to repent and apologize to those I hurt.  That repentance included dying to self.  When I was single, badly wanting to be married, I had to learn to be content in Christ.  In my marriage as significant challenges have arisen, both my wife and I have had to be humble before God and each other and this included dying to self.  In the privilege of leading a church, HillSong, that is full of strong leaders who will not sycophantically bow to the lead pastor’s will, I have to constantly die to self. 
In this past Sunday’s sermon, I talked about Daniel who refused to let his Babylonian overseers dictate his identity.  In their hands, he did not allow himself to be unmade.  I hope that as I unfolded the story of Daniel’s boldness, it was not lost that at a deeper level, Daniel and each one of us is in fact clay to be molded, just not the world’s hands.  We are in God’s hands and God stretches us, pounds us, hardens us, and shapes us.  Mixing metaphors, we also realize God prunes us, a painful process, but for our good.  Sometimes we don’t understand the creator’s work, but we are the creatures.  We submit to His will not because it is easy but because it is good.  There are no self-made men or women in the Kingdom of Heaven, only God-made men and God-made women. 
Are you ready for this kind of life, one lived in absolute submission to the will of God?  Are we prepared to answer the call to be disciples of Jesus?  Read Paul’s letters.  The disciple life is full of joy and wonder.  But, read all the letters, including 2 Timothy.  The disciple life includes weary days, uncertain seasons, and disciples sometimes have long nights.  No, we don’t say to Jesus, “Take me as I am.”  We say, “You, Jesus, are the Lord, the Savior, the Master.  Here I am.  Make me what you will.  Show me who you will create me to be.”

Almost 4 months removed from Sabbatical, I am grateful I went back and looked at the Sabbatical journal, which directed me back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 10.  My prayer now is the same as it was back in May.  Lord, here I am.  Make me your New Creation.  I hold this prayer up not just for me, but for anyone who would follow Jesus as a part of the church I lead.  

Who Names You? (Daniel 1)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

            Who gets to say who you are?  Who has the right and the power and the opportunity to write your story? Who dares to define you?
            “Names are not always what they seem.”  That’s Mark Twain.
            And here’s William Shakespeare.  “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”[i]

            It was the 6th century BC.  The mighty Babylonian empire conquered the people of God, the kingdom of Judah.  The magnificent temple King Solomon had built centuries before was toppled, left a pile of ruin.  The Judean King was captured and forced to watch as his sons were murdered.  Then, so that the death of his children would be the last thing he ever saw, the Babylonians put his eyes out.  This king was shackled, now a blind slave, and forced to walk the nearly 700 miles to Babylon.
            All who stood before Babylon were fear-struck by her might.  You bow before Babylon or you are obliterated.  
            But it was not enough to destroy all that was left of Jewish sovereignty, the northern kingdom Israel having fallen to Assyria centuries earlier.  Before destroying the temple, the book of Daniel tells us all the gold cups and plates and fixtures were stripped and hauled back to Babylon.  In Solomon’s temple, these pieces were holy objects, designed to model the wilderness tabernacle used by Moses to worship God.  In this eyes of Babylon, this was a conqueror’s booty.
            But it was not enough to kill the king’s sons, mutilate the king’s face, rob Jehovah’s temple of all its priceless worth, and then destroy it completely.  No, to complete the humiliation, Babylon would take the best and the brightest of Israel’s people and turn them into Babylonians; Chaldeans.  Daniel 1:3 says, “The king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace” (v.3-4).
            With the cities of Judah razed, the religion of Judah crushed, and the young leaders, the future of the Jewish people taken, the victory was complete.  These young Jews would have the Judaism, the love of Jehovah, scrubbed out of them.  They would forget Abraham and Moses, David and Solomon.  For three years, they would go through an intense education that would transform them.  They would learn the ways of Babylonian nobility and, presumably, they would assimilate, even coming to love Babylon.  They would become the very people who had killed their culture.
            Imagine the United States getting overrun, totally crushed in a war.  We would be so thoroughly defeated, we’d forget what it was to be American.  Then our new masters, those who humiliated us, would take from us those in the top of the class at West Point and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, as well Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and MIT.  Israel, with the fall of Judah in 586BC, lost everything.
            Included among that crop of talented young nobility taken off to Babylon were four friends, highly religious young men, people completely committed to their faith in God.  Their names were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  Upon arrival in their new home, they were required to adjust to the new way of things. 
            It began with their names.  You will no longer be Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  Those names are dead just like Israel is dead.  You are now Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Daniel 1:7 says the palace master, the voice of Babylonian power, for all intents and purposes, the voice of god for these young men, gave them other names.  The unmaking of their souls began when he re-named them.
Who gets to say who you are?  Who has the right and the power and the opportunity to write your story? Who dares to define you?

Verse 8 says, “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.”  We aren’t entirely clear as to what was in the royal Babylonian diet, but whatever it was, Daniel felt that to accept it was to go too far.  He could accept a new name, but not being unmade.  Something about this food was not kosher and Daniel would not turn his back on the traditions of his ancestors.  If God told Moses a certain food was not clean, Daniel wasn’t going to eat it. 
And truly, more than being about food, this struggle was about identity.  Even in a foreign land, knowing the temple had been destroyed, Daniel was set on staying faithful to God no matter the cost.  And then, God becomes an active player in the story, in the most subtle of ways.  “Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master,” verse 9 says.  Though we cannot see God, and in fact many Jews felt that when the temple fell, it was a sign that God had given his people up, in fact, God was there the whole time.  God was there the whole time.  Even in our struggles, God is by our side. 
God influenced the situation as these young men dug in their heels and insisted upon staying faithful to him.  The palace master was scared.  Most bullies are.  He held power over those young Jewish nobles who had been taken, who he was assigned to train in the ways of Babylonian nobility, but if he failed, his head would literally be on the chopping block.  I want to help you Daniel, he said, but if this goes wrong, I am dead.  We see an uneasy collusion between a Babylonian underling and one of the prize Jewish recruits. 
Daniel, joined by Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, young men as stubbornly committed to God as himself, struck up a deal. For two weeks, those four would eat nothing but raw vegetables and drink only water.  The other Jewish conscripts literally ate like kings – meals only those in the Babylonian royalty could afford.  Rich meats and cheeses, wine and milk, delicious breads – they were eating large.  Daniel said his God would fortify him and so, the palace guard allowed his gambit.  For two weeks, the four God-followers ate only vegetables.
Have you heard of the “Daniel diet?” A few years ago, Saddleback church wrote a book about this, and other Christian nutritionists also wrote about it.  Essentially it was 21st century American Christians trying to eat the foods Daniel and his companions ate for the purpose of losing weight and focusing on God to help their spiritual morale.  They wanted encouragement from prayer instead getting it from ice cream Sundays.  I remember being quite skeptical of the whole idea at the time. 
I read up on it recently and found that there is much about the modern concept of the “Daniel diet,” that is positive.  It basically encourages prayer and healthy eating.  These are good things.
However, aside from the benefit of living in closer relationship to God, the modern concept of the “Daniel diet” misses the point of the story in Daniel chapter 1.  Verse 15 says, “At the end of 10 days is observed that [Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah] appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations.  By “fatter” I think the Bible means these four were fuller and healthier.  Eating vegetables alongside others who eat richer foods might help you lost weight, but Daniel’s goal wasn’t to lose weight.  He wanted to honor God.  The palace master’s goal was to fatten up these young, talented Jews.
That the raw vegetable diet produced the results that did was an act of God.  This was miraculous, a direct but subtle divine intervention into the story.  Daniel could not know God would intercede in this way.  He did not know what God was going to do, if anything.  Daniel and his friends knew how they needed to act to be faithful.  They did that trusting God, not knowing what would be next. 
God blessed them beyond expectation.  Verse 19 tells us that when they were presented before King Nebuchadnezzar, none of the other Jewish conscripts could compare with these four.  “In every manner of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them 10 times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (v.20).  Daniel did not just outshine his peers.  He rose in stature above the experts of Babylon because God blessed him.  He lived in God’s blessing when he and his friends were faithful.
They were still exiles in a foreign land.  They still lived under the hand of Babylonian overlords who called them by their new, other names.  But they never ceased belonging to God.  For all that happened, they held onto their belief that God was the true power in the world, the true Lord of history.  God determined the circumstance.   The circumstance did not determine what they believed to be true about God.
When, in your life, have others tried to give you other names and to shape your identity? 
When I went through army infantry basic training, drill sergeants tried to tell me I was a killing machine who hated my enemies.  This was 1989 and the Iron Curtain had fallen, so they were uncertain as to who our enemies were, but still, they created an image of enemy, and then told me I hated them.  God told me to love my neighbor, love my enemies, and pray for those who persecuted me. 
Peers in ministry have, at times in my career, tried to tell me what a pastor should be.  Sometimes their definition didn’t fit what I thought God was telling me a pastor should be.   Would I change how I preached and led the church in order to gain acclaim and maybe even some favors from others?  Who named me and defined me?  What words and qualities name and define you? 
In Mark 1:23, in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus confronts a demon possessed man.  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  … I know who you are, the Holy One of God,” the demons blurt out of the possessed man’s mouth.  Jesus immediately silenced those demons.  He referred to himself as “Son of Man.”  He was not yet ready to publicly walk under the moniker “Holy One of God.”  He was holy, but it wasn’t time to announce that yet, and the demons didn’t get to alter the story.  God was and is the teller of the story: Jesus’ story, Daniel’s story, and yours and mine. 
In God’s telling, you and I are named.  You are called “beloved.”  You are “chosen.”  You are reckoned as “invited” and “welcomed” by God.  You and I are named.  We called “son” or “daughter” by God.  No matter where we are, no matter what situation we are in, this is true.  We are children of God, God is with us, and is involved in the struggles we face. 
In your life, people will want to name you.  “Customer;” you give them your money.  “Follower;” you give them your allegiance.  “Sucker;” you fall for their schemes.  “Life giver;” you take on yourself their dysfunction.  In countless ways, the world around you will strive to make you, to shape your identity.
We live in the world, but not as pieces of clay to be shaped by the world.  We are clay in God’s hands.  In the world, we shine God’s light and speak God’s truth as messengers of the gospel.  The world cannot name us because God already has.  We step from this place into the world, not with a defensive posture keeping the world at bay, but with arms and hearts of love.  We step with stubborn commitment to the God who loves us. Only He gets to name us.  We step out proclaiming, living in his grace.

[i] I got these quotes off the Goodreads site -

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

God Loves Us (Song of Songs 2:8-15)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

            “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (Song 2:10b).  Why this scripture, on this day of all days?  The colorful Christmas lights are dimming, giving way to short, cold, gray days, as the holidays recede and we timidly move into the dead of winter. 
            “Arise, my love, my fair one.”  No predawn frost, no harsh storm of sleet and snow can diminish the love God feels for us, for you, for each one of you.  Who, when asked to describe God, would begin by saying, “God is personal?  God is relational?”  That’s our starting point this morning, at the end – the end of the year.  God desires a relationship with us.  The prophet Hosea, whom we will study in depth next summer, reveals God’s inner heart, quoting God who says, “How can I hand you over, O Israel?  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger” (Hosea 11:8, 9a).  That’s God. 
            God longs for us.  Of course as we experience God, it is a spiritual relationship, and there is an unwelcome trickiness to the word, ‘spiritual.’  What does it mean?  We think we know. We don’t really know.  ‘Spiritual’ is something other than ‘physical,’ or ‘tangible.’  It is something outside the experience of our five senses.  And when this is how we think of spiritual, then it becomes theoretical, not really real. 
            The relationship we have with God, in Christ, is spiritual, and it is real. This relationship comes to life in many places and times.  When we are with others in worship, a community attuned to God; when a believer is alone, in a quiet place, meditating on the word, opening herself to God’s presence; in the process of doing God’s work, helping others; in all these ways, the relationship with God comes to life.  One of the ways the spiritual is expressed and experienced is in the physical way humans relate to each other. 
            If you can, reach out, and touch someone.  One of the ways our spiritual relationship with the God who says to us, “arise, my love,” is experienced is in that touch.

            The first Sunday of 2017, which was January 1, I was tired of hearing how bad things were in America.  People had broken off friendships, left churches, and expressed loss of faith in our democracy over their frustration with the presidential election.  As this year began, the loudest voices were the angry voices.
            I attempted to have us begin differently, not complaining or arguing, not blaming or lampooning, but rather looking in a different direction.  We needed to focus on something other than anger.  We needed to think about something others than the people who rile us up.  So, I talked in the first sermon of the year about God and icebergs. 
I think God is like an iceberg.  In photos of icebergs – photos that show both above and below the water’s surface, it is clear how much more is under the water; this is what we don’t see – except in those special photos.  There literally is a lot more than meets the eye.  We see less of the iceberg than the submerged portion we can’t see.  And there is more of God we do not know and cannot know than what we do know – immeasurably more. 
That word, ‘immeasurable,’ is often used as hyperbole, to express how big something is.  In this case, I am using the word literally.  God’s expanse goes beyond our physical universe and when God so pleases, he occupies space in our universe.  God operates within the bounds of the laws of nature, but God can, at times, defy the laws of nature.  Furthermore, God cannot be measured.
We want to try to see more of God knowing that we can never see all of God and in all likelihood there will always be more of God that we cannot see than what we can see.  There will always be more of God  that we cannot know.   

            We tried to give our attention to the story of God because that’s a better story, a truer story, a story more real and lasting, and a story more revealing of who we can become than the stories of racism, politics, terrorism, and wealth disparity being told by various media outlets.  In our attempt to give our attention to God, we did not ignore the realities around us.  We simply did not let the world in its current condition tell us who we are.  We looked to God to tell us who we are. 

            Now, we’re at the end of 2017.  It’s unique in that the very first day and the very last day both fall on a Sunday.  As we look back, we see how the acrimony that ended 2016 played out in 2017.  There was the racial violence in Charlottesville, the hideous display of bigotry that ended in death.  There was the cultural battle over Confederate monuments.  There were mass shootings in the United States.  Terrorist attacks in the United States.  Endless war in Syria drags on; endless tension between the United States and North Korea drags on.  All the doomsday stories of 2016 have rung true or at least linger through 2017.
            But those aren’t the only stories.  What different story do we have to tell?  When it is told, are we listening?  Are we ourselves listening to our own, different, better story – God’s story?  Are we living by God’s story?
            I began imagining the vastness of God, calling God indescribable, because I needed God to be bigger than presidential politics.  I needed God to be bigger than our national debt.  I needed God’s light to outshine the creeping darkness I feared would envelop me. 
            Now, at the end of a year in which we examined God’s immensity and imagined our church as the household of this gigantic God and ourselves as brothers and sisters, adopted by this overwhelming God, I think I know what could be helpful.  When God is indescribable, if that’s all God is, in our puny state we can be obliterated.   Our story once again must adjust focus: first from the crud that is called news in our society to the greatness of God, now from the unending vastness of God to the personal nature of God.  The unfathomable “iceberg God” loves us personally and intimately. 
            Keep in mind the passage I read from the prophet Hosea.  God says to his people, “My compassion grows warm and tender.”  In Christ, we are his people.  Also recall Hagar, the slave woman whom Sarai expelled because she did not want Hagar’s son Ishmael toying with her son Isaac.  In Genesis 16, left for a horrific death in the desert, Hagar finds herself rescued by God.  She names God “God-who-sees” (Genesis 16:13).  The ruler of the universe took personal interest in the rescue of a cast-off slave.
            Furthermore, remember Luke chapter 15.  There, the object of God’s attention is the one who is lost.  Jesus tells the same story three times, describing a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a runaway son.  Jesus’ punchline is Luke 15:7.  “There is more joy in Heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over 99 others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away.”  The gigantic iceberg God is mad with love for us.

            There aren’t enough words to speak all the ways God shows this love.  But poets try and the most passionate poetry in the Bible is Hebrew love poetry, found in the Old Testament book Song of Songs.  Read it, just 8 short chapters, in verse.  But be prepared.  It is sensual.  It means what it seems to mean – a man and a woman deeply desiring one another with a community around them celebrating their mutual longings for love.
            The early church grew in the Greek-speaking world at the same time, the first and second centuries, that ascetic philosophy influenced society.  One variation of that ascetic approach was Gnosticism, the philosophy that denied there was anything good in the physical world.  ‘Gnostic,’ literally means knowledge, and the Gnostics claimed Jesus was never actually human or tangible but just appeared that way.  Gnostic thought had no room for the whole ‘and the Lord saw that it was good’ (Gen 1:25) idea about the physical, created world.  The world was evil and God was a spirit who pulled the righteous possessors of secret knowledge out of the evil tangible world. 
            The earliest Christians resisted this philosophy.  They preached the incarnation, the full humanity of Jesus. They insisted upon the physical, bodily resurrection of Christ.  Gnosticism did, however, sow seeds of loathing for physical things even in the minds of Christians.  This false teaching flowered into a needless sense of shame around human sexuality.  This made the sensual poems in Song of Songs intolerable.  The early church couldn’t handle such expressions of physical love. The only way Christians could live with this in the Bible was to read it as allegory.
            An allegory is a story interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning.  For Christian commentators in the early centuries of the church, Song of Songs was not about and a man and a woman.  The lovers were God and the church.  Early theologians wrote more pages of commentary on Song of Songs than any other Biblical book.  This approach to the Songs as allegory held up through the Middle Ages.
            The only problem is allegory misses the point of the poetry.  The Song of Songs is an affirmation that ancient people fell madly, passionately in love and expressed it.  If we believe God’s Holy Spirit guided the development of scripture and which books are included in the Bible, and I do believe this, then the inclusion of Song of Songs is under God’s authority. 
God is never mentioned in two books of the Bible, Esther and Song of Songs.  Unlike Esther, which is a book that upholds Hebrew culture and thus implies God, Song of Songs does no such thing.  The Song is not an allegory, it is a love poem, often used as an epithalamium, a bridal song.  The initiative in this relationship is taken by the female, driven by her passion. 
That this poetry collection is in the Bible is itself a testament.  God smiles on physical love.  God rejoices in sexual love.  From the rest of scripture, especially, Genesis 1, Matthew 19, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 5, we believe that sexual love is best experience by a man and woman in lifelong marriage covenant.  The greater point is God celebrate love and one of the ways we live in that love is in sexuality.
Sexuality is not the only we experience physical love.  Think of love enjoyed with all the senses, shared in a community of people who follow Christ.  When we gather, we embrace one another.  We give warm, heartfelt handshakes.  We hear each other’s loud laughter as we share each other’s stories.  Different smells come to mind from visiting one another’s homes.  We remember meals out together.  Love is tactile in God’s way of things. 
Once we appreciate that Song of Songs is a poets’ amplification of love, evoking thoughts of spring, even in winter, and once we accept that the presence of the Song in our scriptures is God’s affirmation of physical love, then we can superimpose God’s love for us on the poem.  Reading the Song for the love poem that it is and realizing just how much God love us, we can hear God speak to us through it.  And when we meet God in these words of love it is spring time, “the fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom” (Song 2:13).  God longs for us and we for God.  In the relationship, we have joy.  Every day is new. 
We began 2017 staggered by how much bigger God is than the noise around us.  The events of the year vied for our attention.  The evil in the racism on display in Charlottesville; the political acrimony stooping to unprecedented lows; the growing gap between a wealthy minority and everyone else.  All the noise continues to rise, but God is bigger.  God is above it all and the huge iceberg God is with us and for us. 
Heading in 2018, we know we are part of a better story. The God of universe is all about love and is thrilled when we show love to one another.  No single person experiences every aspect of God or every aspect of love.  But each and every one of us is invited into God’s love story because God loves each of us relationally, personally, and intimately.  We move into a New Year intent on growing in our relationship with this God of love.