Herod or Amos

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

I’ve made no secret of my disgust over the current state of politics in the United States of America. A casual browse through social media will tell you all you need to know about that. I also haven’t tried to hide my growing distaste for the way Christians across the country are responding to the situation we find ourselves in. (A situation we made for ourselves, if we’re choosing to be honest today). Clearly we (very much in the general sense of the term) have chosen to prioritize fleeting political power over preaching the Gospel. What other conclusion can be made when pastors waste their breath defending sexual predators and some who should know far better compare the President to Jesus? Worse yet and outrageously, we have the gall to act surprised and upset when someone calls us on our blatant, transparent hunger for power and disregard for the morality we claim to live by.

We love to cluck our tongues and shake our heads when reading the Gospels. Those Sadducees, we think. All they wanted was money. And, oh, those Pharisees. They just wanted to control people. Jesus was so right to put them all in their places.

We shouldn’t be so smug.

And we’d do well to read the book of Amos.

The LORD roars from Zion,
And utters His voice from Jerusalem;
The pastures of the shepherds mourn,
And the top of Carmel withers.

– Amos 1:2 (NKJV)

Let that chill your bones for a second. The Lord roars. He’s not happy. He’s not smiling. He’s not cute. He’s not something you can hold to the side.

The dominant message of the book of Amos is the proclamation of judgment upon Israel by Yahweh their God because of their oppression of the poor. The book of Amos accuses them of “sell[ing] the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6); of crushing the needy (4:1); of abusing the legal processes held in the town gate for the improper acquisition of large estates (5:10-11); and of indulging in merrymaking, all the while taking no responsibility while the community was breaking apart (6:1-7). …

Amos criticizes his hearers’ confidence that the sanctuaries and their sacrificial cult would gain them Yahweh’s approval. Amos uses the very language of the cult itself, but with satirical tone, to poke fun at his hearers’ reliance upon the sanctuaries, to show that Yahweh desires justice and righteousness more than sacrifice, and to proclaim the end of the cultic centers (see 4:4-5; 5:4-7, 21-24).

Asbury Bible Commentary, emphasis mine

Look at us, all fat and happy. Sitting up in our clean little church buildings, quite content with ourselves. Raising our voices neither in praise nor repentance, but in clamor, railing against the “liberals” or “conservatives” (whoever they are and whatever those terms mean) and how they are “destroying this country” and “we need to take it back.” We shake our fists to the rallying cry of “what about…?!” We turn blind eyes to sin and excuse failings of character because that politician might just give us whatever it is that we want in this moment.

…they sell the righteous for silver,
And the poor for a pair of sandals.
They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor,
And pervert the way of the humble.
A man and his father go in to the same girl,
To defile My holy name.
They lie down by every altar on clothes taken in pledge,
And drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god.

– Amos 2:6b-8 (NKJV)

We like to think that we’re so much better than the people we read about in the Bible.

We’re exactly the same.

With few exceptions, the prophets were sent to the people of God. To the people who knew better. Their messages, from the mouth of God Himself, were meant to slap them across the face. To shake them out of their self-indulgent stupor. To cause them to look up instead of down. To grab them by the hair so hard that they couldn’t help but notice the pain.

This is a side of God that we like to ignore. We like to focus on His gentleness and love. So we fail to realize that the hair-grabbing and face-slapping are acts of love. He is broken-hearted. He is justly angry. He wants His people to wake up, to get over themselves, to move beyond this whiny, annoying, petulant phase.

Because they have work to do. Because they are so much more.

Ancient Israel was meant to shine the light of God out into the dark world, just as the church is meant to do today. Just as they did, we have forgotten our purpose. We are so focused on achieving societal dominance through laws and slogans and slick marketing that we fail to tell people about Jesus. We fail in the one mission we have.

For behold,
He who forms mountains,
And creates the wind,
Who declares to man what his thought is,
And makes the morning darkness,
Who treads the high places of the earth—
The LORD God of hosts is His name.

– Amos 4:13 (NKJV)

Let that chill your bones for a second. How is it that we can possibly be so small-minded as to believe that God, who spoke all there is into existence, won’t notice that we’ve gotten so far off course as to be in another country entirely?

In two weeks we celebrate Christmas. We pause and again reflect on the miracle of God Come to Earth. In our reflections, let us consider this commentary on Matthew 2:

The contrast between Herod and Jesus centers upon the question of kingship. Matthew introduces the theme of kingship at the outset of the chapter: The wise men ask Herod where the king of the Jews has been born (2:2), Jesus is indirectly identified as a ruler (v. 6), and Matthew repeatedly refers to Herod as the king (vv. 1, 39). Matthew thus directs our attention to two types of king and two types of kingdom: the kingship of Herod versus the kingship of Jesus.

The kingship of Herod is presented in harsh terms. His tyrannical rule is characterized by an all-consuming desire to preserve his own status and power. Herod will stop at nothing, including the murder of innocent children, to realize his self-serving goals.

The nature of Jesus’ kingship, on the other hand, is defined by the word from Micah quoted in 2:6: He will be “the shepherd of my people Israel.” He is the gentle and loving Ruler of his people, who, like a shepherd, saves his people from destruction. Specifically, Jesus reigns as King over his people by dying for them (27:11, 29, 37), thereby saving them from their sins (1:21; cf. 20:28). The contrast with Herod could not be more pronounced: Jesus gives his life for the sake of others; Herod takes the lives of others for his own sake.

This tension between the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Jesus points to the conflict between the kingdom of this world (i.e., the desire for power and self-rule on the part of evil persons everywhere) and the kingdom of God. The passage challenges readers to reflect upon the character of their own lives in order to determine whether the spirit and attitude of Herod (an attitude of militant self-rule) is present to any degree in their hearts. Those readers who see a bit of Herod in themselves will soon encounter a word of challenge and hope: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2; 4:17).

We get to choose: Herod or Amos? The kingdom of this world or the Kingdom of God?

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Photo Credit: Pawan Sharma
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Not a Troll (Perhaps a Hobbit)

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

We live in the age of trolls. The internet allows us to maintain a certain level of detachment, so we go for it. We noisily air our opinions and blast those who dare to disagree. Through the relative anonymity afforded by the keyboard, we say the words that may never actually vibrate in our vocal chords and exit through our lips. We demand, cajole, proclaim the things that we may never actually have the courage to say out loud.

Am I one of those trolls, those vaunted keyboard warriors?

Why do I write about politics? Theology? Mental and physical illness? Why do I write about the things that make you angry? Why do I fail to adopt a soothing, socially-acceptable voice? Why do I persist in making you uncomfortable?

Because I care.

A lot.

I may not cry often, but I am incredibly passionate. I am tenderhearted. If I write about something that makes you squirm, I don’t do so for the sake of making you squirm. I do it because I can’t stand what’s passing for Christian teaching and living throughout our country. Of course that’s generalized. Of course there are people who are doing their absolute best to love God and others. Still, the overall trends toward prioritizing temporal power over Gospel preaching and fluffy, gunky, crap “doctrine” over thoughtful doctrine and study…ugh! Blergh! Argh!

Cue Darth Vader:

For real. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out.

Sharon Hodde Miller says it best:

The pressure to be nice competes with the calling to be prophetic. … For every article about making money with your blog, or having a better marriage, we need leaders who are leveraging their authority with their particular audience to call people to rugged faithfulness. We need teachers who are targeting the idols of people-pleasing and politics and worldly success, and helping us to be the actual people of God. And we need pastors engaged in the kind of spiritual formation that resists cultural influence, and prepares believers for loving self-sacrifice.

Last year Brueggemann summarized our prophetic failing this way: “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3).

…we are witnessing the fruit of inadequate spiritual formation. When our spiritual formation winks at, or embraces, cultural idols, we will produce individuals who are totally unable to resist the culture. That is why we are in dire need of prophetic leaders with the courage and clarity to name our adulterous loves. It’s hard work, and humble work (since ranting should not be confused with prophetic teaching), but we need it now as much as ever.

No, I’m not saying I’m a prophet (and neither is Miller). “Prophetic” here is used in a way that points to challenging the status quo because it needs to be challenged. It’s John the Baptist in his camel-hair dress shouting, “Repent!” in the wilderness. It’s Jesus quietly telling the woman at the well that He is indeed Messiah. It’s Ananias taking his life in his hands and approaching Paul, who’s just been knocked off his donkey and struck blind. It’s thousands of men and women around the world today who dare to praise God in cultures that would see them dead for it.

I love you, dear reader. I do. Again, perhaps not in a way that you would quickly recognize. If we were to meet, I probably wouldn’t give you a big hug. I might ask you some random, weird question about your favorite historical era because I’m awkward like that. But I want so much, so desperately much, for you to know Jesus. I want you to really follow Him, even if it costs you something – and it will. I want you to embrace the cost, knowing that this life is but a breath and far greater things are up ahead.

I’m not perfect. I don’t always get this right. I have, in no way, “arrived.” I’m right there in the middle of this thing with you, tugging your elbow, hoping you’ll tug mine when I get distracted by the shiny stuff. Because we all get distracted. And that’s why we need the gruff voices, the ones that don’t fit into neat boxes, to call us back and keep us moving forward.

There’s a time for gentleness and a time for bluntness. The one is not more loving than the other. James wrote some harsh things in his epistle, but he was not uncaring. He was not mean. He wrote them because he loved his readers. He wanted the very best for them.

If you are challenged by me (or others), if you find yourself clicking away from this site (or others) because you feel anger, pause for a moment. Take a step back. Getting your toes smashed is never fun (I’ve had mine stomped on plenty of times), but it’s often necessary. Let’s learn to accept that discomfort. Let’s learn to sit with things that challenge us. Let’s learn to listen to the hoarse voices.

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Five Minute Friday: Depend

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

The scent of sawdust fills the air. I hear the mechanical whine of the blade as it slices through wood. My husband, self-taught carpenter that he is, labors over another project. Only it isn’t labor for him. It’s joy. Release. Relaxation.

Occasionally it’s a swear word and throwing something.

Kate says: depend.

Go.

I have a post written. I’ve cut it from here and pasted it elsewhere. Attempting to decide if it should be published. Gone back and forth for a solid 20 minutes.

This is far longer than the usual FMF entry. And it might make you mad.

Here goes.

********

In light of the command to go and share the Gospel, does this matter? When you are on your face before the throne in Eternity, will this matter?

Two questions that came to mind early this morning as I lay on the couch, bemoaning my existence. (To paraphrase Jon Leguizamo as Tybalt in Baz Lurhman’s amazing adaptation of Romeo & Juliet: “Migraine, thou art a villain”). Normally I cannot think deeply when in pain. In fact, I can barely think at all. But clear as a bell, these questions rang through my mind, adding their noise to the discordant symphony already in progress.

The overall, highly generalized answer to both: It depends.

So some dudes who make a lot of money to play a game have been kneeling before said games while the “Star-Spangled Banner” is performed. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began doing so on September 2, 2016, after a conversation with Nate Boyer, a former Seahawk and Green Beret. Before then, Kaepernick sat on the bench during the anthem. Boyer understood the Kaepernick wanted to protest police brutality against African-Americans, but encouraged him to take a more respectful posture while doing so, which Kaepernick did. Others have since followed suit.

This opened a ginormous can of worms.

But oddly, a year later.

President Trump chose to cast these peaceful, lawful, respectful protests as being anti-American and anti-veteran. (I don’t know what’s in his mind, but could this sudden battle have been waged to distract everyone from what’s happening – or not happening – in Washington, D.C.)?

Some believe that these rich, privileged men have no right to protest anything, no right to draw attention to injustice. (Because you have to be poor to protest? Or you have to experience a bad thing in order to say the thing is bad? Or you can’t care about the “little guy” when you’re famous)?

Others say that, instead of protesting, they should give time and money to organizations that will make things better. (I don’t doubt that some are big talkers, but I also don’t doubt that more than a few of these men do just that. We simply don’t hear of it. And if we did, we’d probably skewer them for their pride in parading their good deeds for all to see, because we, the public, are quite fickle and impossible to please).

Another set desires new laws to be made, laws that enforce displays of commonly-accepted patriotism. (That’s what North Korea does. Aren’t we not fans of that kind of thing)?

It boils down to: First Amendment, sure, but not like that.

Parts of the above remain within the realm of “I can sort of see your point” but certain folks take it a step farther and conflate standing for the anthem with worshiping God. In order to be a good Christian, you must be a good American, in the way that the majority understands being a good American. Hot dogs and apple pie and all that. Because Jesus loves America more than other countries.

It bothers me more than I can express to see “render unto Caesar” and “let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” abused in order to prop up American civil religion, a belief system that cannot and will not save. The Bible does not command anyone to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If that’s what you believe, then, in order to be consistent, you have to be angry with the Amish, Mennonites and other religious groups who neither sing nor pledge. You have to stop reading this blog and shun me forever, because my convictions on this run very contrary to popular opinion.

Do not mistake me: I judge no Christian who stands for the anthem or says the pledge. That is between the individual and God. (To be perfectly honest, I don’t care if anyone stands, sits or kneels. This is genuinely not something that’s an issue to me, which is why I’m perplexed at the passion this has aroused in so many). What causes me to tear my hair out is when Christians scream about those who do not stand or pledge, particularly fellow Christians who do not stand or pledge, as if they do not have the freedom, enshrined in the Constitution we all claim to love, but most especially within the confines of the intelligence and the will that He gave each person, to make a different choice, a choice that is neither unlawful, immoral or disrespectful, despite being discussed in such terms.

(Note here before continuing: Dear reader, I am a pacifist. I have not, do not and will not support violence. I do not believe in being nasty to those with whom you disagree. I have family members in the military and on the police force, and so I know that the majority of people who enter these professions are doing so out of a genuine desire to do what they believe to be right and not because they are hateful, awful people).

I don’t know if protest is always the right way to address anything, but I support the right of these men to take a knee. They aren’t yelling at anyone, or spitting on graves, or shooting at people, or burning buildings. They’re just kneeling for two minutes or less. They are quietly drawing attention to a real problem.

You don’t have to agree with them. You don’t have to like what they’re doing. You can choose to never watch football again.

Isn’t it nice to have that freedom?

What you can’t do is say that they don’t have a right to do this – the NFL makes the rules regarding player conduct, not the viewers or the government. You can’t say that they hate America or soldiers – those interviewed consistently and clearly say that their protests aren’t about any of that. You can’t say that Christians who support these men or who do not choose to sing or pledge are any less saved than you are – salvation is found in Christ alone, not Christ and patriotism.

But let’s get back to the questions that began this post: Does this matter? Will it matter?

I don’t want to present a false dichotomy, a trap I unknowingly fell into earlier this week when discussing these things. You can be upset about the protest and the devastation in Puerto Rico and a whole host of other things that are going on. You’re not required to pick and choose. But, again, does nail-spitting anger over 2 minutes or less and quiet kneeling matter right now and will it matter later?

Or is it all just a distraction?

Now go and read this other long thing, written by someone far smarter than me.

Stop (was a long time ago).

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Five Minute Friday: Help

Along the Way @ mlsgegg.com

Gentle Reader,

Chris has been out of town all week, watching over a group of boys at church camp. I can introvert with the best of them, but that whole absence makes the heart grow fonder thing? It’s true.

Kate says: help (me if you can, I’m feeling down. I love the Beatles).

Go.

The United States of America needs help.

Ever-deepening political divisions. Racial tensions. Continuing economic disparity.

We are at war with ourselves. We have forgotten how to disagree. We call each other names. We threaten violence. Sometimes we even act on the threat.

Instead of practicing loving kindness and thereby modeling a different, better way to those on the outside, the Church rolls around in the mud, pointing fingers and flinging accusations.

I am bone-tired of it. All of it.

The prophet Daniel prayed:

O Master, great and august God. You never waver in Your covenant commitment, never give up on those who love You and do what You say. Yet we have sinned in every way imaginable. We’ve done evil things, rebelled, dodged and taken detours around Your clearly marked paths. We’ve turned a deaf ear to Your servants the prophets, who preached Your Word to our kings and leaders, our parents, and all the people in the land. You have done everything right, Master, but all we have to show for our lives is guilt and shame, the whole lot of us—people of Judah, citizens of Jerusalem, Israel at home and Israel in exile in all the places we’ve been banished to because of our betrayal of you. Oh yes, God, we’ve been exposed in our shame, all of us—our kings, leaders, parents—before the whole world. And deservedly so, because of our sin.

Compassion is our only hope, the compassion of You, the Master, our God, since in our rebellion we’ve forfeited our rights. We paid no attention to You when You told us how to live, the clear teaching that came through Your servants the prophets. All of us in Israel ignored what You said. We defied Your instructions and did what we pleased. And now we’re paying for it: The solemn curse written out plainly in the revelation to God’s servant Moses is now doing its work among us, the wages of our sin against You. You did to us and our rulers what you said You would do: You brought this catastrophic disaster on us, the worst disaster on record—and in Jerusalem!

Just as written in God’s revelation to Moses, the catastrophe was total. Nothing was held back. We kept at our sinning, never giving You a second thought, oblivious to Your clear warning, and so You had no choice but to let the disaster loose on us in full force. You, our God, had a perfect right to do this since we persistently and defiantly ignored you.

Master, You are our God, for You delivered your people from the land of Egypt in a show of power—people are still talking about it! We confess that we have sinned, that we have lived bad lives. Following the lines of what You have always done in setting things right, setting people right, please stop being so angry with Jerusalem, Your very own city, Your holy mountain. We know it’s our fault that this has happened, all because of our sins and our parents’ sins, and now we’re an embarrassment to everyone around us. We’re a blot on the neighborhood. So listen, God, to this determined prayer of Your servant. Have mercy on your ruined Sanctuary. Act out of who You are, not out of what we are.

Turn Your ears our way, God, and listen. Open Your eyes and take a long look at our ruined city, this city named after You. We know that we don’t deserve a hearing from You. Our appeal is to Your compassion. This prayer is our last and only hope:

Master, listen to us!
    Master, forgive us!
    Master, look at us and do something!
    Master, don’t put us off!
    Your city and Your people are named after You:
    You have a stake in us!

– 9:1-19 (MSG)

We do not live in a theocracy and we have not replaced Israel. We haven’t been carried off into exile. It’s not an exact parallel. Still, Daniel’s prayer is moving. His words stir up something painful in me. I know that there will never be Paradise this side of Christ’s return, but I wonder – what would this country look like today if the Church hadn’t slacked off? What if we hadn’t wasted time fighting about Calvinism and who can preach and what kind of clothes people can wear? What if we had just shared Gospel, cared for the widows and orphans and never began screaming about our rights? What if we hadn’t mixed the “American Dream” with the message of salvation? What if we hadn’t bought into the lie that Republican always equals conservative which always equals Christian?

I wonder what would happen now if we, like Daniel, took the posture of mourning. Of repentance. If we took on the burden of really caring about our country, in the way that truly matters.

Stop.

My journey to faith. (15)