Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Love for the Sojourner

Deu 10:17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  

This is one of several reasons I cannot vote for Donald Trump, and one of the reasons I am an uncomfortable Republican.  Love and care for the stranger, for the aliens among us, is one of the fundamental attitudes of God, and therefore should be fundamental to God's people.  There is no question about what is meant: the Israelites were a foreign people living and working in Egypt during a time of famine and therefore economic hardship in their homeland, and were discriminated against by the Egyptians in later years, to the point of slavery.  They were not just visitors to Egypt; they had migrated to Egypt and settled there while poor and needy. 

Love and care for the stranger, for the alien among them, was everywhere enjoined upon God's people in the Old Testament, always referring back to this fact that they themselves had once been oppressed aliens in a foreign land.  In the New Testament, this concept is brought forward even more explicitly and strongly, in that non-Hebrews were not only to be tolerated, but were also given the right, with the Jews, to become God's people with equal inheritance.  

Definition of citizenship and immigration regulations is clearly the right of the sovereign state, but God's people cannot think that advocacy for prevention of immigration, especially the immigration of the poor seeking better economic opportunities, much less the advocacy of restriction of rights to aid and healthcare and education, is Godly advocacy.  Do we really think Jesus, if he could vote in US elections, would vote for sending poor families back to their poor land of origin so that we Americans could enjoy a still better standard of living?  Is that not precisely what Israel was told not to do?

God is specifically concerned for the poor, and specifically concerned for aliens.  The alien poor are doubly his concern, and should be ours also.  Sorry Donald, and sorry Republicans, but I can't be with you on this issue. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Alas, Babylon

I have just been reading Isaiah chapter 13 and following; an oracle against Babylon.  What a perspective one gets from reading literature that is over 3000 years old!

Babylon was the premier empire and culture of its age.  Huge public works, a walled city, a complex government with grand viziers and satraps.  It was beautiful and prosperous.  Almost certainly the people who lived during its prime could not imagine a world in which it was not preeminent, let alone nonexistent.

Now, some 2500 years later, it is utterly, completely gone.  Covered by sand.  No trace except archeological digs.  Again, gone.  First it was overthrown, then abandoned and occupied only by wild animals, as described in the prophecy, then (now) simply gone.  How sobering.

Today we in the US, and certainly in the "West" generally, consider ourselves "the greatest people, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was."  

   We worry about ISIS.  We worry about economic slowdown and collapse.  We worry about global warming, that will cause desertification of our tropics and inundation of our coastal cities.  From the 3000-years-hence point of view, all these fears will almost certainly be realized.  We will be utterly gone and forgotten, just like the Babylonians.  The Egyptian pharaohs, The Medes and Persians, the Roman Empire.  Read the beginning of Ecclesiastes.  There will be no remembrance of us.  

Does nothing last?  If our greatest works become dust and ashes, to what end do we live?  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sacrifice as true giving.

Hebrews Chapter 8:  In this chapter the author points out that Jesus is an eternal, undying high priest. He notes that the purpose of the priest is to "offer gifts and sacrifices."  What about this idea of God requiring sacrifices and gifts?

This idea is offensive to the modern mind, as it seems primitive to us.  In its worst case, we think of ancient Aztec gods, or the ancient near eastern god Molech, requiring human sacrifice.  So how does the idea of sacrifice, and the giving of gifts to God, jibe with the concepts of God's love for us, and with his self-sufficiency, ie, the fact that he needs nothing?

Let us start with giving in general.  When we give something, generally, we lose it.  When we buy someone a present, we lose the cash that bought it.  When we give of our talents, generally we lose the one thing we cannot otherwise buy: time.  Even when we "give" someone something intangible like "the benefit of the doubt", we are forfieting our right to make our own judgments.  True giving always has an associated cost.  King David understood this when he refused the offer of land upon which to build an altar, saying, "I will not offer to the Lord somewhich which cost me nothing."  Such an offering would not, in reality, be an offering at all,

Next, consider what giving signifies: love, or at least good will, toward the receiver.  We give to those for whom we wish the best, to those for whom we feel empathy, compassion, love.  Even when we give to our enemies it is with a view to breaking down the enmitiy from our side.  When we give out of guilt (the gift that we mean to say, "I'm sorry") it is, in its best manifestation, an approach to healing a breach with someone we esteem.  This is not to say that gifts cannot be motivated by crass self-interest, but in that case there is a better word: bribe.  We generally reserve the word "gift", in its purest or most fundamental sense, as something given out of love and good will.  We give most frequently to those we love: our spouses, our children, our friends.

So, giving gifts to God is, in its purest sense, something to be expected in a lover of God.  God is represented, in the Bible's ultimate denouement in the New Testament, as a loving Father who wishes his children to be made whole and hence loving like himself.  He is revealed to have given of himself the ultimate gift, his own life/death on the cross, to heal the breach that we created.  In his request that we give him gifts, especially of things that he doesn't actually need, he is merely encouraging the behavior of a loving child toward a beloved parent.  How many useless and inscrutable drawings and clay sculptures do we parents retain as tokens of our children's affection?  We value these gifts not only because they betoken our children's love for us, but because they demonstrate that our children love and are learning to give, a behavior we recognize as good and mature.  To the extent that we give to God, we likewise learn to be lovers and givers, which is his design for us.

The requirment of sacrifice, likewise, can be seen as an appropriate requirment of a loving parent.  We want to see our children learn to accept responsibility for their bad actions, and especially if they have insulted or injured another, we seek to find consequences that embody the idea of restoration and reconciliation.  We want our children to become the kind of people who try to make it right, at whatever cost to themselves, when they have made it wrong with someone else.  In this we are like God, who wants us to see and acknowledge that we have offended against him, against his love for us.  We know that no sacrifice can actually atone for that offense; we own nothing in proportion to that offense.  That is not the point of the exercise of sacrifice.  The Sacrifice will be made for us, by God himself.  But we must understand the nature of restorational giving if we are to be made truly in his image, and if we are to understand the magnitude of his love for us.  Hence, we learn to give sacrificially in symbolic recognition of the grief we have given One who loves us.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Return to blogging.

It has been a long time since I have written here, and even longer since I have written with any regularity.  I am now well on in life, and have been reflecting on how I might live better, and decided that I must spend more time in organized, regular discourse with myself, to clarify for myself what is important, what is true, what is beautiful and worth contemplating.  On the chance that such meditations may be helpful to others, and the likelihood that others may have some wisdom to impart back to me, I hope to make some of these thoughts public, in this space, going forward.

One thing that I have learned in my years here: the best is the enemy of the good.  I will attempt to make these posts useful and clear, but I will not wait for them to be perfect, or perfectly organized, before posting.  A structure may evolve over time, perhaps, but I expect the topics to be somewhat rambling; perhaps stimulated by a new item, or my reading, or some observation.  We shall see....

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Better Covenant

Hebrews 8:8-12 contrasts the Old Covenant (Old Testament) with the New Covenant.  What was the problem with the old covenant?  We were the problem.  The covenant required that we comply with its requirements, that we follow the revealed laws of God.  In this it required somethat that was impossible.  At the end of the book of Joshua, Joshua challenges the people to "choose this day whom you will serve", and they say, "We will serve The Lord."  To this Joshua replies, "You are unable to serve The Lord."  Just so.  Any covenant that requires us to unswervingly love and serve God will not work, not because it is itself an unfair covenant, but because we will never keep our side of it, unless we are changed from within.  

The New Covenant is better because it does not require the impossible, but rather provides it.  "I will put my Laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts."  The whole rest of the paragraph shows that what is promised here is a change in nature, a change in the heart.  Whereas formerly we hated th law and saw it as foreign, now we shall love the laws of God and be drawn to Him and them by our very hearts.  

This is the only way to God.  He must change us.  He must change me.  I despair of my old selfish nature which repeatedly disappoints me.  If I am ever to have fellowship with God, it will be because he has reached in and actually, actively changed my heart and the kinds of things I love.  I cannot make myself love the things I do not love.  But God can and does.  This is the new birth and the new nature that is spoke of elsewhere in scripture.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Today if you hear His voice...

I am using M'Cheyne's schedule for Bible reading, in which one reads four selections from scripture each day, eventually reading through the entire Bible.  One of today's readings is Hebrews chapter 3, in which the author speaks of a day of rest for believers. 

The exhortation is, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as they did in the rebellion."    Also, "Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today".  So when is Today?

This may seem like a silly question, but it is not, especially in light of yesterday's post.  One interpretation is that, when one once hears God's voice, one must respond that day, or be cut off.  One chance, one day.  Because the next day is tomorrow, and today becomes yesterday.  You miss out, it's too bad.  You blew it. 

Alternatively, the author is getting at the point that for us every moment is "today".  Being bound into the flow of time, we can only ever act "today"; there is no real possibility of acting tomorrow, until it becomes today.  I have made many plans for many tomorrows over the years that I failed to carry through when they became "today".  It is what one does now that matters.  The least important time is the past, wherein one can neither act nor plan.  The less important time is the future, of which one knows little and can only plan.  The most important time is the present, which one can know and in which one can act.  

For us, it is always Today.  And, as I suggested yesterday, the future, even the future as pronounced from time to time by God, is changeable, at least in the only way which we can understand.  When we kneel before God and repent, the world changes. When we open our hearts to God today, regardless what we did yesterday, the world changes.  Today is the only day in which we can act. Now is the only moment in which we can act. And as we are born along in time, every moment is new and therefore a new opportunity to enter the rest that God has offered us. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hezekiah's prayer: Does God change His mind?

I have always been intrigued by the events recorded in 2 Kings 20.  It seems to me to be one of those verses which raises very deep questions about the nature of prayer, time, causality, and God's will. It begins with Isaiah telling King Hezekiah that his illness will certainly lead to death, and that the king should get his affairs in order.  There is no doubt that he is speaking as a prophet, not a physician, in that he uses the formula, "Thus says The Lord."  On the basis of this pronouncement of coming death, the prophet also suggests specific action, the putting of affairs in order.  It seems in every way an announcement of the determined will of God with regard to Hezekiah.  

Isaiah leaves, and Hezekiah turns his face to the wall and asks God to remember his good deeds and his wholehearted walk, then weeps bitterly.  Immediately Isaiah receives another word from The Lord, before he has even left the palace, and must turn around and deliver a new, completely different message to the king.  Now, the King will live another 15 years, and Jerusalem will not fall to Assyria.  Hezekiah is astounded, and asks, like Gideon, for a miraculous sign, and is given one.  

So what just happened here?  We have what appears to be a clear cut, unequivocal announcement of death, through the prophet Isaiah no less, followed by its retraction, in response to prayers and tears.  Did God change his mind? 

According to the most basic and straightforward sense of that question, the answer is clearly, "Yes, He did."  As a human being, interacting with another person, this is in every way meaningful to me a case of God's changing His mind.  At 1:00PM (let's say), God tells Hezekiah that he will die from this illness, and at 1:30 He tells him that he will live.  God pronounces the future, a human weeps and prays, and God pronounces a different future.  From Hezekiah's perspective, from Isaiah's who had to go back, from any human's perspective in that palace, God had changed his mind.  

(Let me insert here the practical encouragement this affords.  Even when it appears that God has pronounced doom upon us, even via a prophet, yet that doom may be changed by our prayers and tears.  Not only the things we don't know may change, but even the things that we believe we have heard "straight from a prophet" may change with prayer.  Mercy may be found even after pronouncement of the sentence.)  This is mind-boggling. 

Now for the boggle....

Perhaps it is presuming too much to say that God had changed his mind.  However, He certainly changed his message to Isaiah and Hezekiah.  Did He not speak His mind the first time?  If not, then in what sense are we to interpret His messages to us, even his explicit prophecies?  Notice that this is not the only time such a thing happens.  Remember Jonah, who carried God's message all over Ninevah, that it would be destroyed in 40 days, only to find that after they repented the message was changed to one of mercy.  Jonah actually expected Him to change his message (or mind): that's why He didn't want to carry the message in the first place!  What does God mean when he speaks to us of the future? 

Without time there can be no change.  Without change, perhaps, there can be no meaning to time.  God is always the same, which fits with his being eternal, ie, not affected by, perhaps not even in, Time.  We, however, live in time so fundamentally that we cannot imagine the world apart from time.  Do you think of movement?  That implies time.  Of growth? That implies time.  Of speech?  Music?  Rhythm?  Sound?  Stories?  All these require time to make any sense at all to us.  We are swept along always by time, and cannot comprehend being otherwise.  

So what is God doing when He speaks to us of the future?  He is representing something to us that He knows but that we can never see "from here".  The future is an idea in our minds that is always changeable, always speculative, never fixed until it ceases to be tomorrow and becomes today.  He sees the end from the beginning, but we can never see in that way, being by nature creatures in time even before our fall.  Perhaps when God speaks to us of the future, he is communicating to us specific ideas that are as real as such ideas can be to temporal beings.  We consider and respond to those ideas, and in so doing, we change.  As we change, our relationship to the unchanging God and to the world He has made also changes.  The change comes from us, not from God.

Face it, we do not understand time.  When we think of the future, we perhaps think of it as something that is fixed by a chain of causality that we just can't see but which is there nonetheless, and quite impersonal.  But perhaps that is wrong, or at least incomplete.  Perhaps personal beings are the most fundamental things, and time is a created dimension or context for such  beings as we are, a medium so to speak, which both we and God use to express our mutual relationships.  In that case, change is fundamental to our very existence and to our relationship with God, and the future, from our perspective, is always being changed. When God re-pronounces the future, perhaps He is simply re-announcing the future that has changed as a result of our changing.  

Note: On-the-fly blogs coming

For the one or two of you who "follow" this blog (in the sense of reading it twice a year or so, when I manage to write something...), I want to note that in an effort to write more often, I may write less well. In considering the reasons why I write so infrequently, it occurs to me that I conceive of each entry as requiring a lot of time that I don't have.  Perhaps a simple "thought dump" is something that I can achieve with less effort, lowering that particular barrier to writing.  So, here goes.