Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son decided that life would be better away from the family, so he asked for his half of the inheritance early. He didn't want to wait until his father died. In a brilliant show of either grace or naivete, the father sold half of the property and gave the money to his younger son.
That young man took the money, traveled to a foreign land, and squandered his wealth on wild living.
That life was short-lived. Soon the money was gone. Then the friends were gone.
He hired himself out for work, but with no friends or family, and since there he was a foreigner, there were very few job opportunities. The only job left for him was working with the pigs. He discovered that he was paid so little that the pigs were eating better than he was.
It was at that moment that he had a self-revelation. He remembered that his father treated the servants back home far better than he was being treated in that pig lot. He decided he would go home. While he knew he was unworthy of being a son, he might be able to stay there as a servant.
So he went home.
In yet another move of extreme grace, the father forgives the errant son and welcomes him back home. There is a celebration and the whole household is there rejoicing with the father that the lost has been found.
Everyone that is except the elder son.
The elder son pulls the father aside and rebukes him for this celebration, complaining that it is not fair that such expenses should be given, yet son, to celebrate his little brother.
The father responds, "Everything I have is yours and you had only to ask. Nevertheless your brother has returned and it is right for us to celebrate."
You may be familiar with this story from Luke 15. What if this was not the end if the story though. There is another story from scripture that takes place between two brothers trying to justify themselves in the presence of a father figure.
Genesis 4 recounts that Cain and his younger brother Abel both made sacrifices to God, but God showed his favor took Abel more than Cain. When Cain complained to God, he too was taken aside and reminded that he could obtain favor if he simply did what was right. His jealousy was unwarranted because God did not have a limited amount of favor to split between the two brothers. Furthermore, God told him to be careful because sin was crouching at his door, ready to overtake him if he did not gain control of it himself first.
The elder brother, in a spirit of jealousy, called the younger brother out into a field and murdered him. This first murder started with the same seed of jealousy that Jesus left us with at the end of the parable of the lost son.
So let's take a moment to trace this back,
Murder came from jealousy left unchecked.
Jealousy came from a feeling of unfairness.
The feeling of unfairness, particularly in the parable of the lost son came from placing greater value on possessions and experiences rather than relationships.
Both God in Genesis 4 and especially the father in Luke 15 demonstrate a consistent value of relationships. God comes across harsher perhaps in Genesis 4, but the emphasis is not on performing a specific ritual, which was Cain's focus, but rather on staying in relationship. Cain wanted the blessing his brother had, he didn't want God, the giver of that blessing.
I believe there is a clue in here to how we can end the power of violence in our lives. It is not about eliminating weapons, be they sticks and stones or words of hurt. It is not in pushing for complacency, thinking that if we hide our struggles away we can all just get along. I think the key to violence is to find new ways of dealing with jealousy and to promote the value of relationships over and above experiences and possessions. When I recognize the value, perhaps even my need, for those richer or poorer than I, it will be me, standing in the way of their own threats of violence. When we truly become brothers and sisters, we will keep one another and keep one another from harm instead of being the source of that harm ourselves.
So what would it take to bring us all together as brothers and sisters?
An act of God.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot how to sing.
In the Bible there are two Psalms that describe a vast range of emotion and experience as God's people, and they are encamped right next to each other. Psalm 137 is a lament and plea for justice about the fallen nation that is held in the grip of sinful people. It describes the mocking presence of rulers and tormentors who did not love or fear God, and called on the people to sing songs of praise and remembrance of Jerusalem, the city left in ruins. It was like rubbing salt in the wound. None of them felt like singing at all. Instead they felt as if God had left them.
Psalm 136, placed right before the lament found in Psalm 137 is just the opposite. It is a psalm of gratitude and thanksgiving. It encourages all who read it to raise our voices in thanks and praise to God as we remember everything He has brought us through. The two Psalms work together because it is most often the dark times that we go through, by God's grace, for which we are the most thankful. So the lament and gratitude go hand in hand as we worship our God.
What is the big deal then? Doesn't this just naturally happen? We have good days and we have bad days and a lot of days in between. Yes, but how do we honor and celebrate those victories and losses? Do we, like the psalmist, lift our voices and sing? I don't think so. No instead we too often throw parties for ourselves to celebrate our own works when things go well. When things go poorly, we hide it away, for fear of showing our pain, or we take it out on others, or sometimes even ourselves. We do not often have the courage to take tragedy and make music from it. In hiding our pain, we have lost our voice.
In tough times, the artists are often the first to be cut from the public square. Yet it is just as often the arts that pull us all out of our places of despair into new light - and there have been times where the Church inspired those artists. I'm concerned today though, that the artists are not being inspired by us, for we have failed them, and ourselves. We have forgotten how to sing and lost our voices. Because we could not sing our laments, we cannot sing our songs of thanksgiving and praise, and our spirits, which the psalmists tied to our very breath, remain stagnant and unmoved.
Lift up your voice and sing, whatever you find yourself going through today. It will stir your soul and bring you closer to God, out of the darkness and into the light.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit..."
He changed the world by calling the least, the last, and the lost. In a world that only knew how to use the poor, He only gave. They were not any more loyal than the rich and powerful. They came to be fed, healed, delivered from spiritual oppression. Some of them said thank you. Some did not. Many people followed Him. A few actually put His words into practice. In the end, they all either turned on Him or abandoned Him, and He died... perhaps the poorest spirit of them all.
"You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world..."
But they were not. They were nobodies. The man who memorized this message was a hated tax collector and traitor to his own kind when he first heard these words. He rated below Judas the thief. On their best days, they were just people, trying to get by in a world that seemed set against them. Whatever He saw in them, they did not see in themselves or in each other. It is a strange thing to have the one in Whom you hope, put their faith in you.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."
The laws and their interpretations piled up more and more all the time. It seemed impossible to please God. How can you earn a life of peace and comfort? Nothing seemed to work. They wanted to give up and come up with new laws, simpler laws. They wanted to start fresh. He looked at the broken mess of their lives and told them they were not far from God at all. They were just missing one thing.
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder'..."
Justice, in its purest form, has always been 'an eye for an eye'. Justice had gone missing though. When the Jews were trampled down by the Romans, where was their justice? When their property was confiscated and their people sold into slavery, where was their justice? Injustice led to anger and desperation, and that led to hate and violence and vengeance. That story ends with rivers of blood poured out across the nations. He does not deny the injustice. He denies the vengeance. He denies the violence. He defies the hate and the desperation, and He even defies the anger experienced in the face of injustice. What are we to do in the face of injustice? Seek reconcilliation above all else, He says.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery..."
To be poor is to know want and to want what is not yours. He proclaims that it is not merely the act of taking that which is not yours which is wrong, but even the wanting itself. Not only is anger intolerable, so is desire. Anything that causes uncontrolled desire should be cut off. Marriage is a calling from God and it is to be entered into and lived trusting in God's provision, not demanding fulfillment from one another.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely...'"
It is a human privilege to be able to speak truth. The powerful ability to speak is part of our connection to the image of God. Lies therefore are a desecration of that image. This desecration becomes even worse when we speak untruth and point to God. There are no need for vows. Every person carries the seal of heaven as one of God's creations, as one of God's children. That is enough, and more than anything else we can call up to vouch for us.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye...'"
Injustice is not defeated with punishment. Injustice is defeated by reconciliation. In a complicated world of desperate needs and broken dreams, sin compounds upon itself as one misdeed is countered by one worse. Evil snowballs into atrocity. 'An eye for an eye' was the attempt to cut the cancer out before it spread too far. He is not proposing surgery though. What He speaks to them is a cure for the cancer. He will not cut anyone out and He will not let us cut them out either.
"You have heard that it was said 'You shall love your neighbor...'"
You have set the bar too low, He explains. From the beginning, we were meant to be extraordinary beings. We were made in the image of God. We were taught to be Holy, because He was Holy. When we saw the world fall apart around us, we lost our confidence in God. We failed when we tried to fix the world ourselves. We made it worse. So we lowered the standards for ourselves and repeated this process over and over and over again. Now we have no standards and we still cannot seem to satisfy that overwhelming sense of injustice in us. Depression sinks in as our hope goes out. There is no way out. We are powerless against the waves of death and destruction that come our way.
But His voice rings out from the chaos. It's time to raise the bar. It is time to set your sight back on the God who made you. You will never hit the target if you keep aiming below it. Anyone can just get by... You are a child of God and it is time to start acting like one.
I've been doing some reading up on Frederick Douglas this week. He has been a breath of fresh air in the midst of the tragic violence our nation has faced and the turmoil occurring in our political parties. President Obama continues to call for unity, but our nation, our culture, our lives are incredibly divided. Read these words, delivered to Congress in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
"It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause entirely removed from the Republic."
Truth does not prevail in violence. Emotion does. Personal agendas and ambitions do. Certainly sin and evil do as well. But Truth does not prevail in that. Instead, it prevails in reason.
Take a step back and ask, why now? Why do these attacks happen in the heat of summer and in times and places where the economy struggles? Why do we hear about these attacks in places with greater population density and not in the rural villages that predominate our country? We get hot and stressed... and our frustration overides our reason, so we find someone to take it out on. That someone is almost always the wrong person, not the person with whom we are truly frustrated.
I don't know about Frederick Douglass's faith, so I cannot comment on that, but I noticed he applied some of the spiritual warfare principles of Jesus to politics in the 1800's. He taught us to name the root cause, the evil spirit tormenting us, and to have the courage to cast it out instead of just dealing with the symptoms. It reminds me of the demoniac of Gerasene that was chained outside the town, near the tombs because he was so enraged that he would wound himself and anyone around him. Jesus, was not afraid of him, but asked the demons their name. They replied "Legion, for we are many". Jesus then cast them into a herd of pigs when they begged him not to send them away and the man was restored to sanity. (Mark 5:1-20)
We need to name those root causes, those spiritual evils that are tormenting us and have the courage to cast them out. I don't mean the evils our neighbors have, I mean the ones that we have in our own lives, in our own houses, in our own hearts. I'm sure the devil loves nothing more than a bunch of tormented fools taking out their distress on one another, all the while being blind to the root of our strife.
I've not seen any quotes of Frederick Douglas posted but I encourage you to check him out as he spoke from a place of peace, grace, strength, and unity, in a time when those qualities were most lacking in our nation. We may be in times like those again.
Here is an excerpt from my new book, which I hope to be available as an ebook in September. I believe there is hope in the midst of the violence which has plagued our country, particularly in these last few months.
"After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked."
[The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 5:1–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.]
This second healing miracle does not have the obstacle of distance. It showcases the power of Jesus over time. Here in this place of physical debilitation, surrounded by dozens, maybe more than a hundred blind, sick, and lame people, Jesus picks out one and asks him an audacious question. “Do you want to be healed?” The question is so direct and the answer so obvious that it almost invites sarcasm. It is like asking that question to someone laying in a hospital room.
Except, that is not quite true. A better analogy would be that it is like someone who has laid in a hospital bed for 38 years. Would they still want to be healed? Maybe not. Maybe in that amount of time they would have given up hope and just wished for death. Maybe they had grown so used to the injury that they did not even realize they were hurt. Maybe this man showed up at this pool each day, not because he expected to be healed, but because this was his community… these were the type of people he could understand.
It was in the middle of this hurt community that Jesus called him out and asked him if he wanted out. “No one will help me. They all rush to get in front of me whenever I get a chance to get out.” Jesus called to him and he responded with excuses. True, though they may be, he did not really answer the question Jesus asked. He did not listen to what was asked, he answered a different question instead. He answered the question, “Why have you not healed yourself?”. But that is not what he was asked. Jesus only wanted to know if he still wanted to be healed.
Time does strange things to us. Some things heal. Other things get infected. Most things scar over as a reminder of the wound. It happens in individuals and it happens in communities as well. It affects our political perspectives. When we are at a place that holds history, good and especially bad, we get defensive. We place memorials at the roadsides where loved ones have been killed. We retell ourselves those stories in our minds over and over again.
Our perspectives change though and the details come in and out of focus until they fit whatever grand design we are trying to justify for ourselves and others. It is our way of making sense of why bad things happen to us, and we all do it. Jesus calls us out of that though. Instead of asking for a reason we are the way we are, He simply asks if we want to be healed.
How often have we been hurt in the political and community battles we face and find there is no way past the hurt, past the wounds. Generations upon generations compound scars upon scars until no one remembers what started the war, only that we were born either to cut or bleed. It is in the midst of those situations that Jesus calls us out and asks us if we want to be healed. Again, He gives us no flashy show of power. He only asks us to start living like we are healed, picking up our bed, and walking into something new.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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