Custodians of the Faith

They were called “the ones who speak for another.” They spoke for God. They were not neatly groomed sages climbing down from their towers, waltzing into throne rooms, delivering mystical wisdom or coded predictions and retiring back to their offices to work on their next PowerPoint presentation. These were weathered, often homeless individuals with bounties on their heads. Being a prophet was less like being a celebrity and more like being a fugitive. They were leathery skinned, trash talkers ripping up the powers that be and tearing down the pride of the people. They were harsh and at times even crude.1 Yet, they weren’t macho, loudmouth jerks. They were deep souls – brave poets – delivering some of the most beautiful and gentle imagery in the Bible often quoted by Jesus himself. They were custodians of the faith, guarding it from not only godless influence, but internal distortion and the missing of the point by the religious. From this vocation the prophets spoke and wrote.

“I’ve been asked to say this and to make it loud and clear. We talk about being a people and even a nation under God as if we have a merit worthy morality or at least did back in the 50’s. We ask God for justice and pray for His return. We worship Him and give of our time and money. So, why is our country in this shape? Does He see us?

God sees you. He sees you worship and yet on that same day you commit violence with your words, fists and weapons. You live in a society full of exploited people and you chastise them because they don’t pull themselves up by their boot straps. Is that the kind of worship he wants, an hour of emotional expression and bowed heads? Is that what you call worshiping God?

Do you know what He really wants? He wants you to care about the inhumanness of our prisons where we joke about criminals being raped and call it justice. He wants you to stop getting filthy rich off your employees while you demand more work and longer hours. Help the poor and stop stereotyping everyone on welfare as lazy and enabled. They are not.

This is the type of religious worship God really wants. When this is done, you will be that city on a hill you claim to be and things will get better for everyone. When you live like this, you put yourself in a place where God can protect you. Outside of that, you are on your own.

When your speech is filled with hate and you point your finger of disgust at everyone else, God hates that. When you fail to show any amount of empathy to overworked people and simply disregard other humans as illegal outsiders, inner-city thugs or fly-over state white trash, your Sunday morning prayers are ignored.

But if you work tirelessly to put an end to all of this, you will again be “garden people” living in a dense, forest-green peace. From within you will flow a deep, clear soul. Then you will be known as restorative, life-giving people.” (That was my paraphrase of Isaiah 58.)

But, our morality is lopsided. I heard a story of a minister who stood up in front of an auditorium full of ministers and said “There are thousands of people in our city going hungry every day and none of you give a damn about it. The problem is that you are more upset that I just said the word “damn” than you are about the hungry people.” Christianity has in many places been hijacked by moralistic terrorists checking the length of women’s skirts and the frequency of your quiet times. Many are more concerned about women wearing scandalous yoga pants or the amount of curse words in that movie than we are about the murder rate in Chicago or the horrors of Aleppo. Jesus told the Pharisees the same thing:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”2

This is not either or. We cannot separate the way of Jesus into a spiritual or social gospel. Listen to His own description of his ministry as he read from Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”3

This is about our witness. When we are more offended by the immorality on television than we are by that of our leaders, our witness is weak. We cannot make excuses for ourselves by shrugging off disgusting behavior for the sake of a political agenda. As followers of the way of Jesus, we are not afforded that moral maneuvering. This is a call to a more complete morality than we see in either political party. This is a call back to the higher way of God. This is a call beyond the lopsided morality of much of evangelical Christianity that gets more angry about whether the Home Depot greeter says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” than we do about Syrian refugee babies washing up on the beach shore. This is a call to be custodians of the faith cleaning up the puke in the hall left by an unhealthy Christian witness before the pungent odor of grossly missing the point sets in permanently.

If we embrace a strong personal morality and religious conviction and yet, at the same time, fight against injustice, work for equality, and live from a heart of grace and mercy for all people all over the world, “then our light will break forth like the dawn, and our healing will quickly appear; then our righteousness will go before us, and the glory of the LORD will be our rear guard.”4

If we refuse to sell out to any political party and refuse to comprise one part of our morality for the sake of the other, no matter how hard it is, then “the LORD will guide us always; he will satisfy our needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen our frame. We will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”5

When we do this, we will again have an empowered witness. When we do this, we will again be ones who speak for another.

 

1 Ezekiel 23:19-21 – you’re not going to read that in church.
2 Matthew 23:23
3 Luke 4:18-19
4 Isaiah 58:8
5 Isaiah 58:11

You’re a Piece of Grass

There is an official record of 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties of the Vietnam War.1 I remember the first time that I visited the memorial in D.C. In order to find a specific name on the wall you must consult a memorial book located nearby. The names are listed alphabetically in the book along with their location on the wall. As I flipped through the book, I looked for my last name. It seemed to be a subconscious attempt to connect in some way with someone out of that staggering list. At least that is what I tell myself. It might have just been narcissism. But, as I turned the pages, the finiteness of my life weighed on me. I once did not exist. One day I will only be a memory. Eventually, I will never be thought of again. My insignificance, at least for a few moments, was tangible.

That doesn’t feel good. To matter and to be known feels good. But, like the billions of people before you and likely after you, your significance is short lived. In the Bible, we can find two extremes so to speak on this topic. At one end we have Psalm 139. It is a description of the intimate level at which God knows us. “You created my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb…” stuff like that. Warm, fuzzy and a bit much for the cynics among us. Then there is 1 Peter 1:21 that says ““All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall…” The sentiment in one of those two passages will sell books in the Christian bookstore. The other, not so much.

And then there is Paul’s speech to the Athenians. As he describes God, the true God that they are yet to know, he makes this statement:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Act 17:26-28

Is there truly that much intention and purpose to our lives? For those of us who have been stopped too often at the reality checks on the road life, it is hard to believe. Most of the time, significance is harder to find than that Lego piece your son lost only to realize it was already attached to the structure (yep, that happened). And, when we encounter moments in which we feel significant, we are extremely suspect of them. We usually feel more like a piece of grass.

But, what if it is true that there is this deep level of significance and purpose to all of us?

The design is far too vast for you to take it in all at once. From your limited perspective, you will never see it all. You cannot see the whole ocean from your position on the beach. And this leaves plenty of room for doubt. Yet, wherever there is room for doubt, there is room for faith. Faith that there is, even if it is imperceptible, significance to your life now. The intersection of you, this time and this place has purpose. However, you need to stop trying to understand it or put it into words, because you will never be able to, again, take in this vast design all at once and grasp the importance of your place in it.

Because this is about so much more than you. This is not about your fuzzy feeling of significance. I am not writing this so that you can feel good about yourself. I am writing this to remind you that you have been given a role in the design and refusing that role leaves a void – a gravely, unfortunate void. It is a void that you can never fully understand and trying to measure it is not only an exercise in futility, but selfishly detrimental.

Measurement is comparison. Comparison erodes. It erodes this faith in our God-designed significance. Comparison paralyzes. It is a self-inflicted wound whose shrapnel sprays those closest to you. And honestly, we usually compare ourselves to our incomplete perceptions of others. We never know the whole story. With that, this comparison sometimes leads us to find solace in the downfall of others. When those who are grossly idolized fall, it makes us, in a twisted way, feel better. We do not realize how it weakens us all for we fail to grasp the complexity of all of our connectedness.

On the other side is selfish ambition. Selfish ambition is a weapon. It is a wound that we inflict on others when we seek to first and foremost create or protect our own significance. The selfishly ambitious become the low-quality graffiti defacing the grand architecture. A life of manufactured self-significance becomes the weak spot in the greater plan designed to hold all of this together.

The writer expresses nothing without the reader and the speaker is unheard without the listener. We are all writers and speakers and we are all readers and listeners. Everyday. You are but a blade of grass in an endless field. Yet, you occupy a certain space for a certain amount of time for a reason. Live there, for significance is bigger than you, but it includes you.

 

1 https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html