Category Archives: Religion in the Culture

What’s in it for Me?

Joshua 5:10-7:26

My husband and I don’t wear big signs that say “Christian,” but we don’t keep it a secret, We believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, and when we feel that He is guiding the conversation, we invite people to church. We get a lot of different reactions, but the most common is something like this: “I really like to go to a church if I get something out of it. I used to go to church a lot, but then I realized one day that I wasn’t getting anything out of it, so I quit.” I wouldn’t belittle this reaction to church attendance, but it is hard to know what to say. The problem is that we don’t think of church as something we do in order to get something. Our participation in church is much more about loving service and obedience to God’s call. When we attend, we are inspired, and we do learn things. But the real point of attending worship is to worship. In fact, the word “liturgy” is derived from Greek words, leit- people + ergon work, which is to say that liturgy is the work of the people. Worship derives from Old English roots that mean “to ascribe worth to.” It would be right to say that Handel’s “Worthy is the Lamb” is the apotheosis of liturgical worship.

The story of the arrival of the wilderness-weary Israelites in the Promised Land is a story that puts a fine point on the question of what we get out of knowing God. At the beginning of the passage listed above (Joshua 5:10-7:26), the Israelites eat the Passover in the new land, and that is the end of manna. For the first time in forty years, they eat fresh fruits and vegetables, the produce of the Promised Land. Manna had been a gift when they first began to eat it, but the Bible records that the Israelites wearied of it. The generation that entered the Promised Land behind Joshua had never eaten anything but manna. Can you imagine their delight the first time they bit into a peach? They probably thought this moment was evidence from God that there was something for them in following him.

These events took place at Gilgal, their staging point for the coming attack on Jericho. Joshua 5:13-15 describes something even more marvelous. Joshua had been out spying out the ground for the attack on Jericho. As he stood contemplating the battle, he saw a man who said, “The place where you stand is holy.” This explains a lot about the battle for the Promised Land. If you recall, this is the land God promised to Abraham generations before. This is the land from which Joseph was taken to Egypt, where Israelites lived for 400 years before Moses came to lead them back to the Promised Land. How could God promise this land to Abraham? How could he promise it to the Israelites? There were people living on the land before Abraham, and there were people living on the land when the Egyptian escapees arrived there. Where do they get off claiming that God can give them this land?

The man who spoke with Joshua gives us the answer: the land belongs to God. It always belonged to God. In fact, if you read the Bible carefully, you soon discover that in God’s economy, all the land belongs to him, as well as the cattle that graze upon it and the whales that swim in its oceans. When the man who met Joshua told him that the spot where he stood was holy, it could have been any place. There is a big lesson in this little story. James summed up this lesson beautifully when he wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17, the eloquent and beautiful King James Version) The lesson is that all that we have and all that we are is the gift of our gracious God. We owe him thanksgiving and grateful stewardship of all that we receive.

This little story puts the big story of the conquest of Jericho in proper context. The marching, the trumpets, the wall that came tumbling down. The bloody destruction of men and women, children, animals, all living things within the walls except for Rahab and her family. The scruffy desert wanderers who had just arrived in Canaan defeated a powerful center of commerce surrounded by a high, thick wall, designed to repel real armies, not families marching around and singing praise to God. The people were full of excitement and delight. Everything looked good. God was working things out to their advantage. It appeared that they would get something out of all the misery they had endured since leaving Egypt after all.

One man wasn’t satisfied with the ego trip, however. He wanted something he could hold in his hands. I see that in dissatisfied church-goers, too. People come to my church, and they participate in a colorful and aesthetically pleasing liturgy, but they go away without “feeling” anything. They are not promised anything, but rather, they are urged to go forth and give service. There doesn’t seem to be anything in it for them. It isn’t at all like the churches where people are told that faithful Christian living will be rewarded with good jobs, comfortable houses and plenty of food for their children. It isn’t like the teleseminars that promise you that the universe wants you to have whatever you really want if you just get in synch and make your desires clear. They feel like Achan, who looked at all the “stuff” being gathered up for the Lord’s treasury and wondered where his share was. God could surely spare a little something for Achan. Didn’t God have enough already?

We are all tempted by this logic, and never more than in contemporary culture. The “Occupy” movement is all about a feeling that somebody else, be it God or man, has more than he “needs” and I have less than I “need.” It is all about my right to decide what is enough for someone else, even God. It is all about my right to judge what others have as if their possessions exist only because I have been shortchanged. Maybe Achan thought he actually needed the things he stashed out of sight of whoever was managing the Lord’s treasury that day. Or maybe he really thought God had no right to keep all the treasure for himself. Maybe Achan thought God was being profoundly unfair to everybody, so Achan said something like, he who helpeth not himself, the same he shall not be holpen.

The root of Achan’s problem is the root of most human discontent. Achan failed to recognize that all the wonderful things, all the land, all the animals, all the people, belonged to God already. The Israelites were conquering Jericho as God’s servants, and they were asked to demonstrate their stewardship of God’s gifts first. If you have read the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, you have read the references to the “firstfruits.” The birth of an animal, the beginning of harvest, even the firstborn child, was all dedicated to God. The firstfruits were to be put in God’s treasury or else redeemed. God claimed Jericho as a firstfruit of the blessing of a homeland for the Israelites, and Achan ignored God’s righteous claim, because he wanted something for himself.

We are all guilty of the same thing. The people who put it into words are not worse than the rest of us; they are exactly like us. We all want rewards and privilege and possessions. The “Occupy” movement is just like the rest of us. When we are honest, we know that we all must grapple with envy, jealousy and covetous hearts. No matter how satisfied we are on most days, we all have our moments when we wonder why God didn’t give us the same benefits as somebody else. (I won’t say “everybody else” because we all know that the number of people in the world who have less than the 99% in the US is astronomical.)

I hear a lot of people say that the Old Testament is out of touch with reality, but I don’t believe it. The Old Testament is more real than most reality TV. Those folks were genuine scoundrels. They were just like the scoundrels in the news. Criminals, celebrities, politicians, scheming businessmen – they are all there, and much, much more. The story of Achan is quite real and down to earth. Any of us could be Achan, because any of us could be Eve. Satan was there, whispering in Achan’s ear, just as he whispered in Eve’s ear, “Did God say …?” The lesson of Achan is not implacable, ruthless justice in the name of God. The justice administered that day was simply the way justice was administered in that era. The truth of Achan is timeless, and we do well to listen to it. 

Every wild animal of the forest is mine,

the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air,

and all that moves in the field is mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,

for the world and all that is in it is mine.


Psalm 50:10-12

We are blessed with God’s grace and presence in our lives. We are gifted with God’s abundant generosity, and our responsibility is simply grateful stewardship of those gifts. God’s goodness is not focused on our personal gratification, but rather on the provision of all that we need according to his purposes. What’s in it for me? The presence and power of the Most High God in my everyday life. That’s what.


Re-entering the Day

Yesterday I attended a commemorative concert in honor of our memory of September 11, 2001. I heard two spectacular pieces that recalled the horror of that day. After the performance, I asked the composer of one of the pieces why there was no redemptive message. It has been ten years since we watched those towers collapse, and I felt that by this time someone should have a redemptive message about the day. As I listened and watched during the concert, I yearned for redemption, and found little hope in the performance.

The program consisted of two pieces: Requiem for 9/11(2003) by Hollis Thoms and Ashes, Ashes by Timothy Nohe. The requiem borrowed its form from Bach’s cantatas while Nohe’s piece was a mixed media presentation which included actual ashes from the day as part of a mostly musical performance. Both pieces dramatically evoked the painful experience of terror, dismay, despair, anguish, fear and shock we all felt that September morning ten years ago. They brought back such intense memories that it was almost like returning to that day. In fact, they were profound laments that allowed us all to grieve again with almost the same intensity we felt so long ago. No wonder I ached for redemption.

It isn’t true that the pieces offered no hope at all. The Requiem concluded with a piece based on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke which ended with the words, (English translation) “Yet there is one who holds us as we fall Eternally in his hands’ tenderness.” Ashes, Ashes concluded with a soaring observation of the bright sunny Wednesday which followed that dark Tuesday. Each composer attempted to remind listeners that the world did not lose all hope that day. Yet even as I was leaving the building I still hungered for a message of redemption. Like a vague ache that simply won’t go away, this feeling gnawed at me all evening.

This morning, I realize that my longing arose not from a deficit in either piece, but rather from the power of these pieces. They are profound laments that truly engage each hearer in deep grieving. These pieces bring back the moment, the imagery, the heart’s cry of September 11, and they make each hearer desire the redemption that such an atrocity calls for. These pieces demand that we seek redemption, not revenge, and that is their real power.

When Jesus walked on earth, he predicted that there would be days like September 11. He warned us that evil personified in people would assault us. He told us to expect that evil will always be inextricably woven into our days on earth. He predicted grief and pain in every human life. However, the  life, death and resurrection of Christ, unlike the laments for September 11, do not leave us feeling hopeless. The crucifixion of Christ was a day even darker and more awful than September 11, but the darkness of that day was overpowered by the brightness and the hope of Easter morning. It is the resurrection power of Christ that redeems the day of crucifixion and redeems all of us. The hope we enjoy because of the resurrection is the reason we call the dark day of the crucifixion “good.”

I am glad that I had to remember September 11 so vividly, and I am glad that the composers forced me to remember what it was like to feel the pain and despair of that day. That deep, dark, brutal, anguished memory forced me to remember that our hope to defeat such evil does not lie in diplomacy or military action, necessary and important as they are. Our hope is in the risen Christ who holds each of us in his everlasting arms and carries us through evil days. As the apostle Paul reminds us, whether we live or die, it is all about Christ. That is the hope that transcends and overcomes the evil of September 11.

Faith Speech Run Amok

This morning I caught up on news I had missed during the past week without internet. One item immediately caught my attention. I discovered that there is a huge public conversation involving Christians and Jews over this question: if an atheist is diagnosed with cancer and he begins treatment for it, should we pray for him to get well?

What? I don’t know enough about Jewish theology to converse about their attitudes, but I have been a Christian for a long time, so I feel completely prepared to discuss this question as regards Christians. What I don’t understand is this: why is this even a question?

One day someone asked Jesus what was the greatest law. The obvious intent was to have him prioritize among the many laws Pharisees tried to observe and enforce. The questioner almost certainly expected to get additional guidance about the way God evaluated obedience to more important or less important laws. Instead, Jesus ended the discussion by saying this: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) In summary, love God and love your neighbor. That is the law. That is all there is. Forget that list you think you need. God’s law is about giving yourself completely to God and then loving everyone.

The person who asked this question was just like the people who wonder if we should pray for the healing of an atheist. He thought that God had rules that separated the “good” people from the “bad” people. Everybody engaged in this debate about praying for an atheist has the same mind set. This debate has nothing to do with God at all. It is entirely about human attitudes and it is completely motivated by Satan’s constant desire to build walls between us and God and between each of us and all the rest of us. This debate has nothing to do with the will of God; it is all about the will of the Self that sits on the throne of each human heart, the Self that is its own little god in its own little empire that has no room for anyone else.

So I ask: why is this even a question? The answer is that when someone does not love God with all his heart, soul and mind, he cannot even begin to love his neighbor. The answer is that if someone does love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, he will absolutely love his neighbor, because God loves his neighbor. So I ask, if an atheist is diagnosed with cancer and he begins treatment for it, should we pray for him to get well? I answer, Yes, indeed we should.

We should not, however, pray that he be healed simply with a view to the possibility of using his healing to make a convert out of him. We should not pray for him in order to show God how good we are. We should not pray for him in order to show the world that Christians are post-partisan. We should pray for him, as we would pray for any neighbor, because God loves him and wants the best for him. Whether a person is an atheist, a Buddhist, a Communist, a Presbyterian or a Shinto priest, God created that person out of God’s love for him. God created each of us and gifted each of us and yearns for fellowship with us. God loves each individual even if that individual is spitting in his eye.

If you doubt this to be true, just look at Christ on the cross. He had been whipped and tortured for hours before he dragged his own cross to the hill of Golgotha where Roman soldiers nailed him to that cross where he hung, on public display, for hours. Jeering crowds surrounded him, daring him to prove he was God’s Son by jumping off the cross and saving himself. His response was to ask his heavenly Father for forgiveness for everyone. Then he died for everyone, because he loved everyone. If Christ died for this atheist, then Christ loves this atheist, and that is why we should pray for his healing.

It is not possible to pray lovingly that this man be healed of his cancer and not pray also that the Holy Spirit will work in his heart to give him the gift of faith and the gift of life in Christ. We pray that prayer for the world, and we pray that prayer for individuals, but that is the natural outgrowth of love for people.

It is impossible for me to understand how this debate ever got started. If anyone had approached me to ask what I thought, my answer would be, “When I see Jesus on the cross, I know that he died for everyone, including this atheist. May God grant this man healing in both body and soul, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.”