Any beginning has a promise of redemption and restoration

In the Jeremiah account, these promises of redemption and restoration or renewal follow after a time of  suffering and even calamity. It is in the context of the humiliating experience of the exile that the promise of redemption and restoration comes. Indeed, in the Gospel Reading Jesus said, “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (Luke 21:32).

What things was he talking about? “…Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring sea and the waves…fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…” (Luke 21:25-26). Everybody will be experiencing some kind of tribulation, that is what the statement about this generation means.

Any beginning is a time of promise. There is no beginning that does not have a promise or some kind of expectation; something to be achieved or reached for. That is the essence of every beginning. The season of Advent marks the beginning of the church year, or the church calendar; and in everyday language, advent means the threshold of something  – the threshold of the promise of redemption.

The First Reading for the First Sunday of Advent  (Jeremiah 33:14-16) says the Lord “will fulfill the promise made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah…” This text is a variant version of  Jeremiah 23:5-8 which promises not only restoration but also superseding the Exodus tradition which Israel violated, with one of redemption from the Lord.

This promise of redemption is punctuated in chapters 31 and 33 with two reassuring statements: “This is what the Lord says”, and “The days are coming” (or “In those days” or “at that time”). Thus, this is the season of advent or threshold of “that day”, or “those days”, or “the coming days” – a time of expectation; not of a probability but of assurance – “thus says the Lord”, as some translations have it – “the days are surely coming”.

I would like to look at this as transformation at its finest; like steel or the beautiful and well shaped glass vessel after the fire of the furnace.

Whether it is a natural disaster – like the recent Hurricane Sandy  – or a battle with cancer, or loss of a job, divorce, or even death in the family, the advice and comfort, is to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down…”  (Luke 21:28,34).

Think of this non-biblical advice from Dr. Jennifer Howard, for perspective: “It is not that our life is supposed to go perfectly. It is what we do when life does what it does that matters. Blessings come in all shapes”.

 

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The challenges and comfort of the Kingship of Christ: Part II

In this second segment of the discussion of Christ the King we are guided by Daniel’s vision where he saw “one like son of man” in the clouds of heaven. This term,”one like a son of man” has been discussed extensively by theologians and scholars and is still a subject of much controversy.

In the New Testament, there are 69 occurrences of the term “Son of Man” in the Synoptic Gospels and 13 in John’s Gospel.  With the exception of three, all the references come from Jesus’ lips, mostly in the third person, and as his self-designation. In the Synoptics, there are three categories pertaining to the term.

The first is a present dimension of authority and power. The second is that of suffering and rejection and ultimately crucifixion and the third carries a futuristic dimension. The Son of Man will return some time in the future, exalted and glorified. This return is also a time of judgment and the consummation of all things. The Collect for Christ the King Sunday praises God “whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords”.

It is this third dimension which is the basis of hope and comfort for Christians. It says there is something great and glorious that is beyond the present moment, beyond the now. This has been the source of hope and joy for Christians from the very beginning. When the mob grabbed Stephen to stone him, he “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look’, he said, ‘ I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’  (Acts 7:55-57).
Assurances notwithstanding, there are, unfortunately some in the Christian community who feel uncomfortable about this futuristic dimension of the Kingship of Christ. “What about now?”, they ask. The comfort ,for Christians, is that the now continues to eternity.

We are ready in Jesus’ Kingdom, now, and that leads to our readiness in his eternal Kingdom when he returns. For Christians it is comforting; it is the hope that is unique to Christians.

The challenges and comfort of the Kingship of Christ

Part I.

The last Sunday in the church calendar is known as Christ the King Sunday. The lectionary readings for the Sunday, therefore, point to Christ as King. In the Gospel Reading from John 18:33-37 Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king of the Jews, to which Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not from this world”. Pilate got it right when he asked, “So you are a king?”

Christ’s kingship was discomforting to Pilate and the secular Roman authority he represented. It was discomforting to the Sanhedrin – the religious authority which handed him over to the Romans.

The kingship of Christ challenges the status quo of today’s society as it did then, and that is why it is discomforting. Even his followers then expected him to overthrow the foreign dominion over them and re-establish the Davidic dynasty. Indeed, that was the hope in Psalm 132:10-12; “For your servant David’s sake, do not turn away the face of your Anointed. The Lord has sworn an oath to David; in truth he will not break it: ‘A son, the fruit of your body will I set upon your throne”.

My kingdom is not from this world” does not mean that his is a celestial realm not connected to the world we live in today. That is why he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven”. We pray for that kingdom now, on the earth we live in now. Christ is, therefore, the manifestation of God’s heavenly kingdom, here on earth now. As we will see later, there is also a future dimension to that.

So, we live in this world, but in the realm of Christ’s kingship. It is both a challenge and a comfort. A challenge because we are no longer to conform to the norms of this world but are to be transformed into functioning members of Christ’s kingdom.

During this holiday season we become conscious of its propensity for self-gratification and focus instead, outside of ourselves. In Christ’s kingdom we seek peace and understanding to solve our differences instead of a war machinery. In Christ’s kingdom we seek the common good and the well-being of every member of society. It is we, not I against them.

In Christ’s kingdom there is forgiveness and reconciliation instead of acrimony and keeping score

These challenges and attributes are not exclusively Christian. Indeed many faith and spiritual traditions can claim and aspire for them. It is the comfort or hope of Christ’s Kingship that is uniquely Christian and that we will discuss in the next section, Part II.

 

 

Focus on something or someone other than self for joy and peace of mind during the holidays

When the men of the Exodus Program decided to join the volunteers of the local church who were going to assist in rebuilding a New Jersey community in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the decision was as spontaneous as it could be. They had less than a week to get ready and go.

These are men in a nine to twelve months residential recovery program, fighting their own battles to regain lives lost in addictions. When the opportunity came, they seized it and went to help others fighting battles to regain lives torn apart by a natural disaster.

While both of these battles deal with physical loss, they are also characterized – to an even greater degree – by a heavy weight of emotions.

Upon their return, after a week of self-giving for others, I asked them the two familiar rhetorical questions : One, what was the biggest lesson from your experience, and two, what did you find inspiring?

Their experience in New Jersey taught them that no adversity is insurmountable. The people who lost every material possession they had, were in no means reduced in their determination to continue with their lives. They learn the same lesson every day in the recovery program but their experience with the victims of the hurricane gave them a different perspective.

What was most inspiring in their experience was the spirit of people coming together to help one another in response to adversity. Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics, all joined together as one to respond to human need. Some found even more inspiration in the fact that the people out there helping in the disaster zone were not of government organization. They were driven to respond to their hearts.

Responding to the needs of others is the most blessed experience anyone can have. There are many opportunities and there are equally many looking for such opportunities during this holiday season. Despite the spectacle of Black Friday and the subsequent shopping sprees, any opportunity to focus on something or someone other than self will prove to be the most satisfying experience of the holiday season.

The holiday season is meant to be celebration, thanksgiving and relationships. It is a time of our rejoicing. Yet, we know too well that often, it is also a time of sorrow for many, a time of opening up of old wounds, a time for acrimony and family feuds.

For peace of mind and to enjoy the holidays, consider focusing on someone or something other than yourself.

Hope, Faith, and Love or Charity are virtues we hold fast to

Even though Christianity has, from the earliest times, recognized hope, faith and love – or charity – as virtues and set them opposite the Seven Deadly Sins, their significance extends to all spiritual traditions, particularly when faith is not restricted to the Christian experience only. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (2 Corinthians 13:13).

The Christian hope is in the resurrection – and to be precise, the resurrection of the body as we confess in the Apostles and Nicene Creed – and everlasting life. The Christian faith stands on the claims of Jesus’ resurrection, without which it is indistinguishable from any other faith tradition. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, Christians wait in hope for the resurrection of the dead – among whom they too will be counted.

According to Daniel 12:1-3, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt…”. This is the text of the First Reading for the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. The selective language in this text is disturbing for many, even of the Christian faith, for it speaks of “many” – why not all? – and also “some”. However one looks at it, the “shame and everlasting contempt” is too bitter to swallow..

This has created unresolved debate between those who would preach “Hell” and its unquenchable fire on the one hand, and those unable to reconcile it with a God who is Love and Merciful on the other. Earlier this year, Destiny Image, Publishers, Inc published a book by Clark Whitten entitled, Pure Grace: The Life Changing Power of Uncontaminated Grace. In chapter 9 he comments on Hebrews 10:14 (the Epistle Reading for the Sunday) which says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”. Clark Whitten comments as follows: “When a person is born again, the Bible describes the results of that new birth as the person having passed out of death into life. That new life is, by definition everlasting, eternal. Eternal life is the only kind of spiritual life in existence…” (p.136).

Still, the same Epistle Reading states, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…”.

There is no doubt about our hope of everlasting life. Indeed, in the Collect we ask God to “Grant us so to hear them (all holy Scriptures), read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…” We are similarly reminded in the Epistle Reading to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering”.

Anyone involved in a bible study would appreciate the value of the reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting holy Scriptures which takes place during the bible study because it is the way to holding fast to the blessed hope. All worship services serve to remind us to continue to meet, for the same purpose of holding fast to the blessed hope.

Find more on this from my earlier comments by visiting here.

 

Three important lessons about sharing the good news early church style

The following four texts in the New Testament show the early church being closely involved in evangelism with the poor. These are Acts 6:1;  Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-27; and 2 Corinthians 8:2.

In Acts 6 the community of believers was already made up of Jews and Gentiles (Hellenists, according to NRSV translation). The latter complained to the apostles that “their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food”. There must have been an inequitable system whereby the Jewish widows were served and the Gentiles left out.

It has been suggested that the Jewish society already had in place the mechanism for serving the poor based on the Hebrew scriptures. What was being called for here, was for an equitable way that would ensure that no needy person was left out without help.

In response, the apostles called a community meeting which decided to have two separate ministries:

The apostles would concentrate on the proclamation of the good news and a team of seven deacons would do social ministry. The seven became the foundation of the deaconate and its development through the centuries, as we shall see later.

The second reference, Galatians 2:10 is itself a reference to the Jerusalem Council of 49 A.D which convened to address the question of whether or not Gentile believers would have to – literally – become Jewish before they could be Christian. The decision, according to Paul, was no! What Paul stresses as coming out of the Council is this: “They asked only one thing: that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do”.

We can see the practical side of this evangelism in Romans 15:26-27 where Paul informs the Roman congregation of his work in Macedonia and the Roman province of Achaia. The believers there, were “pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem…”. He continues to show in 2 Corinthians 8:2 that the Macedonian believers were not deterred in this evangelism by their own poverty or hard times. “For, during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part”.

These are the three lessons of evangelism from the early church:

First, attending to the material needs of the needy is as important as the proclamation of the good news.

Second; when it comes to rituals and observances, ministry to the poor and needy takes precedence.

Third; every believer, including the poor, participate in evangelism.

Good News is good news to all

We have already seen that evangelism is both the proclamation and its content is the good news. How then can this relate to the poor, the needy, the homeless – the least in society? Let us bear in mind that every Christian – or every believer – is commissioned to evangelize, if you like, according to Jesus’ command to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). This is a commission for every believer, including those mentioned above, the least in society.

Too often evangelism has been perceived as proceeding from one group (giving) to another (receiving). As a result, the poor are on the receiving end while those serving them are on the giving. That may be true in material terms but not true with the good news. The poor can share the good news too. Most of those who serve the poor testify to spiritual benefits they receive in return, and that is evangelism.

I pointed out previously that the overemphasis on personal salvation may have some flaws both in perception and also in reality. The most serious flaw is the perception that the poor lack a personal relationship with their Creator. This often leads to the poor being blamed for their situation. The second error is the assumption that a personal conversion automatically translates into a reversal of poverty.

The fundamental claim of evangelism, therefore, is “to bring good news to the poor (and to all)…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). Jesus declared the fulfillment of this Isaiah’s prophecy in his ministry (Isaiah 61) and his followers continue the ministry through evangelism.

Some people, particularly non-Christians, are repelled by the term evangelism because of the dictionary definition I cited previously – especially the “missionary zeal” part. Nevertheless, no person of good will is nonplussed by good news, or healing of physical and spiritual illnesses, none of which are exclusively missionary.

I grew up in a small village, one of hundreds of villages that dot the slopes of Kilimanjaro. I still remember some of the missionaries in my childhood and their work. Those of my generation – third generation Christians – and earlier, know that the material prosperity we enjoy today has its roots in the evangelism of the missionaries. They did not carry the bible alone – important as it is: they built schools and health clinics. They did as much for agriculture as they did preaching.

That is the essence of evangelism.

Where there is hope no adversity is too great to overcome

In a previous meditation on the biblical  book of Ruth and the adversity that Naomi faced, I emphasized that if there is hope God is manifested even in adversity or calamity. The lectionary lessons for the Twenty  Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, continue the same truth that no adversity is too great to overcome where hope has a foundation. In the First Reading from Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 Ruth finds a husband – Boaz – prompting the women to remark to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin…”. In the previous meditation, Naomi had lamented, “the hand of the Lord has turned against me”.

As a widow, Naomi’s world had collapsed on her. The family, in her society, was the only means of support. Furthermore, the family was itself depended on the males – notably, husbands and sons. Naomi had none! Yet, the sorrow in the words, “the hand of the Lord has turned against me” turns into the joy witnessed and proclaimed by her fellow women.

The alternative first reading from 1 Kings 17:8-16 is also a story about a widow in Zarephath. She too was facing adversity of hunger and starvation because of a long drought. She was going to cook the last flour she had. After that she expected to die of starvation along with her son.

But, again, God is manifested in the prophet Elijah and the widow survives the calamity of drought.

The Gospel Reading is also a story of a widow who gives everything that she has. Her trust and hope must not have been in what she had. Nor did she seem to worry about what she did not have. Her trust and hope were beyond the material possessions she had – even though marginal.

In the scriptures, widows are listed with orphans, the poor, strangers or aliens and the needy. They are the least in any society. They are not diminished because of their lack of material resources. In these stories, they teach us two lessons:

a). The little that we have matters far more than what we do not have. It is the little that sustains.

b).  We will always have enough if we trust and fully depend on God. As Psalm 127:1 says: “Unless the Lord builds a house, their labor is in vain who build it”. Similarly, Psalm 146:4 says: “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help; whose hope is in the Lord their God”.

Four important words to remember in ministry to the poor

In a recent bible study discussion the question of guilt and remorse in responding to beggars or panhandlers was raised. The exact question was “What is the appropriate response  which will not be followed by feelings of guilt on the one hand, or remorse, on the other?” The context for such feelings would be the knowledge or assumption of the person’s self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol or drug addiction.

The discussion prompted me to write a lengthy response in Hub Pages. I have, since then, received some feedback that encourage me to explore, even further, the wider issues of poverty and our response to the poor and the needy.

Although much of my discussion here and in coming posts will be based on biblical principles, we need to note that responding to poverty is a moral issue that every society addresses in some form. There is no known human society that has completely turned a blind eye to poverty. Furthermore, it is generally acknowledged that the moral character of any society is reflected in the way the society treats the least of its members.

I am proposing the acronym CARE as the focus of our discussion: Compassion, Action, Relief, Elimination. There is a thread that runs through the four words: The beginning is compassion which leads to action. The actions taken aim at providing relief in the short term, but elimination of poverty as the goal.

The fundamental biblical principle is that God is compassionate to the poor, the needy, the stranger, the marginalized – the least in a society. That is the motivation for us to be compassionate too. That will be our first discussion.

 

 

 

 

How do we find God in the midst of catastrophe and chaos?

In the wake of a natural disaster or a catastrophe like Hurricane Sandy, it is not uncommon for anyone to wonder – or even ask loudly – “where is God?”. “Why did God allow this to happen?” or “Why didn’t God prevent it from happening?”.Some may even wonder: “In the midst of all this devastation and all the chaos, how is God involved?”

In the book of Ruth 1:1-18, – the First Reading for some churches on the Sunday after All Saints Day – Naomi – Ruth’s mother-in-law – draws this conclusion: “…the hand of the Lord has turned against me”.

Think of Naomi’s predicament in dealing with this question. She and her family flee their homeland – Bethlehem – because of famine. They seek refuge in a foreign land – Moab. Calamity strikes when her husband dies and before long, further calamity when her sons also die. She is left with two daughters-in-law. She actually sees her daughters-in-law as further burden she has to bear.

We do know, that in later years, Ruth becomes the grandmother of king David and the ancestor of Jesus the Christ. Yet, in the midst of the catastrophe and chaos that Naomi faced, she had no way of knowing how God was involved. It is certainly easy for us now, looking back, to conclude that something far greater than the catastrophe and the calamity came out. It would not be so easy for Naomi when the catastrophe struck.

The victims of Hurricane Sandy face the same predicament as Naomi. Some lost relatives – 74 people are already reported to have died. Many more lost homes and property – every material thing they owned. Many are worrying about lost business, lost livelihood.

Difficult as it is to grasp, the same message about Naomi can be said to those who have been devastated by Hurricane Sandy: God works in mysterious ways, and something far greater than the catastrophe may come out of this.

Yet, even this acceptance demands a lot of trust. One has to trust God in order to find not only meaning, but solace, in the wake of catastrophe. Think of Paul’s words in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…”

This comes from trust without which it is almost impossible to deal with issues that are bigger than us.

There is a second issue, and that is of relationships and the support system. In Naomi’s case the family unit was all that one had for support in times of catastrophe or calamity. The extended family constituted the unit.

In western society today, there is only the vestige of the family support system. When parents are no longer able to care for themselves, nursing homes and professionals provide them with the care their children would have provided. Instead of relatives looking after children, now there are schools and childcare facilities – professionals instead of family.

The important thing, perhaps, is that there should be a support system. The community at large, in western society, has replaced the family. What needs to happen is not to go back to Naomi’s days – even if that were possible – but to adapt to the new reality and make it work efficiently and equitably. Indeed, it would probably be impossible for families alone to provide assistance in the face of calamity without the involvement of the larger community. That is why FEMA and the Red Cross and the Catholic Social Services, for example, can be more effective, equipped and capable in the wake of natural disasters than family units.

The third point, in view of All Saints Day, is the reality of departed loved ones.

Death is a bond among human beings. Everyone has experienced the death of a family member, relative or close friend. When that happens, it can be catastrophic, as in the case of Naomi and her daughters-in-law. Even what was once valuable assets, like homes and houses, can become burdensome in the wake of death.

Here too, the lesson to be learned is that there is and there ought to be a support system so that not one individual among us should have to bear the burden alone.

So, going back to the question we began with: “Where is God in all this?” The answer is: “We find God in each one of us, in one another”. When we are there for one another, no catastrophe, no calamity should be too great for any one.