Psalm 53 – Is God Gone?

Bilious and bloated, they gas,
   “God is gone.”
It’s poison gas—
    they foul themselves, they poison
Rivers and skies;
    thistles are their cash crop.
God sticks his head out of heaven.
    He looks around.
He’s looking for someone not stupid—
    one man, even, God-expectant,
    just one God-ready woman.

He comes up empty. A string
    of zeros. Useless, un-shepherded
Sheep, taking turns pretending
    to be Shepherd.
The ninety and nine
    follow the one.

Don’t they know anything,
    all these predators?
Don’t they know
    they can’t get away with this,
Treating people like a fast-food meal
    over which they’re too busy to pray?

Night is coming for them, and nightmare—
    a nightmare they’ll never wake up from.
God will make hash of these squatters,
    send them packing for good.

Is there anyone around to save Israel?
    God turns life around.
Turned-around Jacob skips rope,
    turned-around Israel sings laughter.
(The Message)

In 1888, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published his book, “The Antichrist.” Nietzsche used the phrase, “God is dead,” to express his idea that the Enlightenment, with its thorough rejection of all things subjective and intuitive, and the embrace of everything objective and observable, had eliminated the possibility of the existence of God.

Nietzsche simply named what a modern progressive society had become: drained of divine mystery. He wrote:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Friedrich Nietzsche

This was the nineteenth century equivalent of making the psalmist’s observation that there is a philosophy extant which states, “There is no God.” He’s gone. And humanity has replaced him with themselves.

Unlike Nietzsche, however, the psalmist takes the perspective not of the human but of God. The Lord looks about for someone wise, someone who truly takes notice to see with spiritual eyes, hear with spiritual ears, discern a spiritual touch, smell the aroma of God, and taste that the Lord is good – rather than relying solely on the five senses.

So, where is God? In the grave? No, he is risen, just as he said.

Just because there seems to be an absence of good in the world, doesn’t mean it isn’t there – or that God is gone.

Any fool can make bold proclamations when they are an epistemology all to themselves.

From God’s perspective, anyone can use their five physical senses. To only use them, and completely ignore other ways of knowing, is, well, plain stupid.

Where is God? Not hanging out with fools, drinking cheap dandelion wine and smoking nasty inexpensive cigars. Rather, the Lord is in the company of the righteous with wise persons who discern God’s presence.

Things are not always what they seem. Violence and oppression in the world are not signaling God is on vacation, doesn’t care, or simply doesn’t exist, at all. We must see beyond or through the world’s crud to a Divine Being who is there, reachable, and very much, cares about the state of humanity.

All our posturing and preening to appear we have it all together is nothing more than a poorly produced television reality show to God. So, if the Lord chooses to change the channel, it doesn’t translate that he isn’t viewing the screen. Only a fool believes no one is watching.

If we ignore God, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised or upset when divine Skittles don’t come raining down from heaven for us to enjoy.

Instead, we are to attend to the spiritual life. There are divine resources available if we will use them. Though they are abundant and free, we still have to ask and receive them with the humility which comes from realizing we aren’t the center of the universe.

Nietzsche is not exactly a person that many Christians would typically acknowledge, let alone refer to, and, for good reason. And yet, he understood that when God is removed from societal norms, it leaves us with a nihilist worldview (the belief that nothing has any inherent importance, and that life lacks purpose).

Christianity and/or a focus on the spiritual life can be, and is, I believe, an antidote to the despair of meaninglessness. If God is truly the ground of moral reality and gives real shape to human purpose, then we have a way to center ourselves. Yet, if God is ignored to the point of being “dead” then there is nothing substantial for humanity to orient their lives around.

Try as we might to create, as Nietzsche did, an Übermensch (superman) in the form of the radically independent and strong person to fill the enormous spiritual void of God’s death, it is merely a façade covering our weakness and foolishness as creatures.

I suggest we consider the psalmist as a reliable source of knowledge – that God is a force for justice and for good in the world – and that we explore what this means for us in our respective lives, families, communities, as well as in our public discourse and personal philosophy.

Is God gone? Not really. We humans just tend to give him the stiff arm.

Almighty God, you called your church to be one, holy, universal and missional people. By your grace you have given us new life in Jesus Christ, and by your Spirit you have called us to proclaim his name throughout the nations. Awaken in us such a love for you and your world that we may boldly proclaim Jesus Christ by word and deed. May all people everywhere come to know you and Christ’s power to save. Amen.

Galatians 6:11-18 – What Counts is the New Creation

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.

From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. (New International Version)

Motives matter. The interior life of a person is important. Life is neither a mere getting things done nor doing what is needed on the exterior. A house may be beautiful and orderly on the outside, with careful landscaping, a manicured lawn, and attractive appearance – yet on the inside it might be disorderly, full of relational discord, and completely discombobulated.

The exterior life of a person is also important. But it’s only half the person. And, unlike God who sees the heart, we aren’t always privy to what’s going on inside someone.

Folks who are enamored with outward displays of spirituality and righteousness tend to be compulsive about maintaining appearances – for both themselves, and everyone else.

Policing outward forms of righteousness through clear identifiable means is really nothing more than old fashioned judging of one another. It’s antithetical to grace. And it smacks of the snooty superiority of Star-Bellied Sneetches.

Rather than a star on the belly, in the Apostle Paul’s day it was circumcision. Those who had it were “in” and those without it were “out.” Never mind the interior life. A hard outward boundary of righteousness was established by false teachers who made the Christian life easy by simply holding to readily observable forms, like circumcision.

It wasn’t that circumcision was a bad thing. The issue was making it a necessary part of the Christian life. Not circumcised? Not a Christian, insisted the false teachers. In other words, one had to become Jewish before becoming a Christian. I can picture the Apostle Paul doing a hand to the forehead, saying, “Oy vey.”

For the Christian, one must be vigilant not to exaggerate baptism. On the one hand, I would argue far too many believers underestimate the significance and importance of baptism. Flippantly making it a personal choice, as if the individual is in complete control of one’s own salvation, is not only wrongheaded – it’s downright blasphemous.

Yet, on the other hand, a preoccupation with getting a person, especially a child, baptized, as if the world might end if it doesn’t happen, betrays the same problem as Paul faced with circumcision in the first century.

The proper approach, it seems to me, is to embrace the full spectrum of Christianity – both outward and inward – the whole person. And Paul addresses this by anticipating a question of the Galatian congregation: What, then, is of central importance?

The answer is: a new creation. To be transformed by the power of the Spirit is what really counts. The grace of God in Christ, applied to a person, brings a change to inner motives and attitudes, as well as outer behavior through loving actions.

We must always keep in mind that the sign points to the substance. It would be weird if I were traveling to Milwaukee on I-94 and pulled over on the interstate next to the sign marking the city is ahead, crawl all over it, and say, “I’m here!”

The overall thrust of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that they were debasing the true worship of God into an outward show, honoring Christ with their lips but not holding him in their hearts.

Christianity is fundamentally not about what we do for God but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is divine grace which saves people. We belong to God. Just as we neither chose our own parents nor the time when we were born, so akin to this is, before we chose God, God chose us. We don’t “born again” ourselves; God does the rebirthing.

And since it is solely the work of God in us, there is zero reason to boast about the circumstances of our new birth and becoming a new creation in Christ. We didn’t save ourselves. It would be something like getting a COVID-19 vaccine and then bragging about how we stopped the pandemic.

Instead, we are to bear the spiritual marks of Christ’s crucifixion on our inner selves. No one is saved because they deserve it but simply because they need saving.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, grant us the faith to accept your saving work in the cross and to be so transformed by it that we will not be without excuse on Judgment Day. Help us not merely walk at your side, with mere words to offer. Convert us and give us new life in you so that in the end we will not be dry wood, but living branches in you, the true vine, bearing fruit for eternal life. Amen.

The Beatitudes of Jesus: An Introduction

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12, NIV)

The human brain is hard-wired, in such a way, that it works its best when healthy rhythms of giving and receiving occur. God created us to thrive and flourish when we pay attention to particular ways of being with one another as people.

Jesus used the term “blessed” not in a financial sense, as if having lots of money is what it means to experience blessing. The word “blessed” means to have God’s stamp of approval, his favor, with the emotional and spiritual response of joy or happiness. 

Real and lasting joy comes from a right relationship with God, defined according to what Jesus says – different from the false righteousness of the religious establishment which is based on outward appearance rather than inner attitudes. We need to know how to relate to our God, instead of simply conforming to an outward form of Christianity that everybody is doing.

Our entire selves are blessed when we engage in consistent rhythms of practicing humility before the Lord; sitting with grief; putting ourselves in another’s shoes; seeking right relationships with both God and others; pursuing mercy, purity, and peace-making in all our affairs; and allowing persecution to form us in ways the good times cannot.

Jesus preached the Beatitudes to clarify what it means to be approved by God. He wanted to gain true disciples who follow God for the right reasons. The crowd was following Jesus physically, but not necessarily spiritually. They all followed for different reasons: for healing, curiosity, or a genuine desire to be a disciple. So, Jesus sat them down to communicate what a true follower and disciple is.

Imagine we are part of the crowd originally hearing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  The world in which the people lived, and the religious system which they took for granted, was highly restrictive. 

In order to approach God, enter the kingdom, and be a good citizen, one had to be Jewish, male, a faithful Law-keeper, physically whole, healthy, and able; and, if not wealthy, able to make a good living. 

Yes, this reality meant that Gentiles, women, those who struggled to keep the Law, the diseased and disabled, and the poor had no shot whatsoever in the kingdom of God. To be blessed and have God’s stamp of approval on your life meant you were a healthy and wealthy Jewish man who practiced a legalistic form of righteousness. 

Not a single one of us here would have any shot at the kingdom of God. Yet, we have heard something about this guy, Jesus. There seems to be something very compelling about him. We go seek him out, sit down on a mountainside and hear him say the most refreshing and scandalous words we have ever heard…

God approves of the spiritually bankrupt who realize they’ve got no leverage to make any deals. They shall be given the riches of God’s grace.

God approves of those who grieve over personal sin and lament the presence of sin in the world. They are the ones who will experience God’s forgiveness and comfort.

God approves of the powerless and those who use their authority to champion others. They will inherit God’s power and take up authority to command dark forces and put them in their place.

God approves of those who have a voracious appetite for right relationships and doing everything for the right reasons. Their growling spiritual stomachs will be stuffed with God’s righteousness.

God approves of those who liberally extend grace to others, being always considerate of everyone’s needs, showing neither prejudice nor favoritism. They shall receive God’s grace at the end of the age when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

God approves of the spiritually clean who have bathed in the waters of divine mercy. They will see Jesus face to face.

God approves of those who facilitate and negotiate peace. Because that is precisely what God’s children do.

God approves of those who are persecuted for living by these counter-cultural Beatitudes. They have an inheritance that will never perish, spoil, or fade.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of our world as your love would make it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the benefits of abundant life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. And give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (New International Version)

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. - May Sarton

Appearances can be deceiving.

One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord.

The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity.

It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude is our path to spiritual maturity.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

**Above photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com