Romans 04 – Hope over Faith

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

When faith may be too hard…

It is easy to get disheartened watching the news.  This is probably true at just about any point in history, but I’ve been really affected by it lately:  Mitch McConnell seems hell-bent on rendering the Constitution ineffective in an effort to keep white males in power. Singed koala bears make for a pitiful sight, and then I feel guilty about feeling bad for them before anything else because, yes, there are other problems not being talked about: like the impact those same fires have had on Australia’s indigenous people (a topic totally missing from any news story that I haven’t gone out searching for). A change of residence for Harry and Meghan seems to be the top story in the news cycle over deteriorating international relations and continuing impeachment developments. Yet who am I to judge, because I can’t stop thinking about Kanye and Kim’s walk-in fridge for a family of three – another story that has zero impact on my life but bothers the hell out of me for its sheer excess.

Last post I talked about how it was Jesus’ own faith that saved us, not our faith in Jesus.  When faced with such bleak realities as the ones above, it’s even easier to say “why have faith at all?”  My answer, after reading today’s chapter, is that maybe faith is the wrong word. Maybe we need to have hope.  Faith implies “complete trust and confidence in something.” Don’t get me wrong, having faith is good, but may not be something we are able to carry with us all the time.  Even the most devout have times of doubt, which, by definition, would mean that they lose faith – even if it is temporarily.  That can feel like a failure on the part of the believer and do some real mental damage.

…hope still may be achievable.

Hope, however, means “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”  And it is not to be confused with optimism.  As N.T. Wright explains in his book Paul, “Hope could be, and often was, a dogged and deliberate choice when the world seemed dark.”  He was writing about ancient Jewish and early Christian history, but the same is true now: Hope must be a dogged and deliberate choice on our part.  Wright goes on to say, “You have to practice it, like a difficult piece on the violin or a tricky shot at tennis.  You practice the virtue of hope through worship and prayer, through invoking the One God, through reading and reimagining the scriptural story, and through consciously holding the unknown future within the unshakable divine promises.”

Who doesn’t wish for – hope for – a better world even in the darkest hours? Perhaps the darkest hours are when our desires are strongest, when our hope is strongest.  Our faith and optimism may be gone, but our deep yearning for a better world remains.  This hope is why we keep going to church, keep reading the Bible, keep praying to God.

I agree with Paul, that our righteousness (to use his word) will be attributed to us, especially when we continue to act when there seems to be no divine promise within eminent fulfillment.  Abraham had faith in God before his promise to be a father of many nations.  As I quoted Paul above, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations.”  If we, too, act in hope – hope that we can restore the ecology of Australia and truly the whole world, hope that justice will prevail in the American political system, hope that the fate of those in need will become more important than the address of one royal couple – then we, too, will be blessed by God.

Take Action.

Practically, this means getting out there and acting.  At least I think so.  Paul may disagree – as he spends a lot of this chapter discussing how works alone cannot prove a person’s righteousness.  However, I think that this criticism was more about a blind adherence to the law (whether secular or religious) to the detriment of acting out of love for your neighbor.  In other words, self-betterment over community-lifting.  Religion at large (and Christianity in particular) seems to have a certain propensity for navel-gazing to the point of ignoring the outside world burning down around it.  Self-reflection is good, but you can think a lot of things. Getting out there and doing them?  That truly reveals where your heart lies.

Let me qualify all of this by saying: start small, and don’t burn yourself out.  The world’s problems are huge and cannot be solved by one person, let alone one person in one day.  As a mother who suffers with a chronic condition that can cause overwhelming fatigue myself, I particularly want to reach out to those just struggling to get out of bed and make PB&J’s for their kids’ lunch: you’re doing more than enough already – I am not asking you to push yourself past your limits.

Now, that being said, everyone else look around you. Think of little ways you can act in hope.  My favorite, as always, is calling your representatives.  (Something I did on Tuesday, to urge Congress to do everything in it’s power to keep the US out of a war with Iran).  It just takes a few minutes.  If talking on the phone raises your anxiety, write them a letter or email- it’s not as immediate (since anthrax scares have become a thing letters take a few weeks to get through the security back-up, and there’s just so many emails it takes a while for staff to wade through them, too) but it still gets your voice heard.  Do a change dig (you’d be surprised how much is lurking in your car/purse/nightstand/junk drawer), take it to a Coinstar, and then donate that cash to any cause you deem worthy. It’s money you weren’t missing in the first place, and can make a huge difference for an organization doing good work.  My favorite local organizations that just about any community has are food pantries, the library, and the animal shelter.  Most take cash donations at the door.  Make extra of whatever you’re cooking for dinner, and take it to that neighbor or friend who has the sniffles.  These are little ways to act in hope that require very little work on our part, but can set us – and indeed the world – on the path to larger changes.

Hope isn’t easier than faith. It is a practice, a rigorous practice, to hope.  For many, this post may be all just about semantics, since faith is a rigorous practice, as well.  But if you struggle with keeping your faith in times of trouble, do not worry: you are not alone, and you are not a bad person for facing that struggle.  My hope is that you will keep your hope.  Even if your faith falters, you can still hope for a better world.  Even if your actions seem futile, you can still take those actions. To you, your righteousness will be credited, and the world you hope for, that we all hope for, will be one act of kindness closer.

Romans 03 – You Are Holy

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law

I heard an interesting theory yesterday on the podcast Almost Heretical that I want to present to you here.  I’ll paraphrase as best I can: Jesus, as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, was not a penal substitution for our sins.  Or at least, that’s not the whole story.  He did die to atone for us, but it was more of a preparatory rite than a righting of wrongs.  In that way, he became the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law.

You should really listen to Episodes 82 and 84 as Nate and Tim spend almost two hours talking about the details of this, but again, I’ll paraphrase: Blood was viewed as the ultimate spiritual cleanser and buffer agent.  In Levitical law, it wasn’t so much that an animal had to die to appease an angry God, but that the sacrifice of the animal’s life was worth it to obtain the blood necessary for temple rituals.  Without the blood, God was dangerous to his chosen people in a very real and physical way: coming into contact with the divine whilst unprepared could actually kill you.  We see lots of examples of this in the Old Testament: seventy men are struck down for looking at the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 6:19; poor Uzzah is killed for reaching out to steady the Ark in 2 Samuel 6:7, and I wrote a whole blog post about Nadab and Abihu being killed when performing a ceremony with the wrong sort of fire.

Blood, then, was one of the most important chemical compounds, if you will, that allowed humans to safely come into contact with the divine.  By anointing the whole world with his blood, Jesus made the whole world holy. By making the whole world holy, Jesus fulfilled all the preparatory rights of Levitical law, essentially giving us all priestly capabilities. God was not angry with us to the point of needing a human sacrifice, God yearned for us to be with Xyr so strongly that Xe sent Jesus to pave the way for all humanity to reach Xyr without an intercessory protocol.

Faith in Jesus Christ vs. Faith of Jesus Christ

In light of this, I want to point out the phrase in v. 22 “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”  As I learned in Karen Armstrong’s excellent book, St Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ,” was, until the twentieth century, more often translated as the “faith of Jesus Christ.”  This is an important distinction: It transfers the responsibility of our salvation from a personal faith in Jesus to Jesus’ faith in God that God would make his death the start of a new order.  And yet, it does not change Jesus claim in John 14:6 that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For indeed, his blood anointed the world, and made us all holy.

Logically, the next step could be to say that we live in a world where faith isn’t necessary.  Think about it: if the whole world is holy and original sin no longer exists (if it ever existed at all), and our salvation has been achieved through Jesus’ faith rather than our own, then what do we need to being reading the Bible for? Going to church for?  Following the ten commandments for?  Couldn’t we literally do anything and it have no effect on our salvation?

This is the problematic thinking that Paul addresses in the first half of the chapter, particularly in vv. 5-8.  There were those, such as the “spirituals,” pneumatikoi, or Gnostics (depending upon which source you read) around the time of Paul’s teaching that came almost exactly to the conclusion above: that anything goes.  Some would eat food sacrificed at pagan temples.  Many participated in prostitution.  Most distressing to Paul, they lost the spirit of egalitarianism of the early Christian movement: lording spiritual supremacy over other believers and even suing other Christians in Roman court for personal gain.

The problem with this “anything goes” sort of thinking is that it causes us to quickly devolve into greedy, mean, base animals.  That doesn’t mean anyone without faith is automatically a greedy, mean, base animal – many kind, wonderful people are agnostic or atheist.  They may even be more spiritually evolved than me: Perhaps God actually wants a post-faith world for us where we automatically follow the Golden Rule and don’t need Xyr constant supervision, I truly don’t know.  My analogy to justify Christianity, which I go into more fully in this blog post, is that this life is kind of like a semester of a college course. If you do well for the entire semester, you’re more likely to get an A. But if you’re struggling, you still have a chance to redeem yourself on the final exam.  Christianity, for me, is like having a study guide.  You can still pass the class without said study guide, but it may be harder to do so.  Since that study guide is freely available for all of us, why not use it?

You Are Holy

What I want you to remember today is this:  You are holy.  God anointed you through the blood of Jesus.  You literally have a direct connection to God now.  Historically, the church has done a good job of obscuring this.  Purity culture, misogyny, exclusion and suppression have taken the place of recognizing the divine spark in all of us.  So, the next time someone tries to shame you for your weight, sexual orientation, beliefs, appearance, or status, try to remember that you are holy, and now that the faith of Jesus has given that to the world, no one can take it away from you.

Hosea 02 – Does God Need Us?

“Say of your brothers, ‘My people,’ and of your sisters, ‘My loved one.’

“Rebuke your mother, rebuke her,
    for she is not my wife,
    and I am not her husband.
Let her remove the adulterous look from her face
    and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts.
Otherwise I will strip her naked
    and make her as bare as on the day she was born;
I will make her like a desert,
    turn her into a parched land,
    and slay her with thirst.
I will not show my love to her children,
    because they are the children of adultery.
Their mother has been unfaithful
    and has conceived them in disgrace.
She said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
    who give me my food and my water,
    my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.’
Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes;
    I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.
She will chase after her lovers but not catch them;
    she will look for them but not find them.
Then she will say,
    ‘I will go back to my husband as at first,
    for then I was better off than now.’
She has not acknowledged that I was the one
    who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil,
who lavished on her the silver and gold—
    which they used for Baal.

“Therefore I will take away my grain when it ripens,
    and my new wine when it is ready.
I will take back my wool and my linen,
    intended to cover her naked body.
10 So now I will expose her lewdness
    before the eyes of her lovers;
    no one will take her out of my hands.
11 I will stop all her celebrations:
    her yearly festivals, her New Moons,
    her Sabbath days—all her appointed festivals.
12 I will ruin her vines and her fig trees,
    which she said were her pay from her lovers;
I will make them a thicket,
    and wild animals will devour them.
13 I will punish her for the days
    she burned incense to the Baals;
she decked herself with rings and jewelry,
    and went after her lovers,
    but me she forgot,”
declares the Lord.

14 “Therefore I am now going to allure her;
    I will lead her into the wilderness
    and speak tenderly to her.
15 There I will give her back her vineyards,
    and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
    as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

16 “In that day,” declares the Lord,
    “you will call me ‘my husband’;
    you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
17 I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
    no longer will their names be invoked.
18 In that day I will make a covenant for them
    with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
    and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
    I will abolish from the land,
    so that all may lie down in safety.
19 I will betroth you to me forever;
    I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
    in love and compassion.
20 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
    and you will acknowledge the Lord.

21 “In that day I will respond,”
    declares the Lord
“I will respond to the skies,
    and they will respond to the earth;
22 and the earth will respond to the grain,
    the new wine and the olive oil,
    and they will respond to Jezreel.
23 I will plant her for myself in the land;
    I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;
    and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”

 

Does God need us?  As in, need us for Xyr very existence?  It certainly seems so at times, and not in a very healthy way.  God has very specific requirements about how Xe should be worshipped, especially in the Old Testament, gets pissed to the point of execution (remember Nadab and Abihu a few weeks ago?) when we don’t follow those directions, but then requires more worship.  In this chapter, God is once again complaining of Israel’s infidelity, and going into lascivious detail about her punishment.  And punish Israel God most certainly shall, but let Israel go? Definitely not.  Israel is boxed in by thornbushes – God literally blocks her path away.  One might even argue God is like an abusive or controlling husband: using Israel’s children (I will not show love to her children, v. 4) and controlling her social life (I will stop her celebrations, v. 11) to make her stay.

Why not just let us leave if we’re so bad?  Why does God not just turn Xyr back on Israel, on humanity? Doesn’t this inability to break ties indicate an unhealthy co-dependency? It sometimes seems like God is waiting on us to grow up a bit so we can be more equal partners.  This chapter holds a perfect example in v. 16, talking about Israel’s reconciliation with God: ““In that day,” declares the Lord,“you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’”  Clearly Israel is being raised up here – if she can change her ways.  In that same post about Nadab and Abihu I mentioned above I talked about how it seems God is waiting on some more spiritual maturity on our part, and how that might change our future relationship with God.  Maybe even into one that is more equal.

I have not painted God in a very favorable light here, and I’m sure I’ve already turned off some readers in just two paragraphs. Even if you are hanging in there – it’s a bit of scary thought, isn’t it? To think that God might need us, even if it isn’t to the point of toxic relationship like it seems here.  If God needs us, that means that God has a need, and is not all-powerful in and of Xyrself.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not ready to come to the conclusion that the rock of my faith is that unstable – and I hope I never am!  Like before, some may see it as rationalization, but I’ll share my conclusions with you as to how God may or may not need us:

Do I need my children in order to survive?  I can eat, breathe, find work and shelter and tend to my daily needs without their help, find joy in things that do not involve them, and have relationships and hobbies outside of my role as mom.  Do I want to live in a world without my children?  I have trouble even imagining what that world would look like, and shudder at the thought.  Time and time again in the Bible God is called our Holy Father (the masculine language reflecting the culture at the time).  I have to imagine that God’s feelings towards us are, in some way, like my feelings towards my own children. Xe may not need us existentially, but even when angry at us, there is still a divine love.

Also, it’s kind of silly to think of us existing so separately from God that we’re even an external force to be needed.  If you view God as the ultimate creator, then everything is from God.  We are a part of God already.  I think God is just waiting on us to fully realize that, and act accordingly.  Perhaps that is what is going on when I talk about God waiting for us to grow up a little bit, and assume more of an equal role in our divine relationship. If we are already of God, we have the ability to act more Godly.  No, not miracles and moving mountains (though according to Jesus that is possible, too, through faith), but to love better.  To be more sensitive, inclusive, and caring.  It’s a long road, and a topic for another blog post, which I promise I’ll get to, probably more than once.

But for today, let’s rejoice in the fact that this chapter does not end at v. 13, with God punishing us.  Let’s rejoice in the fact that God is not like an abusive or controlling husband, and that this is simply the metaphor through which Hosea could best express his divine message from God.  The God that prevails in this chapter, indeed, the whole Bible is the one that abolishes bow and sword and battle, so that all may lay down in safety (v. 18), the one that looks to have the whole earth celebrate with us (vv. 21-22), the one that chooses – does not need to, but chooses anyway – to be with us.  We are better than needed, we are adored.  That’s some pretty heady shit. We are adored by God.  Every single one of us – every color, creed, ability, and station in life – we are adored by God.

Forget God needing us – you are already part of God, there is nothing to be needed.  You are loved.  I have not been my best self the past few days, and my family has borne the brunt of it.  I’m going to try hard to remember that I am dealing with someone adored by God any time I come up against someone difficult (like my kids, who are in a biting each other phase).  It’s easy to focus on the bad in life, in religion, in the Bible.  Just look at how this chapter starts out.  But I truly believe if we keep pushing through with kindness, we’ll get to the good part.  Recognizing that God loves us when we’re imperfect and others when they’re imperfect will help us get there.  Wish me luck with that, guys, I’m not joking about this biting phase testing the limits of my parenting.. And good luck to you, too!