"Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
— Amos 5:22-24
For centuries people have argued and debated and outright fought over exactly what is the "correct" way to worship God. Should we offer Gregorian chants or sing hymns? Should we stick with hymns or go with praise and worship music? Should the worship space be plain or as ornate and elaborate as we can make it? Some are still caught up in worship wars.
What we humans often forget is that God's vista is a bit broader than our own parochial concerns, which often seem to extend only as far as our own preferences and comforts. God's concerns are with justice and righteousness (i.e. living in right relationship with God and neighbor).
In the above verse from the prophet Amos, God make it abundantly clear that even the most time-honored of our traditions, if they are not offered from a heart that embraces God's priorities as our own and our neighbor's well-being as deeply as our own, are perceived by God as noise, a nuisance, a sham. God says, "I will not accept them."
The reality is that it doesn't much matter what kind of praise we offer to God, whether it is accompanied by pipe organ, electric guitar or nothing more than the human voice. What matters is the state of the heart that offers it. Admittedly, we humans tend to overthink things (or not think at all). God has made the divine will quite clear. "But [God's] already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don't take yourself too seriously-take God seriously" (Micah 6:8, The Message).
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
- Luke 6:37-38
We've all heard the ageless wisdom of the above verse expressed in countless ways. For those of us who grew up in churches, it may have been shared as, "You reap what you sow." In our more secular society today, the same thought persists in the phrase, "What goes around comes around."
Not only do the seeds of our ideas and actions indeed come home to roost, but they often grow in the process. That's why we are cautioned that if we "sow the wind" we "reap the whirlwind" (Hosea 8:7). This fact of our existence should give all of us pause. It's not a divine punishment as much as it is the natural result of our choices, one we often try to deny.
The good news is that if we sow good seeds--thoughts, ideas, actions, choices--then we need not fear when those things--the products of our genius--return home.
It really is no surprise that if we treat others badly that they will most often respond in kind. Likewise, when we put forth loving words and actions, that is (again, most often) what we receive in response.
Of course, some people have become so damaged by events in life that it seems no matter how much love they are shown, their response is fixed in one particular mode. Such people need all the more love poured into them to help them begin to see a better way of being in the world.
"Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!"
— Isaiah 5:8
Some people go through life with the firm conviction that their point of view is the sole correct way to interpret events and relationships. The reality is that their point of view is just that. These folks are usually grim and dogged in their pursuit of their beliefs and proselyting others. It's exemplified in the "turn or burn" attitude of some folks, found--oddly--all across the faith spectrum.
I suspect we have all encountered individuals like that, people who are so sure of their position that they never stop long enough to actually question either their motivations or their methods. These are the sort of people who are relentless in re-stating their position until everyone else either adopts that position or simply throw their hands up in surrender.
Some people are uncomfortable with religious and spiritual pluralism. In order for them to be right--which, of course, they always (conveniently) by definition are--everyone else must be wrong. Such thinking is dangerous in the extreme.
In Metropolitan Community Churches, we have always held that our inherent diversity is a source both of profound strength and deep inspiration. Rather than pounding one another into submission, we seek out what new understanding we may gain from one another, without feeling threatened that someone else sees something differently than we do.
"Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer."
- Romans 12:12
Much has been written of late about the rash of suicides among young people around the country. When I was a much younger person, I too had to contend with bullies on the playground, in school, and beyond. Like so many young people, I too felt that life was always going to be that way and that nothing in life would ever be different.
Had I given in to those feelings of despair, I would never have seen so much of the wonder of life. I would have missed out on so very much of all the blessings life has to offer.
I've also come to understand that often people who engage in bullying behavior are fearful, insecure people themselves, attempting to direct the harsh spotlight of peer attention away from themselves by foisting it onto others, accentuating any perceived difference to biblical proportions.
The thing is, although it might be difficult to imagine right now, life does get better. It does. There are people like myself who are there for you, to support and encourage you. Don't feel that you're alone because you don't have to be. Reach out to someone you can trust. Talk to others you have been where you are now. It's an opportunity to have the kind of inter-generational dialogue that used to be commonplace but sadly has fallen out of fashion.
Just know that there are people out there who will care and who are capable of understanding what you are experiencing and are willing to help. And know that no matter how tough life feels right now that it does get better.
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
— Deuteronomy 10:17-19
In this passage, it is made abundantly clear that God is greater than any earthly ruler or the multiplicity of other "gods" to which people sometimes devote their time and attention. While some still insist on clinging slavishly to the idea of God as a tribal deity, one who has favorites or is on "their side," this passage from Deuteronomy states unequivocally that God does not take sides or play favorites. Also, God cannot be manipulated in the ways that human beings sometimes can.
God's eternal concern is always for those in need and those who stand on the outside looking in at a quality of life that is denied them. In short, God's concern is more about justice than "just us." God's people are reminded of the importance of real freedom for everyone, and they are challenged to "love the stranger" even as God does, extending divine care to those who cross their path.
The challenge to embrace a broader understanding of who God is and the sorts of things that matter to God is always with us. Are we as God's people willing to embrace and take in this wider vista?
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's. Through this he received approval as righteous, [with] God giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.
- Hebrews 11:4
What was the real difference between the offerings of Cain and Abel in the story of the first human family? The answer is a simple one, but it's not that Cain's grain was innately inferior the meat Abel offered. Not at all. In fact, God said to Cain in the account in Genesis, " Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" (Genesis 4:6-7a)
Even if we read the story literally, the more likely fact is that Cain had probably been resentful of his younger brother for years. I've seen this dynamic happen in families when a second child enters the family dynamic. I've also seen it happen in church life when an individual is singled out for some honor or special attention.
Anger and resentment gnaw that the core of the human spirit. Left to fester, they only grow and deepen. The antidote to this spiritual gangrene is the open and honest communication of genuine spiritual community. In truth, it could well have altered the course of events in our story of the first human family.
It wasn't innate quality in particular about Abel's gift that made it superior to that of his brother; it was the quality of the heart from which it was given and the faith with which it was offered that distinguished it from the offering of Cain.
May we in today's world, and in the church learn from the tragedy that befell these two brothers. May we resolve to always deal directly and honestly with one another, even when our neighbor's truth is sometimes difficult for us to hear. Then we will be on a healthier and more productive spiritual journey, one that will lead from blessing to blessing, into God's future and our own. The voice of faith never dies, but rather it continues speaking, always.
I bless [God] who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep [God] always before me; because [God] is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
- Psalm 16:7-8
Over the years, I have been asked many times about how I discerned my call to ministry. My answer has oftentimes surprised some people. I remember as a child perceiving the divine presence everywhere. I had to look no further than the flowers and insects of my own back yard, to note how creation fitted together so seamlessly.
Beyond that, there was an inner fire, a sense of connectedness with everyone and everything I saw around me. In taking all that in, I began to perceive that there was an order to things. There was also an opportunity for me to play my part in that unfolding scene.
Of course, once I began to actively seek out opportunities to do what I felt I had been called to do, I encountered times of adversity. There were times that I was grateful for that inner fire that continued to warm my soul.
The psalmist also notes that God is not the sole source of instruction, but that "also my heart instructs me." Where God's will, the needs of the world and personal passion intersect, there is boundless potential to affect the course of any and all events. It is the "three-strand cord" constructed by that point of intersection that gives a sturdiness to life, that allows us to bear the difficulties of life and still maintain a song in our hearts. It's a feeling that transcends both pain and certainties and allows us to face the injustices in the world secure in the knowledge that whether they are achieved in our lifetime or in the lifetime of some future generation, justice and peace will be attained, and all our energies in bringing forth the Kin-dom of God will have been well spent.
When [God] restored the fortune of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations; "[God] has done great things for them." [God] has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
- Psalm 126:1-3
Why as people of faith do we do what we do? For some, going to church is seen as a duty and a drudgery. From the front of the worship space, these people are often easy to recognize; the look of "spiritual constipation" almost always gives them away. The problem for them and for others is that blessings are not allowed to readily flow through them. They flow into them and stop there.
Once that flow ceases to move through them in a freshly replenished way, what they have stored up inside begins to stagnate, until it sours. These are the folks that we have seen in every religious tradition for whom nothing is right, and nothing anyone else does is ever up to par. The usual complaint that accompanies this condition is customarily the lament, "I'm not being fed."
The treatment for this condition is to find some way to be a blessing to someone else. When we allow divine love, power and blessing to flow outward from us, it creates room within the core of our beings for more of God to flow in.
More than that, it allows for the restoration of that life-giving flow of energy and allows for divine blessings that "are new every morning." It moves us into a new spiritual location where the sense of joy is restored to our faith journey.
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As [God] has sent me, so I send you."
— John 20:21
Peace seems elusive in our world. From conflicts between nations to conflicts between individuals, our globe is rife with it. Yet we know that conflict is not a bad thing if the result of it is the correction of an injustice. The greater evil by far would be to do nothing and continue blithely accepting the status quo.
As people of faith, we are not placed in the world merely to sing God's praises but also to be divine agents of justice, hope and reconciliation. It is a core purpose around which churches have come together since the beginning.
Sometimes, that call to do the work of justice might challenge our deeply held beliefs or traditions as does (for some) the current question of marriage equality currently playing itself out on our national stage. Lagging behind other nations like Canada, Argentina and others, the United States is only now beginning to address this issue.
One of my former professors, Maria Harris, puts the idea this way in her book, Proclaim Jubilee: A Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century, "The demand is liberation; the emphasis is connectedness; the corrective is suffering; the power is imagination; and the vocation is tikkun olam — the repair of the world."
Let us remember that not that long ago, inter-racial marriages, for example, were likewise forbidden and not legally recognized. Many of the arguments raised against that issue then are the exact same arguments we hear now. They were red herrings then, and the are red herrings now. Today, the question is about same-gender couples, but it is at its core really the same question. How we answer that question is one of the things that will define our generation in the pages of history. It is the call of justice and fair treatment for all God's children that compels me to support true marriage equality becoming the law of our land. A greater mind than mine once said words to this effect: "If we find our theology is contradicted by either reason or established observation, then it is time to re-think our theology." Our human understanding of God is and always has been less than perfect, but — thank God! — it is growing and so are we.
Who am I? I'm the one who wipes out your offenses! For my own sake, I do not remember your wrongs.
— Isaiah 43:25
Forgiveness. It's often a sensitive subject. For those who preach judgment and condemnation, those who claim to take the Bible literally, verses like the one above are indeed a bitter pill.
Throughout the pages of our scriptures, there are indeed verses and passages that can be used to oppress and demean others. From the approbation of slavery to the oppression of women and others, proof-texts can be found to support those positions. Usually by linking disparate verses, these fearful souls attempt to market their particular brand of spiritual poison. To show the supreme idiocy of such tactics, it would be like me saying to someone I didn't like, that Judas "went away and hanged himself" (Matthew 27:5). "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). It sounds authoritative and definitive, but it is a complete violation of the biblical text. Yet people do the exact same thing every day. It's all about the human desire to be certain we're right, which by default means that anyone who differs, must be — by definition — wrong.
Whenever there is a question about God's intent, rest assured that grace trumps judgment every time. It was often difficult for our spiritual ancestors to understand that God's love and concern extended fully beyond their own particular tribal bands. Today, there are those who remain convinced that God hates and judges the same groups they do.
In the verse above, God seems to indicate that the wiping out of offenses is at least in part for God's own sake. The divine desire is always for restoration, not condemnation. That fact is also why we practice restorative justice in issues of church discipline. We always seek first to remedy a situation in a way that allows for the restoration of the "offending party" to their prior status rather than the "condemnation and dismissal" course we so often see in the world around us.
Whenever our relationship with another is damaged, our first course ideally should be to seek to restore that relationship rather than to relinquish it or to punish the other person. If it's the preferred course of our God, then really it needs to be our course too.