Exile: The national intervention

Have you ever had to practice tough love? Have you had to say or do the hard thing in an effort to get someone’s attention and try to keep them from making a bad decision? Did they thank you for it, or did they think you were just out to get them and make their life miserable?

The exile of the Israelites into Babylon is a part of Old Testament history that doesn’t get a lot of press. How many sermons have you heard preached about God evicting His people from the Promised Land and giving them over into foreign rule? It’s not a particularly pleasant or easy topic to tackle. Part of what makes it so difficult is the harshness of an event that makes it seem as though God was giving up on the people and sending them away out of frustration. Did God reach His limit and have to get them out of His sight?

Exile

We should first note that God never lies in wait so He can spring punishment and death on His unsuspecting children. He warns the people in Leviticus 26, before they even enter the Land of Promise, that if they disobey the Law and the covenant they have made then He will remove them from the land.  That was nearly 700 years before the exile occurred. Then God sends several prophets to warn the people that their violence and exploitation can’t go unnoticed and judgment will be imminent unless they turn their hearts back to following the Lord. God isn’t just talking a big game when He says,

The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
    slow to anger and rich in love. – Psalm 145:8

When the exile finally happens, God makes it very clear why it’s occurring. The land was full of violence and bloodshed, the people had been worshiping other gods for centuries, and they had forgotten about the poor and there was injustice and inequity throughout their society. They were attributing their prosperity to the pagan gods and they thought that God didn’t see them worshiping others gods in the very middle of God’s temple. Hosea frames it as a marriage between God and Israel in which Israel has been wildly unfaithful and promiscuous.

5 For their mother has played the whore;
    she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
    who give me my bread and my water,
    my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’
Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns,
    and I will build a wall against her,
    so that she cannot find her paths.
She shall pursue her lovers
    but not overtake them,
and she shall seek them
    but shall not find them.
Then she shall say,
    ‘I will go and return to my first husband,
    for it was better for me then than now.’
And she did not know
    that it was I who gave her
    the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished on her silver and gold,
    which they used for Baal. – Hosea 2:5-8

In light of this reality, let’s put ourselves in God’s shoes for a moment. I’m going to use a metaphor that is intense and may hit close to home for many people. My hope is to represent as accurately as possible how deeply God is invested in us and how much sin destroys us and robs us of life. I hope that God’s pursuit of us becomes that much more real and powerful.

Imagine the person about whom you care the most and in whom you’ve invested the most. You’ve poured your whole life into this person…now imagine they have become a drug addict. At first they brought their dealers into your home and gave away all of your belongings to those people. And now they’ve run away and are living in squalor in the crack house. They stole your car, emptied your bank account, maxed out all your credit cards, and they keep saying, “my dealers, these are the people that have my back and know what’s best for me. They’re the ones I can trust.”  How would you feel?  You’ve given them everything and only want health and flourishing for them, and they reject you in order to destroy themselves.  How long do you keep giving to them? At what point do you give up?

The exile is God’s national intervention.  God had to physically remove them from the environment where they had enacted all of this destruction.  You can’t get clean and sober and then keep living in the crack house and think you’ll stay clean. You have to change all of your old habits and be stripped of everything that was enabling you to stay in active addiction. God was willing to show them tough love and risk His children resenting Him and yelling, “Why are you doing this? You’re such a bad God, I hate you!” (Ezekiel 18:29-32) Rather than the exile being evidence that God had given up on them and was disowning them, it meant that He would never give up on them and would do whatever it took to protect them from themselves.

If you feel like you or someone you love very dearly has become a lost cause, don’t lose heart. We believe in a God that will never give up and who goes to great lengths to save people who are hell-bent on their own destruction. Even when we repeatedly reject Him and think we’re out of reach, we can never outrun the love of God.

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39

Not lost cause

 If this has struck a personal cord with you, know that you don’t have to process it alone. Sin puts us and people we love in isolation and trapped in shame, and Christ desires to bring us out of darkness into healing and community. Please seek out a pastor, Christian friend, or counselor and invite Jesus to bring new levels of healing and restoration in your life.

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Which is easier to say?

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The Year of Jubilee is a beautiful concept.  Found in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, it’s is God’s economic and social structuring for Israel.  In it God commands the people to live in such a way that all Israelites will never be destitute and will have options if they fall on hard times.  It also commands that in the Sabbath year all ancestral lands will be returned to their original owners, debts will be cancelled, and indentured servants will be free to return to their land and homes.  In God’s economy there is no generational poverty, there is always hope for a clean slate and a fresh start.

This is a tall order for Israel so it’s no coincidence that God designed the jubilee year to begin on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16).  This was the day each year that the High Priest confessed the sins of the entire community, placing them on the scapegoat which was then released from the camp, a picture of their sins being removed from their midst.  It was their spiritual jubilee, the day when everything that they had done wrong over the past year was wiped clean and their debt of sin was forgiven.  In this posture of having received great mercy and forgiveness from God, they were to extend the same mercy and forgiveness to their brothers and sisters.

Yet there is no record of the Israelites ever observing the Year of the Lord’s Favor.  Not once.  Why was it so hard for them to follow this set of commands?  Let’s turn to Luke 5:17-26.  As this paralytic is brought before Jesus, through the great efforts and tenacity of his friends, Jesus looks at him:

“20 And when He saw their faith, He said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”

In this situation when it seemed to everyone present that this man’s greatest need was to be healed of his paralysis, Jesus demonstrates that his greatest bondage was being a prisoner to his sin.  As the religious leaders begin to grumble about Jesus’ audacity to offer forgiveness of sins:

22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God.

Christ asks us a fundamental question, “Which is easier to say?”  Do we think it’s easier for God to intercede in our environment and experience of the physical world, or to intercede before the Righteous Judge on behalf of those that stand rightly accused?  Is it easier for God to deliver us from a tangible affliction, or the unbearable weight of sin and guilt?

Paralytic (1)

            When we find ourselves overwhelmed by our circumstances and feeling as though what we face is hopeless, we can rest assured that Christ has already done the hardest thing.  On the Day of Atonement, on the cross and each day after, the hardest thing to accomplish has been done.  The chasm that separates us from God has been bridged and we are now righteous and innocent before our Creator.  The impossible has been realized, and every other form of affliction is easy by comparison.

By all means we ought to continue praying for God to work and move in our physical world to bring renewal and healing.  Jesus goes on to heal the paralytic and God cares very much about everything that He has made.  We can always pray in the hope that God has the power to change every circumstance and a heart that desires flourishing for His children.  At the same time, we need never lose hope if God does not act in the way that we requested.  When bills continue to mount up, when relationships continue to be strained, when loved ones continue to suffer from illness and perhaps die despite all of our prayers for healing, when injustice seems to prevail in the world.  When my brother was killed in Iraq even when we prayed every day for his safety.  We can rest in the knowledge that Jesus already did the hardest thing for us and for all of God’s children.  When miracles visibly happen and when it seems like they don’t, our greatest need has already been met.  In this posture of having received great mercy and forgiveness from God, we are empowered to extend the same mercy and forgiveness to our whole world, eternally hoping in God’s power to accomplish the impossible.

Dear me, who am I?

In the early part of the book of Exodus as Moses is standing in the face of the burning bush, communicating with the presence of God, he asks an important question, “Who am I…”

King David, slayer of Goliath, man after God’s own heart, receives a promise from God that will echo throughout eternity and he responds with a question in prayer, “Who am I…”

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Isn’t this the ultimate question? Maslow places self-actualization as the top priority of existence. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment.” Look around at any given university and you’ll find a multi-generational mosaic of people scratching their temples, drawing maps of their hearts in search of just who it is they were created to be.

There may be no bigger question out there for humans to ask and there may not be a better film that so thoughtfully depicts this search for identity (also in a university setting) than “Dear White People,” first time writer/director Justin Simien’s satirical romp into American race relations.

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Writer/director Justin Simien

This is a film that needs to be studied. There is no wasted motion or dialogue, it all has purpose and creates this comprehensive look at some of the most relevant issues around maturity, identity, culture, and race.

The movie chronicles the experience of four black college students at a fictional Ivy League institution. One device to love about this story is that while it pokes fun at the narratives Hollywood sells as the black experience (you must play a slave to win an Oscar, you must be one-dimensional to earn box-office dough) it presents complicated, multi-layered black characters, an unfortunate rarity in the celebrated films in the current landscape.

There are no easy answers in “Dear White People.” The characters are complex, but the broad culture they find themselves a part of is even more bewildering. They are navigating a mine field of driving a post-modern society while feeling the weight of the culture they now have to carry and define.

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The thesis of the film can perhaps best be found in my favorite scene. Sam, the leader of the Black Student Union, is trying to make her way to a protest of a housing randomization policy the organization believes is an attempt to disrupt black culture and unity on campus. On her way she is confronted by the school’s dean who calls her out for hiding the fact that she is biracial. She is also being pursued by her hidden white boyfriend who may be the only person who truly sees who she is. Ahead, waiting impatiently is her biggest cheerleader in the BSU who also has feelings for her. As her heart is being tugged in all of these directions she approaches the protest and as she looks down and reads the protest signs the expression on her face reads, “Is this really who I am?” In the same moment she receives a call from her mother…her father is ill and is not doing very well. The tension is real. In this moment we are thrust into an incredibly authentic experience of someone on the road to self discovery.

Amidst this personal struggle, our characters are also constantly faced with the question of is racism still relevant? Ask the president of the college and he will say that all of their struggles are not black struggles but universal student problems and insists that they don’t have a diversity issue on their campus. At the same time, though, the protagonists are feeling like their culture is not valued.

Coco

Some respond with outrage and protest, while others try their hardest to fit in to many of the sectors of white culture.  Each is a quest to feel valued and more often than not these efforts are ignored or written off as unnecessary. They are conflicted and hurting but no one sees it, sometimes they themselves don’t even see it.

The conclusion of the film may seem outlandish or unrealistic, but if you pay attention to the credits, the issues are brought into reality. This is a sign of effective satire but also an answer to the question of where we are at with race relations in America. I’d love for “Dear White People” to be more fiction than non, but look at what happened on that bus in Oklahoma just this last week.

How can we pay more attention to tension all around us? Especially the inner-tension people of color feel on the road to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. The image of God is in us all. How can we affirm that image in those that cannot see it for themselves? There are many more questions “Dear White People” poses. Please see and study this film and start asking them.

Comment or contact us if you would like to see this movie and we will provide you with a free Red Box code to rent it!

The Healing Is In the Pain

As we all continue through our Lenten journeys this year, a story from Numbers 21 reminds me of how uncomfortable it can be to deal with the poison of sin in our veins.  In this passage (Num.21:4-9) the people are grumbling against God and against Moses, bringing a profoundly deep rejection before the Lord and calling the perfect manna from heaven “worthless food.”  So the Lord sends venomous snakes into the camp that start biting the people and some of them start dying.  The people rapidly get the point and repent and ask Moses to intercede for them to ask God to remove the snakes.  Moses prays, and God does something a little strange.  He doesn’t take them away.  He tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a snake, put it on a pole high in the middle of the camp, and when anyone gets bitten they can look at it and live.  What an odd thing, they just have to look at it, and they’ll be immediately healed.

Why would God make them look at a depiction of the very thing that was afflicting them in order to get better?  Why not just take the snakes away?  Because our process of being healed has to involve honesty about what it was that hurt us.  The people had to look repeatedly at the source of their affliction, a snake, the image of sin entering the world and the enemy of humanity, in order for God to remove the poison of death.  It was such a small action required on their part, they just had to look up.

Bronze-Serpent

          When we are in the midst of our afflictions, and realizing the poison of sin that courses through our veins, Jesus only asks us to look up.  To name the things within us and in our world that bring death and destruction, and to look at the cross for our healing.  In John 3:14-15, right before our iconic John 3:16, Jesus says this:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Jesus says our process now is the same as it was for the people in the wilderness.  Just as that particular group of Israelites had separated themselves from God and had brought violence and death into their community, so the sin of all of humanity has rejected God and we are the perpetrators and recipients of violence and death in our world.  And just as the serpent was raised up for their healing, this object and force that was outside of themselves, so Christ was nailed to the cross to do what we cannot do for ourselves.  To epitomize before God everything that is hateful and unrighteous, and to absorb the punishment that ought to be falling on us.  Then as now, the problem lies within us, and the solution lies outside of us in the person of the crucified Christ.

Like the serpents remaining in the camp, sin is still within us and around us.  It hasn’t yet been completely removed, although we know that one day it will be gone for good.  But for now, when we feel the pangs of death in us, we need to face them and name them for what they are, so that Christ can encompass them and heal the wounds that they have caused.

I grew up the youngest of three children, and during my senior year in college my middle brother was killed suddenly at the age of 24 while serving in Iraq.  That was by far the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced and had to deal with, and the next two years in particular were full of intense suffering.  The way I experienced my relationship with God at the time was to feel that He was very far from me, and therefore must have abandoned me.  I couldn’t have articulated it this way at that point, but I essentially thought that God was displeased with me somehow and that if I tried harder I could earn back His favor and He would comfort me in my grief and love me again.  And then I would feel like a failure because I kept being a mess, and I would be haunted by the fear that I would always feel this way and it would never get better.

Jesse

(My brother Sgt. Jesse Strong)

Around that time I started going to a little Anglican church plant called Grace Anglican, and I started hearing this teaching about how it didn’t matter whether I had it together or not or was worthy or not, Christ was for me and not against me.  And I started a slow process of not trying to be perfect anymore.  It was a radical new thing to think that I didn’t have to hold it together and craft perfect prayers to say what I thought God wanted to hear and what I wished I meant.  I had the freedom to tell God exactly what was going on in my mind and heart, and what was causing me to suffer, and what I wanted Him to do about it, and what I feared He wouldn’t do about it, and what the crap was all this for anyway?  That was when things started to change and when I started to recover and be brought back to life.  When I stopped trying to heal myself and I just looked up and said, “Here I am, Lord.  Please be in my life who You say that You are.”

Whatever poison of sin is coursing through your veins right now, know that Jesus offers an eternal antidote.   He doesn’t extend it to you when you finally try hard enough to earn His help, but when you are finally honest about your inability to heal yourself.   All you have to do is lift up your eyes to the Giver of Life, the One who suffers and dies and is raised to life in order to raise us up with Him.

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Tithing: Forgive us our debts

I have bad luck with cars.  A Frenchman wrecked my Pontiac Sunfire  in 2008 (small price to pay for a hilarious story that involves cuss words in foreign accents), I’ve slid off the road in snow storms, hit multiple animals, and then this winter my husband and I hit a deer.  My third Honda that had a mere 164,000 miles on it was officially totaled, and now I had to figure out how to replace it.

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Two weeks prior to my fateful encounter with PA wildlife, my dear friend Geraud also hit a deer and totaled his car.  Both of us had insurance, but Geraud had worked for a long time to get his car and had just purchased it 6 months earlier.  This meant that when the insurance calculated his claim, the value of the car was worth less than his outstanding loan and he had several thousand dollars left to pay off.  He would be making car payments for another year on a car that no longer existed, and with no hope of getting a replacement car until the debt was paid.  Geraud has a very caring family but they were not in a place to be able to help him financially.  I owned my car but it was old with high mileage, so my insurance claim was only about 1/3 of what I would need to find a suitable replacement.  So we were both in a predicament.

My grandfather passed away over the summer, a man who had a varied and complex relationship with the rest of my family, and with whom I had no relationship.  At exactly the same time as these two car accidents, I was notified that I would be receiving a modest inheritance from him.  When I heard this news I felt a wide range of emotions.  I primarily felt strange and in some ways guilty for being given this money by a man that I didn’t know.  I felt like I now owed him something and was in his debt, an impossible debt to repay to the deceased.  I was at a loss as to how to process this situation.

At that point, the Lord revealed something to me about money and all of our resources.

14 “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.

– 1 Chronicles 29:14

As C. S. Lewis puts it, any gift that we offer to God is like a child asking his father for a sixpence to buy him a present.  All that we have is not our own possession, but is our allowance from our Heavenly Father with which to cultivate the creation.  In light of this truth, the inheritance wasn’t my grandfather’s money but was an inheritance from the Lord.

As I was thinking about the situation of the two cars, I had a deep sense that the inheritance money was provided at this time to meet the needs of both of God’s children.  My husband and I decided to tithe from the unexpected provision that we were receiving to offer a shared inheritance with Geraud.  The 10% that we were sharing was not enough to get Geraud a new car, but it was enough for some starter funds to begin a crowd-sourcing drive.  We opened a Rally campaign expecting that it would take several weeks to raise the full amount that was necessary to pay off Geraud’s loan and to give him a down payment for a new vehicle.

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The Rally.org campaign for Geraud lasted less than a week!

Because of the kind of person that Geraud is and the kind of Christian network that he has, we raised $6000 in five days.  His earthly family may not have had that kind of money, but his spiritual family does.  We called it his “Jubilee car” as a reminder that we serve a God who specializes in cancelling debts. God’s resources offered two of His children a rich inheritance in their time of need.  Not an inheritance that comes from human hands with any strings attached, but an abundance from our Father who owns the cattle on a thousand hills.  Such generosity bids us to know the blessing of freely offering back to the Eternal Giver.