O Jerusalem–sermon on Luke 13:34-35 (shared with permission)

              “It’s all God’s fault.” That’s been part of the temptation from the very beginning. When things go wrong, we look for someone to blame, and who is easier to blame than God, the One who started it all? When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he pointed the finger of blame at Eve, at “the woman you gave to me,” as Adam said to God. Since that time, many other people have asked why God put that tree in the Garden. He knows everything—didn’t he know that the tree would cause a lot of trouble? God created everything that exists; if things go wrong in creation, it must be his fault. God has the power to do whatever he wants; if he wanted to help us and protect us from harm, he certainly could do it. When Jesus said that there would be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other disasters, he showed his knowledge of the future. Why didn’t Jesus do something about these problems? Why didn’t he offer us a better future?

              One conclusion that people reach is that God must want things to be this way. He must want human history to consist of war after war, complete with death and destruction and all the trauma of war. He must want diseases to spread and limit the growth of the human race. He must want people to starve in some parts of the world, even as people in the rest of the world are throwing their extra food into the garbage. Most of all, he must want to send sinners into the fire of eternal punishment. If God did not want to condemn anyone to hell, he didn’t have to make hell. If God wants everyone to be forgiven for their sins and to live with him in heaven, all he has to do is forgive us our sins and welcome us into heaven. He has the power to do whatever he wants; therefore, whatever happens, that must be what God wants.

              This is what some people say. But the God they blame—the God they hate—is not the God of the Bible. They have created an imaginary God, a God they can reject, so they do not have to deal with the real God. Ask a group of atheists about the God in whom they do not believe, and you will receive a full description of God—a God who makes lots of rules just so he can catch people breaking the rules, a God who invents cruel punishments just to watch people suffer, a God who watches the problems and struggles of this world and refuses even to lift a finger to help people. This is the God they reject. This is why they do not believe in God. But we Christians can honestly say to those people that we do not believe in that God either.

              Instead, we worship a God who became one of us and lived among us to rescue us. We believe in a God who loves the world so much that he gave his Son to redeem sinners. We believe in a Savior who saw the sins of Jerusalem and who saw the punishment that would fall upon Jerusalem, and who wept over the city and its problems. Jesus cares. He cares so much that he sacrificed everything he had to rescue sinners. When he must turn away the people who reject his forgiveness, Jesus weeps. He does not want to punish and destroy any sinner; he wants all to believe in him and to receive the benefits of faith, the rewards that he earned for every sinner. When people blame God for the problems in this world, they ignore his love. They ignore his compassion. They ignore the work God has done to rescue sinners. When people blame God, they ignore the love that God has for them and the genuine sorrow that God has because they refuse to be rescued. They refuse to be forgiven. They refuse to let God do what he wants to do, lifting them out of sin and evil and carrying them to everlasting life.

              These enemies of God confront us with the things we say about God. We say that God is good. We say that he loves all people. We say that God knows everything. We say that he is almighty; He can do anything he wants. Having quoted those things to us, the enemies of God say that they cannot all be true. If God is good and he lets bad things happen, then perhaps he is not almighty. Or if he can do anything he wants, perhaps he is not truly good. Either God is not good enough to help us, or God is not strong enough to help us. Maybe he is good enough and strong enough, but he simply does not love us. Either way, it is all God’s fault. By saying these things, the enemies of God think that they have defeated God. They have removed God from their lives; they have put themselves in charge, because they have judged God and have found him lacking. From now on, they will be their own gods, because the God you and I know is not good enough for them.

              Sometimes you and I fall into the trap of God’s enemies. We focus too much attention on the fire and suffering of hell, and we make it sound as if God likes to see people suffer. We ask questions about the world, about why things go wrong, and we fail to show our faith that God is still in control. We get caught up in the matters of this world—the wars, the diseases, the political problems, the economic problems—and we fail to proclaim that it all belongs to God and that everyone will answer to Him. We even act as if we are in control of our own lives, as if we need to take care of ourselves and turn to God only as a last resort when all our plans have fallen short of our goals.

              Jesus came into this world to forgive sinners. He is obsessed with forgiveness. He tells us to forgive sinners, and he links our forgiveness to the forgiveness that we share with others. Not that we forgive those who sin against us by the goodness of our own hearts. When we try to find in ourselves the power to forgive, our goodness and our forgiveness falls short of God’s glory. But when we are confident that Jesus forgives sins, we pass along the forgiveness that Jesus earned on the cross. Because we are forgiven, we also forgive. Because we have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, we act as agents of God. We warn sinners of the cost of their sin, speaking to them the Law of God. We call them to repent. But we also share the good news of forgiveness to all those who repent. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is bigger than all the sins of the world combined. His Gospel is far bigger than all the sins which have caused us to suffer. We love our neighbors and forgive those who sin against us because God loved us first and because Jesus has already paid the debt of all sinners in this world.

              We too are sinners. We have fallen short of the glory of God. We do not always love and forgive as we should love and forgive. We deserve to be rejected by God, punished by God for breaking his laws. Instead, Jesus came to rescue us and forgive us. Jesus mourns over our sins as we wept over Jerusalem. We grieve the Holy Spirit when we sin. Even in his grief and sorrow, God desires our forgiveness. He wants to restore us to a right relationship with him; he wants to call us his children. Therefore, Jesus came into this world. The only-begotten Son of God paid the cost of our adoption so we also could be children of God and could live forever with him in his kingdom.

              Jesus lived as our substitute. He obeyed the Law perfectly where we have fallen short. He was circumcised, shedding his blood even as an infant to wash away our sins. Later, he also was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. He was tempted by the devil, but he resisted temptation. He loved his Father perfectly; he loved his neighbors perfectly. He submitted to earthly authority, even when that earthly authority was corrupt. He earned the rewards of a sinless life so he could grant us those rewards at no cost to ourselves.

              But then Jesus was crucified. Jesus compared himself to a mother hen, spreading her wings to gather her chicks. God the Father and God the Son do not often portray a feminine nature, but on this occasion Jesus does call himself a mother hen. When a hen chases away the intruder in the barnyard, and when she gathers her chicks to protect them from danger, she spreads her wings wide. With that image, Jesus pictures himself on the cross, spreading his arms over the world to provide protection for all the people he loves and gathering us all under his wings at the cross. There he suffers and dies for us. There he pays our debt and adopts us into his family. There he defeats his enemies and reclaims us as his people so we can live with him forever in his kingdom.

              This payment was necessary, because evil has a price. God cannot forgive sins by ignoring sins.
God cannot pretend that everything is good when everything is not good. God hates evil, because evil damages the good things God made. God hates evil, because evil hurts the people God loves. God hates evil, because evil brings darkness in the place of light. Evil brings death in the place of life. Evil is a barrier that separates us from God. We cannot remove the barrier. We cannot replace darkness with light or death with life. Therefore, on the cross, Jesus pays in full for our restoration. He takes away all our sins, redeeming us, paying the full cost to make us the children of God and guaranteeing us eternal life in his kingdom.

              Having defeated evil, Jesus dies and is buried. On the Sabbath Day he rests, his body in a tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. At the dawn of a new week, Jesus rises from the dead. He proves that he has won the victory over all evil, even over death itself. He presents the evidence of his resurrection to his followers, promising us a resurrection like his resurrection. He sends his followers as messengers, bringing forgiveness and the guarantee of eternal life to all nations.

              Jesus ascended into heaven, but he did not abandon his followers. He is with us always, even to the end of the earth. He is with us in his Word, guiding us by his Law and reminding us daily of his Gospel promises. He is with us when two or three gather in his name, reminding us of his forgiveness and giving us power—through that forgiveness—to live as his people. He is with us in Holy Baptism, daily renewing the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life. He is with us in Holy Communion, feeding us with his body and blood, and giving us forgiveness and eternal life by the power of his sacrifice on the cross.

              In the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments, Jesus shares with us the good news of a God who cares. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, he spread out his arms on the cross to embrace all the sinners of the world. Through the Church, Jesus continues to reach out to the world with the good news of forgiveness and eternal life. He shares his blessings with us this morning. He sends us again into the world to be his messengers, carrying with us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. He is with us always, just as he said, working through us to change the world, and keeping us faithful to him as we walk the paths he planned for us.

             

Another history lesson

“Biologically, there are not different races. Despite our differences, there is only one human race.” Once, when I said that in history class, one of my students asked, “Then why do we call problems between different groups ‘racism’?” My answer, to the best I can recall, was that imagined racial differences reinforce these problems. The core statement remains true: DNA studies confirm what interfertility had already demonstrated—all humans are related. We are all of one common race.

Humans have spread out, though, to inhabit every environmental niche in the planet. Humans live in polar climates where it is nearly always winter, and they live in tropical climates where it is always summer. Humans live in deserts where it never rains and in forests where it rains nearly every day. Humans live high on mountains and along the seashore. Humans live in river valleys and in grasslands far from flowing water. Humans have adapted to every climate and every environment on the planet. We have found food to support us wherever we live. We have developed tools to adapt our environment, making it friendlier and more survivable. In more recent times, we have learned to travel from place to place, to network with other cultures, to communicate across various barriers, and to exchange the raw materials and the created artifacts of our various groups.

Human interaction has not always been pleasant or peaceful. People have fought wars over natural resources. People have fought over land and territory. People have fought over ideas—religious ideas, economic ideas, and political ideas. People have enslaved their neighbors and have captured neighbors to sell into slavery. People have clung to excess food while their neighbors starved. People have used violence and starvation and disease to control other people. People have used our difference in appearance, in language, and in ideas and cultures as excuses to mistreat one another, excuses to treat other groups of people as something less than human.

By any label (racism, bigotry, prejudice, greed, hatred), these problems are not quickly and easily solved. Some claim to be colorblind, to treat all people the same. Others rise above both bigotry and colorblindness to celebrate their own cultural heritage and also to be curious about the cultural heritage of their neighbors. Some people perpetuate stereotypes based on debunked racial theories—either claiming that one group is inherently better than another, or else claiming that past abuses of one group over another are the only reason for present problems and require redistribution of wealth, property, and power.

History, like science, tends to be misused by groups seeking to maintain power over others and by groups seeking to gain power over others. The value of history is that it shows some constant themes that we can resist futilely or that we can observe, planning to adapt productively. People move from place to place. They seek better lives for themselves—freedom from violence, more available food, more opportunities to improve their lives and those of their children, better laws, better governments, more freedom. When migrants are hated, despised, and resisted, they do not go away—they become more stubborn in their attempts to find a better life, while also clinging more strongly to their cultural traditions and beliefs. When migrants are welcomed and incorporated, they do not take over—they become more interested in the traditions and beliefs of the culture to which they have been added.

The Law of Moses required compassion and aid for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (the outsider, the migrant). Jesus Christ affirmed these values, teaching his followers to love one another, to love their neighbors, to help even the Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman who begged for crumbs from the Master’s table. When we love our neighbors, we do not tolerate lawlessness, violence, or hatred from those neighbors. But, when we love our neighbors, we learn about their ways and we teach them our ways. With today’s rapid transportation, instant communication, and widely available information about the world’s cultures, we learn easily about others. And we find opportunities to be helpful to those who need our help. Instead of keeping our culture pure by driving away the stranger, we perpetuate our culture by sharing it with the stranger. History teaches that this is the best procedure to follow. J.

Immigration policy

Migration is a constant element of human history. Groups of people continually move in search of a better food supply, greater security from enemies, a more comfortable climate, better jobs, more opportunities for future generations, and various other reasons. The United States was built by immigrants. Even the oldest civilizations of the western hemisphere were established by people whose ancestors crossed over from Asia. The United States is less a melting pot where all newcomers are forced into conformity and more a salad where assorted ingredients each add their distinctive flavor to the whole.

The Bible frequently urges God’s people to be compassionate and helpful to the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant. The spirit of the poem attached to the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”) can and should continue to be the American attitude toward all the people of the world who want to join our country.

On the other hand, immigrants should enter legally. Those who first entered the United States in defiance of the law can hardly be expected to suddenly respect the law now that they are within our borders. Offering sanctuary to illegal immigrants creates problems without solving problems. The United States needs secure borders for the protection of our citizens, even while it needs to continue welcoming legal immigrants who will contribute to the richness of our combined heritage.

For that reason, I support continued measures to keep our borders secure. I support the government of the United States working with the government of Mexico to combat criminal smugglers of people and of drugs and violent crime into our country. I support projects to welcome immigrants into the United States, particularly from those countries in north Africa, west Asia, and Central America that are torn by war, rebellion, violence, and poverty. At the same time, I support actions of our government to work with other governments in those places to end the violence, reduce the poverty, and improves the lives of the people dwelling in those places.

In 1975, the United States welcomed thousands of Vietnamese immigrants. In 1980, we welcomed thousands of Cuban immigrants. These people were temporarily housed in government facilities (military bases) and given various kinds of support while sponsors arranged to welcome these newcomers into American society. The American government was able to isolate and remove the few troublemakers mixed into these large migrations, as it monitored all the families who were sponsored and helped by American groups and organizations. The same kind of help can be offered today for those fleeing trouble in other parts of the world, those seeking better lives, safety, and a new beginning within the peace, prosperity, and freedom enjoyed in the United States.

During the previous administration, conservatives joked that President Obama was solving immigration problems by making the United States less desirable of a place to live. Although our country is not flawless, it remains a beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, a shining example of what can happen when people are encouraged to live freely rather than oppressed by their government. So long as we believe in the greatness of America, we can expect other people to believe the same and to seek to join us in this land. Welcoming those who come legally with compassion and encouragement remains the best policy for the United States of America. J.

A letter to President Trump

To the Honorable Donald Trump, President of the United States:

Greetings.

Many people in our country are talking about the large number of Central Americans (now estimated to include 6,000 people) crossing Mexico on the way to the United States border. This situation brings to mind the 160,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam, and also the 125,000 Cuban refugees who left Cuba in 1980 for the United States. In both cases they were fleeing Communist governments and were welcomed into the United States. But the procedure used to resettle them is one that could be repeated this year. As you no doubt remember, both the Vietnamese and the Cuban refugees were temporarily housed in US military facilities where they could be interviewed and processed, and troublemakers could be isolated. At the same time, sponsors were sought for each individual or family—sponsors who would watch over their resettlement, help them find jobs and adjust to American life, and keep them from causing trouble in their new home. Sponsors included families, church groups, other charitable organizations, and many humanitarians who wanted to assist these foreigners who wished to become American citizens.

I believe the same thing can be done with these Central Americans who say that they want to become American citizens. In addition to border guards and Army reinforcements, the people in these caravans could be met by Spanish-speaking clerks from Immigration who would help them to fill out paperwork to request permission to entry our county legally. Sponsors could be recruited within the United States—perhaps calling the bluff of those who are saying for political reasons that we should not try to stop these people from coming. These six thousand people who say they want to live in the United States could become a resource making America even stronger and greater, as waves of immigrants (including the Vietnamese and the Cubans) have done in the past.

Meanwhile, this is a tremendous opportunity to remind our own citizens and the other countries of the world of the greatness of America. Since no one is sure who is organizing and supporting these caravans, some Americans are beginning to accuse the Russians or some other foreign power of trying to embarrass the United States. What an excellent time this is to ask why thousands of people are not trying to enter Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The United States is a great country, and the rest of the world knows it, whether they admit to it or not.

You remain in my prayers as you continue in your difficult job as the President of all the citizens of the United States of America.

J.

First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part two

No one in the office had ever heard Susanna shout. When she spoke at all, she spoke in a quiet voice. Her coworkers were startled one morning when she called out, “Somebody call 9-1-1!” It took a couple of seconds for anyone even to think to ask why they should call the emergency number.

Only Susanna had noticed when Conrad collapsed. Perhaps the odd movement caught her eye, or perhaps she had been glancing his direction more often lately. Conrad’s body turned limp, and he began to slide off his chair onto the floor under his desk. Before his head could hit the floor, Susanna was at his side. She pushed away his chair and eased him into a flat position on the floor. She checked his neck for a pulse, which she noticed was rapid and weak, but regular. Next she watched to make sure that he was breathing. He was.

She heard the voice of one of the other men in the office talking to the emergency dispatcher over the telephone. As three or four concerned workers gathered around, she waved them back. “Give him some air,” she pleaded.

Conrad’s eyelids flickered. Then he opened his eyes and began to sit up. “What happened?” he asked groggily.

“You fainted,” she told him. Putting her hand on his shoulder, she pressed him back to the floor. “Lie still,” she said. “Help is on the way.”

“I’m sure I’m fine,” Conrad started to say, but she interrupted him. “I said lie still. You are going to be checked out to make sure that you’re fine. I lost one friend this way—I’m not going to lose another.”

In stunned silence, the sound of an approaching siren could be heard. “You!” she commanded, pointing at Tony. “Go down to the door and guide them up here. They mustn’t waste a second!”

Susanna took Conrad’s hand and squeezed it. “You are going to make it,” she promised him.

Conrad was already feeling stronger. He decided to try a little joke. “If I don’t,” he whispered, “I just wish… I just wish I had spent more time at the office.” No one laughed, but it seemed to Conrad that
Susanna relaxed slightly.

Less than two minutes later, three paramedics were tending to Conrad. “Do you know your name?” one of them asked him. “Do you know what day this is?” Conrad answered both questions correctly. Another paramedic was checking his pulse and counting his heartbeats. “What happened?” the first paramedic asked.

“I guess I fainted,” Conrad said sheepishly. One minute I was at my desk, working, and the next minute I was lying on the floor.” He paused and confessed, “During the night I got up and was sick, and I didn’t think my stomach could handle breakfast this morning.”

The paramedic nodded and gently pinched the skin on Conrad’s arm. “Dehydration,” he announced. “Probably nothing serious, but we’ll still get you to the hospital for a complete check-up.”

“Really—I’m fine,” Conrad protested, but they seemed to ignore his words. They had a stretcher which folded into a chair which would fit in the elevator. As they carefully moved Conrad onto the stretcher, Susanna grabbed her purse. “I’ll follow you to the hospital,” she told them.

Of course the ambulance took Conrad straight to the emergency room entrance. Susanna had to find a parking spot, then find the public entry, and from there try to find Conrad. When she admitted that she was not part of his family, they were reluctant to allow her back to see him. He remembered her promise, though, and asked about her, and soon she was with him.

One machine was monitoring his heart, while another was pumping fluid into his arm. Susanna had no medical training, but on the heart monitor she could see that Conrad’s heart was pumping thoroughly and regularly. He also seemed less pale than he had been when he was lying on the office floor.

She took his hand. “You gave us all a little scare there.”

He smiled weakly. “Sorry about that. I guess I should take better care of myself.”

She smiled back. “I guess you should.”

Conrad squeezed her hand and said, “Can I ask you a question?” She nodded, and he asked, “Back at work you said you had lost a friend this way. Please tell me what happened.”

She drew her breath in sharply, and Conrad thought he had made a mistake. After she let the air out slowly she took another breath. No longer smiling, she said, “I guess I can talk about it.

“We were both in college—our last year, about to graduate. We weren’t officially engaged, but we were making plans as if we were. We both knew what jobs we wanted to have, and we hoped that we found jobs in the same city, because that would make it easy for us to get married right away.

“He was on the football team. They were having a practice, a normal practice, getting ready for one of the last games of the season. It was just an ordinary practice, nothing strenuous, but he suddenly collapsed on the field. They rushed him to the hospital, but he was dead when they got him there.

“Something was wrong with his heart. He had probably been born with a weakness in his heart, but no one ever knew it.” Susanna closed her eyes and tried to hold back the tears, but they flowed all the same.

“I’m sorry,” Conrad said. I shouldn’t have asked.”

Susanna shook her head. When she could speak, she said, “It’s good for me to talk about it. I’ve held it in too long. I’ve been frightened of what would happen to be when I finally came to terms with it.”

“It must have been a terrible shock to you—and to his family and everyone who knew him.”

“It was. I took it very hard. The night after his funeral, I got drunk and walked down the middle of the road, screaming and cursing at all the drivers who swerved to miss me. I wanted them to hit me. I wanted to be dead and buried, just like him.”

“How awful!”

Susanna looked Conrad in the eyes. “I was messed up for a couple of years. I dropped out of school and spent days in my bedroom binging on movies. I would go days without food and then fill up on sweets. My parents told each other to be patient, I’d snap out of it. Instead, I kept making myself more miserable with bad choices. Then, finally, I… I….”

An older nurse had been in and out of the medical bay as Susanna told Conrad about her past. When Susanna burst into tears, the nurse wrapped her arms around her and spoke soothingly to her. “I(t’s alright now, Honey. Don’t let it bother you. Things will be fine from now on.”

It took a couple of minutes for Susanna to regain control of herself. “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping tears off her face. “I guess being in a hospital again is bringing back a lot of memories.”

“Well for now,” the nurse said to her, “talk about something more pleasant. The doctor is going to be back in a few minutes to check on your friend, and I have a feeling he’ll be allowed to go home. So—you see?—everything’s not so bad.”

“Yes, let’s talk about something else,” Conrad agreed.

“But one thing before we change the subject,” Susanna interjected. “You won’t say anything about all this to anybody at work, will you?”

“Of course not,” Conrad promised. “If you knew me better, you wouldn’t have to ask.”

As the nurse had promised, the doctor was soon checking on Conrad. “You don’t seem to be in any danger,” the doctor said. “If you can go home and stay quiet for the rest of the day, and get plenty of fluids, you should be fine.”

“I’ll drive you home,” Susanna told him, “and I can pick you up tomorrow and bring you to work.”

And that is what they did.

 

To be continued… but I don’t know when… I don’t even know what happens next. J.

Woe to you who are rich

Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:24-25). Believers and unbelievers alike nod and applaud when Jesus scolds the rich. We know that he is not talking to us. He is talking to those people who have more than we have—those who could feed the world’s hungry and shelter the world’s homeless and cure the world’s ailing people if each of them just gave a fraction of the wealth they have acquired.

But who are these wealthy people?

If you have eaten today and expect to eat again before this time tomorrow, you are rich.

If you own more clothing than you can wear at one time, you are rich.

If you have a roof over your head and four walls around you, so that when it rains you do not get wet, you are rich.

If you can control the temperature under that roof, keeping yourself cool in the summer and warm in the winter, you are rich.

If you can press a button or two and be entertained by musicians, actors, or athletes, you are rich.

If you must control your diet and your exercise to keep from gaining weight, you are rich.

Explain to the impoverished people living in Asia and Africa your frustration when you set the TV to record a movie or a ball game and the recording is missing the last ten minutes of the production.

Explain to the homeless people living in American cities why you turn the thermostat down a degree or two after spending fifteen minutes on the treadmill.

Explain to Jesus why his scolding was meant for other people and not for you.

Yes, we all give at the office. We all support Christian outreach which includes help for the poor. Some of us donate our vacation time to take trips to other parts of the world where we can help those less fortunate than ourselves… for a week or two.

The fact remains that we are rich. Ninety-nine percent of the people who have dwelt on this planet could not even imagine the comfort, the medical care, and the entertainment that we take for granted. We are the one percent whom God has blessed with material comforts, not because he loves us more, but because he expects greater acts of mercy and love from us.

You will do more when you have paid off your student loans or your credit card debt. You will do more when you have retired from your job and have paid off your mortgage. You will do more once the government gets off your back with high taxes and too many regulations.

Jesus did not wait before he offered you help. He looked into this world from outside of time and saw your cold-hearted regard of your neighbors, your addictions to wealth and comfort, and your neglect of his most basic commandments. Jesus had compassion, not only upon your neglected neighbors, but also upon you. He set an example for you, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, using the power he had to make life better for others. His example has become a Substitute, so that when his Father looks at you, he sees righteousness instead of sin. As a Substitute, he became also a Sacrifice, so that when his Father looked at him on a certain Friday afternoon, he saw your sins and treated them as they deserved. Jesus thought of you that day. He said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

This forgiveness is not license to remain addicted to wealth and comfort, or to remain cold-hearted toward the poor. This forgiveness is wealth, and wealth is meant to be shared. As God has forgiven us, so we forgive one another. As God has given us hope of a better world, we share that hope with those around us. God loves us, and he teaches us to have his compassion toward those who need it the most.

Our treasure is in heaven, not on earth. Abraham and Job and Solomon were wealthy men, but God did not hate them for their riches. Like them, we can be poor in spirit, no matter how much we own in this world. Being poor in spirit is not measured by how much money you have; it is measured by how much money has you. When we judge ourselves by worldly standards, we know we are not rich, because we don’t even have enough money to buy everything we want. When we judge ourselves by heavenly standards, we know that we are rich, because our investment is in the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, and nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.

This wealth we share. We forgive those who sin against us. We share the hope we have in Christ Jesus. And, because God has blessed us with riches in this world, we do what we can, when we can, to serve God by helping others. After all, we were created to do good works, prepared for us from the foundation of the world. J.

 

Jonah

Last weekend InsanityBytes published this post about Jonah the prophet. Predictably, her post triggered an intense conversation within the comments. The book of Jonah is a lightning rod for debates about how to interpret the Bible. Even some conservative Christians view Jonah as an allegory rather than a history.

The most memorable event in the book of Jonah occurs when the prophet is swallowed by a large fish. The Bible is not specific about what sort of fish swallowed Jonah, and many have pictured him in the stomach of a whale. This is, of course, unlikely, since whales have sponge-like filters in their throats and eat vast amounts of tiny aquatic creatures. After doing some research about marine life, I have concluded that Jonah was most likely swallowed whole by a large shark. A great white shark can be more than twenty feet long, and many large items have been found in the stomachs of captured great white sharks. Recently a shark was found with an intact skeleton of a seven-foot porpoise. Reliable records from the 1600s report that a shark was found with the carcass of a fully armored knight in its stomach. Imagine Jonah captured in a shark’s stomach that was just a tiny bit larger than he was. At first he expects to die, but without air to breathe or any room to move around, he does not die or even become unconscious. After a few long, dark hours of this, the prophet began to pray fervently. A summary of his prayer is contained in the second chapter of the book of Jonah.

For many readers of the Bible, the account of Jonah is an object lesson about disobedience and compassion. God told Jonah to preach in Nineveh, but Jonah got on a boat that was going the opposite direction. God sent a storm to stop Jonah. When Jonah refused to reverse direction but instead sought death at sea, God sent a fish to contain Jonah. When Jonah came to his senses, the fish vomited Jonah onto the beach. From there, Jonah traveled to Nineveh and preached a call for repentance. The people of Nineveh repented. Jonah was furious. He had taken a good seat to watch fire fall from heaven to destroy the city, and God did not send the fire. God reminded Jonah how much God cared about the city and its inhabitants, even the livestock.

Jesus compared the time Jonah spent inside the fish to the time Jesus would spend in the grave. Jesus died on a Friday and was buried before sunset; he rose to life on Sunday morning around sunrise. The “three days and three nights” Jonah spent in the fish might also have been closer to forty hours than to seventy-two hours. (The Bible’s description of time in this case resembles that of a vacation resort that promises accommodation for “three days and two nights” but is only available toward the end of the first day and must be left before noon on the third day.) The miracle of a prophet surviving inside a fish and returning alive to the land pictured the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world’s Savior. Jonah’s ordeal and Christ’s resurrection are miracles, beyond the ability of science to predict or explain. Those who first wrote about these events were aware that they were miracles that went against the laws of nature; otherwise, they would not have bothered to describe them.

Aside from the fish stomach/tomb comparison, several other similarities identify Jonah with Jesus. Both men slept in a boat during a storm until their fellow travelers woke them in panic. This detail may seem trivial, but not many people are capable of sleeping in a boat during a storm. Both men had the wrath of God directed at them: God sent a storm because Jonah was disobeying God, and Jesus went to the cross to bear the wrath of his Father over all the sins of the world. Both men offered to sacrifice their lives to save other lives—Jonah told the sailors to throw him off the boat so the holy storm would cease, and Jesus died on the cross to pay in full for the sins of the world. Both preached messages of repentance that became vehicles for God’s forgiveness—the crew of Jonah’s boat became believers in the Lord because of Jonah, and the citizens of Nineveh repented of their sins and were forgiven by God instead of being punished by God. Likewise, the forgiveness of God is available to everyone in the world because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and his victory over evil is demonstrated by his own resurrection.

Jonah did not want to obey God; he had to be forced to obey. Jesus volunteered to do what his Father desired, even when his Father’s will included the cross. Jonah’s work rescued some lives, but the work of Jesus suffices to save the world. Jonah is remembered for spending time inside a fish, but Jesus is remembered for blazing a trail across the valley of the shadow of death, guaranteeing that his people will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

 

The cost of being poor

One of the oddities of our current economic system in the United States is that it is costly to be poor. I cannot offer any brilliant solution to fix that problem, but for those who haven’t noticed the problem, I can describe it.

Banks favor wealthy people over poor people. Keep a minimum balance in your account, and you will be charged fewer fees to use the bank. If you are close to breaking even but you accidently overdraw your account, banks will charge a fee for attempting to spend money you don’t have. Wealthy people never have to worry about insufficient fund fees. Of course it would be ridiculous to demand that banks change the way they work. A bank would go out of business if it waived these policies for everyone who is poor.

If you are wealthy, it’s easy to get a loan. Banks are happy to lend money to customers who are able to repay the loan. If you are poor, you are unlikely to get a loan. You might have the greatest invention in the world and just need a few thousand dollars to start a business, but if you don’t already have those thousands of dollars, they are difficult to find. Again, no one can change the way loans work; banks would go out of business loaning money to people who cannot repay those loans.

Credit cards are a wonderful convenience when you are able to pay the full balance every month. That’s really the wisest way to use a credit card. They can also be a convenience, though, when you have a sudden unexpected emergency—a car repair, for example, or replacing a broken appliance. The danger of that convenience is that now you have a debt that increases monthly due to interest charges. Then, if money is tight for other reasons and you miss a payment, penalties are added to the debt you already have. Credit works that way, and its basic rules are not going to change. But the credit card business is more likely to hurt poor people than wealthy people.

Rural poor have fewer resources than urban poor. They cannot take advantage of mass transportation, and they are farther away from social services offices. However, the urban poor face additional costs that the rural poor (and the wealthy) do not have. Living in the least costly neighborhoods coexists with greater danger from crime and from gang violence. For that reason, property insurance and automobile insurance are higher for people who live in those areas. These higher insurance costs lead to higher prices for gasoline and groceries in the city. Moreover, sales taxes usually are higher in the city. Higher prices and higher insurance rates make it difficult for families to save enough money to move to less dangerous and less expensive surroundings.

“There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5). The Law of God demanded compassion and justice for all people. Every seventh year debts were forgiven, slaves were freed; and every fiftieth year property that had been sold was returned to its family. God’s people were commanded to help the widow, the orphan, and the refugee. A cloak that had been given as security on a loan was to be returned by sundown. In the courts, poor people and rich people were to be regarded equally. Workers were to be paid their wages at the end of each workday. Harvesters were commanded to leave behind scraps for the poor to glean.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). God knew that his commands would not be obeyed. Jesus reminded his apostles of this verse when they objected to the perfume that had been poured on him. They said that the money would have been better used to help the poor. Jesus answered, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.” Poverty cannot be ended by legislation. Taking money from the rich to give to the poor did not end poverty in Robin Hood’s day, and it will not work today.

On the other hand, God still expects compassion from his people. The knowledge that there will never cease to be poor in the land motivates Christians to help as they can. No one deserves to be poor. Some wealthy people use their wealth in various ways to help the poor—gifts of food, clothing, or shelter; scholarships to open opportunities for the poor; financial support for libraries, museums, and hospitals; endowments to fund research to combat diseases and other problems that plague poor people more than wealthy people. Investing in businesses that provide jobs also gives help to the poor.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, “It’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either.” Until the Day of the Lord, there will never cease to be poor in the land. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are asking God to help the poor as well as ourselves. Our compassion for the poor is the beginning of God’s answer to this prayer. J.

Broken people among us

They drive the same roads, walk the same sidewalks, and shop the same stores as the rest of us. Some of them work with us. Many of them communicate with us on the internet. Yet they are not like the rest of us: they are missing something that most of us take for granted.

I am not describing all people who struggle daily with anxiety and depression, for anxiety and depression have many different causes in different people, and they bring about a variety of reactions. Many of the people I am describing would not consider themselves depressed and anxious, and they have not been diagnosed as such. Yet they live their lives without hope, without meaning, without compassion or concern for others, and without healthy relationships with other people.

During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States experimented with various forms of mind control, hoping to use the results of their experiments to defeat the communist forces aligned against the United States. These experiments included powerful drugs, food and sleep deprivation, and various forms of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. Some of these horrific experiments were based on Nazi practices from their concentration camps during World War II. The secret program, code-named MKULTRA, came to light during Congressional investigations of the executive branch of American government in the mid-1970s. CIA leaders promised to discontinue the program immediately.

Some people believe that the program has not been discontinued. They state that the CIA, in conjunction with Illuminati or the Masonic lodge or some other nefarious group, has enslaved a large number of American citizens by these same procedures, using them to accomplish secret goals, which are known only to the central group. Of course any massive conspiracy is going to be clumsy, ineffective, and vulnerable to the human self-interest and incompetence of its members. Strange to say, though, the victims of mind control experiments appear to be real, even if no conspiracy is guiding their training.

Mind control was intended to remove the moral and compassionate restraints that most people possess so they would be willing to do the bidding of their masters. Various forms of abuse were used to achieve this effect. I cannot say whether child abuse of various kinds has increased in the last seventy years or if society is more aware of child abuse than before; the latter may be the case, but I see the former as more likely. Society has changed greatly in seventy years. Gone are the extended families living close to one another, in which grandparents and uncles and aunts could assist in watching and caring for children. Gone are the small towns and the city neighborhoods in which everyone knew everyone else and people watched out for each other. Rapid communication and rapid transportation have created a world in which workers and their families are moved from place to place and in which families choose to relocate regularly for other reasons. Single-parent families and two-income families require paid strangers to care for their children. Children are more vulnerable to various kinds of danger these days, not all of which would be considered abuse, but all of which can disable their moral and compassionate restraints.

In addition, modern families bring into their homes the very kind of sexual and violent materials that were used years ago to desensitize mind-control subjects. Now these things are considered entertainment. Through television, the internet, and video games, children are exposed to sexual behaviors—often inappropriate behaviors—and violence in far larger and more persistent doses than ever before. This is not the result of a conspiracy trying to control people. The entertainment industry only wants to make money. It distributes the products it creates because they sell. Yet the net result of this influence is a larger number of people who are without hope, without a sense of meaning for their lives, without compassion for others, and without healthy relationships with other people.

Not every victim of child abuse remains scarred and miserable for life. Many do find hope and purpose, they do have compassion for others, and they do develop healthy relationships with others. Not every child who plays violent video games or watches violent movies becomes a violent person. Many of them can distinguish between reality and entertainment, and they also have meaningful and hopeful lives and healthy relationships with other people. Not all the broken people around us are victims of abuse or have been swayed by inappropriate entertainment. Some of them are broken for different reasons. Yet it seems that society as a whole has been following the pattern of mind-control techniques, and yet no mastermind is controlling the process. The train is roaring down the tracks, but no one is minding the engine.

Christian truths are the best help for people broken by abuse, by neglect, and by a world that seems out of control. Christian truths teach compassion and help to create healthy relationships. Christian truths offer hope and a meaning for life. Christian truths offer forgiveness to those who have done wrong, and they offer victory to those who have been victims of evil. The victory of Christ’s sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection overpower evil in all its forms and restore human life to dignity and hope.

Yet the broken people, without hope and without compassion, are largely turned against religion in general and Christianity in particular. They reject God and all his teachings. They sneer at commandments to love one another, or they redefine love to remove the meaning of those commandments. They have no desire to repent and be forgiven. They call religion a set of fairy tales, a crutch for weak people, and the source of violence and abuse in the world. It seems as if these broken people have been programmed to turn against the one power in the world that could fix their lives and make them complete human beings.

Is there no hope for the broken people in the world? The Word of God is still powerful and active. Such people can find hope and meaning in the good news of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, Christians can model hopeful and compassionate lives. They can care for their own children and prevent them from being desensitized to morality and compassion. And Christians can pray for the broken people, asking God to reach into their lives and fix what is broken. Where there is Christ, there is hope. And Christ has already defeated evil at its source. J.