Archive for the ‘global Christianity’ Category

David: Anointed

March 16, 2018

In January and February I taught a 7-week class on the life of David. As I prepared each week I found myself deeply engrossed. I got a whole new perspective that I’d like to share. This is the first in a series of occasional blog posts–pretty long ones–that take up facets of David’s life and consider how they prefigure the Son of David, Jesus.

David was anointed. Before the Bible tells us anything about his character or his personality, before we see him in action and grasp his capacity for leadership, we hear that Samuel, at God’s instruction, anointed him. It’s a tale that’s often recounted in sermons and Sunday school lessons, because it offers high drama and a great punch line. What is usually missed is what happened after the anointing—or, more precisely, what didn’t happen.

Here is the story: God tells Samuel, the judge and leader of Israel, to stop grieving over Saul, the king whom God has rejected. God sends Samuel to Bethlehem, to Jesse and his eight sons. Samuel is afraid to go, and the elders who meet him in the city are frightened when he arrives. Their fear of arousing Saul’s jealousy is strong, and why not? Samuel is engaged in an act of treason. He is about to choose a new king while the old one is still strong and full of life. Nowhere and never is that a good way to maintain your health.

Samuel pretends he’s just there for a religious service, but Jesse brings his sons, one by one, in front of Samuel. One by one, they are rejected. These are not the ones God wants. David isn’t even present. He’s the youngest, out herding sheep. To his family, he’s insignificant. At Samuel’s insistence they bring him in, and God tells Samuel to anoint him.

What do we know about David at this point? What does Samuel know? Not much. David is young. He’s healthy and good looking. His father doesn’t think much of him. It’s not a great resume for becoming king.

Anointing is done with oil. It has to do with dedicating something to a particular purpose, much in the way that we might dedicate a room as a quiet place for reading, or dedicate a phone line for international calls. In the Pentateuch anointing always has to do with worship. The priests are anointed, and so are their clothes, and the altar in the tabernacle, and the bowls used in the tabernacle, as well as the other utensils, and the tabernacle itself. It is a symbolic way to announce, “These are special. These are set aside for something supremely important.”

Beginning in 1 Samuel, anointing applies to the king. After being anointed, David becomes supremely important, not an ordinary person. He is dedicated to extraordinary work.

The deep background is God’s disappointment with Israel’s leadership. Samuel had anointed King Saul, and Saul disappointed. Before Saul, there were leadership disappointments with Eli and his sons as well, and with Samuel’s sons. Leadership mattered because the nation was in deep trouble. Israel lived in a rough neighborhood, much as it does today. The Philistines, a more technologically advanced people, had invaded. Israel might be overrun by the Philistine army and obliterated—erased as a distinctive people. This is not paranoia. We know with hindsight that it happened to every single kingdom in the region. Ever meet a Gittite? An Ammonite?

The text is at pains to point out that Samuel had no input in choosing David. God overturned his initial idea that Eliab, the oldest son, was the right choice; and then, as one son after another was paraded before him, God rejected each one. We are told that “the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) That is the great punchline in all the sermons and Sunday school lessons. We see the outside—the good looks, the charisma, the skills. God sees what is inside, and that is what he cares about. For anybody who ever lacked confidence, who lacked irresistible charm and effortless ability, this is great news. What matters is what is in your heart! A million inspirational self-help messages have been made from this.

This isn’t quite right. The Scriptural message isn’t actually meant to encourage people to try harder and believe more. The message is that God’s ways are inscrutable. We can’t see inside people, but he can. His judgments are beyond our skill set. This is God’s initiative. He does it through Samuel but without his help. God sees all and decides all.

I am very often reminded of this when I volunteer at the Redwood Gospel Mission’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. I am assigned to meet one-on-one with men who have entered the 10-month residential program. I love the job, partly because of pure fascination—these men have lived lives that are very different from mine. Also, as I get to know these men, I find I almost always enjoy them. We meet weekly over the course of months, and we get to know each other quite well.

However, I can’t tell you who will be able to stay clean and sober. Sometimes I get a pretty good idea who won’t. If they aren’t fully engaged with the program, if they have big doubts, they probably won’t succeed in it. However, those who seem to have no doubts also often fail. Kicking an addiction is extremely difficult. I can’t see inside them to know who has the character and will to change. I just do my part to help, and wait to see what time will reveal.

God knows exactly who has the stuff to begin a new life. He sees into each person’s heart. He saw into David’s and observed something the other brothers lacked—qualities to make a great king. Thus David was anointed—set apart to lead Israel.


At this point, the story of David’s anointing turns strange. The brothers and the father were present with Samuel at the anointing, but no announcement was made to the general public. No one made any attempt to publicize God’s choice. You might chalk this up to caution, since Saul would take violent exception to being replaced. Surely, though, if David is going to be king, sooner or later an announcement must be made. It never happens. For years to come David will serve as Saul’s personal musician, his army captain, his bete noire, his son-in-law, his son’s best friend. Rumors may suggest that David is God’s choice to be king, but never does David or anybody else blow a trumpet to announce what God has done.

The anointing appears powerless. It effects no change, not even within the family. When the Philistine giant Goliath is taunting Israel’s army, and David inquires what reward will go to someone who defeats him, his brother Eliab (the first one rejected) is fiercely critical: “He burned with anger at [David] and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” (1 Samuel 17:28) Eliab shows no hint of respect for the brother he saw anointed by Samuel. He still sees him as the little sheepherder, with stuck-up ideas about himself.

In the years to come Saul makes David’s life misery. He is threatened, attacked, and forced to run for his life. He lives in the wilderness with a collection of misfits and renegades. David sends his parents into exile out of fear that they, too, will suffer on his behalf. (1 Samuel 22:3)

David makes no attempt whatsoever to change this state of affairs. Twice when Saul falls into his hands he refuses to take action. He could have killed Saul, but he won’t do it. He never refers to himself as the Lord’s anointed. He refers that way to Saul, repeatedly.

Thus we have one of the strangest interludes in the Bible, when God’s chosen king of Israel is on the run from God’s rejected king, and the chosen king does nothing to assert his dignity or his right. He merely tries to stay alive.

David introduces a way of life unique in the Old Testament, and with precious few parallels anywhere: “anointed, but not crowned.”

How long did this powerless interlude go? We can only guess how old David was when he was anointed. Sixteen? Twenty-one? Young enough to be dismissed as insignificant. We know that David was thirty when he was finally crowned king of Judah, and 37 when he was crowned over all Israel. Perhaps he lived “anointed but not crowned” for eight to ten years. Much of David’s reputation was built in this time, when he had nothing, lived on the run, gathered a rag-tag following, and waited.

In the United States, there’s a period between the election and the inauguration called the transition. These months are filled with preparation: possible appointees are interviewed, strategies are rehearsed. For David, the “transition” went on for years, not months, but David made no preparations to take charge.


In the New Testament you encounter a parallel: Jesus. It’s not an exact parallel. It’s an echo.

Jesus’ “anointing” came at his baptism. There God declared him “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Instead of oil poured on the head, Jesus received the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The words do not seem to have been understood by the crowds, nor was the dove seen by many. As with David’s anointing, this was a dramatic event observed by only a few.

It came entirely at God’s initiative. John baptized with water, but God spoke and sent his Spirit. This came despite the fact that Jesus had effectively done nothing to qualify. In all four gospels, John’s baptism came at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, before he began preaching and healing. “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

For readers of the Old Testament, the words God uses to identify Jesus at his baptism are loaded with significance. God tells Moses, “Say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22) In the dramatic Psalm 2, God declares the king, the “anointed one,” as “my son.” (2:7) Simply put, these three things go together: the king, God’s son, the representative of the people of God.

When God calls Jesus “my beloved son” he is identifying him as the Messiah, the king who represents all God’s people.

And yet, as with David’s anointing, there is no follow through. There are no trumpets and no public declaration. There are no plans for the coronation. Jesus is unimpressive to his own family, who come to rein him in because they think he is out of his mind—a scene reminiscent of David’s dressing down by his brother.

Like David, Jesus has impressive enemies. The Pharisees and other religious leaders plot to kill him. Jesus keeps out of harm’s way (until the very end) but he doesn’t rally his own supporters to undermine his enemies. He’s critical of the Pharisees but makes no attempt to replace them in their leadership roles. Nor does he rally opposition to Herod or Pilate or any representative of the Roman empire.

When his home town tries to assassinate him, Jesus just slips away. That’s his strategy for overcoming his enemies: he avoids them.

The only time Jesus acts aggressively is when he charges into the temple with a whip. N.T. Wright is surely correct in asserting that this is a protest, not an insurrection. Jesus upsets business for a single day. What do you think happened to those sales booths the next day? I’m sure they were back at it. Jesus is making a point, but he’s not trying to take over the running of the temple.

Jesus is the true king, but he doesn’t act like it. He doesn’t fight. He doesn’t rule. His only regular activities, really, are proclaiming the truth—preaching—and healing the sick and disabled.

The demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God, and beggars called him the son of David. Yet the crowds that swarmed after Jesus and hung on his words were slow to see him as “the anointed.” When asked about the people’s thoughts, the disciples reported that people considered Jesus a reincarnation of John the Baptist, or one of the prophets. It was a breakthrough moment when Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

His anointing remained a doubtful matter up to the moment of Jesus’ death. “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘…Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’  In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’” (Matthew 27:39-43)

Jesus has never been crowned on earth. He has been crowned in heaven. Thus we say, in the apostles’ creed, “He ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the father.”

Paul wrote, in regard to Jesus’ willing self-sacrifice on the cross,

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

“God exalted him to the highest place” is in the past tense, but “every knee should bow” is prospective. It has not yet occurred. That is why we continue to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is God’s will (and should be ours) that everyone on earth acknowledge the anointed, and bow before him as king. That is how it is in heaven. But on earth, “the anointed” accepts being treated like a criminal, just as David was. He does not use kingly power to correct the situation. He does not destroy his enemies or announce his coronation.


David spent miserable years “anointed but not crowned”—a fugitive, without a home, alienated from his own country. What a life for the man anointed to be king! Even so, there is undeniable excitement in his life. It is a thrilling period, full of danger and hope. (The contrast with David’s utter wretchedness during his son Absalom’s rebellion is striking.)

Jesus life as “anointed but not crowned” was also trying. He had no home of his own, his own family and his own home town failed to respect him, he was constantly opposed by the most honored people in society. Jesus cried out in frustration, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Despite the constant tension of Jesus’ life, it is a thrilling, engrossing story. We would not trade it for anything. Only it needs a resurrection.

We, too—like David, like Jesus–spend our lives “anointed but not crowned.” This is what people mean when they talk about the kingdom of God as “already not yet.” As Peter put it to the first generation of believers, “you are a chosen people.” Yet who can claim that Christians are masters of the universe? We struggle. We often feel homeless and out of place. We experience the pain of being mocked and opposed—and even more commonly we feel ignored and discounted. But we are God’s chosen!

Christians who are “not crowned” can become paranoid, exaggerating our persecution. (Of course, some Christians are persecuted. But in my observing, many more feel persecuted.) The normal response is to become aggressive—to take out after our enemies. We may call it standing our ground, but it easily fills up with verbal put-downs and hostile behavior. It turns from defending the truth to attack mode.

In his “anointed but not crowned” period David refused to take on his own vindication. He didn’t boast that he was God’s choice. (He never even mentioned it.) He respected the king, even while knowing that God had rejected him. He tried to stay out of conflict. When he had the king in his sights, he refused to pull the trigger. He trusted God to crown him, in his own time and his own way.

Similarly Jesus. He knew (and said) the leadership of Israel was rotten. They conspired against him, but he didn’t respond in kind. He did not campaign for Messiah; on the contrary, he usually told people to keep quiet about what he had done for them. Even when tried on phony evidence, tortured, mocked and executed, his mind was not on the unfairness, but on forgiveness. He trusted God to deliver his crown. He never took it in his own hands.

We will be crowned. That is the absolute, unhesitating promise of scripture.

“Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8)

“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)

“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Peter 5:4)

“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.… Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (Revelation 2:10)

We live as Jesus lived: anointed, not crowned. Our coronation is up to God, not us. He raised Jesus from the dead and crowned him with eternal life. As Jesus told John, “Do not be afraid…. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever.” (Revelation 1:17-18) When the Living One comes, bringing heaven to earth, then we will be crowned with life.


How Did We Get Here?

March 12, 2018

Michael Gerson, best known as George W. Bush’s speechwriter, has a terrific piece in the Atlantic trying to account for evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” This is the best single account I have read.

Billy Graham

February 21, 2018

Some time back I wrote this piece on Billy Graham for Outreach Magazine. I never met the man. I heard him speak multiple times, beginning when I was seven years old. In this article I try to get at the question of his relevance, long after the vast crowds have vanished. And I re-tell his story, which I find truly fascinating.

Visual Education

December 11, 2017

GiottoLet me say up front that I possess at best a layman’s knowledge of art. Please, feel free to offer correction or clarification. I’d appreciate the help.

I spent two weeks in Tuscany this fall, and saw a lot of religious art. Some was extraordinarily beautiful (Botticelli) and some magnificent (Michelangelo); some, in parish churches or small chapels, was very ordinary. But the ordinary had a function just as much as the magnificent. It’s that function I want to comment on.

Churches are everywhere in Italy, and within the churches, so is art. Every church, large or small, rich or poor, had art, and the purpose of the art was instruction. Worshippers were mostly illiterate, and even for those who could read, no Bibles were available. The art was their Bible. Many of the churches I visited were so crammed with art you could spend days, perhaps weeks, studying all the paintings, frescoes, windows, statues and mosaics.

They had a kind of curriculum. At its cornerstones are certain scenes revisited again and again: the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, Mary and baby Jesus, Mary crowned Queen of heaven, the Last Judgment. There is also, less frequently: Adam and Eve, the Holy Family, the visit of the magi, the slaughter of the innocents, the pieta, the burial of Jesus. Many other biblical stories and many saints, prophets and apostles are portrayed. (For a quick refresher, google “Italian religious art” and click on “images.”)

Even if you know your Bible well, it’s not always easy to decipher who is who, but there are little tricks. (John always has a hair garment; Peter gets keys, and so on.) I assume that in those days before trains or cars, most people were familiar with only one or at most a handful of churches. Priests or nuns or parents explained the art to them. Worshipers grew up knowing who was pictured in their church as well as modern church-goers know where to find the Psalms in their Bible.

Two other elements pervade the paintings and make them difficult for modern people. One is invisible elements made visible. There are many angels, big and small, and not just the few that you find in the biblical stories. There are sometimes demons, too. Doves and other symbols signal the Holy Spirit. Haloes around the heads of some (not all) the godly people suggest an invisible but powerful sanctity. Add to that, there are often people in the paintings and mosaics who don’t belong there, historically speaking: popes and prophets and saints who lived hundreds of years later or before the events pictured. Sometimes the artist himself is there.

That is the second element: the obliteration of time. Renaissance art witnesses to real, historical people. These are not symbols or fantasy figures, but human beings, like us. Yet, time does not seem to be a barrier. Popes and princes and donors witness the crucifixion or worship Jesus in the manger. They could not be there, historically speaking, but in faith they are.

By faith I mean “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The people who worshiped in those churches saw no angels. Nobody they knew sported a halo. Most of them were farmers or tradespeople, who lived by material facts. Why, and how, could they believe anything beyond what met their eyes? They needed faith.

The art is meant to help them grasp the unseen–that angels and demons are all around, that popes and prophets are witnesses, that the court of heaven hangs just over their heads. When they enter the church (as they do, week by week) they encounter an interpretation of reality that expands their vision and touches eternity. Did everyone believe? Of course not. But some did. Without the art, would anyone?

And we, who have no such art in our churches: what do we believe?

Christmas Carols

December 6, 2017

My father has been gone for 12 years. I think of him often at this time of year, because he so loved music, and particularly Christmas music. Thanks to him I grew up listening every Christmas to a record of the King’s College Choir (in Cambridge, England) singing Lessons and Carols. The sound of those angelic voices singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the reverberating space of the college chapel moved something elemental in me. It might have been a sound from another world, unlike anything I knew in plain, foggy Fresno, California. In some small way I learned from that music the meaning of transcendence–a concept that, otherwise, I could not have taken in.

The story of Jesus’ birth touches us at a very deep level. You can say all you want about the doctrine of the incarnation, but we feel and understand it through our senses and our emotions, just as much or more than our intellects.

This connection often comes through music. What astonishing, multi-faceted beauty in song has been inspired by Christmas–and I am not referring to “White Christmas.”

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Our deep longing, and hope beyond hope, are caught in that plaintive song.

“Joy to the World–the Lord is Come” occupies the other end of the spectrum. It is really a chorus of the Second Coming, when Jesus’ kingdom is fulfilled. “No more let sin and sorrow grow, or thorns infest the land.” Emmanuel has come, and with dash and vigor “Joy to the World” erupts with the news.

“O How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The delicacy, the utter silence with which the astonishing answer to our prayers is revealed. Jesus unfurls, like a rose.

Many of the carols capture this quiet magic. “What Child is This?”–as if to say, what am I seeing? Can I believe it?

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” It begins in the stillness of the night, unnoticed by anyone important. So it has always been, and so it remains today.

“Silent Night, Holy Night.” This is perhaps the greatest of all the carols. Simplicity and calm pervade the music and the words. When we sing it together, for a few moments all is calm, all is bright.

“O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The story calls us. Joyful and triumphant, we join in. O come, let us adore him.

“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled, within my heart.” These are Martin Luther’s words. The story calls us, and we call back to the one who makes the story. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”


Memories of Max Dunn           

August 23, 2017

My friend and role model Max Dunn died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. I had seen him a short time before, when he was in excruciating pain. He needed a hip replacement, but his doctors were unenthusiastic about operating on a man of his age. Max, characteristically, had no doubt. He had things to do and he needed a good hip to do them. He talked the doctors into doing the surgery, which went extremely well. He was jubilant, his family says, and two days later was ready to go home when he suddenly stopped breathing.

A very capable man, Max had worked as an executive for a big department store chain. He also served on the organizing committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. After his retirement he did a master’s degree in world mission at Fuller Seminary, then traveled all over the world in a wide variety of missions. (He worked with a good friend of mine in Kenya.)

In the small town of Healdsburg Max joined the board of a struggling medical clinic serving farm workers. Pretty soon Max was the CEO. He built that clinic into one of the largest medical providers in our area.

Max was good-looking, athletic, and friendly. He loved tennis, bridge, and ringing the Salvation Army bell (and getting others from his Rotary Club to do it). But when I met him, what Max most loved to do—passionately—was to visit men at the local Salvation Army drug and alcohol rehab program. He went nearly every day, meeting individually with men and teaching an anger management class. It was Max’s enthusiasm that moved me to begin volunteering at Santa Rosa’s Redwood Gospel Mission, in a program similar to the Salvation Army’s.

As much as I admired Max’s capability, I admired his friendliness more. He really loved those men, which is saying something. By the time somebody gets to a free, residential, long-term rehab program, they have usually burned every last bridge to family and friends. Many if not most have been in and out of jail and prison. They have little education and many tattoos.

In short, they tend to be quite different from the people Max met at Rotary. I don’t know whether Max really noticed. Even when he was in terrible pain, he wanted to be at the Salvation Army more than anywhere.

I did wonder how Max became so indiscriminate in his friendliness. It really was unusual. His peers in business, the men he met at Rotary, were willing to help out in good causes, but they didn’t choose to hang out with addicts. Max did. I’m sure that some of that generosity came through his family upbringing, and some came through the genes that he inherited. The primary influence, I’m thinking, came in his middle years when he and his wife Carolyn were drawn into the Episcopal charismatic renewal.

It was hard to get Max to tell stories about the past, because he was far more interested in the present. But when I got him to talk about those years when he was introduced to the renewal, he glowed. Thirty or forty years later, it still excited him. He said it was when his life changed. He would have liked to live in that excitement forever.

That renewal emphasized, more than anything, that Jesus is alive and active through the Holy Spirit. For people like Max, that turned faith from a list of beliefs to an experience—an experience of Jesus.

That explains, I think, why Max liked everybody. If you want to see somebody who talked to everybody, helped everybody, believed in everybody, but especially the poor and the desperate, that would be Jesus. I think Max learned it from him.





Refugee Test Case    

March 7, 2017

President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US promises to be temporary, and I hope that turns out to be the case. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable and pitiable people on earth. Just over a year ago I was in Europe, interviewing scores of them. Their vulnerability will never leave me.

But how to treat them? This is one issue where the Bible is clear–not as to precise policy, perhaps, but certainly as to its general direction.

In ancient Israel, foreigners were a constant presence. This was not an age of walled borders or stamped passports. Foreigners found themselves in Israel because of economic opportunity—there was always international commerce—and as refugees from war and famine. Israel, preoccupied with threats to its survival, and concerned for a distinctive identity as God’s people, had an important choice: how would they treat foreigners? Would they see them as a threat? Or would they welcome them?

The Law makes it very clear:

Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Deut 26:12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

The welfare system included foreigners. Gleaning was not charity. It was legally mandated, embracing almost the entire productive economy. In addition the tithe was a 10% tax over the entire productive economy, directed to help those who could not participate in the economy (Levites) and those who were poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans and foreigners).

Lev 19:34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Foreigners were to be treated the same as citizens, and with love.

Lev 24:22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’

Numbers 15:15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.

Laws and rules must not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. Foreigners have the same rights as do citizens.

Deut 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

It’s well known that God is on the side of the defenseless poor. He is equally on the side of the foreigner, caring for their material needs.

Deut 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.

How do our farms and factories live up to that?

Deut 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Why should Israel treat foreigners so benevolently? The answer is consistent: because you were foreigners in Egypt. The treatment of refugees is a test case for empathy. Can you feel for others the way you feel for yourself?

Our treatment of foreigners is also a test case for America. History tells us that America has welcomed millions. It also tells us that episodes of fear and prejudice have caused us to exclude millions. (Most dreadfully, Jewish children were sent back to Nazi Germany just before WWII began.) What kind of people will our generation be? We are being tried.

Waiting for Publication

December 13, 2016

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life. Writing is solitary work. I can tell you what I am writing about, but I can’t really share the stuff that preoccupies me: how to knit a subject or a scene in such a way that it becomes a seamless, almost dreamlike reality for the reader. Not even my wife Popie knows what I am doing at that level. I wouldn’t know how to explain it.

While writing is solitary work, it is not fulfilled in solitude. I write for an audience. It may turn out to be small or large, and I don’t usually know which it will be in advance. Actually the size of the audience doesn’t much affect what I do. What matters is that I will have readers. If there were no readers, writing would be something quite different.

While I’m writing, the work is almost a part of me. Then there’s an interim period, while the publisher edits and proofs and designs and markets. Finally, months later, sometimes after more than a year, I see a printed copy. By then I am usually pretty emotionally detached. It’s mine but it’s no longer me. Nevertheless, publication is an absolutely necessary part of the process. It’s then that my work finds its fulfillment in being read.

Waiting for publication is completely passive. I do nothing. I don’t even worry. I know that the book or the magazine article is coming, and I wait with expectation. After publication, the work is mine but it belongs to the world. I can’t get it back. I can’t change it. It finds its life in my readers.

I know it’s hazardous to compare my work to God’s, but I wonder if God’s creative process is something like this. God’s creation begins with the making of the heavens and the earth, but that is just the introduction of the story. God goes on to draw out Israel, in all its dramatic detail: kings and prophets, wars and sacrifice, laws and songs.

Yet that, too, is only the beginning. What God wants to make is his Son, Jesus, born of Mary, raised a Jew, executed as an enemy, raised as King of kings. That is the work God prepares for us, his audience. He intends us not just to read, but to eat—to take into ourselves his amazing work, his actual self expressed in a human life, so that it becomes part of us forever.

Being God is solitary work. But it is not fulfilled in solitude. It is fulfilled when we take Jesus into our lives—all of him. And just as I wait for publication, so God waits to see his work completed, in us.



N for Nazarene

October 12, 2016


Bob Blincoe from Frontiers, an organization that works with Muslims in the Middle East, brought to my church these tiny mosaics (useful as coasters) made by Iraqi Christians in exile in Jordan. The symbol is the letter N in Arabic. When ISIS invaded Syrian and Iraqi villages they spray-painted Christian homes with this N, standing for Nazarene. It was like being red-tagged by the building department. It meant: either convert to Islam, or get out now, otherwise you will be killed.

It occurred to me that the Iraqi Christians making these mosaics are doing exactly what the earliest Christians did with the cross. They adopted as their own the chilling symbol of oppression and violence used against them. It reminded them of what Jesus the Messiah had suffered, and of what they too might be called on to endure.

Maybe we should put these “N” symbols next to our crosses, to remind us of what they stand for.

The mosaics come from Aslan Child Rescue, an organization working to help churches in the Middle East and in Europe who have opened their doors to persecuted Iraqi Christians.

New Article in Books and Culture

March 14, 2016

Here’s a link. No, this isn’t the big piece on the refugee crisis. It’s about the meaning of justice, with particular emphasis on the biblical view. It tries to sum up a lot of what I have been thinking about over the past three years as I’ve worked on God’s Justice: The Holy Bible