Every good and perfect gift is from above

Saturday

James 1:17-27

File:Chartres JBU09.JPG17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

This seems like an awkward translation to me. The verse I remember is from the old RSV is “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above,” and the NIV has simply “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” There are two words being used for gift and the first can mean either the act of giving or the gift itself (thus the NRSV translation above), but the adjective is ‘good’ and I am reluctant to restrict that to ‘generous’. “good giving” isn’t very poetic, but fits the point is that all that comes from God is both good and gift.

Our appointed reading for Sunday picks up in the middle of a thought. The author of James has begun by talking about rejoicing in trials and declared No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God.” God doesn’t send evil; what comes from God is good and gift.

Evil, trial, temptation, all has its roots in us not in God. God is the author of good; we are the authors of what is not.

One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

God is not like the gods. The gods are fickle, jealous, impulsive, willing to cast thunderbolts and storms, willing to throw down as easily as they raise up. God is not so. God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

People outside the tradition – and sometimes those within – read the Old Testament (and the book of Revelation) and see a god of thunderbolts, sanctioning war, capital punishment and terrors. Perhaps this is what comes naturally to us as frail creatures beset by forces beyond our control. Hurricanes and tragedies become, in our minds, “acts of God.” But it is a false reading of the record. The plagues that come upon Egypt are the consequences of a society founded on injustice and slavery. Each natural crisis is an opportunity to repent, to change their ways. It is not a story about the vindictiveness of God; it is a story of our persistence in sin and its terrible price. And it is a story of a God determined to bring justice to the world.

God is a giver of good and perfect gifts. The scripture does not shrink back from telling horrifying stories – but they are stories about our warring passions, our cruelty, our callousness, our brokenness. In the face of the corruption of the world God remains perfect goodness.

So we are not, says James, to attribute our trials to God but to ourselves and to our place within a fallen human community. What we are to do is remember that “he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are to be “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” We are to “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” We are, in other words, to live in and from the perfect goodness and generosity of God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChartres_JBU09.JPG
By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The angel’s broken nose

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 40

Angel with broken nose10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him.

We were laughing at the door of the sanctuary as I greeted people after worship. A member was carrying a bag with a Downton Abbey image on the side. I asked if they watched the show. She said they were hooked. I said I almost quit after Matthew got killed, and she said, “That was terrible.” And then, suddenly, she lost her balance, stumbled to the side, and fell against the table where our new nativity figures had been set out for the congregation to see (the figures are for a display outside that is under construction). As she hit the table, the angel began to rock back and forth in that strange, slow-motion, disaster-is-coming, fashion, then tumbled over onto the wooden pews.

Our first concern, of course, was entirely with the person who had fallen against the table as we helped her get her feet under her. When it was clear she was okay, I recruited someone to take my place in providing her support as she continued on her way, and went back to shaking hands and greeting people. But the back of my mind was wondering just how sturdy these new figures were. Then our property chairperson came out holding the broken wing of the dove in the angel’s hand – and the angel’s nose.

Life is hard, even for angels.

We don’t think of angels as battle scarred. Our culture seems to picture them as graceful and feminine, long flowing white robes and wings not all that different from the strutting, nearly naked women on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Search for images of angels on the Internet and we get very few that inspire the fear reported in every Biblical text. The angel in Daniel 10 declares he is on his way to war. Joshua is met by a warrior of the LORD. Elijah opens his servant’s eyes to see that the town is surrounded by the heavenly armies. These are not the figures that adorn the tops of our Christmas tree or stand watch in our nativities.

The Biblical title “LORD of hosts” refers to the vast armies of the LORD. Certainly the metaphor draws from the experience of kingship in the ancient world, where kings are served by – and masters over – great armies. But there is more to the image of soldier-angels than divine pomp and circumstance. They remind us that God is defending life, that God is at war with evil, that God is fighting to reclaim his rebellious world.

Angels are not guardians of our personal safety, but warriors against what is cruel, unjust, violent, and hateful. Wars have battles that are won and lost, and sometimes in the chaos you can’t quite tell who’s winning, but the notion remains that God is fighting those spiritual powers that seem to have us so firmly in their grip. Sometimes, as with Balaam, they come to stand not with us but against us.

So our angel has already been mended and she will stand, gazing lovingly at Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and magi come to see the new born king. But I will know that she has battle scars. And I will find that reassuring.

“As for all the rest…”

Friday

Philippians 4

File:Smiles of innocence.jpg

Smiles of Innocence, By Pranav Yaddanapudi from Hyderabad, India

8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Finally.” This is not the last in a list of things Paul wanted to write about. It is the way he sums up everything else about which he has not written. You cannot address everything in one letter. You cannot speak to every concern in one sermon. So, as for all the rest: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

There are ten commandments, but they do not exhaust all that God would say to humanity about the way we should treat one another. There are four Gospels in which Jesus speaks about many things, but he has not and cannot address everything. He hasn’t spoken about the kind of music our young people should listen to. He hasn’t spoken about investment portfolios (at least not directly) or the jobs we take or the homes we build. Indeed, there is quite a lot of “the rest.” So, “as for the rest, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It means we have to use some discretion, some judgment, some wisdom. Does listening to the snarky political commentators bleating loudly on radio and TV ennoble me? What about the distorted sexuality on television sitcoms? Or the semi-nudity of cable dramas? It’s not that there is a simple, black and white answer – as if seeing a breast or hearing a curse word makes it wrong – it’s a more complicated question whether the show elevates or degrades me, whether it elevates or degrades us.

Some Christians got Harry Potter all wrong, reacting to the concept of wizards rather than recognizing the stories portray young heroes struggling between good and evil, power and loyalty. Harry is a Christ figure in the end, giving up his life for the sake of the world, dying to destroy the evil Valdemort.

Maybe our reaction to Halloween is like this too. Costumes and pretend are deeply rooted in us human beings – the scripture itself is story that engages the imagination. This isn’t about the scripture’s historicity or reliability – this is about the nature of story. Stories are told to draw us in, and so to teach, to change, to expand our understanding of God, ourselves and the world. Imagination is fundamental to our humanity (compassion requires imagining what another feels). So we are – and should be – able to discern the difference between those costumes and stories that are fun and playful, and those that distort the image of God in which we were made.

None of this is simple. Some portrayals of evil are voyeuristic; others reveal truth and lead us away from harm. Some portrayals of tragedy are salacious and others deepen compassion. Some portrayals of goodness are simplistic and naive; others inspire and encourage.

And it’s personal. Different things affect each of us differently. Watching sports can be simple fun but, for some, it can be obsessive. At the end of the day, at the end of the activity, am I a better human being? More whole? More complete?

Christians needn’t be prudes, nor need we obsess on the morality of everything, but it is important to question the culture in which we live. We should be at home in our bodies, in the goodness of our createdness, but not necessarily at home in the values of the society around us.

Drinking, eating, dancing, sex, work, politics, exercise – all the many dimensions of life – for some there are pretty clear words of scripture, as for all the rest we have this guiding word: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

War in heaven

Wednesday

Revelation 12

Mchadijvari icon of Archangel Michael

Mchadijvari icon of Archangel Michael (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7 War broke out in heaven.

It’s an unsettling image.  We hear the word heaven and imagine a realm of peace and light, untroubled by sorrow.  We think of longed for reunions with lost love ones and answers to life’s troubling questions.  We anticipate a realm where the aches and pains of age and disease are left behind.  We don’t want another war zone.

On the other hand, there is something strangely comforting in the notion that the struggles and terrors of earth are shared by the divine realm.  The clash of armies, the rage of tyrants, the unfathomable cruelty of some, the corruption of wealth, the perversion of sexuality, the wasting of human life by disease – these are not just matters of public policy, policing and medicine.  They are spiritual battles, battles of forces of life and death, kindness and cruelty, good and evil.

The marches and fire hoses were not just a struggle for political rights; they were spiritual battles for our humanity.  The political chaos of Washington is not just party politics and personal ambitions and animosities, but a spiritual conflict about wealth and power and the good of our neighbor.

God is not above the fray.  God is involved in the struggle.  God partakes in the battle.  God is fighting for his world.

This is not to endorse the crusading mentality equating my position with God’s will.  Rather it is a recognition of the importance of the spiritual dimensions of life and an assurance that there are powers at work in the world to combat evil.

God is fighting for his world, yet much of this struggle is quite hidden from us.  Who would have thought that one more crucifixion on the hill outside Jerusalem would be the decisive victory for the forces for life?   Who would have thought that moment of evil’s triumph would be its eternal defeat?  In the chaos of battle, who can tell which is the moment on which the war turns?  And who is to say that what seems like defeat may not bear the seeds of triumph?

And if there is a spiritual war going on, if a struggle is underway for truth and compassion and justice and life, then my every choice to speak truth, do compassion, act justly, and give life matters.  I may have little influence over Syria or Washington, but my thoughts, words and deeds are still part of the battle.

And in this battle we are not alone.