Category Archives: Theology

Walk in the Light

Daily Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44

In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judged between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah 2:1-5, NRSV

The Lord’s house may crown the highest mountain in holy light, but the hills that surround it are real – lesser realities and smaller aspirations that diminish and darken human existence. That just may be the point. Isaiah’s vision of peace among peoples isn’t a dream of perfection standing alone: it’s reached by people walking toward God’s house from the imperfect, hilly places in which all of humanity lives.

Darkness and light suffuse the path we walk. Our feet take us through shadowy hills on the way to the high place where all we see before us is God’s light. We won’t get there unless we leave the hills behind, walking in trust when the shadows darken our way and rejoicing in every glimpse of light that draws us on.

Take heart; we don’t walk alone along an unknown path. We are walking home together, beloved children of God, on the road Isaiah and so many others walked long ago.

Guide my feet, O God, on the long road home to Bethlehem. Amen.

[Rowhouse, by Colin Fredrickson]

Faith

Readings: Psalm 122; Genesis 6:1-10, Hebrews 11:1-7

11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. Hebrews 11:1-7

Faith. It’s a strange word, really. More often than not it gets tossed around without much thought being given to its meaning. On any given day we might be urged to have faith in some product that will make us look younger, faith that our dreams will be realized or even faith that the nerdy techie will work wonders on our virus-ridden computer so that it will begin to function properly again. Even talking about faith in God is open to all sorts of possibilities. What does it really mean to have faith in God? Is it belief in a particular doctrine? Is it confidence that if you live the right kind of life you will go to heaven when you die? What is it about God that we are to have faith in?

One of my all-time favorite songs asks if we have faith in God above, implying that the Bible tells us so. It goes on, claiming that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost all caught the last train for the coast. Even though I like this song, I’m not big on its theology. A “God above” is to me a distant and aloof God. A God that would catch any train to get out of town is in my way of thinking a God that is willing to abandon us. And yet, there are times God does seem distant and aloof; there are times we feel abandoned by God.

Advent offers a different perspective and one I believe is a genuine source of faith. It’s not about distance and abandonment; it’s about presence and incarnation. It’s about a God who is here with us, at work in us and among us. A God whose one great desire is to redeem not just us, but all creation—to make it all good as it is intended to be. It’s about a God who is doing all that right now and every day of our lives, even when we feel God is distant and we have been abandoned. Advent is about incarnation. Incarnation is about an ever-present God, who actually became one of us. And this passage reminds us that all we need to be about is seeking this God—not finding, not obeying, not believing, not even feeling good about our relationship with this God, just seeking.

I pray this Advent will be a time of seeking for me and for you.

Offered by Jeff Jones, pastor, writer, traveler walking home to Bethlehem.

[Don McLean, Classics, American Pie (new version), Freeman, Burgess, and Butler, producers, 1992. Purchased from Amazon Video]

[Rowhouse, 2018-2019Colin Fredrickson, Artist]

 

Advent 2019

My usual focus: the journey to Bethlehem, following in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, and (eventually) Magi. But from a theological standpoint, Advent and Christmas aren’t about the distance I travel: it’s about God coming to this creation I call home and being born into this family of humanity. Emmanuel means God With Us – God coming to us as one of us, entering our homes and our lives so that we might make room for what is holy and life-giving.

Usually, images of candles accompany the writings for Advent. But this year, they will be houses – Jesus coming to live in yours and mine. For each week in Advent, a new one will be added – houses constructed of cardboard, wrapped in scripture, shaped and painted like the row houses found in Philadelphia’s older neighborhoods. These were created from cardboard boxes already used, and from the pages of an NRSV Bible falling apart from years of use. I hope they speak to you of faith and hope, and remind you that God dwells in your home just as surely as anywhere else.

Row Houses, Unfinished by Colin Fredrickson, 2017-2019

 

Daily devotionals begin November 29th, the prayerful offerings of so many of God’s beloved children.

Instead

 [Photograph by Jared Fredrickson]

Alice Atkins planted hostas, foxglove, and lily-of-the-valley on the two-tiered banking that marks the edge of the back yard. In her last years (and the year between her death and our buying the house), Alice couldn’t tend to the beds; ivy and bittersweet covered everything. It took hours and a lot of hard work to clear the banking of the invasive plants a few weeks after we moved in – Fall of 2002. The work brought a beautiful gift in the Spring: all the plants that had been dormant came back, and myrtle grew to cover the thin, poor soil that could not sustain anything else.

Since that Spring, I have been the second caretaker of this garden, cutting back the choking ivy and thorny bittersweet to give what was lovingly planted a good place to grow. Each year, I say a prayer of thanks to God for the faithful return of perennials, and for Alice’s devotion to planting them and keeping them in the first place. When my time here is over, I hope someone else will become caretaker #3.

I didn’t appreciate the Bible’s garden metaphors until I started tending garden beds myself. Now, it’s a truth that resonates in my bones: when I tend to the life God has given to my care, a beautiful and holy life thrives. When I don’t, I get buried in thorns and choking vines instead. My inner life or my outer one – it applies equally.

Instead of thorns shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. [Isaiah 55:13-14, NRSV]

Joyful Leaving, Peaceful Return

For you shall go out in joy, and return in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. [Isaiah 55, NRSV]

This morning, I’m sitting at Kiskadee Coffee, gazing out on the cars lining a rain soaked sidewalk. The wind is blowing the limbs and leaves of the two trees across the street. A jogger just zipped by Preferred Properties, headed toward Water Street; a local guy with a Red Sox cap brought a coffee to his friend just outside my window. With people going about their work day, it’s just an average Thursday morning in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Isn’t it?

As I read Isaiah’s words, I wonder how many of the people I can see left their homes with a sense of joy this morning. How many will return home in peace – or find peace when they enter their own doors? My mother used to say that children could handle pretty much any of the world’s challenges if their home was stable and loving. It didn’t have to be perfect, but it had to be a place where everyone felt welcomed and accepted as is.

Perhaps that’s what Isaiah is getting at: the fruition of God’s creation is a cosmic home where everyone belongs. To be at home in the world, no matter where in the world you are, is heavenly. You can leave every morning, finding joy in the day’s adventures; you can return every evening to a peace that refreshes the body, mind, and spirit. It doesn’t have to be perfect or easy – and it won’t be in this lifetime – to be holy.

On a day like today, rainy and windblown, I can almost hear the hills at my back singing for joy, and see in the movements of the still-leafed branches the trees applauding…

[For more on this series, click Isaiah 55 above]

 

Not For Nothing

Sisyphus spends every day pushing a boulder up a steep incline only to have it fall back into its original position – a punishment for trying to cheat death through trickery. No matter the effort, the result is the same: eternal lack of progress. Sisyphus will never get his boulder up the incline, and all his work won’t change a single thing.

I wonder about my own work sometimes. Does anything I do change my life and the life of the world? All the labor I put into my garden beds doesn’t stop the weeds from moving in the minute I take a breather, and the perennials I cherish will return next year with or without my help. The words I write might have a negligible effect during my lifetime, but will fade into obscurity when I leave this mortal life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. No one will remember my name a hundred years from now.

But that’s not really the point, and it’s not really the truth that matters. Who I am as far as a recognizable name isn’t who I am: it’s just the outer edges. If that were all there was to me, life would be a tragedy. Not just mine, but every life. But that’s not the whole truth or the heart of the story.

I am, before anything else, a child of God. Through my life, God rejoices in creation. In my unique existence, I can see the wonderful creatures God has created; I can see in their beauty, loving acts, and never-to-be-repeated lives a glimpse of eternity. No life is lived in vain, even if I can’t see it or understand it. God’s purposes will be accomplished in surprising ways and on a scale I can’t begin to comprehend. But I can see it in my own, very limited way – and I participate in it through the work of my hands and the prayers of my heart. Nothing isn’t the final word or state – not for me, and not for you. God is.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55:10-11, NRSV]

Thoughts…

One of my favorite things is figuring out how other people see the world. When I read a book, I imagine that it’s a doorway into the writer’s world – as true about non-fiction as it is about fiction. When I listen to others, I catch a glimpse of how they see the world. What a marvelous thing to see the world around me from a different point of view!

But a glimpse isn’t the whole picture. There is much more to see and understand, and that’s a gift. Isn’t it a marvelous truth that there is always more to someone than what I can see?

This is particularly true when I catch a glimpse of God’s world. There’s no way I can see and understand the holiness of the Creator, and I kid myself if I suppose otherwise. The mystery only deepens with every encounter, every revelation. If I’m wise enough to remember this truth, my life will be open to the infinite possibilities of God’s revelation…

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8-9]

Facing the Consequences

Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy upon them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.       [Isaiah 55:7, NRSV]

Bad habits and destructive patterns can’t be given up easily; they weigh heavy on our hearts, channel our thoughts, and take hold of our very souls. What is monumentally difficult becomes nigh impossible if making the effort only lands us before the judgement seat of an unforgiving God. Why make such an uphill climb to be cast back down into hell?

But the judgement of God isn’t retribution for all past sins, it’s the chance to stop inflicting on the world the hell we hold inside.

If we have the chance to save a soul from torment, why wouldn’t we? If saving that single soul transforms the world, why would we do anything else? If someone can do the same  for us, wouldn’t we want them to make the effort?

That’s what God’s mercy and pardon does, transforms hell into holy ground – for us, for those we love, and for those we don’t. Most especially for those we don’t.

Can we find enough grace in our hearts to rejoice in such a change?

When and Where

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near… [Isaiah 55:6a, NRSV]

Isaiah didn’t advise us to seek God only on Friday nights at sundown or Sunday mornings at 10am. We are to seek God while he may be found. That means now, and it will mean now tomorrow, next week, and ten years down the road. The Lord may be found at any time, but there’s no time like the present.

Isaiah didn’t ask us to seek God exclusively in a chapel, meditation garden, synagogue, or mosque. We are to seek God while he is near. That means right where we are standing at this very moment, where we will drive tomorrow, and wherever we happen to be after Valentine’s Day 2023. There’s no place better than this one to call on the Lord.

Every where and every when belongs to God; we can come to God any where and any when. We carve out special times and places not because God has limited availability, but because we require a time and place to be available to God.

But if we happen to be waiting in the drive-through for our morning coffee, why not seek the Lord? Why not call upon God while putting that fourth load of laundry in the washer? What are we waiting for?

 

 

Revolutionary, sure. New? Not really.

See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Isaiah 55:5, NRSV

Brian McLaren quoted an unnamed mentor in Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road? [New York: Jericho Books: 2012, p. 40]:

Remember, Brian: in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers. 

The question we must ask ourselves isn’t how are we serving our own?: the question we must ask ourselves is how are we blessing everyone we cannot claim as our own?

I think this is one of those truths that must be voiced and upheld in every single generation. If it isn’t, our religion is apt to oppress those outside of it to the spiritual damage of those on the inside. It’s a piece of ancient wisdom that is as difficult to understand today as it was in Isaiah’s time.

Living out our faith in a way that blesses outsiders is just living out our faith. After all, Jesus reminded us that everything boils down to loving God with everything we are, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. We just have to remember that people everywhere are our neighbors.

Nothing new here, just the Gospel truth.