Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Praying for Mercy

I’ve been thinking for months about St. Paul’s comments in Romans about his feelings for his people of origin, the Jewish nation.  In Romans 9, Paul says, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience through the Holy Spirit bears witness that I mean what I am about to say.”  What was such a big deal and so unexpected that Paul had to say three times that he means what he says?  He goes on to say, “I have great sorrow and unceasing, consuming grief” because many of his people of origin, the Jews, have hardened their hearts against accepting that Jesus is their Messiah.

“I kept on wishing (and even praying) that I myself would be a sacrifice, even set apart from Christ, for the sake of my kinfolk according to the flesh.”

As a child of missionaries, I totally understand people wishing to make sacrifices and even be a sacrifice for the sake of another people who do not know the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Jesus Christ.  My parents and many other missionaries sacrificed relationships with their families of origin, the life they were familiar with, and most creature comforts in order to spread the Good News.  Many missionaries gave their lives in this cause.

But I have never heard a missionary say that their calling was so strong, they would give up their own salvation, give up their place in Jesus’s atonement, for the sake of the people they care about. This illustrates the depth of Paul’s love for his Jewish kinfolk and his willingness to risk separation from Jesus for their sake. 

Paul goes on to discuss the theology of “the chosen people”; the evidence he examines leads him to conclude that the promise of God is sure and for all time and that Jesus’s sacrifice is the only necessary atonement for both Jews and Gentiles.

The following summarizes Paul’s discussion (Romans 9 and following):

God adopted Israel, made a covenant with them, gave them the Law and the temple service, made promises to them, and sent Jesus the Messiah through them.  However, (as Jesus also said) not all who are Israel by birth are the real Israel.  The real Israel are those who trust in God’s promise. 

God chooses who will receive mercy and compassion, and thus birth origin does not determine whether a person is included or excluded from God’s love.  God decides.  Paul anticipates the objection that this doesn’t sound very fair, and he replies that the created can’t hope to understand or overrule the Creator.  Further, he adds that it is possible that God, though God intends to demonstrate his wrath and power, has chosen instead to be patient and to carry the burden of those who invite such wrath and destruction. God’s patience demonstrates instead God’s abundant glory on those who invite mercy, both Jews and Gentiles.

Gentiles, who did not run after God’s approval, attained God’s approval through faith. Jews, in contrast, tried to earn God’s approval by works and rejected God’s Messiah and the message Jesus brought. They do not understand God’s good character and do not submit to God. 

Anyone who agrees with God that Jesus is Lord and thinks it true that God raised Jesus from the dead will be kept from destruction, and in this there is no distinction made between Jew and Gentile. Indeed, God uses the inclusion of Gentiles to express to the Jews that God has not rejected them.  And God uses the error made by the Jews to make space for the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s deliverance.  God sent Paul to the Gentiles; Paul hopes that his work among the Gentiles will catch his Jewish kinfolk as well. Indeed, he says that the hardness of the hearts of the Jews is partial and temporary, just to make openings for the Gentiles to come in.  God will save all of Israel because the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 

Both Jews and Gentiles begin in disobedience and God chooses to show mercy to both.  Therefore, by that very mercy, Paul beseeches Jews and Gentiles to turn over their whole selves, soul and body, to God as a living and holy sacrifice; to think of themselves realistically; and to exercise the faith God has given them. He asks them to recognize that each one who belongs to God is not just like anyone else and does not serve God in exactly the same way as another.

Mercy is what Jesus asked for when he was dying and prayed, “Father, forgive them; they have no idea what they are doing.” 

I find myself often in the place of not knowing what I’m doing.  I don’t know the harm I cause others on a daily basis, and I don’t often want to think about it.  I find thinking about it ties me up in knots of inaction, which also does harm.

Paul and Jesus challenge me by their confidence in the character and power of God.  God chooses to have mercy, God chooses to be patient so those who appear destined for destruction can instead be filled with mercy, God chooses when to reveal God’s passion for justice and integrity and obedience.  I want to join Paul in his willingness to go to all lengths to bring deliverance to the people he loves, the people he comes from.  I want to join Paul as well in his confidence that the calling and gifts of God are irrevocable.  I believe God called and calls Quakers, my own people, and God has given and is giving Quakers the gifts of living in and by the present teaching of Jesus Christ.

In our disagreements, I can often see that both sides believe that God is both just and merciful. I acknowledge that my own system of belief may cause others harm, either in this life or the next. I feel that we are caught in an impossible situation. I pray for myself, “Father, forgive me; I have no idea what I am doing.”

I don’t think this is the most important prayer, however.  I think the most important prayer is “Father, forgive those who are doing it wrong. Please have mercy on them and be patient.  Please give them faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Please save them.” Please join me in praying this prayer for all who are “getting it wrong.” May God in mercy include them and us in the Kingdom.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlefolk, Let Nothing You Dismay

The word translated “propitiation” in the KJV Romans 3:25 is hilasterion in Greek, Some of the root words behind or inside it have meanings like drawing up a fish, carrying what one has lifted, choosing; mercy, grace, favor. The KJV translates it in Hebrews as “mercy seat.” 

In Exodus 25, God tells Moses that the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant is where “I will meet with you and commune with you.” It is the covering on which the priest sprinkled blood from the sin offerings on the day of atonement when also the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness (Lev. 16). It was such a holy place that entering it without preparation, for instance clouds of incense, could be fatal. Thus it was in the most interior of the rooms of the Temple. But at the death of Jesus, it was exposed by the tearing of the veil in the Temple, and as the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus entered both as High Priest and sacrifice, fulfilling God’s will, which has always been to make a way for us to turn and run toward God rather than away. Hilasterion even shares a root with the word “hilarity." God extends good cheer toward us and it gives God pleasure to do so.

“Propitiation” comes from the Latin, and a related word is propitious, which means favorable. The Latin roots are pro-for and petere-to seek.  “To seek for” would be a literal translation of the Latin roots behind “propitiate.”  So it is possible to see Jesus our propitiation meaning Jesus as God seeking for us. Again. Jesus reveals God, Jesus embodies God. Jesus does only what he sees his Father doing. “My Father never rests from doing good, and neither do I,” Jesus says.

Knowing that God is on exactly the same page as Jesus with regard to seeking and saving all of us who are lost brings great joy, and is good news for everyone.  And then we can enjoy the sheer happiness hidden behind the word propitiation. When the angels sang, “Glory to God, peace on earth, good to each human being.”

From Romans 3, paraphrased:
We have proved before that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin.  As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that understands, there is none that seeketh God…deceitful, bitter, violent, destructive, causing misery, knowing nothing of peace, no reverence for God. …

And right at this moment the justice, the rightness of God
which the law and the prophets witnessed to
is being exposed and recognized apart from the law.
And the justice of God
by means of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ
comes to all and upon all that are believing, for there is no distinction. 
All have sinned, each and every one misses the path and wanders from God’s law, arriving too late to earn God’s good opinion;
all are being made just what they ought to be
as a gift from God’s grace and good will
by means of the liberation paid for by Christ Jesus.
God has shown Christ Jesus to us as a sign of mercy, favor, and joy,
his good faith sealed in his own blood;
God bears with all of us to demonstrate God’s own justice and integrity in passing over and disregarding our past sin, our wandering from God’s law.

God has shown this evidence right now at the opportune time that God is just as God should be, 
both the just one, the one who is right, 
and the one who makes all of us just as we ought to be, 
we who are placing our confidence in Jesus.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Freedom, Simplicity, Honesty, and Humility: the Human Side of Prayer

Matthew 6:9-13 “The Lord’s Prayer”
October 26, 2014
Preached at Newberg Friends Church, Newberg, OR

The simplicity of this prayer speaks honestly of the simplicity of our approach to God.  Acknowledge God as Father, acknowledge that God is immediately present, acknowledge that God is holy in character. Welcome the coming of God as King and present ourselves as ready to do God’s will. Ask simply for what we need for the day. Ask for forgiveness and to be able to forgive. Ask for protection from pain, trouble, and evil.

So simple, and all we need.  And at the same time, the apex of teaching from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, about who we are in relationship to God. Jesus invokes the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Law, the Prophets, and personal stories in this simple prayer.  I think it will temporarily defamiliarize it for us and thus enrich our experience of it to hear the echoes from the sacred texts that Jesus read. I have adapted some of these to speak directly to God as prayers.

Our Father
Jesus's scriptures spoke of God as our Father.

Psalm 68:4-5 We sing to You, God, we sing praises to Your name; we extol You, the God who rides on the clouds, by Your name YAH, the One Who is and Who makes things happen, and we rejoice before You. A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, are You, God, in Your holy habitation.  (NKJV, modified per Howard Macy)

Psalm 103 Bless the LORD, O my soul; and with all that is within me, I bless Your holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul; I do not forget all Your benefits: the God Who forgives all my iniquities, Who heals all my diseases, Who redeems my life from destruction, Who crowns me with lovingkindness and tender mercies, Who satisfies my mouth with good things, so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s. You, LORD, execute righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed…You, LORD, are merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. You will not always strive with us, nor will You keep Your anger forever. You have not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is Your mercy to those who fear You; as far as the east is from the west, so far have You removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so you, LORD, pity those who fear You. For You know our frame; You remember that we are dust. … LORD, You have established Your throne in heaven, and Your kingdom rules over all. (NKJV)

Isaiah 63:15-16 Look down from heaven, and see from Your habitation, holy and glorious. Where are Your zeal and Your strength, the yearning of Your heart and Your mercies toward us? Are they restrained? Doubtless You are our Father, though Abraham was ignorant of us, and Israel does not acknowledge us. You, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from Everlasting is Your name. (NKJV)

Isaiah 64:8 O LORD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand. (NKJV)

In heaven
When we say “our Father in heaven”—what does that exactly mean?  I have always felt myself to be directing my prayer “up there” somewhere.  But Dallas Willard tells us in The Divine Conspiracy to look at the places in the Old Testament where God speaks “from heaven” which show us “that heaven is here and God is here, because God and his spiritual agents act here and are constantly available here” (69). Willard directs our attention to Jacob’s dream of the ladder going up to heaven in Genesis 28, and particularly this verse:  And behold, the Lord stood over and beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…by you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed and bless themselves (AMP). Our Father who is in our atmosphere, in Whom we live and move and have our being, Who “speaks out of thin air” (Willard) is a more helpful way to understand “in heaven.” 

Hallowed be Your Name
The Name of God refers to the entire character of God, all God is known for.  The prayer we pray is that the person and character of God will be revered and known as holy. We very likely underestimate the grandness of God when we get used to being God’s family. Just to give us a picture that depicts that grandeur, here is a description from the prophet Ezekiel while in Babylon with the Jewish captives.  He saw “a whirlwind coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire…Above … was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; on the likeness of the throne was a likeness of a man high above it. Also from the appearance of his waist and upward I saw, as it were, the color of amber with fire all around within it; and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, fire with brightness all around. Like a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.  So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of one speaking. (Ezek. 1).  Bright light, fire, wind, rainbow, and someone with a human shape towering above him on a toweringly high throne.  Hallowed be thy name, amen! Let us admire and tremble at Your greatness, O God, and treat You with respect and humility.

Immediately out of our awareness of the holiness of God, the perfection and wholeness of the same being who also gives us life and speaks to us out of thin air, comes the prayer that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

What does God’s Kingdom look like in the Hebrew Testament?

Psalm 89:5-9, 11, 13-16, 19-22, 26, 35-37 The heavens will praise Your wonders, O LORD; Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the saints. For who in the heavens can be compared to the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened to the LORD? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints; all those around You hold You in reverence. O LORD God of hosts, who is mighty like You, O LORD? Your faithfulness also surrounds You. You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, You still them….The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; the world and all its fullness, You have founded them. … You spoke in a vision to Your holy one, and said: …”I have found My servant David; with My holy oil I have anointed him … The enemy shall not outwit him, nor the son of wickedness afflict him… He shall cry to Me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.’” (NKJV)

Here is one picture from the prophet Isaiah: Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, who will teach us God’s ways, and we shall walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. God shall judge between the nations and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2).

Ezekiel shows us how God’s will is done in heaven: The living beings, the cherubim, four faces, four sets of wings, ready to rush off in whatever direction God tells them to do what God wants, accompanied by the wheels rimmed with eyes, which roll beside them wherever they go—that’s what it looks like in heaven.  Worship, listening, instant obedience.  In this prayer we commit to humility before God: we do not use God; God uses us.

Give us this day our daily bread
We have a picture of daily bread in the exodus narrative miracle of manna. In
Exodus 16, when the Hebrew people had left Egypt and were walking through the desert, they became hungry, and they murmured against Moses and God. God in graciousness sent them quail in the evening and manna bread to gather in the morning.  This prayer remembers the daily provision of God in the past and humbly requests similar provision in the present.  It is humble and temperate in what it asks for.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
This prayer extends the principle that restrained vengeance: Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:23-25).  This defines and limits what is owed for an injury. Jesus takes us into the territory of generosity by teaching us that our forgiving what is owed to us goes hand in hand with God forgiving what we owe to God.

Two clear examples of forgiveness from the Hebrew Testament: After Jacob defrauds Esau of his first-born blessing, Esau swears he will kill Jacob as soon as their father Isaac dies. Jacob flees the country.  When he returns decades later, Jacob hears Esau is coming to meet him. He sends ahead of him many gifts to placate Esau, and even places his wives and children ahead of him to receive Esau’s vengeance.  Jacob cannot evade the meeting, however, and to his surprise, Esau runs to embrace him and kisses him. They weep together.  Then Esau returns all Jacob’s gifts to him because Esau has all he needs already.  Esau deserves all kinds of credit for being a class-A forgiver (Genesis 33).

We can see forgiveness also operating in the life of David when he is on the run from Saul (I Samuel 24).  Saul has tried again and again to kill David, whose popularity and anointing are a threat to Saul’s kingship. David and his warriors/bandits hide out in wild places, and here is what David prays when he is hiding in a cave. Psalm 142: I cry out to the LORD with my voice, with my voice to the LORD I make my supplication. I pour out my complaint before You; I declare before You my trouble. When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then You knew my path. In the way in which I walk they have secretly set a snare for me. Look on my right hand and see, for there is no one who acknowledges me; refuge has failed me; no one cares for my soul. I cried out to You, O LORD: I said, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living. Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low; deliver me from my persecutors, for they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise your name; the righteous shall surround me, for you shall deal bountifully with me.” (NKJV, adapted)

Saul pursues David to the wilderness of Engedi, and while there, goes aside into a cave to relieve himself, as the Amplified Bible puts it with some degree of restraint.  As Saul is in this unguarded moment, David and his warriors line the darkness at the back of the cave, watching.  David’s men whisper to him, “God has delivered your enemy into your hand. Kill him!” Instead, David cuts off a bit of Saul’s robe. When Saul reenters the light of day, David follows him out, bows to the ground, and shows Saul the bit of cloth.  “See, my father, see the skirt of your robe in my hand! Since I cut off the skirt of your robe and did not kill you, you know and see that there is no evil or treason in my hands.  I have not sinned against you, yet you hunt my life to take it. May the Lord judge between me and you, and may the Lord avenge me upon you, but my hand shall not be upon you….May the Lord be judge and judge between me and you, and see and plead my cause, and deliver me out of your hands.” And then Saul wept, and he replied to David, “You are more upright in God’s eyes than I, for you have repaid me good, but I have rewarded you evil…Therefore may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done for me this day.”

David’s honest prayer to God makes it possible for him to respond to Saul in a peace-making way, deferring judgment and justice to God. We have no need to hide our anger and even our hatred of our enemies from God, who sees our hearts.  Much better to express it to God as colorfully as we need to and then trust God to judge between us and those who have done us harm.

Lead us not into temptation
The very provision of God in the wilderness, the quail and the manna, was a trial of the wanderers. God said to Moses: I will rain bread from heaven, and the people will go out and gather it at a certain rate every day and I will test them, I will prove them, to see whether they will do as I direct them. God left the nations of Canaan in the land that the Israelites settled to test them, to prove them. Out of this context, Jesus teaches us to pray instead along the lines of the writer of Proverbs, who prays: Remove falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny You and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God. (Prov. 3:8-9). Both abundance and scarcity test us, and each has its own temptations.

Deliver us from evil, from the Evil One
The Psalms are chock-full of prayers for deliverance from evil—from persons who want to harm us, from our own tendency to do evil, and from evil itself.

Psalm 25:19-20 Consider my enemies, for they are many; and they hate me with cruel hatred. Keep my soul and deliver me; let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in You.
Psalm 17:13 Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword, with Your hand…
Psalm 39:7-8 And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You. Deliver me from all my transgressions; do not make me the reproach of the foolish.
Psalm 116:3-5 The pains of death surrounded me, and the pangs of the grave laid hold of me; I found trouble and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I implore You, deliver my soul!” Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful.
Psalm 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

My hope today is that we will sense the richness of the stories and poetry and prophecy that echo through this simple prayer, and that we will pray with greater freedom, simplicity, honesty, and humility as a human creature addressing a divine Creator, a God Who chooses to be in loving and tender relationship with us and Who is near to us at all times, Who hears our wails and our hurrahs, and Who is close enough to hear our whispers and even what we cannot speak.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Keeper of the Loaf, the Distributer of the Bread of Life

I am geekily interested in language, in words, and I took a year-long course in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) during graduate school.  This language underlies Modern English (which the KJV and Shakespeare’s plays are written in and which we are still modifying) and is akin to German and Dutch. 

Folks were translating the Vulgate (late 4th/early 5th century Latin) into Anglo-Saxon as early as the 7th century AD, and one of the words they translated was the Latin word we understand as Lord—Domine or Dominus.  You can see in that word the root of dominate.  The word these ancient Anglo-Saxons used to translate it was generally Driht (or Dryht) or Drihten, which meant the leader of a people or an army.  This word didn’t survive the Norman invasion and modifications of the language that made Old English into Middle English.

John Wyclif’s translation (with which he probably had some help) was into Middle English in the 15th century.  In that version the word is “lord” as it continues to be into the KJV and Modern English

The Hebrew words translated “lord” are “the one who is” (Yahweh); the ruler or master (‘adonay); ruler, superintendent, proprietor, husband, owner (‘adown). The Greek word is primarily “owner, master, supreme being, controller, decider” (kyrios). In the KJV and many subsequent translations, Yahweh is translated as LORD, all caps. By the way, Howard Macy, a friend of mine who knows Hebrew (see more at, told me, "One of the understandings of this word is causative. That is, YHWH is the one who causes to be, who is the mover and shaker, etc....the God who makes things happen."

“Lord” comes from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word “hlaford.” This means loaf-keeper or loaf-guardian. The culture surrounding the hlaford was the tribal culture of these ancient Germanic people; extended family groups called sippes elected the most accomplished warrior to be their hlaford; this chief gathered warriors around him bound by ties of loyalty that included the vow to die prior to their hlaford in any battle. They would give their lives to protect him.  In exchange, the hlaford hosted the band of warriors (gave them bread) and distributed treasure gained from battles. The hlaford also prevented or mediated feuds that developed between or within sippes.

As a bit of side information, the word “lady” comes from Anglo-Saxon meaning “loaf-kneader”—which shows how language changes in connotation and even denotation over time.  By the time the Bible was translated into modern English, “ladies” had little to do with kneading bread.

My imagination is taken by the cultural issues of translation. First, the original translation from Latin into Anglo-Saxon emphasized the Lord of Hosts—the leader of a people.  I think this helps us remember that we are part of the hosts, the people, of whom God is the leader.  The military mindset of Anglo-Saxons may trouble the peace-lovers among us, but we remember early Quakers participating in the Lamb’s war rather than the English Civil War. We need to be so taken up with the business of our leader that we don’t have time to kill each other over religion and politics, separately or combined.

The other aspect that grabs my imagination is in the actual etymology of “Lord”—the loaf guardian.  This reminds me of Jesus as the divine Loaf, the Bread of Life, who gave his body for our redemption. As we gather, we expect our Lord to give us bread, and as we “ingest” our savior, Jesus’s life and spirit transform us. Again, in the heart of this word Lord is the loyalty of great warriors to the very best warrior, the strongest, the most valiant, and the smartest one of all. We are challenged to lay down our lives, to present our bodies as living sacrifices, for the sake of our Lord. 

Sources of information (besides Howard, of course):
 Etymology:  Old English hláford , once hláfweard (Ps. civ. 17; Thorpe's ‘to hálf-wearde’ is a misprint: see note in Greek-Wülck.), repr. a prehistoric form *hlaiƀward- , < *hlaiƀ (Old English hláf ) bread, loaf n.1 + *ward (Old English weard ) keeper (see ward n.1). In its primary sense the word (which is absent from the other Germanic languages) denotes the head of a household in his relation to the servants and dependents who ‘eat his bread’ (compare Old English hláf-ǽta, lit. ‘bread-eater’, a servant); but it had already acquired a wider application before the literary period of Old English The development of sense has been largely influenced by the adoption of the word as the customary rendering of Latin dominus.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Loving God

I want to open with a fable from a children’s books called Fables. I think of this story every time I sing the song “Oceans”: "You call me out upon the waters. The great unknown where feet may fail. And there I find You in the mystery, In oceans deep my faith will stand."

The Lobster and the Crab
On a stormy day, the Crab went strolling along the beach. He was surprised to see the Lobster preparing to set sail in his boat. “Lobster,” said the Crab, “it is foolhardy to venture out on a day like this.”
“Perhaps so,” said the Lobster, “but I love a squall at sea!”
“I will come with you,” said the Crab. “I will not let you face such danger alone.”
The Lobster and the Crab began their voyage. Soon they found themselves far from shore. Their boat was tossed and buffeted by the turbulent waters.
“Crab!” shouted the Lobster above the roar of the wind. “For me, the splashing of the salt spray is thrilling! The crashing of every wave takes my breath away!”
“Lobster, I think we are sinking!” cried the Crab.
“Yes, of course, we are sinking,” said the Lobster. “This old boat is full of holes. Have courage, my friend. Remember we are both creatures of the sea.”
The little boat capsized and sank.
“Horrors!” cried the Crab.
“Down we go!” shouted the Lobster.
The Crab was shaken and upset. The Lobster took him for a relaxing walk along the ocean floor.
“How brave we are,” said the Lobster. “What a wonderful adventure we have had!”
The Crab began to feel somewhat better. Although he usually enjoyed a quieter existence, he had to admit that the day had been pleasantly out of the ordinary.

We are out on the ocean in a storm here in Northwest Yearly Meeting. We do not agree on our understanding of the Bible, sexuality, membership, and leadership. We argue about Leviticus and Romans, Faith and Practice, authority and discernment, covenant and evangelism.  These arguments come between us as the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Sometimes I want to come to Jesus and ask him, “Which of us gets to sit at your right hand and call the shots for the rest?” Jesus’s answer to James and John remains the answer to us today, and it is, “Whoever wants to be greatest in God’s Kingdom must learn to serve all other people.” These words are just as hard to hear now as they were then.

 All we can see are the holes in our boat, and the stormy waves on our ocean.  But I want to say today, “Courage, my friends.  Our little boat is afloat in the love God has for us. Remember we are at home in God’s love.” Whether our boat floats or sinks, we are surrounded by God’s love. I have a hard time believing this when my love for God is conditional. But when  I am energetically  loving God with all my heart, I have zest for the adventures life brings. I think this is true for you, too.

I have been thinking about what it means to love the LORD our God with all our hearts. Jesus said this is the first and greatest commandment. What this means to us is that God is the focus of our whole lives, and that learning to love God unconditionally is our life’s work.  Jesus said this one commandment takes in and fulfills all the other God-focused commandments in the Law and the Prophets.

It seems that Jesus had some favorites among the books of the Hebrew testament, and that one of these is Deuteronomy.  The commandment to love God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, and the phrase “love the LORD your God” repeats 8 additional times in Deuteronomy. Here are those passages.

Love the LORD your God and watch and wait for, treasure, observe, preserve, guard what he has given you to take care of, what he has assigned to you, his judgments concerning you, the work he has commissioned you to do  (Deut. 11:1)

Love the LORD your God and hear and obey what God has told you to do, to love and be a friend to the LORD your God, and to do the work God has given you with all your inner self—body, emotions, mind and will, (Deut. 11:13)

Your job is to hear and obey the LORD your God in all God tells you to do, to love the LORD your God, to walk on God’s road, to stick tight to God; the LORD has driven out all these peoples who are in your face, and you have dispossessed peoples bigger and stronger than yourselves   (Deut.11:21, 22)

If a prophet or dreamer of dreams gives you a sign of wonder, works a miracle, and then says to you, Let us go after other gods, gods you haven’t known, and let us serve them, do not hear and obey the words of that prophet or dreamer; the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your inner self—body, emotions, mind and will. You continue to walk right behind the LORD your God, respect, honor, and be in awe of God, and hear what God tells you to do and do what God says, and continue to do the work God has given you and stick tight to God. (Deut. 13:1-4)

When you have done all that I God have given you to do this day, to love the LORD your God, and to walk every day on God’s road, then you will add three more cities of refuge for the accidental killer, besides these three given today. (i.e., you will increase the opportunities for mercy rather than vengeance.) (Deut. 19:9)

And the LORD your God will have reshaped your and your children’s inner selves—body, emotions, mind and will—to love the LORD your God with all your inner self and all your identity, giving you life. (Deut. 30:6)

For this commandment I God command you this day is not extraordinary or beyond your power or difficult to understand; not remote from you; …my word, my speaking is exceedingly near you, in your mouth and in your whole inner being, so that you know what to do. See, I have set before you today life and happiness or death and misery, commanding you today to love the LORD your God, to walk on his road, to keep what he has given you to take care of, to fulfill what he has assigned to you, to respect his judgments concerning you, to do the work he has commissioned you to do. You will live and will be great, and the LORD your God will bless you and give you the land to which you are going. (Deut. 30:11, 14-16)

I expect you know that “heart” means far more than the physical organ, more than “I heart God,” more than a feeling of warm emotion toward the deity. The Hebrew words for heart (Leb, Lebab) refer by metaphor to the center of the self, the soul, the senses, affections and emotions, to how one thinks and acts, to one’s will and purpose, intellect and wisdom; the includes reflection and memory, resolution, and determination.  The heart is the complexity of the self, the complexity of mind and body together, it is who you and I are.

Our purpose on earth is to love God with our whole hearts, our whole selves, and to do the work God has given us to do. This is our foundation and our goal. We throw ourselves into loving God. We are God’s fans, loyal through winning and losing seasons.

God made us for this relationship. We aren’t our whole selves outside of relationship with God.  That’s why it is so crucial that we have nothing else sneaking in between us and God and that we recognize that we are human and God is God.  Jesus taught us by example and word that we are treasured by God as the best of all possible Fathers treasures his children, and that out of our relationship with God comes everything else.  Jesus taught us how God loves us and how we can love God back.

One aspect of loving God is remembering God’s work in our lives and in the lives of others.  Rehearse these things, say them over to yourself and to your children, remember how you were once enslaved and imprisoned and how God led you out through water and desert, through chains and locked doors to freedom. Remember when God spoke to you, even though you saw no one. Let’s take a few minutes to think about at least one of God’s redeeming works in our lives.  Write it down. Share it with someone. (Deut. 4:9)

A second aspect to loving God is trusting God.  Job, the perfect human in the Hebrew testament, says, “Though God slay me, yet will I trust in him; I will set my journey before him, and he will save me, because he will see I am not godless or a hypocrite” (Job 13:14, 15). Trust means waiting for God, hoping for God to show up, accepting God’s justice for ourselves, and accepting God’s mercy for others.  It means leaning on God with our whole selves, instead of leaning on our own understanding or wisdom, and learning from God the path God has for us, which God will lead us along (Proverbs 3:5, 6).  Trust in God at all times, people, pour out your inner selves before God; God is a shelter for us (Psalm 62.8).  Let’s pause right now and choose to trust in God; write a note to God that tells what you are waiting in hope and confidence for God to do for you, or perhaps for us. When we leave here this evening to enjoy each other’s company over ice cream, tell someone what you are trusting God for.

A third aspect of loving God is seeking God.  If we have let something else creep in between us and God, we just need to seek God again, with our whole selves, all our heart and all our soul (Deut. 4:29).  The Hebrew word here translated “seek” has in it so many ways of seeking: consult, inquire, investigate, study, follow, require.  David, the adulterous and murderous king of Israel, is named a man after God’s own heart because he seeks God. We can see him seeking God in Psalm 51:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and repair my spirit so it is stable…The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Many of David’s psalms are personal appeals to God for God to show up, or personal expressions of praise and loyalty to God. Jesus reiterates the continuousness of our seeking in his words to seek first the kingdom where God rules; to ask, seek and knock, and to keep on asking, seeking and knocking.  Take a moment now to ask God a question or to consult God for guidance.  Write it down so you remember that you did this when God responds. 

God promises to be found when we seek wholeheartedly. The author of Hebrews (11:6) echoes the promise of Deut. 4:29: God IS; believe this and seek with your whole heart and throughout your whole life for God, and God will reward you.

A fourth aspect of loving God is obeying God.  What does the LORD our God require of us? To revere and respect the LORD our God, to walk on God’s road, to love God, and to serve—to obey—the LORD our God with all our heart and all our soul.  Jesus said we are his friends when we do what he tells us. Jesus said, I do only what I hear from my Father. God’s word is near to us, in our mouths, and in our hearts, and we need to do what we know is the next right thing to do. This is the existential, risky edge of loving God: listening and doing what God says.  Now, in this moment. Take a few minutes to listen to God right now.  Ask God what you need to do next.  Write it down, and share it sometime this evening with someone who will help you remember do it.

How do we know that we are not loving God well? Many inner conditions and outer behaviors tell us that our love for God is not unconditional. We are discouraged when we face difficulty and we fear when we face opposition. We say that God does not see us and will not act, so we take matters into our own hands. And we forget God’s work on our behalf and are proud as if we were the source of our success; we forget God’s generosity to us and are hard-hearted to the poor and without hospitality to the stranger. We want more and more rather than being content, and we are twisted and crooked in our inner selves.  When we are not obeying God’s present instructions, we are afraid of God, we see God as wrathful, and we become preoccupied with other people’s sins and errors.  We become meticulously obedient in small things to hide how we are missing the mark elsewhere. We hold others to a higher standard than we do ourselves, and we bind burdens on others we will not carry ourselves or help them carry. We tithe our money and avoid the hard work of discerning what is right, of being ready to help those in misery, and of trusting in the character of God.

If in this stormy time, we have come to realize that we are having a hard time remembering God’s good work in us, that we cannot trust God, that something has crept in between us and God to delay or derail our seeking God, that we are not doing today what God wants us to do, this is a good time to run toward God to say we’re sorry.  This is a good time for us to pray for one another and to pray for ourselves to see clearly that God loves us so wholeheartedly; we will respond to that vision with love that takes our whole lives to express. Seeing God’s love clearly and loving God wholeheartedly gives us hope and a future.