Song 1

boy smiling
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/islandgyrl/1850085612/">Christine Olson</a>

Psalm 1

Happiness
Is not following bad advice,
Is not running with the wrong crowd,
Is not getting your self worth by comparison with others.

Happiness
Is loving what’s right in God’s sight,
Is practicing doing right around the clock.

Those who follow this advice are like trees planted on the riverbank,
Fruitful,
Lush,
Growing.

Not so with evil folk.
They are dust in the wind,
They won’t have a case in court,
They won’t get a pew in church.

God guards the righteous wherever they go,
But the evil road leads to certain death.

If only it were true!

In reality, bad things happen to good people, and quite often those who are most evil win their court cases and have plaques honoring them in churches. Better to think of this song as an ideal, so far as everyone getting what the deserve is concerned.

Even so, the wisdom in the song is in it’s description of where happiness is found – and where it’s not. Regardless of external circumstances and rewards, happiness is a result of an inner bent toward right.

A friend who just returned from a three-week tour of villages in central Africa yesterday told me how striking it was to see so many people in such terrible poverty who wore great smiles. Surely, their suffering is incongruent with their deserving. Yet they are in many moments, happy. Contrast that with the robber-baron who has everything but whose soul is so empty it’s turned his life into a black hole sucking in everything and anything indiscriminately. No happiness there.

You can have happiness now, even while longing for (and working for) the justice that is not yet.

Dealing with Evil

Darth Vader helmet with hello kitty paited on
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/3669455809/">JD Hancock</a>

Mark 1: 21-28

On they went to Capernaum where, on the holy day, they went to church. And he started teaching. People were captivated with what he had to say because he had real conviction about it, rather than just droning on like the clergy. Right away, though, a person with an evil spirit started yelling: “You’ve got nothing to do with us, Jesus of Nowheresville. You’ve come here to wreck our church, haven’t you, you holier-than-thou-think-you’re-a-big-shot!”

But Jesus said, “Shut up and get out of here!” And the evil one left, shaking his fists and screaming obscenities all the way out the door.

Everyone was unsettled, whispering among themselves, saying, “How’d he do that? That took cojones! He even tells the s-o-bs where to get off – and they do!” And so he began to be famous around the region.

[See also, previous comments on this passage.]

We don’t like to think about evil much. In this day and age, we like to say evil is such an old-fashioned idea. People aren’t evil. They’re just “troubled,” or “insensitive,” or perhaps even, “selfish,” “boorish,” or “annoying.” Maybe we say they just “need to be educated.” And besides, “there’s good and bad in everyone, right?”

We especially don’t like to think about people with evil spirits in churches. After all, aren’t churches supposed to be where you can go to get away from evil. Aren’t they supposed to be full of good people? Churches especially (and I’d guess that Christian churches aren’t the only communities so afflicted), though tend to attract people with evil spirits.

But here it is, “a person with an evil spirit.” Granted, Mark doesn’t say “an evil person.” There’s no way of getting around it. Mark doesn’t say “a person who was having a bad day,” or “a person who needed educated.” Mark says an evil spirit. Here is a congregation with evil in their midst. When Jesus arrives on the scene, it has to be dealt with before anything else can happen.

There’s a reason the evil is couched in terms of possession. The man with the evil spirit is not objecting to any specific teaching of Jesus. It’s not a doctrinal dispute. It’s about Jesus’ presence threatening to remove the congregation from his possession. “You’ve got nothing to do with us. You’ve come to wreck our church.” The church is already a wreck, but at least it’s his wreck to have and to hold. So long as it is possessed by and belongs to him, so long as he is in control, it really doesn’t matter what gets taught. So long as the clergy drone on and on without moving the people to act any differently, everything’s ok. When people start to be captivated by someone or something else, when the possessors lose their grip on their possessions, that’s when all hell breaks loose.

What is particularly evil, at least as evil is encountered here, is when people (and worse, entire congregations of people) are considered something to be possessed. Churches, and all kinds of communities, can weather all kinds of differences of opinion and live with members holding contradicting doctrinal, and political, positions. What destroys them is one person (or a group – but such groups tend to resolve to only one or two persons) pulls all the strings.

For all the talk about harmony that churches use to cover up and get along with that kind of evil, Jesus won’t tolerate it. The evil has got to go. Otherwise they soon find that, at best they can’t do what they’re called to do, and at worst congregational life becomes a living hell.

[Bonus: One might ask where Jesus got the ability to evict the evil spirit. Answer: by moving the people with a greater captivating vision first.]

[A word of caution: Pastors looking at these remarks with an eye to preaching a sermon on this passage this week may be tempted to picture a certain person or persons in the congregation as the man (or woman) possessed, who is blocking some congregational agenda the pastor has in mind. There are two alternative possibilities to consider before “going there.” First, is that as much as it may feel like a control issue, it may be a real (legitimate) difference of convictions around an issue. Indicator: Is this person resisting on this particular issue, or is he or she resisting on everything no matter who proposes it, unless it’s his or her idea? The second possibility is that it’s the pastor who has the need to be in control. Imagine Jesus coming into your congregation on Sunday, without any notice, and when the time came he gets up and says, “Excuse me, I’m preaching today.” When you’re honestly ready to let him do it, then you’re ready to “go there.”]

The Theological Duck Test

Duck
Image via <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org">Wikipedia</a>

1 John 3:7-10

Kids, don’t let anyone fool you. People who practice doing right the way Jesus did right are righteous. People who do wrong are the devil’s children. The devil has been doing wrong from the beginning, but the child of God appeared to put the devil out of business. People who are God’s children don’t do wrong, because God’s nature is their nature. They can’t do wrong because they’re Gods children. So you can tell the children of God from the children of the devil, because if they’re not doing right, and if they don’t love their siblings, they’re not God’s.

This is the theological duck test.

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

For all the theological wrangling over propositions and faith statements and right belief, the crux of the matter comes down to whether someone is in the habit of doing right or not. If they’re righteous, then there is something of God in them. If they’re bent toward wrong, then it makes no difference what they say they believe in.

“But how does one know what is right and wrong?” you ask. John’s letter doesn’t pretend to lay out a system of ethics. John doesn’t go into much detail or lay out lots of rules. There’s just one clue. You can tell someone’s doing right by how they treat their siblings. Siblings broadly understood. Brothers and sisters of the human race. Is it loving? If so, it’s right.

Beyond that, the terms to describe love are left for you to work out. But there’s another test for that: the elephant test.

It is difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it.

How Not to Prove You Love Someone

twins
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/raleene/2109917367/">Raleen Cabrera</a>

Malachi 1:1-5

A word of advice. God’s advice to Israel via Malachi.

“I’ve always loved you,” God says. “But you say, ‘How have you loved us?'”

“Isn’t Esau Jacob’s brother?” God says. “But I loved Jacob and hated Esau. I’ve desolated Esau’s hills, and made the territory he inherited into a wasteland for jackals. As often as Edom says, ‘We may be down, but we’ll rebuild the ruins,'” God says, “They may rebuild. But I’ll keep tearing it down until they realize that they are the evil nation with whom God is eternally irate.

“You will see this with your own eyes and say, ‘God is great, even outside our borders.'”

Here’s an instance of a common misconception codified into Biblical stone. The misconception is this:

To know what love is, you have to know what hate is by comparison.

You’ll often hear it as: “If you didn’t have the bad, you wouldn’t be able to recognize and appreciate what’s good.” Same thing. The idea that the only way you can know about one thing is to know about its opposite.

But it’s just not true. Think about all the people living in tropical parts of the world that know what hot is without ever having experienced cold. Or all the Eskimos who never made it to Puerto Rico or Hawaii to experience what hot is.

You can experience love without proving it by comparison to hate. Good without comparison to bad.

It would be wrong, of course, to say that some of us will never experience hatred or evil. We will experience those things, too. But you’ll certainly be able to recognize them for what they are rather than by what they are the opposite of. Both certainly exist. And yes, they’re opposites. And yes, good and love is preferable over evil and hatred. But one is possible without the other. And who I love isn’t predicated on whether I hate someone else in equal measure. Same goes for you. Same goes for God.

So either God is mistaken about the need to be eternally hateful to some in order to prove God’s love to others, or Malachi is. I prefer to think it’s Malachi.