Our Spirits Rejoice With God Our Savior

Nothing captures Advent Joy the way that Mary’s song does:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary’s song bursts. It exudes praise. She recognizes the significance of what God was going to do through her baby boy. Every generation will be blessed because of Mary’s participation in God’s redemption and the things her Son will do.

The song goes on:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 50-55)

She describes the mercy of God to those who fear (revere)him and how God scatters the proud, brings down rulers and lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty.

This is radically inclusive and subversive!

A had a seminary professor who used to pastor an ex-pat church in the Philippines where it was illegal to read the Magnificat in public, for fear that it would incite riot and revolution. These words are politically charged. The proud are scattered and the rich go away empty. The humble are lifted up while the rulers are deposed. Mary challenges the whole system centuries before the classic Liberals defied Monarchy, the Communists decried Capitalism and the Anarchists denied institutional authority. If you do not hear a poignant critique of the way things are in Mary’s words, you are over-spiritualizing her words and dismissing them. There is raw power here. This is a rallying call!

Unfortunately, even the poets sometimes miss the point, focusing instead on Mary’s high praise while glossing over the phrases that challenge the status quo. Author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper published this poem in Sojourners in 2008. I think it gets at the joyful and subversive hope of Mary:

Mary’s Song: A Poem

Dark times
Regime change.
“How are we gonna make it?”
“How are we gonna live?”
Tomorrow?

Fear for breakfast
Trembling for brunch
Despair for dinner.

Dark thick air
Full of fumes
Can’t breathe.

Thick over the man on the street
With feet sticking out of his shoes.
Shoes wrapped in muslin.
It does not cover him
He lay cocked to one side.
In a fetal position.
He was a baby once.
Once — he cried and cuddled and coo-ed
Now he knows evil of this world.
His eyes have been baptized in the warped world of war.
They stare –- numb.
Dead eyes.
Murdered by drugs and guns and blood
Murdered by full metal jackets
Innocent eyes stolen
Stolen, too, the man’s soul.
Now
He lays in a fetal position
Waiting…

And the woman on the train
Across the aisle from me.
Her hand stretches forth
Rests on the carriage
Rocking a sleeping baby.
Innocent in all things.
Deserving of nothing
Deserving of all things
Baby lay waiting
In a fetal position
Baby waits to breathe above 125th street.
Fumes hover in her neighborhood
Where bus depots pepper the map.
Cancer fumes
Asthma fumes
Fumes that shape life
Limit life
Steal life
But for now she sleeps
And her momma rocks her carriage.

And the GM
And the Hedgefund
And the free-market giants
Three of them
Jolly and Green
They lay now
Tears trickle from baptized eyes
Dead eyes
They stare –- numb
Ransacked by green greed and time catching up
Now … nothing –- or at least it feels like nothing.
They have what feels like nothing.
And for fear of feeling fear
The giants lay feeling nothing.

Darkness hovers over the deep
And we wait.

We watch with dead eyes
Eyes that have seen too much.
Eyes that have known too much evil.
Redeem! Lord, Redeem!

Watch for the light.
Wait for the light.
It pierces darkness
And unfurls curled bodies
It covers twisted limbs.
It replaces fumes with blankets of breath
Mixed with love and sacrifice.

Mary watched and waited
The powerless, harassed young girl –- 13.
Barely a foot in the world
On the run
Chased down by power
Death surrounded her
Wrapped in the stench of King Herod’s dying babies

But

Into the darkness Mary sang!

“My soul doth magnify the Lord!
My soul doth magnify the Lord!
The one more mighty than darkness has done great things!”

For resting in her belly
Turning in her belly
Pressing on her belly
Light was being born

“God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,”
Mary says!
“God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts the lowly,”
Mary proclaims!

And the man with feet peeking from his shoes will be lifted up.
He will stand up!
And the baby covered in fumes will be lifted up.
She will stand up! Up!
And the green giants laying with dead eyes — yes, even they will be lifted up!
They will stand!
Blessed are they now, for they are ready to be lifted up.
They will lock hands
With their sisters and brothers and …

Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord …
… together!
And our spirits will rejoice in God our savior!

Amen.

Poem originally published by Sojourners, 12-17-2008 https://sojo.net/articles/marys-song-poem

The homeless, the mother and asthmatic child riding the train, the greedy green giants which lost everything in an economic downturn. All humble or humbled, awaiting the day when they will be raised up. Jesus is coming. My soul magnifies the Lord!

Speak Up: a ★★★★★ book review

I am not sure exactly when I first heard Kathy Khang’s voice but I know it was online. In real life (IRF), I am about 1 degree of separation from her, having friends in similar circles (e.g. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, ministers and activists and the Evangelical Covenant Church). But I know I am grateful for getting to know her voice, and she’s challenged me (mediocre white male, that I am) to rethink stuff and be more mindful about systemic racism and appropriation. I vividly remember Kathy calling attention to Lifeway’s Rickshaw Rally, the all white cast of a progressive Christian conference discussing the peace of the Gospel without any thought of diversity, and challenging White Evangelical complicity in systemic racism and Empire (i.e. Trumpism).

4540In part 1 of Raise Your Voice, Khang shares how she learned to ‘raise her voice.’ She emigrated from South Korea as a child, and navigated American culture as an Asian American, an immigrant and a woman and mother. In lots of ways, she was pressured to be silent and remain silent. However, she found her voice and began speaking about cultural appropriation, faith, violence against the Black community, feminism, and politics. As she shares her own story of speaking up (or sometimes not speaking up) she also reflects on the biblical example of Moses (afraid to speak up when he was called),Esther (who learned to raise her voice to save her people, the Jews, from certain destruction and the Bleeding Woman (Mark 5).

Part 2 offers some practical reflections on how to speak up. This is not a ‘how to’ book, but Khang shares some insights and practices that have helped her both listen well, and speak up when she needs to (these are related domains). She explores what it means to use our voice in real life and the various spheres we occupy (everything from our ‘underwear family’ all the way to our job). She also describes her process and gives practical advice on how to engage with people online and on social media and the various ways each of us can use our gifts and talents as we learn to speak in our own voice.Khang conducted interviews with Reesheda M. Graham-Washington,  her friend Brenda, and artist, Maggie Hubbard which she includes here to show these women learned to raise their voices.

I read Khang’s book eagerly with anticipation. Her voice is one I really respect, and often when issues come up in our culture (e.g. immigration, lies, collusion, white supremacy, violence), I look to see if she’s written anything about it. She has a peculiar gift for cutting through the crap with both truth and grace.

I’m a white male, and therefore my voice has been culturally privileged.  I’ve had to learn to stop and really listen before I speak (and as an extrovert this is hard to do). But in other ways, I too can be silent and not speak up in the face of the authorities and in the case of injustice. Sometimes I am too afraid to speak up. Sometimes I don’t feel like I understand enough. But to speak up is to name our hope that real change is possible. Kathy’s words and her voice give me courage to raise my voice.

I give this book five stars. You should read it. –

I received a copy of this book from the Author and IVP in exchange for my honest review. I also purchased a copy to share with someone else.

Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee: a book review

People are moving and people are being displaced. There are immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers all wishing to leave there country of origin, for a variety of reasons poverty, environmental catastrophes, terrorism, nations destabilized by war and revolution, and the promise of a better life somewhere else. “There are about 60 million people on the move . . . . 1 out of every 122 people on the planet today is out of there natural home” (15). “The world has literally come to our doorstep. Will we open the door?” (back cover).

4535In  Serving God in the Migrant CrisisPatrick Johnstone and Dean Merrill teamed up to examine the causes of today’s refugee crisis and the global displacement, explore the  Christian response towards immigrants and aliens, and describe actional steps that individuals, churches, non-profits and the global body of Christ can do to respond to immigrants, refugees and vulnerable strangers in crisis. Johnstone is the original author of Operation World (a global prayer guide for Christians), and a number of other Operation World resources. He served on the leadership team for Worldwide Evangelisation for Christ (WEC International) for 32 years and has been active in writing, in advocating for and ministering to refugees in his home, Derby, England.  [Merrill is the author or coauthor of more than 40 books, but the ‘I’ voice throughout the book, is Johnstone’s].

The book divides into three sections. In part one, Johnstone examines what’s going on. Chapter 1, describes the scope of the global migrant crisis. Chapter 2 explores our attitudes toward immigrants. Notably, Johnstone speaks to several fears people have about migrants. Against the charge that immigrants will take advantage of us and be drain on resources, Johnstone posits that once migrants start working, their payroll tax contributes toward social funding (25-26). He also challenges the notion that immigrants have ill will in their hearts (or maybe secret terrorists). Certainly, there is a risk, which government officials are aware of and work to neutralize,  but the vast majority of immigrants are more likely to be victims of crime then they are to be perpetrators. Johnstone quotes Michael Collyer of the University of Sussex:

Where rapid urbanization coincides with a significant rise in urban violence migrants are often blamed. However, newcomers are over-represtened amongst poor and marginalized groups who typically suffer the most serious consequences of violence—they are much more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators (26).

Against the idea that helping people will only increase the flood of immigrants into our country, Johnstone allows that while may be true and that there are complicated issues around who immigrates and how (e.g. no one has argued for completely open borders),  he reminds us that as Christians we ought to continue to treat immigrants as Divine image bearers (27).  In chapter 3, Johnstone argues that with continued political unrest—failed states, and states which are on ‘shaky ground—as well as other factors, there seems to be no end in sight to global migration.

In part two, Johnstone describes what we should know as we seek to respond to the migrant crisis. Chapter 4 describes why people run—the things that push refugees out of their homelands, and the things that pull them to seek asylum in the West (e.g. security, hope and the promise of a better life). Chapter 5 provides a brief overview of immigrants in the biblical story (e.g. Jesus, Moses, the people of Israel, etc). Chapter 6 exhorts us to behave compassionately towards immigrants and refugees and to challenge the policies that are harmful toward them. Often government policies in the developing world, leave refugees languishing and at-risk in their countries of origin:

Whatever our nationality, citizens who care about justice for the “alien and stranger” need to work to reform these polices and practices. After all, 99 percent of the world’s refugees are not being savely restelled whether inside the borders of their own country, in a nearby country, or accross the ocean. Instead, they are waiting, waiting, waiting, often in squalid conditions as months and years tick by” (63-64).

Johnstone challenges us further, to not let fear or politics get in the way of helping the stranger:

Let it never be said that we “would have liked to” help today’s refugees, but the policy environment was not conducive, and so we turned to other activities. “Of course we want to keep terrorists out of the country,”  says Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (United States) “but let’s not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS.

His collegue Matthew Soerens, United States director of church mobilization for WOlrd Relief, adds, “With governemetn doing its job of screening and vertting, our role can’t be to ask, “Is it safe?” We have to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”

The need for real people—God’s highest creation—must always trump poitical arguements and personal fear. (68).

Chapter 7 argues that the contributions of immigrants to society will both re-energize a complacent society, and a complacent faith (i.e. often refugees fleeing primarily Muslim countries, are Christians).

In part three, Johnstone explores what we can do. Chapter 8 describes where we start. First, as an evangelical Christian committed to mission, Johnstone argues that we ought to appreciate the strategic opportunity of the world knocking on our door (82). Second, Johnstone argues that we need to admit and acknowledge our past mistakes, namely how Christian enmeshment with empire and colonialism is a driven a good deal of the current migrant crisis (86-89). Third, we need to become more sensitive toward other cultures (88-90). Fourth, we need to believe that God really cares about migrants (90). Johnstone points to a number of examples from the Bible that demonstrate God’s care for the immigrant (cf. Leviticus 19:33-34, Leviticus 24:22. Deut. 10:18-19, Deut 24:14-15, Deut. 27:19, 1 Kings 8:41-43, Psalm 146:9, Ezekiel 47:21-23, Zechariah 7:8-10, Hebrews 13:2).

The remainder of the book, (chapters 9-12) describe what individuals, churches, organizations and the world church can do to minister to migrants.

This is a short book, and certainly, Johnstone does not untangle all the issues. However, there are several aspects of this book I really appreciated. First, this book is certainly non-partisan. Johnstone is an old school evangelical but from a British, not American context. Many of the issues he describes were already pertinent before our current U.S. President took office. The current political rhetoric in this country makes it sound like Democrats care about helping people and Republicans lack compassion. The truth is that Republicans and Democrats have both been bad about carrying for immigrants. Second, I appreciate how much Johnstone sees the migrant crisis as an opportunity to care for others, to share our faith and to bless the world.

Johnstone is more of a practitioner than a scholar and this is a popular level book (134 pages. I read it on a plane ride). Certainly what is said here can be nuanced but if you are looking at the world and wondering how as a Christian you ought to respond to the millions of displaced peoples, this is a good place to start. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

Why Would You Give Up Something For Lent?

This is a question I ask myself every year, and if you are among those of us who give something up, the why may be the most important part of your Lenten fast. Do you give something up because your faith community does, and because you always have? Is it a way to jump-start your new diet? Are you trying to quit smoking, overeating or drinking until you blackout? Is there some other habit you want to break and you love the support of a Lent practicing community?? Do you want to undertake some heroic discipline to prove your devotion to God? Do you think if you don’t eat chocolate God loves you more?

The answer to that last question, when we put it so baldly, is an obvious no. God will not love us more if we spend less time on Facebook, don’t eat chocolate or candy, or give up (for the next six weeks) eating green eggs and ham in a box, with a fox, in house, with a mouse, here or there or anywhere. And yet, sometimes our participation in fasts or religious practices feel like it is just us trying to prove our worth to God.

The prophet Samuel’s words to Saul offer us a corrective, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). To obey is better than sacrifice. Unfortunately, us post-modern pilgrims find neither obedience or sacrifice appealing and sometimes miss the wisdom in the prophet’s words. Sacrifice was a ritual designed to appease a god. When done right, it reminded the person sacrificing of their own brokenness and the way they wound themselves, others, and God. When done poorly, as Saul did in 1 Sam. 15, it was a way to honor God without submitting to God’s desire for our lives. We don’t sacrifice rams, but our Lenten fast can be a similar religious pretending. We may fast before God when our heart is somewhere else. 

movie-poster-joy-luck-clubBut obedience is a hard thing for us too. We tend to think of obedience in legalistic terms. A slavish following of rules and a harsh authority structure.  One of my favorite movies is the adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club (1993). There is one scene where Suyuan, an immigrant from China, and little girl June clash over her not wanting to take piano lessons, and Suyuan shouts, “Only two kinds of daughter. Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Only one kind of daughter lives in this house. Obedient kind!” As a father of girls, I quote this to my daughters all the time. And they both ignore me every single time I say it.

The word obey in Hebrew was shema. It means hearing, listening, attending to. The obedient life is the listening life. It is a lifestyle mindful of God’s presence in our lives. To obey is to pay attention to God and God’s desires for us. This is the first and best reason to give up something for Lent: to train our ears and hearts to hear God and listen to him in all of life. If we give something up, it is because we recognize it as a thing that numbs our sense of the Divine. We eschew distraction in order to be more mindful and to listen well.

The second reason we fast in Lent, is because we believe spiritual transformation is possible. It is why I do it. I recognize I am not who I want to be, and I am not who I pretend to be most of the time. I earnestly wish I was more compassionate, braver, more prayerful, and less petty, shallow, and wounded. I believe in spiritual transformation, that as we give our heart to God, he makes us new. I give something up, I fast, I cast off distractions because I hope it will change me.

But our spiritual transformation is not just about personal change. It is about welcoming the Kingdom of God into our neighborhoods, cities, our nation. One of the reasons we don’t see a greater change in our lives is because of our participation in systems and structures which mitigate against God’s coming kingdom.

For example, we all agree racism is pretty awful. People should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But we do not live in a post-race society. Our culture still bears the mark of centuries of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow, historic redlining and discriminatory policies, mass incarceration of African American males (when white American’s guilty of similar crimes get lighter or no sentence), violence against the Black community, etc.  As a white privileged person, I am part of a system that has benefited me, even in ways I’m not particularly aware, and hurt other people. Our belief in spiritual transformation challenges these systemic realities. It can’t be only about private devotion. Spiritual transformation means welcoming the system overhaul of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible passage that best informs every Lenten fast (or any other kind of fast) is Isaiah 58.  Isaiah  58:6-9 reads:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

When we make fasting and Lent about ourselves and solely about our relationship with God, we are doing it wrong. Yes, it is good to break some bad personal habits, but how can our Lenten Fast participate in God’s justice? Are the oppressed set free because we gave up Scotch (but not other single malts)?

1024px-fast_dayI try to think about Justice with my Lenten fast. For several years, I have given up, to various degrees, eating meat during Lent. But as I’ve done this, I have also tried to faithfully cross-examine my economic participation in America’s industrial food complex. Issues come up like our cruelty to animals, economic oppression of rural farmers, exploitation of immigrants for cheap labor, environmental stewardship, etc. Taking a step back from my consumption of certain things has given me space to examine my lifestyle and choices. I am not vegan (except seasonly, during Lent), but because of trying to practice Lent conscientiously, I have changed some of my buying practices the rest of the time too.

If you give up chocolate, God doesn’t love you more. But when we recognize that the harvesting of cocoa beans in West Africa exploits child labor and slaves and that our conspicuous consumption (not to mention the demand for cheap chocolate) contributes to untold suffering, we begin to make changes. Our fast unties the yoke of injustice.

So give something up for Lent. Use your fast as a way to cast off patterns of life that distract you. Attend to God’s presence in your life. Believe that spiritual transformation is possible and look for ways to participate in God’s justice.

Jump for Joy

I was briefly a mascot of a Christian rock band called Frolic like a Heifer. They would sheepishly admit that they got their name from Jeremiah 50:11, which described the judgment on Babylon (in that context, frolicking like a heifer was not a good thing). At a couple of their concerts, while the band played, I came out in a cow costume and danced around. One time,  I almost died an ironic death.

It was at the Baptist Student Union near the University of Hawaii campus. The concert was part of a year-end party. In the middle of my dancing shenanigans, I grabbed myself a burger so I could eat it while dancing around in a cow costume. I thought it was funny, a cow eating a burger. But in the middle of some killer dance moves, I almost choked. The burger lodged in my throat. I gasped for air.

SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t die that day.

The burger dislodged and I was saved from an embarrassing end. I would not get awarded a Darwin Award for choking on a burger while dressed as a cow. Everything was okay and we all had a great time, frolicking like a heifer.

In the Bible, joy and warnings of judgment are often intertwined. Consider another dancing cow passage:

Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty. “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:1-6).

The great and fearsome Day of the Lord will come. The wicked will burn like stubble in a fire and will be trampled underfoot.  The ominous threat of judgment chars the air. But not for all. The sun of righteousness will rise, healing in its rays, and cows will dance. Elijah, a voice crying in the wilderness, will turn the hearts of children to their parents and parents’ hearts to their children, averting the land’s total destruction.

We don’t much like talking about judgment (it’s so judgy!), but Advent reminds us of both joy and judgment. Without judgment, there is no justice and the arc of the moral universe bends toward chaos. Without the promise of joy—healing, wholeness and repaired relationships—we are without hope. Judgment calls us to set right whatever is wrong in our lives. The promise of joy makes us want to.

The thing is, we are all complicit in so much. Human flourishing and our standard of living in the modern West, have contributed to human suffering, injustice and environmental destruction. Where were your shoes made? Who made them? Or the tablet you are reading this on? For the most part, we don’t know, and when we do know, we try not to think about it.  Each of us is a dancing cow, choking on a burger. We are happy and oblivious to our own destruction.

The promise of joy in the passage above is that when the dreadful day of the Lord comes, the Elijah will come and prepare the way, leading us to repair our broken relationships—children and parents, parents and children. With relational wholeness, on the Day of the Lord, we will frolick like well-fed calves. We will jump for joy.

 

Glory Everyday: a book review

I am not sure how I came to follow Kaitlin Curtice on Twitter, but I did and my Twitter feed has been better for it. She is a speaker & worship leader and writer who has been featured in Sojourners. If you have followed her blog through the month of November, she has been blogging daily, her reflections on Native American Awareness Month her experience as a Potawatomi woman. Her blog, articles, and social media presence challenge white, eurocentric Christianity and remind us of the diversity of the Kingdom of God and Christ’s heartbeat for justice.

glory-happeningHer new book, Glory HappeningFinding the Divine in Everyday Places (Paraclete Press: 2017) explores  God’s glory in everyday life in ordinary life. Like Kathleen Norris’s Quotidian Mysteries, Curtice interrogates her daily life for glimpses of the divine. She explores the dimensions of  her life as a Native American Christian, a woman, a wife and mother of two, to see what it reveals of God’s glory. Each chapter of this book is a snapshot of her life, combined with a short, poetic prayer addressed to God or Jesus.

Curtice observes that in the Bible and Christian tradition, God’s glory is made manifest in various ways (introduction, xiii). The ways God’s glory are manifest provide the structure for the book, the 50 entries are arranged in seven sections: creation, light, weight, voice, fire, honor, worship, and kingdom.  There are 6 or 7 entries for each section (with the exception of fire, which only has 4). The brief entries and accompanying prayer make this a perfect daily devotional to awake our sense of God.

The chapters run the gambit of Curtice’s life experience. She describes her marriage and family life, pregnancy, the wonder in eyes of her two sons,  reflections on her native identity, remembrances of conversations and encounters with other people and cultures, and the wisdom of authors and teachers.

Pervading all this is a sense of celebration and gratitude for life, which I find really refreshing. Especially since Curtice is something of an activist with eyes-wide-open to the injustices of the dominant culture in the United States (e.g. against Native Americans, African Americans, Muslims, etc). It is easy for activist types to come across as cynical and jaded but I got none of that from this book. This isn’t to say she is overly rosy about our current cultural moment. Just that she trusts that God’s glory is made manifest and holds out a strong hope for the Kingdom coming.

The prayer that closes the book captures this sense of  trust, hope and gratitude:

Mystery of everything that we understand

and most certainly everything that we don’t,

teach us to rest in this unknowing.

Teach us to rest in each other,

to rest in the presence of a stranger,

in the kindness that is always unexpected,

that surprises us, that gives us a taste of you,

as much as we can bare[sic] to understand.

You are Creation,

you are Light,

you are Weight,

you are Voice.

You hold Fire,

you give Honor,

you gift Worship,

and you are Kingdom,

yesterday,

today,

tomorrow.

Hallelujah

for all the glory.

Amen.

If you are like me, it is too easy to get bogged down by the pressures of daily life and a soul-numbing news cycle filled with the misdeeds of powerful men, convenient deceptions, and partisan politicking. Curtice pulls back the curtain a little to reveal the ways God’s glory and kingdom are breaking into our present.  It also doesn’t hurt that Curtice is a great writer too!  I give this book 4 stars  – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

When You Just Can’t Forgive: a book review

Forgiveness and justice are two gospel threads, though, in many theologies, one often short-shrifts the other. Either grace is emphasized to the exclusion of justice, or justice, in the form of care for the marginalized, is stressed while grace remains opaque. In Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach, Dr. Bryan Maier holds up the importance of both, explicating the power of forgiveness and God’s heart for justice, in a pastoral and counseling context.

9780825444050Maier has a doctorate in psychology from Wheaton College and is associate professor of counseling and psychology at Biblical Theological Seminary. He approaches the topics of forgiveness and justice as a professor, a counselor, and a pastor who has walked with people through difficult things.

From the outset, it should be noted that this treatment on forgiveness is limited by a focus on interpersonal forgiveness, and not corporate forgiveness (13). So while Maier does envision justice, he is not so much talking about social justice, i.e., a response to systemic issues and institutional dynamics that impact communities, but individual and personal injustices (e.g. abuse, adultery, etc.).  However, he does speak realistically about the nature of sin and the way individual people are affected by evil. He validates the experience of victims and warns us against easy forgiveness.

After reviewing contemporary clinical models which describe forgiveness (chapter 1), Maier sharpens our understanding by offering 3 boundaries around the construct of forgiveness and 4 contours of a Christian approach to forgiveness. He asserts forgiveness is a response to a moral violation (i.e. no moral wrong, no need for forgiveness), that forgiveness is not simply a cognitive reframe (choosing to see reality differently) or empathy for the offender (33-40). Maier asserts instead that forgiveness, in the Christain sense: (1) is derived from divine forgiveness—Christ and his cross, (2) does not have personal healing as its primary goal, (3) is other-centered, focused on the offender, and (4) is active, not passive (41-43).

These four characteristics describe much of what follows in the rest of the book. Unlike a lot of contemporary forgiveness literature, Maier doesn’t think forgiveness is about making the victim feel better about themselves by letting go of the hurt. Instead, forgiveness is about the offender recognizing their error and repenting. Thus, forgiveness is not something to offer flippantly, or the appropriate response if the offender is unrepentant.  Resentment and anger may actually be our appropriate response in the face of ongoing sin. Maier writes:

Interpersonal sin is an assault on justice and the God of justice. Feelings of resentment or legitmate anger are both a logical and appropraite response to injustice. Resentment is logical if it is defined as merely an emotional reaction to what has already been recognized cognitively—that is, that an offense has been committed and the offender is not repentant. Resentment defined this way is also appropriate because God Himself reacts to sin with such strong affectively laden legative feelings. (53)

We forgive because God forgave us, and God’s forgiveness should typify our behavior (cf. Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12); Nevertheless, just as God’s forgiveness of us requires our repentance, so our forgiveness of others ought to require their turning from their sin (64). God keeps score (chapter 5). So while Christians ought to always be ready to forgive, forgiveness is not the Christian response to ongoing injustice.  Anger with the state of things is, just as creation groans toward redemption (Romans 8:22-23).

Several biblical resources are helpful in this regard. Maier commends Romans 12:9-21, which brackets out vengeance as a Christian response. God himself will repay the evil done to us (80). He also recommends praying imprecatory Psalms (those Psalms where the enemies of God’s people suffer for the evil they’ve wrought), as comfort and assurance that justice will be done (96). He also describes a counseling session where his patient drew comfort from the book of  Revelation, because of its assurance that in the end, someone pays (82).

Maier goes on to describe the reality and benefits of forgiveness and to describe the benefits of forgiveness and justice and counseling.

What I found most beneficial about was how Maier confronts cheap forgiveness. I have personally been taught, and have taught others, to define forgiveness therapeutically and subjectively. I’ve thought of forgiveness as not letting the wrong done to me poison my soul. In Maier’s model, forgiveness is about setting the relationship right. This can only be done if the offender is repentant and trust is rebuilt. This deals objectively with the world of relationships.

I also appreciated the validation of anger, not just as an appropriate response but as a motivating factor in our work against injustice. I do not know an activist who isn’t angry, and I’m glad for it. Anger and resentment at injustice are meant to move us to action, to set the world to rights. Maier names these as important and legitimate responses in a world where all creation groans toward redemption (Romans 8:22-23).  In fact, I think this book may have changed my thinking a little bit about what forgiveness means, when to offer it and when to hold out.

In terms of a ministry aid, I think Maier offers some sound advice for pastors and counselors,  in walking people through the process of forgiveness. He uses the Bible judiciously, holding up the ideal of forgiveness without slighting victims of profound evil. By pointing to repentance as the normative standard for forgiveness, Maier doesn’t make light of sin, while still holding out the possibility of reconciliation and redemption. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic and Ministry in exchange for my honest review