Time of Lament

From N.T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.,” Time Magazine Online, March 29, 2020.

“The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.

“God was grieved to his heart, Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures. He was devastated when his own bride, the people of Israel, turned away from him. And when God came back to his people in person—the story of Jesus is meaningless unless that’s what it’s about—he wept at the tomb of his friend. St. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit “groaning” within us, as we ourselves groan within the pain of the whole creation. The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit.

“It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.”

I will be working on another project for the next several weeks, so I won’t be blogging here. If you’re continuing to quarantine, stay connected. If you’re out and about, be a blessing. – Kim

Odds & Ends

It has been a tough and challenging time for humanity, hasn’t it? It’s hard to know what to say or where to begin. Today, I’ll refer you to the words of others who have helped me think about and process the hurt, pain, confusion, and sadness so many are feeling.

  • In Reaping the Whirlwind, Eric Crawford (WDRB) works through his feelings after being asked to comment on the recent shootings and protests in Louisville. Take your time with this one and pour over what he has to say. His writing is well worth it.
  • Esau McCaulley, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, has written A Nation on Fire Needs the Flames of the Spirit for Christianity Today online. Based on his most recent sermon, this essay discusses how Pentecost can help the church find its voice during times of racial strife.
  • I’ve been blessed to be invited to join my best friend’s Sunday School class that meets over Zoom every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening from North Carolina. We are currently reading and discussing Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, which offers “a way to find spirituality in those times when we don’t have all the answers.” It couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. I highly recommend it.
  • And, let’s not forget (how could we, really) that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. If you’ve never looked at Kentucky’s COVID-19 website, I think you’ll be surprised by the wealth of information you can find there, including testing sites, numbers of cases by county, in-depth explanations of contact tracing, and what to expect if you’re contacted. Good stuff to know.

Last, but most definitely not least, I found the text of the prayer given by Rev. C.B. Atkins, pastor of First Baptist Church Bracktown in Lexington, during one of Governor Beshear’s recent press conferences. It was so moving to listen to Rev. Atkins’ words; I pray you find as much in the printed version:

“Let us pray together. Eternal God, the God of all people, because you are omniscient, there is nothing we can tell you that you don’t already know. So let me start by thanking you for clearing up busy schedules, for allowing us to pause to collectively acknowledge you today. We are aware that not all storms come to disrupt our life, some come to clear our path. Your ways are not our ways and your thoughts are not our thoughts. Isaiah reminds us that there is no searching of your understanding. So we did not come today to call you on the carpet to explain, we came to thank you for your power and willingness to sustain. 

“Worldwide COVID-19 has claimed 350,000 reported deaths, 100,000 in the United States, and 400 in Kentucky. These are staggering numbers of the arresting reality of this horrific pandemic. Still I refuse to be guilty either as a messenger of God or a man of color.

“I’m mentioning the racial pandemic that has been devastating a segment of your people in this country for over 400 years, emboldened now afresh by people in powerful positions in public places. It is not that the minority population has been silent, but rather that the majority population has been deaf. The high number of deaths from coronavirus has been needless, and the continuous deaths of innocent black men and women in this country is senseless.

“Frantic searches are underway in laboratories around the world for a vaccine for COVID-19. But even if one is discovered, and I pray it will be, but if we ignore the cure for that pandemic as we have ignored the cure for the racial pandemic, having done so for political, economic, and aristocratic expediency, then all efforts will ultimately be in vain.

“I pray God that you strip us of the false assurance that grows from pride in our powers and ignorance of our ignorance. After you strip us, then bathe us in compassion so our shared pain will generate a powerful passion that will eventuate in reaching a divine purpose.

“As dark as this day may be, I am assured you did not bring us this far to leave us now. Hatred, divisiveness, and even death are but finite happenings. We cling to an infinite hope. You’ve already given us the panacea for this and all pandemics. You have told us what is good and what you require, that is to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before our God. You have not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind.

“If your people who are called by your name would humble themselves and pray, turn from our wicked ways and seek your face, you promise that you will hear from heaven, forgive our sins, and heal our land. Comfort us, oh God. Guide, guard, and govern us. God of all nations. Known by many names. Do it through Christ Jesus my Lord. Amen.”

-Reverend C. B. Atkins 5/28/2020

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:14).  

James 1:2-11 (Part 2)

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:4)

According to James, one of the ways God wrests good from a bad situation is by allowing perseverance to fully develop within us. The Greek word James uses here is hypomone, meaning endurance or steadfastness. “Perseverance” is also a good choice for its English translation because perseverance implies a sense of hopefulness… patience for the bad situation to finally right itself, and patience for us to mature from the experience so long as we just hang in there!

You see, perseverance in and of itself is not the end-goal. James says, when perseverance finishes its “work,” we will be “mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” There! That is the goal. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, referred to that goal as, “Christian Perfection.”

In 1741, during the earlier part of his preaching career, Wesley published his sermon on the doctrine of Christian perfection. In doing so, it became one of the most distinguishing features of his theology and influenced many of his other sermons throughout his career. However, it was met with a good deal of disagreement from Protestant Reformers at the time of its publication.

Dr. Kenneth Kinghorn, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Asbury Seminary from 1965-2003, concisely summarizes the disagreement in his modern translation* of Wesley’s sermons:

“Reformers powerfully championed the biblical doctrines of justification and adoption, which are works of grace that God does for us to change our position before God…. [Nothing we do – no works – can gain this for us.] To be sure, Wesley agreed with the Protestant Reformers, [however] Wesley also accentuated a “realized righteousness” which God imparts to believers to change their state.” Wesley was primarily standing up against the incorrect belief that all one needs is faith, and that good works are not required.  At all! (Kinghorn, p124)

Wesley’s choice of the term “perfection” for this doctrine wasn’t received any better by the Reformers than his concept of realized righteousness. They said perfection could only be attained by God, thus the need for God’s grace; humans could not be “perfect.” But Wesley drew the term “perfection” from the Greek word teleiosis – the same word used by James in verse 4, translated as “mature and complete.”

For the Greeks, teleiosis conveyed not just the state of being mature and complete, but the continual growth and movement toward an ever-greater maturity. For Wesley, Christian perfection is a process of becoming what God has always wanted for his creation. With that definition in mind, consider Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of James 1:4 from The Message:

You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (James 1:4 MSG)

To me, James 1:4 says (well… actually, in my mind it yells):  Hang on! Don’t give up! Don’t you ever give up, because God is going to use this horrible thing you’re experiencing right now – that he never wanted for you – and he’s going to show you how redemption works, how faith can flourish in the weeds, and how you can become more like Christ while standing in the middle of a mess. Yes, this right here. Yes, right now. And, yes, praise God, you!


In Part 3, we’ll see what James says about how we find the strength to hang in there. We’ll also check in with another of John Wesley’s sermons to get his perspective on how our actions, including our responses to challenging times, spring from the root of our faith: our hearts.

* Kinghorn, Kenneth Cain, John Wesley on Christian Practice Vol 3: The Standard Sermons in Modern English, 34-53.

Links to previous entries: Intro to James and Part 1

James 1:2-11 (Part 1)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 1:2).

Let’s start with prayer:

Most Merciful Father, my soul finds rest and hope in you today. Truly you are my rock, my salvation, and my fortress of strength. I will not be shaken. My salvation and honor are dependent upon you – my mighty rock and refuge – and I will trust in you during good times, as well as uncertain, frightening times. Father, I pray that I may trust in your unfailing love at all times. I pray for others to reach out to you in trust from the very center of their hearts. Father, you are the refuge of all, in all times. Amen. (Based on Ps 62:5-8.)

As you’ve probably already guessed by today’s title, I’ve put together a multi-part discussion of James 1:2-11. While it’s relatively short, James makes several points in this piece of scripture, all of which come together to introduce one of his primary purposes for writing. So it pays to move slowly through the early verses of this first chapter. Today, we’ll begin this study series with verses 2-4. 

James, the brother of Christ, writes to those of the diaspora:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-6)

James begins his letter by addressing what will become a recurring theme throughout:  Christian maturity and completeness. It helps to look at the original Greek in order to see the full extent of how James builds this theme. He begins by telling his audience to consider trials that test their faith as “pure” joy. Joyfulness during hard times is hard enough to come by, but pure joy?

Well, the Greek word James uses (translated here as pure) is pasan, meaning complete, whole, perfect. The choice of this particular word emphasizes the type of joy one should have when placed in a situation that he or she knows will ultimately develop them into that same kind of Christian:  complete, whole, perfect.

To put it another way… The secular world sees heartache, devastation, hard times, and stops there. The Christian, however, sees the same bad news but has faith God will use the situation for good, someway, somehow. The timing of which, we cannot know and may not ever see in its fullness. Yet, we make the choice to persevere. Or, at least to try.

There have been days during the current pandemic when I’ve fallen into the trap of only seeing the bad news. It’s hard not to at times. An overwhelmed unemployment insurance program can’t keep up, and thousands of Kyians are struggling to support their families. Some still didn’t qualify even with expanded coverage and had no way to work when businesses shut down.

Almost 100,000 people have died. 100,000 human lives are gone. 100,000 families have grieved and are still grieving, mostly alone due to social distancing. Many days, I’ve found myself quoting King David from Psalm 13, “How long, Lord?  Will you forget us forever? How long will you hide your face from us? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”

I panic. Before I know it, I’m like Peter when Jesus called him out of the boat to walk on the water. Peter was doing it! He was walking on water!… until his focus shifted away from Jesus and toward the strong winds. Peter was afraid. He felt like he was sinking. He was going to drown! “Lord, save me!”

Some days I’m Peter.

But just like David comes around at the end of Psalm 13, I finally… finally… refocus on Jesus and recommit: Lord, my God, I trust in your unfailing love. And, I persevere.


In Part 2, we’ll look at how James says developing perseverance moves us closer to our ultimate goal of being “mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” We’ll also explore the writings of John Wesley on this topic, which he referred to as “Christian Perfection,” one of his most misunderstood concepts.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:14).  

Our Motivation

All my recent musings about works and faith has led me to think about the various ways individual faith is evidenced. (Trust me, I’ll get back to the Letter of James soon. I just can’t pass up a good digression!)

As Cory mentioned during our Bible Study, Paul speaks highly of Timothy and especially Epaphroditus who risked his life to maintain communication between Paul and the Philippian church. And James – who so often takes a beating over his stance on works – reminds readers that Abraham’s willingness to outwardly act on his faith serves as a testimony to the completeness of his faith.

Isaiah, on the other hand, describes a negative example of what faithful actions can become when we lose sight of why we act. In Isaiah’s vision, the Lord has lost all patience with the Israelites and their empty rituals. What good are animal sacrifices and incense burning when the only reason you do it is so God will bless you?

Doing those things that God loves isn’t about self-benefit. Rather, it’s about being so filled with holy love our “cup runneth over.” Sometimes, our cup overflowing looks like silent praise to God during private prayer. Sometimes, our cup overflows to hospitals, to those in poverty, or to friends undergoing hardship. Our cup can also overflow to those celebrating a marriage or welcoming a new child.

Our cups overflow in a myriad of ways, and in multiple directions. We spend a good deal of our time trying to identify the way that fits us and our particular talents the best. What’s my purpose? How do I reflect the love of Christ? The answer is different for everyone. For instance, I’m not going to sing, produce, and publish a Christian album because singing is definitely not my spiritual gift. (You’ll just have to take my word on that!) On the other hand, researching and writing a blog… that speaks a bit more to my strengths!

No matter what we choose to do, the point is to continually remind ourselves of our motivation for doing it. The Israelites forgot their primary motivation, and good things turned into empty things. I don’t read the Bible and write about it because I expect something in return.  I do it because God fills my cup so full… it overflows. God does that. I’m just guiding the overflow in this direction!

Think about how God fills your cup… and how you can best share the excess. And in all those things, to God be the glory.


Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)

An OT View Of Works

The other day I briefly mentioned how some Bible scholars have drawn attention to the differences in how Paul and James view “works” in terms of faith. In reading an article on a completely different topic yesterday morning, I came across Isaiah 1:10-20, containing a similar viewpoint to what I believe both Paul and James are trying to emphasize.

In this scripture, Isaiah has a disturbing vision of the Lord’s reaction to Israel’s empty, ritualistic faith. The Lord even refers to them as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah” to describe the ways they’ve approached him in worship.  “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. (v.11)

“If the people of Israel think they are immune from judgment because they are God’s chosen people, they must think again. If their behavior is no different from that of the world, their fate will be no different either. But the Israelites think they are entitled to favorable treatment because they have God’s revealed way of doing offerings.” If they just keep slaughtering more lambs and goats, and burning more incense, surely God will bless them! (Dr. John Oswalt, NIV Commentary on Isaiah)

13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

But apparently the Israelites have gotten it all wrong. Worship isn’t simply about ritual that seeks self-benefit. True worship is reflected in everyday life through our transformed relationships. “The covenant in which the sacrificial laws appear is the same covenant where ethical treatment of one’s neighbors is required. It is not possible to have the one and not the other.” (Oswalt, 77)

17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

“What God wants is right and just behavior, especially toward those who are helpless to demand such behavior on their own behalf…. Here is the true evidence that a person knows the Lord. Anyone can perform rituals, but the person who acts like God… that is the person who has entered into a life-changing relationship with him, and that is clearly what God wants.” (Oswalt, 78)

Similarly, in Philippians 2:3-4, Paul writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

And in the letter of James, the brother of Christ points to Abraham, writing, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (2:21-22)

Faith and actions working together. I believe that’s something Isaiah, Paul, and James all agree on.

 

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)