Spending Some Time with Amos

by Alexei Laushkin

If you follow the Protestant world much, you’ll undoubtedly be aware that Mainline Protestants will use the Old Testament and the Prophets to justify all sorts of public policy positions. I can remember being at an event early in my vocation and it was an evening service, the Prophet Amos was being read. We came to some powerful lines, Amos 5:24:

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The immediate solution, free third world nations from their debts and obligations. That was the application to Amos 5. Let justice roll down like waters, free a wide range of actors from debt. Hallelujah.

I was recently back into Amos and had a very different take. I am very concerned with matters of justice and I think the scripture is too, but the narrative of Amos isn’t what you might think, although it does follow that what is happening in the life of the people of God ought to match their actions, no doubt about that, and in such a realm thinking about justice seriously and even arriving at certain conclusions is within the realm of prudential judgement. I.E. you could read the text and advocate for a progressive policy solution, but if that’s all you did with the scripture you’d be missing a lot.

Let’s take a longer section. Amos 5:6-15:

Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
O you who turn justice to wormwood
and cast down righteousness to the earth!
He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name;
who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
They hate him who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor him who speaks the truth.
Therefore because you trample on the poor
and you exact taxes of grain from him,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time,
for it is an evil time.
Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Imagine if you will the character of the people who are oppressing the poor, neglecting them, and essentially going about their day to day life as though nothing has happened. They don’t know that they are doing this, it doesn’t occur to them that their day to day actions have any bearing on the poor. It’s doubtful that the core audience knew what the Prophet was saying.

Consider some other passages of Amos. Here’s Amos 8:11:

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD

God is angry with his people, they are so out of step with his ways, that the possibility of finding those ways are being dried up before their very eyes. He is so disgusted with their slackness and inability to see how unjust their practices have become that their prayers and their worship has become unbearable to hear. It would be like listening to someone’s prayers and thinking it was just babble.

God’s people don’t know this, but God is very upset with how out of sync they are with his purposes.

God’s Justice

When many American Christians think about God’s justice, they think of Sodom and Gomorrah, his wrath or the plagues in Egypt. Meaning they think of punishment. Someone is wrong and will be punished.

Yet the picture in Amos is very different. There is a dearth of God’s ways, compassion, kindness, self-control, humility, people seeking the God of people outside of their economic or social group, people seeking after holiness in body (sexually) and spirit, people cultivating love and deep affection. These things are absent and so God is gently feed-up with everything.

God can no longer work with his people so calamities must come in order to see if the experience of hardship might produce better fruit.

The dynamics are so strong that Amos has a word of caution to those who see these things. Amos 5:13

Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
    for the times are evil.

Let’s not even begin to talk about what this might mean for the present day church. After all the council of Amos is wise, it is prudent to keep quiet in such times.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

New Habits of Solitude is that Even Possible?

re-posted from the Church of the Ascension blog. 

Habits and small practices. Our days are filled with them.

C.S. Lewis reminds us that in little ways we either choose faithfulness or enter into the lack thereof. These decisions guide whether we become the glorious children of the life to come or we continue a sort of slow descent into a world of torment.

Do habits really make that big of a difference on where we end up?

Surely we are in God’s good graces, believing the right things in the right proportions? Can we hold firmly to our theology but oh so carefully avoid self examination?

In the book were are reading as a church this spring, Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton’s confessions on what brought her to a life crisis should make us all very uncomfortable. Read these quotes from her first chapter; maybe you can relate and quietly admit, “oh I know this feeling”.

“True transformation in the places that really counted seemed just beyond my reach.”

“Was my best hope for transformation some distant possibility beyond the grave?”

“What was motivating the frantic quality of my life and schedule?”

If we live in Northern Virginia we can identify with these questions. I myself find it deeply ironic that I had a hard time reading the book or writing a blog because the pace of my days had grown too frantic.

There is a challenge to this book that is worth mentioning. An impression if you will. This book and many like it echo something I’ve found stated directly by St. Theophan the Recluse, an 19th century Russian writer. St. Theophan counsels the need for some time away from the pace of hectic life to get well. And even Barton herself seems to take for granted that we need space to cultivate habits.

While space is critical, the notion may seem rather frustrating for those of us who can barely find a moment to read let alone space to be silent. What is the use of silence when our silence and the corresponding noise it creates is often louder than our own exhaustion? Why spend time in what just seems more difficult?

But as a word of encouragement, I don’t think cultivation requires some escape. What it does require for those of us living very busy lives is a change in habit, like embracing Haley Barton’s example of practicing 10 minutes of silence with God a day. It might not be fun … it might take months to make it regular and natural. The heart is that slow and that resistant to change.

A few years back I wanted to cultivate morning prayer … but like a bad New Year’s Commitment I would get a few weeks in and stop. Nobody had told me to keep pushing, to keep at it past the first flush of being motivated because slowly, every so slowly my heart would adjust to the new. Remaining present and keeping at a habit, waiting for God’s grace to enable is the biggest challenge to cultivating a new space.

Is it possible in Northern Virginia? God led his people through the desert, surely there is still a sabbath rest reserved for the people of God. May each find the space and the courage to enter therein.

Alexei Laushkin is the Vice President of the Evangelical Environmental Network and Chair of the board of the Kingdom Mission Society. His views are his own.

Inward Alienation

This emptiness which was formed in him as a result of falling away from God, kindles in him an incessant craving that nothing can satisfy. This craving is vague but constant (St. Theophan the Recluse).

That times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you– even Jesus (Acts 3:19-20).

The hunger for fullness and the reality of Jesus. How many times in the gospels is it recorded that Jesus went out of his way to personally touch and heal. Recount the hemorrhaging woman, recount the blind man, how many times does the encounter include a deeply personal and holy interaction.

We live in a time where intimacy is too tied in with sensuality. When the sort of intimacy that Jesus brings is wrapped in light as with a garment, its covered in holiness, its filled with whole love, a love that brings us more fully into who we are. This love takes us more deeply into ourselves, when we encounter it we feel more fully human. We become like Moses at the burning bush or the Apostle Peter at the Mt. of Transfiguration. We know we are seeing something holy and we give way to what is before us.

Inward Alienation

Perhaps the hardest thing to heal for each of us is inward alienation. An alienation born by sins of the flesh, the world, and the devil. An alienation born of trying circumstances, a lack of stability in our closest relating, an alienation born of our own pride and inability to seek the good and our own deep woundedness and the wounds of others. Consider Henri Nouwen on his journey towards wholeness “This place had always been there. I had always been aware of it as the source of grace. But I had not been able to enter it and truly live there.”

Nouwen saw the vision of wholeness in Rambrandt’s the Prodigal Son in the kind and loving embrace of the Father. A moment of profound blessing and love in the middle of ruin and sin. The Father is like the Holy Trinity reaching out to us in the midst of our pain and misery and turning, as we doubt as if to say ‘is this too good to be true’ the Trinity says ‘blessing, wholeness, fullness, life.’

Consider the gospel of Luke on this moment “his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Les Miserables moves us for similar reasons. Especially towards the end of the story, to find love and grace and to end one’s striving in holy love moves us deeply. It is our most natural desire, its what orients us at times, to find some peace for the inward alienation.

But being moved by these stories and seeing it from afar is not the same thing as dwelling and inhabiting holy love whether in our love for God (more common) or even in a particular relationship (less common).

So what helps us heal our self-alienation. As St. Theophan puts it our constant but vague craving? How do we like the children of Israel enter the land of milk and honey.

If we try and go into that land or that place of healing before God is ready for us or the dynamics are good, we will easily fail.

So what is the way forward? How do we start? Consider these words of scripture:

Be holy, because I am holy (1 Peter 16).

The pursuit of God and seeking first the kingdom not only in pious practices (prayers, scripture, and worship), but practices that overflow into our actions and relating (mercy, forgiveness, compassion, self-control) build the muscles and lay, all of these lay, the groundwork for the healing of self-alienation. But in and of themselves these practices and actions are insufficient for the healing to begin. It is grace. The free gift of God acting in each of us and in particular relationships that establish this level of closeness in our relating with God or with a particular person.

When we are inwardly alienated what stability can be used to heal this? What dynamics can the Trinity work with when we are so easily tossed like the seas, one day pursuing God, the next pursuing the world, the next pursuing our favorite team, the next trying the next fade, and so on and so on. Or if we are like the elder son, lulled to sleep in the service of the Lord. We neither experience the full embrace of the Father, but simply experience a dullness in our faith. A dullness which leads to slackness and sin as full and entangling as that of the younger son. Without vibrancy we don’t have much to stand on in our journey towards Christ.

The sure fire method and approach is to cultivate a soft heart. A heart that grieves fully over ones own sin. If we are the younger sin we must focus our efforts on repentance, realizing the extreme danger we are in. To repeat the Jesus prayer often is one method to cajole the heart ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.’

If we are the elder son we have much work to do because we have already disregarded our Father’s house. The elder son may begin with habits that are hard for his pride to bear, such as regular prayer (praying the holy hours for instance), humility, repentance that leads to tears. If the older son in us can be humbled and God grants the gift of tears than surely salvation has visited his inner abode and the path towards amendment of life can begin. We should not forget that we are to persevere to the end and not easily give up, especially if our heart is already hardened, in good time our gracious Father will give us a right spirit instead of a heart of stone.

The gospel is not just partial good news. It’s not merely a set of beliefs, it’s beliefs that are fully embodied and dwelt in. The children of Israel weren’t just given a land they were told to dwell in the land. Consider the words of the Psalms “dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). It’s not a simple possession but a full embodied dwelling therein.

The only type of thing that truly heals our inward alienation is for our inner desires and our orientation to move towards something that’s much more full. Again St. Theophan on this point:

Every feature of the divine order condemns and rebukes him with his former unreasonableness and carelessness. This impresses him all the more because, at the same time, his spirit sees the obvious insignificance of the former sinful order, which deserves his contempt. By this action the heart is released from its former bondage and becomes free.

This freedom and character than takes work to mold. This is but the beginning of repentance. Repentance is followed by the pursuit of holiness, the fully taking off of sin (lust for money, power, significance, other people, selfishness) and replaced by actions commended by Jesus himself (mercy towards those who have specifically wronged you, compassion towards those in dire circumstances, love for those who also pursue the Lord fully, self-control to not be bothered and perturbed when one encounters sin, peacefulness of heart which guides every moment).

As this builds the dull ache changes. Instead we find joy ineffable. We find holiness. At times the gift of a spiritual brother or sister who can be closer to us than our very hearts because there is holiness and wholeness in the inner chambers and recesses of our soul is given.

Here we can can find peace and true rest which enables creative love and kingdom fruit. At such points it will be said of us he has acquired peace in himself and look how those around him flock to find that peace as well.

On Forgiveness

If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23)

These are words of life. Not just words that express some ideal, these are words to put the nature of sin in oneself to death by. We are to be marked by mercy, by grace, by our forgiveness.

When we begin to delve deeply into this passage on forgiveness we begin to feel the weight of our obligation before God and each other. As we dig into this passage, we can no longer carry the words that we are more prone to carry. Words of indifference. The indifference that characterized the grave act of sin between Cain and Abel, when Cain murdered his brother, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’

We realize that in the new reality, the new covenant, the life that starts and finishes with the author of life,  forgiveness is not a concept to just be past over. Left for the unskilled and the uninterested parts of our life to attend to.

When Jesus says to ‘seek first the kingdom of God,’ he means seek first, make it of primary importance. The first thing you think about when you rise, the last thing when you sleep, and in the countless moments throughout the day orient your lives towards God and God’s ways. If you try you’ll find how hard it is to live this life, and it will drive you to repentance and from repentance and mourning into the grace of his forgiveness. When we experience that kind of forgiveness we dare not hold the debts against those who have sinned against us. We forgive and repent so that no root of bitterness might take root. There is no time for merriment apart from God, taking a break from his ways and only returning to them for prayer. There is no full way of being human apart from the life of faith.

Seek first the kingdom, means to be deeply inwardly changed. To have the wellspring of life transform you. Not to change yourself, but to have God do work that only He can do. It’s not simply the absence of sin and evil but the presence of Life and even Life evermore.

Before the Children of God are sent off to the wilderness there is this interesting promise in the Book of Exodus:

“He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you’ (Exodus 15:26).

The healer, the great physician, the God who does not change his character, his love or his nature. For in him we live in light ineffable.

Forgiveness removes us and our hurts from the center of the brokenness that we experience in our lives. Our need for forgiveness from God, reorients our experience of others. We are no longer the center of our own pain and wrongs committed on us, but instead we see ourselves as a fellow beggar in need of daily manna from heaven. It’s a type of humility that says if I were in the situation of another, I know that my character apart from God is of such a quality where I may have very well done the same. It makes us live into the reality that the only good things in this life are truly gifts from above, that apart from God we can do nothing.

So instead of things to be consumed, relationships become the gift of a good God. The maintenance and commitment of such a relationship depends on the Lord working in the relationship itself. If we are others oriented the Lord can use that to bring some remarkable and family like dynamics with those we love and are in relationship with. Apart from that we can still practice peace, patience, kindness, and the heavenly and holy fruits in all our relating, even if it is simply for a season.

Forgiveness is a balm that brings us into the reality of the frailty of others and our own frailty. True forgiveness frees us from ourselves and orients us back to the well-spring of Life which is Jesus.

 

For the Life of the Heart

A major aim of the Christian life is to cultivate the heart, to put aside those previous desires that so easily cling to us and to point on the heavenly attributes, the Christ shaped patterns of life.

It’s become increasingly hard to speak well about gay marriage as more and more progressive evangelicals decide to fully embrace gay marriage, I say increasingly hard because the orthodox community is being robbed of compassionate voices who could have become some of the most winsome for those who are in process but are still very much hoping to adhere to traditional understandings of the scriptures. What frustrates me about this is that the starting point for compassion becomes full acceptance and while full acceptance is true when it comes to one’s humanity, the approach of some progressive evangelicals is functionally to obscure real teaching and approaches to wholeness for those adhering to traditionalist marriage views. 

Here’s a starting point that I think binds people together. As far as I can tell people are complex sexually speaking. Our natural tendencies likely fall on a spectrum. A spectrum that has end posts or ranges for each person, and that can very much vary and adjust in life as we live and enter into various commitments.

One thing that happens when Christians write about marriage is that they often conflate sex and marriage. Apart from sex it is good for two people to love, care, and be in life long and committed relationship together. In some ways it’s understandable that there is some overlap between marriage and sex, because Christians believe that marriage is the one place where sex ought to happen. Yet, it’s as important to remember that a full life is not dependent on sex.

Christianity itself doesn’t emphasize  sex. In fact much of the scriptures talk openly about the need to leave the sexual life and desires you once had in order to acquire a more peaceful, holy, modest, sober-minded, and loving way of life. Christianity is concerned with cultivating the heart for the sake of Christlikeness. That applies to everyone who is a Christian! Scriptures say that the Lord tests the heart and that a humble a contrite heart is necessary to follow him. Jesus loves the meek and lowly. Approaching Christ in this way can only lead to Life.

There is an idea/undertone in Christian culture that portrays sex even in marriage with language and ideas that are closer to lust. Dan Boone, President of Trevecca Nazerene has a post that describes this dynamic far better than I can.

Christianity is striking for how little emphasis is placed on sex and how much emphasis is placed on love, commitment, generational dynamics, and the pursuit of Christ.

Christianity commends celibacy or opposite gendered marriage as an anchor to life. Why is that? In part for our good and in essence I think you would need to say it’s a bit of a beautiful and holy mystery. I say for our good because the Lord commends ways of life that are hard to understand yet ultimately bring Life whatever our starting point. Consistently, love between any two people is encouraged and yet marriage and child raising is reserved for opposite gendered marriage.

Jesus commands each of us to take up our most complex questions, pains, and wounds and follow him. We are called to love each other, to stop quarreling, and to pursue the heavenly fruits, the heavenly vision. We are to cultivate our hearts and lives to these ends.

Relational Commitment

We live in an age that does not have a very good concept or grasp of Christian commitment when it comes to loving our neighbor as our self. We interpret these words to mean that we should treat each other well not that we should commit to each other whether the relationship is going well or not. We tolerate each other, we seldom repeatedly seek each others good or take the time to heal misunderstandings or divisions. Ours is a polite culture that values not inconveniencing others unnecessarily.

Jesus says that those that follow his teachings are his sister, brother, and mother. Those who are deeply committed to Christian life are family. The new testament writers often use language reserved for family to describe their heartache, prayers, and hopes for the communities the Lord has focused them on.

Even the word family can be problematic to describe commitment in our present cultural moment. Many people come from families where love and warmth were not readily or consistently available. When as people we are robbed of the experience of joy, love, and commitment we are left with ourselves. Thereby we let our own wants and interests rule why we stay in certain friendships or get to know certain people but not others. We are robbed of the understanding of Christian love and commitment without being left with any way to navigate or feel comfortable with those types of relationships.

In this way the sins of the parents or grandparents can easily be passed down for multiple generations. Cruelty and unkindness can disproportionately alter our understandings of the sort of life Jesus prays for us to have.

In the Gospel of John we hear the words that Jesus prays that we would be one as He and the Father are one. That same level of unity and commitment. It is a powerful prayer that ought to have some earthly connotations, especially when we think of loving specific neighbors and friends.

Obviously this type of commitment has to be mutual. While one person may consistently love and care for another and while Christians are called to be extraordinarily patient and persistent, in some ways without reciprocity a stable relationship cannot be built. There has to be a level of discretion when you are encouraging loving kindness and commitment while knowing that many may have very little interest on what you are saying or doing. Above all forgiveness and care has to be consistently practiced if any sense of Christian depth of community is to be realized.

Transformation has to occur persistently in oneself to more fully live into the command ‘to love your neighbor as yourself.’

Is such a thing even possible in the present time? Yes, but it is rare. Trans-formative but rare. In an age where the bonds of fidelity, trust, and care are so easily broken and transgressed it is deeply counter-cultural and difficult to push things in a reverse direction. But with God, all things are possible, and it does not take huge numbers for God’s people to triumph and transform the moment at hand.