a big fish and the end of the world

The end of the world.

That’s a pretty loaded idea.  It haunts and shapes the American imagination about God more than just about any other question of our existence. It’s why Jack van Impe, Timothy LaHaye and John Hagee sell a lot of books and movies. We are unquestionably captivated by the imagery of the book of Revelation, a story of mythic dragons, trumpets and fire.

It seems to be a pretty grim tale for the big beautiful world and its colorful array of people, doesn’t it? In fact, some Christians, in an earnest eagerness for the coming of God’s Kingdom, secretly (or not so secretly) get gleeful about devastating wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, famine, etc. Many will passionately preach the coming destruction of the world as inevitable or even God’s will.

Now, for other Christians (largely outside of the United States) the book of Revelation is a powerful, prophetic critique of the beastly empire of Rome, and worldly empires before and ever since, whose violent and monstrous power are defeated by a little Lamb and His peaceable Kingdom.

But for those of us who read it as a violent, God-sanctioned nuking of the great big planet earth, even if that reading is accurate, let’s consider another story in Scripture where a prophetic tale of impending apocalypse is delivered. I’m talking about the story of Jonah.

A whale of a tale, isn’t it?

Jonah ends up being one of the most successful prophets of them all, and he isn’t even trying! It’s comedic.

Jonah doesn’t even want to obey God; he evades him by traveling to the edge of the world, as they know it; inspires a bunch of idolatrous pagans on a boat to pray to Yahweh; as an act of salvation even in his disobedience, God carries him in the belly of a giant fish to be spewed out on the shores of Nineveh; and it’s there that he delivers the worst sermon in the history of all sermons:

..he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4)

Riveting stuff, right? You can tell Jonah worked hard on that one. Nevermind that the last guy I saw shouting at crowds on a street corner about the end of the world wasn’t what we might call “successful”. But what does the most violent civilization of the known world at that time end up doing? Well, a kingly decree goes out:

Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God;” (Jonah 3:7-8)

Yep, the brutish, conquering society suddenly takes up fasting and repentance…

Hosea is throwing over tables right about now.

But, this isn’t the best part. The end of the story is where the really juicy stuff happens. This is where we see that the story isn’t really about the destruction of Nineveh – it’s about Jonah.

And, oh, is he angry with God. You see, God is exactly what Jonah had deep down known He’d always be. Loving. Merciful. He even accuses God of it:

“for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” (Jonah 4:2)

No matter how feverish Jonah gets about the destruction of the cruel people of Nineveh, Jonah somehow knows that God won’t follow through with it. And this is where the wisdom of this story pierces us.

Our job is not to be the I-told-you-so at the end of world history. It’s to intercede for the sake of its future.

We aren’t to get giddy when we think we hear God saying “I’m gonna nuke the sucker,” we’re to plead desperately with Him not to, as Abraham did for Sodom.

It isn’t Armageddon we’re drawing up the blueprints for, it’s the New Jerusalem!  We may only see the final brick laid when the King returns, but we  move towards it anyway.

The problem in this story is not that Nineveh needs to be destroyed. The problem is Jonah wants God to do it.

The problem for us isn’t mapping out the symbols of Revelation, charting blood moons and deciphering when God is going to destroy the planet and its precious people.

The problem is ..some Christians want Him to.



A house too small

The king said, “He may return to his house, but he is not to see me face-to-face.” So Absalom returned home, but was not permitted to see the king. (2 Sam 14:24)

This is the day King David truly lost.

As a musician and Christian, I have always identified with the towering life and character of David, the psalmist. The cumulative weight of his story within the greater narrative of Scripture can easily sweep up one’s imagination.

And David is largely unparalleled in Scripture, save by the life of Jesus Himself, while even the Messiah is prophetically known as “the son of David”. But as soon as we set out to follow in this mighty man’s footsteps we find reason after reason for pause. In our haste we readily identify ourselves as the hero of a story, getting caught up in the kingly development of this chosen son of Jesse, and we suddenly come face-to-face with his brokenness. And the greatest example of this may very well be found in his dealing with his own son, Absalom.

No, David isn’t always the hero we want him to be. He suffers great losses. And this is not just because his story is riddled by the failures of adultery and murder. David’s greatest short-coming may be in that he eventually repeats the legacy of the house of Saul in his own, driving his son Absalom far from his heart. (2 Sam 14:24, 28)

It is true that no other Old Testament figure seems to know the heart of the Father like David, especially when He says, “If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.” (Psalm 139:8)

But David does not simply know this as some objective revelator, but as an extremely subjective one. We may well assert David would confidently sing this psalm because he had tested the outer most extremities of God’s presence, plunging into the hellish depths of his own waters, only to find God was still there all the way down.

One of the greatest ways the life of David speaks into my life is found in this wrestling with King Saul. The anointed leader-to-be, earnestly serves the people of God and thus becomes the war-sung hero that Saul once was. For Saul, everything is summed up in this, such that to lose his popularity is to lose the whole kingdom. Eventually, Saul is driven mad enough by maidens singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” that in a fit of rage, he tries to pin David to the wall with his spear.(1 Sam 18:8-12)

And this has unfortunately been the experience of many sons with their spiritual fathers: target practice. Men who have not learned for themselves what it is to be a beloved son. These men, like Saul, have far too often perceived their own worth from the adulation of the masses. If they ever did listen to the whisper of the Spirit, “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased”, they didn’t truly believe Him. No, they learned to strive for their approval, their insecurities played upon like a harp by the myriad of sing-song voices in their heads.

Oh, we all have them. We all wrestle with these gremlins from time to time. The danger is that these men are no longer boys. They’ve quit playing with rocks and slingshots, taking aim at soda cans on the back fence.  Now, they carry spears, and the strength to hurl them viciously at their eager and impetuous sons.

And while David had won mightily on many battlefields, he tragically misstepped when it came to the battle under the trusses of his own roof. Valiantly he trusted in the Lord against Goliath, dealt honor and respect when it came to Saul, and courageously brought the northern and southern kingdoms to a united Israel.  Yes, great was the house of David in the eyes of all those nearby, but not for the sons who lived inside its doors. Especially not for young Absalom, who would be refused a return.

There may still, however hidden, be a bit of Saul lurking in David. I am strongly convinced by Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings in that there exists a bit of Saul in us all.  We are often repeating the cycle of running from our King Saul only to find him buried in our own hearts, incessantly pondering, “How accepted am I? Am I losing popularity? Is someone clambering to take my place?”

The tragedy of Absalom is the tragic story of our children, mimetically becoming their fathers to find there’s room in the house for only one!

The aim and hope for my life is to build a house big enough for Absalom. I, too, am a son, driven-out by a father, whose house I left my home to serve. In hoping to have escaped King Saul forever, I am ever scrupulous to route out his anxious demons haunting my own soul. Even millennia later, we must learn to allow the outer Saul’s of our world to pierce our inner Saul, lest we take up his spear-throwing ways ourselves.

We need a vision for a bigger house, a different story. I am convinced something is terribly wrong when the elders of a house refuse even to imagine knocking out a wall, putting in fresh paint or doing whatever it takes for their children to make and share in their legacy among them.

Something is terribly wrong with a house of the Lord when it is bustling with elders whose children see no need to sneak out the back; they walk out the front unnoticed and forgotten.

So much greater then is the sin of a whole house, a lineage, filled with this brokenness of mankind, shoving their children to the edges of their world.

We need fathers who will see the zeal and fervor of their sons as cause for celebration. Fathers who will watch proudly as they ascend the hill of the Lord, however differently than their own path. Fathers who will give their hand readily and repeatedly, encouraging their sons and daughters to get back up, celebrate their successes and be unflinchingly present in their failures.

Let us say it: The house of Saul is a house too small.

Then, we might even quit building them.


featured image: “Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp”, by Erasmus Quellinus II

Where is God? #Paris

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled”  (Colossians 1)

When tragedy strikes, when evil lashes from its corners of our world, this is often our question, “Where is God?”

But there is a most subtle kind of evil at work in our good world.

It’s an evil of which God is most concerned.  Its devastation is unrelenting.

It is the darkness that lies dormant in the human heart — Your and my heart, fellow human being.

It is awakened most violently when we are attacked.  When we are a victim of the bite of evil, revenge and malice come boiling up out of our hearts, an infection rabidly foaming from our lips. Mutating from that sludge, syllables, words and phrases evolve, however cloaked in righteous cosmetics about punishment, judgement and hell.

But Christ wants to heal us from this infection, and protect us from its rampant outbreak, by showing us how to respond to it.  He shows us by bearing the worst of it, and thus His is the best medicine we have.

Precisely when a fellow human being has thrown the worst at you is the moment to look upon the Cross of Christ.

You can fathom doing the worst evils imaginable to your enemy when you have an image of a God that sanctions such things. But there is God.

You can desire the pain and agony and death of your attacker when you forget where God was when you were an enemy. But there is God.

There is God, healing you.

There is God, revealing His way.

There is God, forgiving enemies.

There is God.

Death is Dead

Based on a sermon, “the Gospel in Chairs,” by Fr. Anthony Corbo, later retold and retitled “the Beautiful Gospel” by Brian Zahnd.

The Gospel is perfect.  We don’t need another Gospel.

But we are not perfect, so the way we tell it ought to be examined.

The Gospel is the unfolding drama of God reconciling and healing the world.  The Gospel is not an atonement theology. The Gospel is not how God reconciles the world through His Son and His cross.  The Gospel is the fact of it.

Atonement theologies seek to work backwards from the great sum of it all, hunting for systems and formulas to explain the “how” God has done this.  They are interesting, but they aren’t the Gospel.  (You don’t have to show your math in this class!)

Primarily in North America, we’re acquainted with a telling of the Gospel that honors a highly legal theme.  Think courtroom.  In this telling, sin is our disobedient behavior, and God must punish sin, because He is a holy and just God.

I want to share that Gospel with you, and then I want to make some necessary tweaks that I’m learning from our Eastern brothers and sisters in the Church.

That Gospel goes like this:

In the beginning, God created the universe, our world, a garden…

In the Garden, He placed Adam and Eve, who sinned.  Because they sinned, He punished them, expelling them from the garden.

He foreshadowed a sacrificial system by killing wild animals and giving their skins to Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness.

God came to Abraham, to Moses, to David and made covenants.  Over and over again, however, the people of God rebelled and failed this covenant, so God punished them, sending them into exile.

From their sinful place, they tried but could not appease Him, their empty works and sacrifices would never satisfy this holy God.

So God sent His Son.  His Son lived in our place, obeyed in our place, satisfied God in our place.  God sent Him to the cross of Calvary to punish him in our place.  In the dark hours of Good Friday, the Father turned His face away as the sin of the entire human race was placed on His Son, because He is a holy God and cannot look upon sin.  

Praise God! He raised His Son, Jesus, from the dead on the third day, because He lived a sinless life.  And Jesus is now seated in power.  

If you and I will believe Jesus did this, taking the punishment for us, then we can have eternal life.  But if you turn from God, He will turn from you.  And if you die in your turning away, you will be forever isolated from God in Hell.

Sound familiar?  It will be hard to hear anyone critique this telling, because for many of us it is the Gospel, and so it is our faith!  However, it truly is an atonement theory, and I have to repeat: the Gospel is not an atonement theory.

Some major concerns with this telling are that it pits God against man, and Father against Son. (See my previous post on why this is not accurate).

In the Eastern Church, however, a Gospel is shared that honors a more therapeutic theme.  Think hospital. In their telling, sin is far worse than our disobedient behaviors.  Sin is in fact a fatal disease that has caused a death in us, and you cannot punish a disease out of anyone.

That Gospel goes like this:

In the beginning, God created the universe, our world, a garden…

In the Garden, He placed Adam and Eve, whom He blessed saying “It is good.” (And who could ever imagine having the power to revoke the original blessing of Creator God.)

Adam and Eve fell into sin, and in their turning from Life, they experienced a curse called death.  God removed them from the Tree of Life, so that their sin would not live forever.  But if they have to leave the Garden, then God goes with them!

So He does, and puts clothing on them to keep them warm (What was with those fig leaves anyway?)

Their son, Cain, grew jealous of his brother Abel.  So God came to him, to warn him, saying “sin is crouched at your door, but I want you to overcome it.” Cain killed his brother anyway and fled, fearing punishment. God went after him and placed a mark on him, a sign to protect him, that no one should hurt him.

God came to Abraham, promising that he and Sarai would have a son. Abraham decided to take things (a perhaps perkier handmaiden) into his own hands. So God came to him, not punishing, but instead keeping his covenant by blessing him with a son through Sarai, and then God even blessed the child born of the handmaiden with a covenant as well.

God came to Moses.  Moses decided to kill an Egyptian, (get the project started early.)  Finding him on the backside of a desert, He says, “I’m not concerned with why you think you’re unworthy – I’m going to use you anyway. Let’s go get my people!” And so they do.

God came to David.  David decided he liked hot tubs and a married woman named Bathsheba.  David kills her husband to cover his sin. God comes after him, and fulfills the promise that he would always have an heir to the throne, and He does so by a son through his union with Bathsheba.

On through the prophets, God keeps coming after His people, and we land in Hosea where God says:

“You’ve become so unfaithful to me, so deserving of punishment…but I remember when you were just a toddler, and how I love you.  I can’t go through with it.  In fact, if you won’t repent, I will. And I’ll keep coming after you, because one day, you will understand and call me husband, not master.”

Finally, God comes to be with us in His Son, Jesus. God with us.

Jesus, the incarnate God, touches, heals and forgives humanity.  He reveals the Father to us, unparalleled by any other. 

He comes..

to a Samaritan woman by a well who has been through five failed marriages;

to a woman caught in a trap by politicized religious leaders who want to punish her for her sin;

to a tax collector in a tree who robbed from his own people;

to crippled, blind and deaf men; saying,

“I do not condemn you. Your sin is forgiven. Rise. Be healed. Come with me.”

He comes…

to a man who says “what is truth?” and turns his back on Him;

to men who scourge and flog Him beyond recognizability;

to men who condemn Him to a cross for the sake of protecting their religious and political systems of power.  

And while He is dying upon that cross, He says, “I forgive you.”

Praise God!  Because Hell attacked earth, and was ambushed by Heaven!  It swallowed a body, and discovered God!  Hell came upon what it could see, and was destroyed by what it could not!  

O, death where is your sting?! O, grave where is your victory!?

Jesus is Lord!  Jesus is God!  And because this God so loves with such beautiful abandon, He comes to us over and over again that we may have life in Him!  

And know this: even if you make your bed in Sheol, He will be there.  He will come to find you, to rescue you.

To those who love love, the presence and announcement of this Kingdom of God, who is love, will be Heaven. 

To those who hate the fire of love, it would be Hell to never be able to extinguish that fire or get far enough away.

Whatever the depths of Hell may be, God’s love is deeper still.

Hell, then, is to never be able to destroy the love of God, even if you wanted to. 

Love was buried, and the death could not hold it down.  Death was burned by its holy fire, consumed in its resurrection.

Death is dead.

What kind of God are we singing about?

As a pastor who leads the people of God in singing, I take particular interest and responsibility for the theology we profess in those songs.

In all of my upbringing in the North American modern evangelical church, this is the theology I was taught: Sin is abhorrent to God, and He cannot look upon it because He is too holy.

A line in one song we sing titled “Forever” says about Jesus’ death, “Heaven looked away.”  In yet another song from my youth, we would sing the line, “The Father turns His face away”.  So of course a consistency with what I had been taught kept me from questioning it.

But is this true? Is God too holy to look upon sin? Where do we get this idea?

Well, we get it from certain passages in Scripture, like Habbakuk 1:13, which says “O Lord, Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing;”

Sounds like God is too holy to look on sin, doesn’t it?  But if only we’d keep reading!  Do you know how the rest of the verse goes?

“O Lord, Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
so why then do You..??

We also get this idea from Isaiah 59:2, which says:

“But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.”

Sounds like God is too holy to look on sin, or even hear the cries of sinners, doesn’t it?

But if only we’d keep reading!  The rest of the chapter says this:

“The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him.”

The Lord looks.  The Lord sees.  He sees injustice and sin, and He decides to do something about it!  The chapter goes on to say:

“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.

Does the Bible say God is too holy to look upon sin? That God turns away from us? Well, yeah, if you read it flatly, the way many modern sermons systematize and dissect it. But the proper answer is, no.

So if God doesn’t hide from sin, then did the Father turn His face away?  Was it just too unbearable for Him too look while His Son, taking sin upon Himself, suffered the execution chair of 1st century Rome?

Where do we get this idea?

Well, we get it from a passage in Scripture.  Specifically, something Jesus said while upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yes, Jesus, experiencing fully our humanity, felt despair and abandonment, but does this mean the Father turned away?

Jesus is quoting the first line of Psalm 22 when He cries out.  And, once again, if only we’d keep reading!

Psalm 22:

“For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

Jesus is pointing us to see “this Psalm is about me” and then it says this:

“You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted one; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

What we must be absolutely certain about here is that God has not turned away from us in our sin.  He is not distant or removed as Jesus hangs upon a cross – He is IN Christ.  God is IN Christ Jesus on the cross.  Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is God.  Jesus is God, forgiving us as He suffers and dies at our hands.

That is His holiness on display.

Heaven has not looked away.

Heaven held its gaze.

In awe and wonder and humility, we look straight into the holy and loving eyes of God in Christ Jesus.  And He says, “I see you. I forgive you.”

In the smallest of ways our singing has taught us a god who is not our God.  I will sing of our God!  I will sing of His love when I change the lyrics to:

One final breath He gave/as Heaven held its gaze/the Son of God was laid in darkness.  A battle in the grave/the war on death was waged/the power of hell forever broken!


Jesus is a cherry-picker

People get pretty serious about anyone picking which Bible verses they want to affirm or not.  They get all fiery and tangled up about it.  There was even a time when people tried to kill Jesus – before the crucifixion! – and you know why?

Because he was cherry-picking Bible verses.

Let me explain.  For context, here are two stories from the Old Testament that Jesus will mention when He does:

The first is of a widow woman in the land of Sidon (1 Kings 17).

Elijah, a prophet of Israel, was sent to her, and he told her to make him some dinner.  She replied that she was poor, with only a little meal left, and that she was preparing to eat it and die.  Elijah told her, “Yeah, make it for me, anyway.”

Regardless of the audacity, she did it.  And so, for as long as there was a drought, her oil and flour never ran out.

Christians today read that text and likely don’t catch the subtext.  Understand, this was a story about God sending His prophet to go bless and care for a Gentile woman during a natural disaster!  This idea of that was insulting and absurd enough to Jews, because He was their God.  And inflicting natural disasters upon their enemies was supposed to be His shtick, right?  Even some televangelists today well know that.  But the second story goes even further.

The second story is of Naaman (2 Kings 5).  Naaman is a general, who has leprosy and has to dip seven times in the Jordan river.  Now, when you were taught the story of Naaman in the Bible, you might have missed the fact that he’s “the bad guy.”  This would be because the text surprisingly humanizes him (and we are so very terrible at seeing “the bad guys” in our stories as human – but that’s another blog!)

So Naaman is a Gentile, but he’s more than that; he’s the enemy, but he isn’t just that!  He’s an enemy soldier, a general, even!  And he has taken a Hebrew girl, (likely having slaughtered her Hebrew family,) and this slave girl tells him of her Hebrew prophet, Elisha, who could heal his leprosy.

He does some diplomacy with the enemy nation, and finally meets Elisha.  He’s first insulted by this prophet, but eventually does what he says, and the God of the persecuted, oppressed Hebrew people heals their oppressor, Naaman…. crazy.

The soldier who has plundered the people of Yahweh is audaciously healed by Yahweh, Himself.

You might think, “Shouldn’t he be struck by lightning?  Or his entire nation leveled by earthquakes?!  Isn’t that what God does?”

Apparently not.

Fast forward to a synagogue in Nazareth.  The Hebrew people are still oppressed and weathered by their enemies.

Jesus has returned to his hometown, and He has made quite a name for himself.  The temple elders hand him the scroll of Isaiah, probably thinking, “He’s our homegrown boy come back.  He done good for us.  Made a name for Nazareth!”

Jesus stands, opens the scroll to the part we know as Isaiah 61, and begins to read aloud:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”

And He suddenly stops reading.

He closes the text. Hands it back to the attendant. And sits down.

Now, all of these Jews, they know the rest of the text.  They’re practically mumbling it along with Him.  But when He reaches the part they really like, Jesus stops short.  He just …stops.

It’s the part about vengeance! For all the oppression and persecution and evil done to them! And He just.. sits… down.

..to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor …aaaand??!

They must have been screaming it in their minds.

But He sits.

He effectively scribbles out the rest of the sentence.

“…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… and the day of vengeance of our God”

Now, you might be thinking, “Oh you’re just reading into it,” and I would have to concede if Jesus hadn’t continued so intentionally, to be sure they didn’t miss the point of His cherry-picked reading.

And so He continues, something like:

“Certainly there were widows in our nation during the drought, but catch it: Elijah was sent to none of them, but instead to the foreign widow of Sidon.  And certainly there were lepers in our nation, but catch it: none of them were healed – only Naaman, the enemy general.  Surprise!  God has always been merciful, not vengeful.”

You see, Jesus cherry-picks the Bible, because preaching good news to the poor, mending the broken-hearted, giving liberty to captives would be fulfilled in Him.  He’s all about that. But that vengeance upon your enemies stuff, not so much.

And so they mobbed Him and forced Him to a cliff, intending to throw Him off.  Maybe it upsets you to hear me saying that Jesus picks and chooses the Bible verses He’ll endorse, but it’s the Truth.

Because Jesus is the only perfect theology.  Not John Calvin.  Not Augustine.  Not your pastor.  Or even me.

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature..” (Hebrews 1:3)

He is the image of the invisible God…” (I Colossians 1:15)

John 1 tells us, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side (Jesus Christ), he has made him known.”

Surely John knew about Moses “seeing” God when He makes this statement.  He most certainly does, and says pointedly, no one has truly seen God, because they had yet to see Jesus.

And if Jesus edits Scripture, He does so for a very good reason!  Because for all anybody had to say about God before Jesus, they hadn’t seen Him!

Jesus cherry-picks Scripture because He can, and because He wants to set you straight on the nature of God.  And for sure, He ain’t about all that vengeance stuff!

Even the Father looks down from Heaven and says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”

Not Isaiah. Not Moses. Not even Elijah.

These guys were great, and they did the best they could, inspired of the Spirit.  But they aren’t Jesus!  And Jesus, He’s pretty selective about Scriptures He affirms.

So cherry-picking the Scripture isn’t the question.  It’s “which ones, and why?”

Don’t throw me off a cliff for saying it.

People of the Cross: A prayer for ISIS.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  (Matt 5:43-45)

ISIS sucks, don’t they?  They’re vicious.  Barbaric.  Cruel.

“The people of the cross” they said, while killing them.  21 Coptic Christians grotesquely beheaded on a beach by members of ISIS.  And we got their front row Evites.

What do we do about ISIS?

People ask this question, and I wonder who the “we” is they’re talking about.  If by “we,” what is meant is the American government, officials, military, etc., then my answer is simply, “I don’t know. I don’t speak for them.”  It is not my inclination, position or expertise.  I do have some opinions on American involvement in the Middle East that has helped to destabilize the region and create ISIS, but I won’t get into that.

But if by “we” what is meant is “we, Christians living in America,” well, then I do have something to say.  And what I say might seem inadequate to you, but it is my response. So let me try and give it.

First, what can we do?

We can pray.  We should pray.  We can grieve and take solidarity with our brothers and sisters.  We can give aid and comfort.  And we can and should pray for ISIS, forgive them and love them.

Most Christians I know dislike that response.  In fact, they not only dislike it, they scoff at it.  You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  Isn’t it, in fact, how Jesus tells us to respond?  And while you may say I’m starry-eyed and gullible, I’m just trying to be a Christian.  And responding as Jesus does is precisely that.

I’m convinced something has gone strangely wrong in the American Church when the idea of forgiving enemies is viewed as a kind of naiveté.  I say “forgive,” and can understand that some will read that and be angry, but it’s odd to me that many of them will be Christians.

I think, like our Coptic brothers and sisters, we too have to be People of the Cross.  Becoming a Christian is embarking on the uniquely difficult journey of attempting to live this out: “Take up your cross.”  After all, what is more emblematic to Christ-likeness than the cross?   But would ISIS call us that?  If they shoved, would they really get that?  Would they instead find only “people of the flag, of the gun and missile”?

We, the people of the Cross, are the forgiving-forgiven.  And we are either about forgiveness or we are about nothing. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you,” is not a suggestion. It is a mandate from Jesus, central to what it means to be Christian.   ISIS is a monster.   And just as there were monsters in Jesus’ time, formed by the ethos of power and brutality, we too face such monsters.  But it is in the face of this kind of barbarism that God in Jesus says, “forgive” while hanging from a cross.  A cross:  an instrument of torture and execution, and you take it up, because in following Jesus you accept the possibility of such suffering.

Forgiveness. Is. Suffering.

It is suffering best demonstrated on the Cross. And when suffering is off the table, you know you’re being formed by some other ethos than that of Jesus.  You know you’re of a different mind than the mind which is in Christ, who became a servant, suffering even the death of a cross when suffering isn’t good enough for you.

But what will that mean for us?  What hope can we have in forgiving ISIS who terrorizes and martyrs Christians?

The hope we embrace for the world is to see it shaped by His ethos, rather than ours.  The hope for the world is to see lust for dominance replaced by love.  The desire for vengeance replaced by forgiveness.  That cannot happen unless we do it! And while I find it so difficult to forgive ISIS, I must.  Interestingly how much more taken up with vengeance I am from way over here in my safety than are the families and pastors of those Egyptian Christians who were beheaded.  They somehow find it easy to forgive.  They even insist that we do it!

Absurd, isn’t it?

I want to do something about what was done to them, just not what they say we should do: forgive.  We fear that if we do, what was done to them, we may have to endure as well.  Is it possible we have so sand-papered the cross that it is no longer rugged?  Such symbolism that it no longer bears any weight?  We say to those 21, and to Jesus, “we want to join you, but not that far.  Not to death. Not to a cross.”

The Jesus ethos goes something like this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your American neighbor and hate ISIS.’ But I tell you, love ISIS and pray for them,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  

So here, may I lead you in a prayer for ISIS?

Father, I don’t know pain like those Egyptian families know pain.  And though it is almost ridiculous to fathom, they forgive the men who committed this ugly, horrid thing.  It was vile, God.  What they did was evil and wrong.  A violation of the beauty and dignity of those precious lives.  And yet, we join them, and you, in uttering forgiveness.

We ask you to open ISIS minds to truth.  To love.  To You, Jesus.  Show up on their Damascus-road and heal their eyes of their blindness.  May they repent from their violence and hatred.  God, instead may they become gentle husbands, and loving fathers, respected in their communities and bearers of goodness, mercy and grace.  Turn their feet to Your path, and we pray they instead become pastors!  Haha! May they lead others in your great Name, Jesus.  May they call their brothers into repentance, baptizing them into the Way, the Truth and the Life.  May we see Your Kingdom born in their hearts, made anew.  Bless them, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.