This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Stepping Out.

Psalm 91:9-16. 
            The message of Psalm 91 is that we are protected.  If we step out in faith, God has our back.  If we make the Lord our refuge and the Most-High our dwelling place, God will keep us from evil and harm.
            Is this true?  Or is the Psalm just giving us some pious wishful-thinking here?  Because we all know, and know of, people who were dedicated and faithful disciples of Jesus, who on that account had to endure a great deal of evil and harm. 
            Starting with our reading from the prophet Isaiah about the suffering, faithful servant of God, who we believe looks ahead to Jesus and his death on the cross, moving on to Jesus’ own words about how all his disciples must take up their own cross of suffering, and to the Apostle Paul who also assumes that pain and discomfort, even death, is part of the cost of discipleship, and concluding with the book of Revelation that talks about how the faithful “wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb,” which is to say, suffer and die for the gospel… in what sense, then, is this Psalm true?
            How does God guard, deliver, protect, rescue, and satisfy those who trust in God?  How are God’s witnesses shielded from harm, when with our own eyes we see them enduring so much harm, and with our own ears we hear about their suffering?
            Anyone who becomes a disciple of Jesus with the assumption that this is going to exempt them from harm is crazy.  In fact, the more faithful you are, the more dedicated you are in your discipleship, the more you are likely to suffer.  Following Jesus puts us out of synch with the culture, which creates inevitable tension and friction, which can lead to consequences.  Becoming a follower of Jesus costs us.
            Some of you may recall hearing some of the verses from this Psalm in the New Testament.  They even appeared in the song we sang earlier: “He will command his angels concerning you
 to guard you in all your ways. 
On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
            Very comforting words.  But don’t forget who says them.  In Matthew and Luke these words are spoken to Jesus by the devil.  The devil quotes this Psalm to tempt Jesus to step out… and throw himself down from the top of the Temple as a public display of his divinity, forcing God to send angels to save him.  The devil suggests that this spectacular event would prove to everyone that he is the Messiah, and be very effective at launching his ministry.
            I am sure it would!  But Jesus has to reject this temptation.  Is Jesus thereby saying the Psalm isn’t true?  Would God have sent a legion of angels to protect Jesus if he jumped from a height?  Well, if Jesus tempted God that way he wouldn’t be who he was; he would just be another false, pretend Messiah… which would be verified by the impact with the pavement.

            The question is: How do we tell the difference between the calling to step out in faith and obedience to God, and the temptation to step out in an attempt to glorify ourselves, to prove to ourselves that God loves us, to draw attention to ourselves?  How do we know when it is truly the voice of God inspiring us forward, and when it is the voice of the Evil One, pushing us off the edge?  How do we avoid being paralyzed by this very question, and not stepping out at all, but remaining safe and secure in our own status quo?
            This is an important question for us in a time of great change such as ours.  I sense that God is calling us to step out in these times in new ways of discipleship.  But we have to be able to discern when this is faithfulness to God, and when it is our trying to draw attention to ourselves, attract more members, solve our budget problems, preserve our traditions and institutions, or any of the many other things that we value.
            We have to answer this question as a church.  And of course as individual believers we also have to answer it.  We have to be able to discern when we are doing something for our benefit, and when we are responding to God’s call in discipleship.  And making that distinction is never easy.
            It is never easy because our ego always gets in the way.  It lurks behind even our most apparently selfless acts and desires.  It defiles even our most altruistic motivations.  Our ego is always looking for what we can get out of this: fame, money, health, peace-of-mind, power, influence, admiration, whatever. 
            What makes this even more complicated is that we are all different.  One person’s act of discipleship can be another’s capitulation to the temptation of the ego.  There are some folks whom God is calling to a spectacular act, and whom God will save and vindicate.  There are others for whom the same outward act is purely ego-centered and Satan-driven, for whom no rescuing angels will appear.
            There are ways we can use to begin to become conscious of when we are under temptation, and when we are following Jesus.  There are ways to learn to honestly look at ourselves so we may be able to perceive when it is our ego talking, and when it is God.  Our ego is always trying to feed, justify, rationalize, defend, excuse our own sin; our ego wants to protect who we think we are.  Our ego resists transformation and change; it wants us to stay the same.  But God is always drawing us away from who we think we are.

            Following the ego leads to death; it has to do with judging others and protecting yourself at all costs.  The ego is self-centered, self-righteous, self-preserving, and selfish in every way.  It fosters anger, hatred, and fear.  It sucks up all the attention and all the assets available to it.
            Following God is the opposite of all that for us.  To put it most simply, in following Jesus, you identify what your ego wants you to do, and then you do the opposite.
            In our gospel reading, we have the story of James and John, two brothers who were Jesus’ disciples.  They feel called to positions of particular responsibility and honor in Jesus’ kingdom; they want to be seated at Jesus’ right and left when he is King.  It doesn’t get more egocentric than this… but perhaps, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they carefully thought about it and decided they had the gifts and could do the most good for the most people if they got to be Jesus’ chief ministers.
            Before we criticize James and John here, let’s remember how their attitude is not that foreign from what happens today.  How many students at Princeton Seminary have visions of being a famous preacher in a big, rich church dancing in their heads?  How many ministers feel themselves called to lead a church to spectacular growth?  How many of us have great ambitions to fame, fortune, or power, that we dress up in pious, spiritual, religious, churchy language?
            Jesus’ response to James and John is his response to all our egocentric ambition: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Do we know what that means?  Do we have any idea what it is going to cost us to be a disciple of Jesus?
            Maybe James and John remembered this Psalm and imagined that God would hold them up and protect them in their endeavor to be Jesus’ best and brightest ministers.  Maybe they thought God was there to support their ambition and fulfill the desires of their egos, as long as their ambition and desires were for “good” things.  What it would have been better for them to remember is the passage from Isaiah about the suffering borne by the servant of God.
            So Jesus then gathers all his famously clueless disciples around him and explains: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

            Jesus is saying that in order to follow him we have to let go of what he calls our “Gentile” attitudes about power.  By “Gentiles” he means people who do not have the benefit of God’s Law, who do not define themselves by God’s redemptive story.  Gentiles, for Jesus, are those who automatically submit to their egos, they cave in to their fears, angers, and hatreds, without even imagining that there is some other way to live. 
            We have to abandon the bloated daydreams and formidable defense mechanisms of our egos.  We have to relinquish our ambition for things that society tells us to value: status, money, power, attractiveness, and so forth.  That all has to have so little influence over us that we can be said to be “dead” to it.  We have to die to ourselves, he says, take up our cross, and follow him. 
            In other words, we must identify what our egos want, that is, what the devil is tempting us with, and we have to turn away from that, towards the One who shows us who, and whose, we truly are.  Jesus Christ reveals our true essence.  He calls us to our deepest identity, the source of our most profound joy.
            God is not our servant in the sense of protecting and providing for the demands, fears, and fantasies of our egocentric ambition.  God will not sustain us in a pathway that leads to destruction, even if it is the pathway we most fervently choose.
            But if we are following him with all our hearts, souls, and bodies, that’s when the message of Psalm 91 starts to be activated within and among us.  If we are following him and not our egocentric whims, then we find ourselves sustained in ways we couldn’t otherwise imagine.
            This means acting out of obedience to God’s Word and always going to the least comfortable place under him.  For each of us functions as a “slave of all” in ways appropriate to our own personality.  Our ambition should be for nothing more (or less!) glorious than to follow Jesus Christ. 
            But following Jesus is not to be confused with a sick, masochistic, self-flagellating, self-hating attitude.  It is rather to see your ego tamed and your true essence as a child of God allowed to emerge.  Jesus does not want you to become a slave of others out of fear, but to become a slave of God out of love.  The one who has true power from God is the one who gives that power away and rejoices to see it at work in others.

            So: How do we discern when God is speaking to us?  How do we distinguish God’s voice from the voice of our own ego?  God always takes us out of our comfort zone… and delivers us safely into God’s comfort zone.
            God calls each one of us, and all of us together, to step out.  We have to step out of the protective zone of our own ego, habits, traditions, routines, assumptions, desires, and fears.  We have to step out of what we think we know and who we think we are.  That means choosing to literally and actually behave differently, for the sake of the good news of God’s love. 
            You abandon wastefulness for conservation.  You give up cheapness and adopt generosity.  You come out of hiding and reveal yourself.  You bring yourself out of the spotlight and act humbly and anonymously.  You stop bossing and start accommodating.  You cease talking and start listening.  You give up gathering and start sharing.
            In Matthew 4, it is when Jesus rejects the angels that the devil was promising him that God sends angels to sustain him.  It is when we stop imagining that God will protect who we think we are, our ego-selves, that God does step in to protect the emerging new, original person we truly are.
            For what we are rescued, delivered, and protected from in Psalm 91 is not suffering.  It is death.  It is the long, slow, unconscious perishing of passing through time and existence never aware of who we truly are.  In the process of becoming who we truly are, we have to have our old selves blasted off, we have to shed our old skin, we have to put off the old Adam, as Paul would say.  And this hurts.  But this suffering has a purpose, a goal, a resolution, and an end.  It is the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly, or the acorn into the oak tree.
            When we step out on this journey, the journey of transformation, that’s when God’s protection covers us.  When we abandon our own security and step out in discipleship, that’s when God will be with us in trouble.  Even when our hearts ache with the emotional bends of being pulled through the compression of our world… that’s when we know the presence of the angels guarding us in all our ways. 
That’s when we can walk with confidence in the world, fearing neither snake nor lion.  That’s when we are living into the calling we have from the Lord to truly live.

Monday, October 15, 2012

One Day at a Time.

Psalm 90:12-17.

            The 90th Psalm is a communal lament, a very sober and circumspect reflection on the experience of God’s wrath and the fragility of human life in the face of it.
            What I get from Psalm 90 is a deep sense of remorse and sorrow for sins committed, articulated by people who are feeling the consequences.  They understand themselves to be completely vulnerable to God’s judgment; they know their lives to be as short and temporary and delicate as grass, or a passing and easily forgotten dream.  They know we are only on this earth a very short time.
            Most of that is in the first part of the Psalm.  Our reading begins with verse 12, when the Psalm starts getting a little more hopeful in requesting that God restore favor to them and even make them prosperous again.
            Psalm 90 reveals a maturity that it is often difficult for us.  It takes a grown-up to admit fault, and to recognize that the difficulties one is now going through are due to one’s own actions.  It is easier for us to place blame and claim that we are just the innocent victims of others’ wrongdoing.  Few of us are willing to admit that we are being justly punished by God.  Few of us can publicly acknowledge that we are the ones who messed up, got on God’s bad side, and now suffer the consequences.
            But that is the assumption of an appeal to God like, “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us.”  Who has the guts to pray like that?  Who says, “I deserve my suffering because I was a jerk”?  There are plenty of Psalms that plea for vindication against one’s enemies; this isn’t one of them… unless you understand that God is the one you have made your enemy.
            The thing is, this Psalm makes very little sense until you get to that point.  You have to kind of hit bottom to understand it.  The Psalm is based on remorse and regret.  You have to recognize your fault and be sorry for what you have done.  That is the basis of this Psalm’s plea for God’s compassion and favor.
            This should not be all that hard for us.  After all, almost every relationship is a matter of mutual participation.  Few of us are purely innocent victims, even in the best of cases.  This Psalm goes even further and takes full responsibility for one’s own suffering.  The basic message is, “I deserve it.  You are right to punish me, O God.”
            It makes us wonder what the Psalmist could have done to deserve God’s wrath.
            The lectionary connects this Psalm to the particular gospel and Old Testament readings we just heard.  On the one hand we have the prophet Amos’ tirade against the rich who oppress the poor, and who now suffer the consequences of their own injustice.  On the other we have Jesus’ encounter with a wealthy young man who is proud of his own piety, but who wants to be perfect.  So Jesus instructs him to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor.  That apparently is the way to perfection, according to Jesus.  But the young man is unwilling to go this far, and he departs in sadness.  Jesus responds by telling his disciples how it is practically impossible for rich people to enter God’s Kingdom.  It is only those who lose what they have in this life who gain eternal life with God.  And then the disciples congratulate themselves about having given everything up to follow Jesus, and Jesus commends them.
            Reading the Psalm through these lenses suggests what kind of sin brings down God’s wrath.  For Amos it is greed, avarice, selfishness, hoarding, stealing, and other transgressions, mainly of the rich.  For Jesus it is similarly our holding on to things, our unwillingness to give up what we have for the sake of others and eternal life.
            These sins undermine the integrity of the commonwealth and kill the kind of prosperity that God intends for us all.  The Psalm itself implies that this is indeed its own background when it appeals, at the end, for a return to a time when work lasted and had value.  “Prosper the work of our hands!”
            So the situation of the Psalm is that people are feeling the wrath of God because of their own “iniquities” and “secret sins,” especially economic ones.  They are recognizing that human life is imperfect and frail.  Our lives are very short, and we unwittingly spend most of our time in disobedience to God.  So we feel God’s love as wrath, more often than not.
            We think we’re being responsible, but our actions have negative consequences in the lives of others.  We think we’re being generous, but self-interest perverts our charity.  We think we’re doing what’s best for our family, but our decisions in the marketplace cause misery and exploitation somewhere else down the line.  We think we’re making prudent investments, but then we discover that our money has only been used to oppress people. 
            We do our best, and it depresses us to know that our best isn’t good enough.  We live in a world where no good deed goes unpunished.  No matter how hard we try we are failing people.  We go to our graves filled with remorse and regret.

            How do we live a life that makes a lasting positive contribution to the lives of others?  How do we live so that we are not always bringing God’s anger down on us?  We’re not asking to live forever; just to be able to see our time on this earth not be wasted in making things worse. 
            The answer in the Psalm is reliance upon the saving and abiding presence of God.  “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”  “Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.”  In other words, be attentive to God, the One who is “our dwelling place in all generations.”
            How do we stay attentive to God?  The Psalm suggests something very practical: “counting our days.”  “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” it says.  Counting our days helps to rivet our attention on what we are about.  I know people in recovery from addiction who literally count the consecutive days of their sobriety, having carefully taken “One day at a time,” as they say. 
            We don’t just thoughtlessly check off the days, like we’re prisoners trying to see how many we have left, but I think the Psalm means we carefully review the quality of our life each day.  It sounds a bit compulsive, but people will testify that if you are trying to make any kind of significant change in your life, from losing weight to learning a language, a daily review of your progress helps.
            If we take stock every day of our prayer life, if we stop to consider how well we did today as a disciple of the Way of Jesus, if we go over what we did and said in our relationships with others, we gain what the Psalm calls “a wise heart.”  We become more present, more real, less distracted and lost in our own ego-centric thoughts.  If we can affirm that in this particular day we made some incremental progress, the same way a person in recovery celebrates another day in control of their addiction, we can see the difference.
            If we stop and reflect about it daily we will see how God has been present among and with and within us all along.  We can begin to see that God has always been with us, even when we were not with God.  Even when we were distracted, overwhelmed, consumed by our responsibilities, even rationalizing and justifying our own self-centeredness and self-righteousness, even then the Lord was patiently waiting within us for us to come back.  If we do make a conscious point of coming back every day, then we will be less likely to wander off tomorrow.
            When the Psalm says “teach us to count our days” it is framed in the plural.  This is something we do best together, as a community.  People in recovery have regular meetings and sponsors, recognizing that healing is much more difficult if you’re trying to do it alone, by yourself.  Jesus calls and establishes a community of disciples.  Christianity is not something you can do simply as an isolated individual.

            It is the regular and communal stock-taking, counting the days, that opens up the heart and the imagination to what God is doing in our lives and in the world.  Maybe we don’t see it in our own experience but if we hear about how someone else has seen God at work in their life, we can be more aware of God’s presence in our own.  We may remind one another of God’s goodness.  We may discover together new ways of realizing discipleship.
            That line in the Psalm about being satisfied in the morning with God’s steadfast love has become a traditional invocation for morning prayer.  It is our opening our eyes and making ourselves ready to make this coming day one that counts.  It is alerting our senses and our consciousness to look actively this day for those places where God is at work in our life.  “Seek and you will find,” says Jesus.  If we are looking for God we are more likely to find God than if we are closed and unconscious, not expecting to find anything.
            If we affirm God’s presence in the morning together, and then gather in the evening to consider how we experienced God’s presence that day, then God’s work will be manifest to us.  Maybe not every day for everyone.  Sometimes we do wonder how long it’s going to take for us to perceive God’s compassion in our lives.  But the Psalm is saying that being aware of God takes discipline.  It takes faithfully going through the motions day after day.  We have to expect it in advance, and we have to reflect upon it afterwards.
            But the point of the Psalm is perceiving and affirming God’s presence in spite of our own failures and weakness and limits, affirming God’s goodness and deliverance in the face of our experience of God’s wrath due to our own shortcomings.
            God’s work and glorious power is manifest in Scripture mostly in God’s acts of liberation and justice on behalf of the people, especially the poor and disadvantaged.  The prototypical act of God is when God sets the people free from slavery in Egypt.  God’s actions always have to do with freedom.  By the time we get to Jesus, we see this happening in people being delivered from sickness or possession by demons.  But it is important to remember that God is about freedom and the lifting up of the lowly (with the consequent bringing down of those who exalt themselves over others.) 

            Both Amos and Jesus indicate what we actually do to find freedom and life.  We have to lose what we have that is tying us down.  Amos hammers at the crimes of the wealthy; they have too much while others have too little.  But it is Jesus who comes right out and says basically “lose your stuff.”  He instructs the man to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and then follow him.  The man is to divest himself of his assets, which Jesus correctly sees are keeping him from living the life to which he is called.
            For that man, what he has to assess each day is how well he was doing at that.  Not everyone is called to exactly the same discipline.  However, Jesus does call everyone to get rid of whatever in their life is holding them back and keeping them from a full life with and in God. 
            How well are we doing unloading that stuff?  Maybe that’s what we need to review every day.  Are we still having things, relying on things, cherishing, keeping, saving, hoarding things that are separating us from God?  In so doing, are we creating injustice in the world?  Are we objects of God’s wrath because of it?
             Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” 
            With Jesus, it is what we lose, what we give away, what we contribute to others that reveals our character.  He doesn’t measure our profit or savings; he looks at the other side of the ledger.  He looks at our losses.  He looks at what we have left behind to follow him.  And he says that is what we receive back in the Kingdom of God.
            The Way of Jesus involves a kind of opposite accounting.  Instead of adding up at the end of the day what we have gained, our income, he judges us according to what we have lost.  Did we lose some of our greed?  Did we lose our self-righteousness?  Did we lose our anger, our fear, our hatreds?  Did we lose our superiority?  And yes, did we relinquish some of the junk clogging our homes?  Were we generous with our money?  Our time?  Our attention?
            That, it turns out, is the kind of work that lasts.  It is this work of our hands, when we stretch them out in giving to others, when we use our hands to toss out the things blocking our spirits, that God prospers. 
            At the end of the day the question is: How much of your self did you lose, and how much of Christ did you allow to fill your resulting emptiness?  Remembering that while what we lose is clearly our work, what we become is God’s.    

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pharaoh or Jesus?

            It was not long after the children of Israel had been miraculously liberated from slavery in Egypt that many of them began to complain and express the desire to go back.  The challenges and liabilities of freedom seemed too difficult and threatening.  Slavery appeared in their memories as secure and preferable.  They forgot the horrors of a regime that demanded that they kill their children, and recalled only the reasonably regular meals.
            “Egypt” in the Bible almost always represents an anti-Israel, anti-God, anti-justice way of life.  It was a place of stark inequality, where a very few held all the wealth and power, and everyone else languished in relative poverty.  The most deprived and victimized people were the slaves at the very bottom who did most of the work.  “Egypt” represented the rank idolatry that the people would see in the worship of petty gods of economic growth sponsored by the tyrannical rulers of Canaanite city-states and neighboring nations. 
            This capitulation to greed, avarice, and selfishness, this bowing down to the wealthy and powerful as they increased their wealth and power at everyone else’s expense, this acceptance of violence and inequality as necessary and even beneficial aspects of society always stood as the polar opposite of the order given to the people by God in the Torah.  A nation that stands under God’s Word is one that rejects the values of “Egypt” and instead follows God’s law in the direction of equality, justice, peace, community, healing, and love.  No one under God’s law is allowed to get too rich or too powerful.  No one under God’s law is allowed to sink into crushing poverty or crippling servitude. 
            Whenever the people flirted with Egypt it was not good.  The great reforming king Josiah, one of the few kings who receives a positive review in the Bible, is killed in a war against… Egypt.  In fact his whole reign is a struggle against the idolatry and injustice implicit in the idea of Egypt in the Israelite mind.  When the Egyptians killed him it was a temporary triumph of the forces of injustice and inequality.  When many of the people were finally taken into exile in Babylon, the remaining puppet king Zedekiah tries to resist by making a deal with… Egypt.  As if negotiating with the forces of greed and avarice would somehow save them from God’s judgment on their greed and avarice.  Prophets like consistently Ezekiel and Jeremiah warn against any turning to Egypt.
            The temptation of “Egypt” has loomed like a shadow over the people of God.  Whenever we feel the tendency to put our faith in “Egyptian” values like economic growth, the beneficence of the wealthy, the rule of markets, the goodness of avarice and greed, and the following of human self-interest, we are veering off towards Egypt in the sense that we are promoting economic injustice and inviting ecological and economic disaster.  Whenever we therefore necessarily allow poverty to increase, reward speculation over work, and foster an increasing gap between the rich and everyone else, we have abandoned God.
            Jesus himself, the embodied Word of God, had no positive regard for markets and little good to say about the wealthy.  Whenever any of them had the temerity to ask him what they should do he was clear: “sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and come and follow me.”  The idea that everyone benefits when the rich get richer was the exact opposite of Jesus’ teachings.  He lived in a society that disproved such a lie everywhere one looked.
            Throughout history we have been faced with the same stark choice.  We may follow Pharaoh by practicing an economic inequality and injustice that favors and panders to the rich, thereby creating slavery for others.  Or we may follow the communitarian values of equality and redistribution we find in the Torah and which Jesus promotes as the Kingdom of God.  Basically, it is a choice between imperialism or community.  Every country and every generation makes this choice and suffers (or more rarely enjoys) the consequences.
            America is no different.  We are always choosing between two visions of America.  One is the nasty America characterized by greed, avarice, selfishness, inequality, corruption, exploitation, profit, racism, and environmental destruction, in which a few benefit and everyone else scrapes to get by.  The other is the gentle America of community, equality, justice, peace, and blessing for all.  We are always choosing to follow either a system that gives rights only to some, or the dream of rights for all.  
            Of course it is almost never this clear, but every election comes down to a choice to follow either Pharaoh or Jesus.  On the one hand is the ideology that what is good for some will eventually be good for all.  This is the “Egyptian” model that has not only never worked, but invariably attracts disaster.  On the other hand we find the simple faith that we are all children of the same God and should treat each other that way.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

How to Vote.

No, I’m not going to suggest for whom you should vote.  But I do want to recommend what kinds of things Christians should take into consideration when casting a vote, by looking at Psalm 72. 
We don’t have a king, of course, but I do believe that much of what Psalm 72 says can be applied to leaders in a democracy.  I hope that what we look for in our leaders reflects the values lifted up in this Psalm.

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

The Psalm says there is a connection between the way we and our government treat the poor and oppressed, and the prosperity we enjoy as a people.  If we are hard-hearted and careless towards the needy, it will eventually bounce back to harm everyone.  If we allow greed and inequity to flourish, it undermines the whole economy in the end.  We have seen this basic principle working itself out before our very eyes.  Clearly, godly leaders watch out for the weakest among us... and that benefits everyone.  

May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

These natural images remind us of at least two characteristics of good leaders.  In the first place, the benefits of good government effect and lift up everyone.  As Jesus says, God has the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.  Good government is like the balanced system of nature, showering down upon all what is necessary for life to thrive. 
Secondly, it is important to note that wise policies last forever.  Each generation learns from them and incorporates them into its ongoing program.  Lifting up the poor and empowering the powerless today, will mean having more people participating in the system tomorrow.  We look back with pride and thanksgiving on leaders of the past who challenged the status quo and the conventional wisdom by seeing that resources were distributed to everyone’s benefit, and gave assistance to the poor and the outcast.

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

A good leader is recognized and celebrated far and wide.  Some of the most effective leaders of our age remain role models for people everywhere.  We look up to our own leaders or those of other nations when they show courage, resist evil, and do what is right in God’s sight.   None of them are perfect and flawless, of course.  But good leaders are respected and celebrated around the world because good leadership does not benefit just one tribe, race, family, or nation.  It benefits everyone. 

For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.

Once again, the psalmist repeats that good leadership is measured by the way the poor, helpless, weak, needy, and oppressed are treated.  Nothing is more clear from Scripture than that this standard is primary.  A government’s approach to the lowest in society is the main measure of its goodness.  If this approach has to do with deliverance, salvation, redemption, and help, then that government is faithfully representing God’s will.  If not, it is running counter to God’s way and will bring ruin down on itself.    

Long may he live!  May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all day long.
May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.
May his name endure for ever, his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy.

Caring for and protecting the needy is a policy that God will reward.  Which is to say that God intends people to live in justice and peace, and when people live this way they are also living in harmony with the planet God made and placed in our care.  Injustice invariably draws down upon itself destruction; but justice and peace serve to heal the Earth and allow its resources to benefit everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name for ever; may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

The Source of all goodness, peace, justice, and righteousness, not to mention prosperity, is God.  In the end, God is the only true and good leader.  Our human leaders always fall short.  But we know that some fall more or less short than others.  The beneficial government is one that follows the Lord’s commandments and values, blessing God by instituting policies that reflect God’s will.  In Jesus Christ we know God’s will to be for healing and justice, peace and forgiveness, living in love with each other and with God’s creation. 
We hope and pray that whatever government we have will reflect God’s goodness and not God’s judgment upon us.  And the sure sign of this will be whether the resources of God’s creation will be cared for and used for the benefit of everyone, especially those on the bottom, or whether we will call down destruction upon ourselves by persisting in an existence characterized by fear, anger, greed, violence, and inequality.
We will all have to prayerfully decide which candidate comes closest to this biblical ideal.  Who has most respect and care for the disadvantaged?  Who is more likely to show good stewardship of God's creation?  Who is most likely to win the admiration of people in other nations?  Who will foster the kind of justice that brings prosperity for all? 

The 21 Political Values of Miroslav Volf.

I have assembled and formatted the values put forth on Facebook by theologian Miroslav Volf.  I have not edited or altered his language.  (I did add some headings to make each section consistent, and correct some spelling and punctuation.) 

I share these 21 values because they are very instructive and helpful as we who follow Jesus make political decisions. 

(No order of importance implied in the numbering, after value #0, which is the foundation for all.)

Value #0.

Jesus Christ

Value:  The ultimate allegiance of a Christian is to Jesus Christ, the creative Word (become flesh), which enlightens everyone, and the redeeming Lamb of God, which bears the sin of the whole world.  A Christian ought not embrace any practice, no matter how prudent it may seem from the standpoint of national security or national competitive advantage, which conflicts with allegiance to Christ.

Rationale: “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).

Debate:  For Christians, the debate should not be whether the allegiance to Christ trumps the allegiance to the nation.  The debate should be what key values national life follow from their allegiance to Jesus Christ and what the proper relation is between universalist claims of Christ and particularist claims of the nation.

Question to Ask:  To what extent is the candidate merely seeking to serve the “goddess nation” and to what extent is what he stands for compatible with the Christian conviction that Christ is the key to human flourishing?

Value #1.

Freedom to Chose a Way of Life.

Value:  All citizens should have the right to take responsibility for their own life and embrace a faith or a way of life they deem meaningful without suffering discrimination.

Rationale:  One’s faith touches the core of one’s life and cannot, and should not, be coerced, a view arguably implied in the statement of St. Paul that one believes “in the heart” (“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” [Romans 10:9]).  "When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’... Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (John 6:60, 66-67), the implication being that one is free to chose another way of life.

Debate:  The debatable issue should not be whether people should be free to choose and exercise their religion (or irreligion) without discrimination; that’s a given.  Public debate should be about which way of life, including its public dimensions or implications, is more salutary, and whether there are ways of life so inimical to human flourishing and common life that their exclusion doesn’t represent an act of discrimination but is a requirement of humane social life.  We should also debate publicly the moral foundation a state that is “neutral” with regard to distinct faiths and secular interpretations of life as well as the precise nature of political arrangements required to keep the state “neutral.”

Questions To Ask:  Does the candidate respect the right of all—fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and secularists, conservatives and progressives, to name a few groups at odds with one another—to take personal responsibility for their lives and to lead their lives as they see fit?  Does the candidate think of America as a Christian nation (so that, in one way or another, all others have to fit into a Christian mould) or as a pluralistic nation (in which a way of life is not imposed on anyone without their endorsement)?

Value #2.

Concern for the Poor

Value:  The poor—above all those without adequate food or shelter—deserve our special concern.

Rationale:  “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.  I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:22).  “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you” (Deuteronomy 15:7).

Debate:  There should be no debate whether fighting extreme poverty should be one of the top priorities of the government.  That is a given.  The debate should be about the following issues: How to generate a sense of solidarity with the poor among all citizens?  In poverty alleviation, what is the proper role of governments and what of individuals, religious communities, and civic organizations?  What macroeconomic conditions most favor lifting people out of poverty?  What should the minimum wage be?

Question:  Is overcoming extreme poverty a priority for the candidate?  What poverty reducing policies is the candidate prepared to fight for?

Value #3.

Excellent and Affordable Education

Value:  It is important for citizens to understand the world in which they live, to learn to reflect critically on what makes life worth living, and be qualified for jobs that increasingly require complex skills.  We should strive for excellent and affordable education for all citizens.

Rationale:  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds in the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Genesis 1:26).  "To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.  O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it…Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her" (Proverbs 8:4-5, 10-11).

Debate:  The debate should be about what families and government must do to improve the educational system, what exactly improvements in education look like, and what proportion of the budget should be allotted for educational purposes (as compared to, for instance, defense).  The debate should not be about whether we should have an excellent educational system that is affordable for all.

Questions to Ask:  What will the candidate do to ensure that all citizens—the poor no less than the wealthy—are taught to make intelligent judgments about what makes life worth living, acquire skills necessary for functioning in modern societies, and have an adequate understanding of the world?

Value #4.

Economic Growth

Value:  Economic growth is not a value in it own right because wealth and money are not values in their own right.  They are means, indispensible means, but only means.  In one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we should worry more about how to use properly the wealth we create than how to create more wealth.

Rationale:  “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth… But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:24, 33).

Debate:  We can abandon the old debate about whether efficient wealth creation or just wealth distribution is more important; both are important, for we cannot distribute what we don’t have and you should not have what is just for us to distribute.  Instead, we should debate about what are morally irresponsible (wall-street gambling!), inhumane (child labor!), and unsustainable (deforestation!) ways of creating wealth; about how to use wealth properly as individuals, communities, and nation; about how to make wealth serve us instead of turning our whole lives into means of wealth acquisition.

Question to Ask:  Which candidate is able to remind us that we diminish ourselves when we turn into money-making and pleasure-seeking creatures, and that we flourish when we pursue truth, goodness, and beauty, that we are truly ourselves when we reach to others in solidarity and enjoy one another in love (which, Christians would claim, is possible only “in God”)?

Value #5.

The Death Penalty

Value:  Death should never be as punishment for a crime.

Rationale:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Since out of love Christ died for absolutely every human being (“the world”), no one should rob a human being of a chance to be transformed by God’s love and no one should put to death a human being who has been transformed by God’s love.

Debate:  There is no debate on this one.

Question to Ask:  Will the candidate push to abolish the capital punishment, and if so, how hard?

Value #6.

Truth in Public Office.

Value:  Those seeking public office should foreswear spin and contempt, and be truthful with the public and civil to one another.

Rationale:  We should all “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) and seek to “show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).

Debate:  There is no debate about this one. You can “advertize” but not fabricate; you can criticize but not disrespect.

Questions to Ask:  Do the facts about the candidate’s own performance as well as that of the opponent match with candidates’ words?  Is the candidate attempting to correct rather than seeking to benefit from the spin that others, without his direct endorsement, do on his behalf.

Value #7.

World Hunger

Value:  Given the world’s resources, no human being should go hungry; as individuals and nation we should be committed to complete eradication of hunger.

Rationale:  “[The Lord] executes justice for the oppressed […] gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:7); “Then he [the Son of Man] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (Matthew 25:41-42).

Debate:  The debate should not be whether the eradication of world hunger ought to be one of our top priorities, but what are most effective ways to achieve that goal.

Question to Ask:  Is the candidate committed to the eradication of world hunger, and if so, what means will he use toward that goal?  Is the candidate prepared to set aside a percentage of the Gross National Product for the eradication of hunger?

Value #8.

National Debt

Value:  As individuals and as a nation we should live within our means and not borrow beyond what we can reasonably expect to return; we should not offload onto others, whether contemporaries or future generations, the price of our indulgence or risk-taking.

Rationale: Self-indulgent and reckless debt is a form of stealing, and we are commanded: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Debate:  We should debate about what responsible levels of debt are, for households, businesses, or a nation; what constitutes predatory lending practices and how to prevent them; to what degree, if at all, spending on consumer goods should be promoted as a cure for faltering economy and what might be public significance of contentment.

Question to Ask:  What will a candidate do to bring and keep national debt under control? What will the candidate do to encourage individual saving and living within means?

Value #9.

Religious Freedom 1

Value:  Every citizen, religious or not, Christian, Jew or Muslim, has the right to bring his or her own perspectives on human flourishing and on the common good to bear upon public life and do so on equal terms as everyone else.

Rationale:  “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

Debate:  The debate should not be whether religious voices should be excluded or not.  It should be about what kind of political arrangements will ensure equal access of all to participation in the political process on equal terms.

Question:  Does the candidate support participation of every person in public life, encouraging them to do so on the basis of their own specific motivations and reasons?  Does the candidate seek to protect the voice of ordinary people from being drowned by powerful interest groups (like lobbies and superpacs)?

Value #10.

Full Employment

Value:  It is important for every citizen to have meaningful and, if employed for pay, adequately remunerated work. All able citizens should work to take care of their needs and to contribute to the wellbeing of others and of the planet.

Rationale:  “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).  The prophet Isaiah envisions a time when all God’s people “will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isaiah 65:21).  Jesus said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Debate:  The debate should be about what are the required economic, cultural, and political conditions for people to have meaningful work, and who is mainly responsible to create and maintain these conditions.  How best to fight unemployment and underemployment? Given the present state of economy and future economic developments, how to stimulate creation of jobs that pay adequate wage?

Questions to Ask:  What policies does the candidate propose to help encourage meaningful employment for adequate pay for all people?  What will the candidate do to encourage people to work not just for personal gain but for the common good?

Value #11.

The Elderly

Value:  Those who are frail on account of their advanced age deserve our special help. They need adequate medical assistance, social interaction, and meaningful activities.  (Humanity of a society is measured by how well it treats those from whom it can no longer expect much benefit.)

Rationale:  “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:5).  In the contemporary world, “elderly,” arguably, belong to the categories of the “poor” and “widows.”

Debate:  The debate here is the extent of the responsibility for the wellbeing of the elderly.  How much resources should a society set aside for the care of elderly, and what are the best ways to manage those resources?

Question to Ask:  What will you do to help honor the elderly and attend to their specific needs?

Value #12.


Value:  War is almost never justifiable, and every adequate justification has to show how a particular war is an instance of loving one’s neighbors and loving one’s enemies.

Rationale:  “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.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matthew 5:43-44).

Debate:  There is a legitimate debate on whether acts of war can ever be a form of love of neighbor and of enemy and, if they can, what kind of action of an enemy is a justifiable cause for a war (rule of a tyrant?) and what kind of conduct of war (drones?) is necessary for war to be just.

Questions to Ask:  Has the candidate supported or advocated ending of unjust wars in the past?  Has the candidate condemned significant forms of unjust conduct of war?

Value #13.

International Relations

Value:  No nation represents an exception to the requirements of justice according to which countries should relate to one another.  America should exert its international power by doing what is just and persuading rather than exertion of military power, and should pursue its own interests in concert with other nations of the world.

Rationale:  “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

Debate:  The debate should not be whether America is somehow exceptional (and therefore permitted to do what other nations are not, as, for instance, carrying out raids in search for terrorists in other nations).  The debate should rather be about what does it mean for the one remaining superpower to act responsibly in the community of nations.

Question to Ask:  At the international level, would the candidate renounce double moral standard: one for the U.S. and its allies and another for the rest of the world?

Value #14.


Value: We should never torture.

Rationale: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27); “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

Debate:  There is no debate on this one, at least not a debate that, from my reading of Christian moral obligations, is legitimate.

Questions to Ask: Has the candidate unequivocally condemned use of torture?

Value #15.


Value:  Unborn human life, just like fully developed human life, deserves our respect, protection, and nurture.

Rationale:  “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13); “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Debate: There is a legitimate debate about the point at which what can plausibly be deemed human life begins.

Question to Ask: Is the candidate firmly committed to reducing the number of abortions performed?

Value #16.


Value:  All people—poor or rich—should have access to affordable basic healthcare, just as all are responsible to live in a way conducive to physical and mental health.

Rationale:  “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35).

Debate:  There is a legitimate debate as to how best to ensure that all people have access to affordable healthcare, but not weather the destitute should or should not be left to fend for themselves when faced with serious or chronic illness.  We roughly know what it takes to lead a healthy lifestyle (exercise, minimal intake of sugar, no substance abuse, etc.), but we can and ought to debate most effective ways to help people lead such a lifestyle (for instance, how heavily should the food industry be regulated).

Questions to Ask:  Which candidate is more likely to give the destitute effective access to healthcare?  Which candidate is more likely to reduce the number of people who need to seek medical help?

Value #17.

Care for Creation

Value:  We are part of God’s creation, and we must seek to preserve the integrity of God’s creation as an interdependent ecosystem and, if possible, to pass it on to the future generations improved.  Above all, we should not damage the creation by leading a lifestyle marked by acquisitiveness and wastefulness.

Rationale:  “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).

Debate:  Debate here is should be about the extent of ecological damage (for instance, whether or not we are barreling toward a climate apocalypse) and about the appropriate means and sacrifices necessary to preserve God’s creation.

Question to Ask:  Which candidate shows better understanding of the ecological health of the planet and has a better track record in preventing devastation of what God has created and pronounced good?

Value #18.

Religious Freedom 2

Value:  We should honor every human being and respect all faiths (without necessarily affirming them as true).

Rationale:  “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).

Debate:  The debate about relation to other religions should not be whether we should have the “right” to mock what others hold to be holy; we do have that right.  At the same time, the debate should not be about whether we have a moral obligation not to make use of that right; we ought not mock what other people hold to be holy.  Instead, the debate should be about what the authentic teachings and practices of individual religions are, to what extent the claims of their teachings are true (or false), and in what ways each religion fosters (or hinders) human flourishing.

Question to Ask:  Will the candidate promote respect for all religions, including Islam, while at the same time affirming the need for honest debate about how true and salutary they are?

Value #19.


Value:  Mere retributive punishment is an inadequate and mistaken way of dealing with offenders.  We need to find creative ways to reconcile offenders to their victims and reintegrate them into the society.

Rationale: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).  “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

Debate:  We should debate viable alternatives to incarceration (in the U.S. the highest in the world!) and how best to achieve reintegration of offenders into the society.

Question to Ask:  What are you proposing to do to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the U.S.?

Value #20.

Love and Character

Value:  Competence, though essential, matters less than character because knowledge, though crucial, matters less than love.

Rationale:  “If I … understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Debate:  The debate should be about what dimensions of character matter most and what blend of virtues and competencies is most needed at this time.

Questions to Ask:  Whom does the candidate strive to be like?  To whom does he, in fact, most resemble in character?  Will the fear of losing power corrupt him?