The Common Good
August 2007

Living in the Presence of God

by Malinda Elizabeth Berry | August 2007

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C.

Themes of time and patience unite the Hebrew Testament readings for this month. Time works in our lives in concrete and abstract ways. It's something we try to keep track of—some of us are good at managing it, but most of us aren't. Time is what we want to spend with people we care about and something we feel robbed of when someone dies prematurely—"before their time," we say.

Patience is a virtue, the proverb explains. But is patience a character trait or an emotion? Is it a state of being some people are predisposed to while others seem to have the words "anxious" stamped on their souls? Is there such a thing as too much patience?

Relationships mean listening, trusting, waiting, and praying. In other words, they require time and patience. In On Earth As in Heaven: Justice Rooted in Spirituality, Arthur Paul Boers observes that as Christians we are called to a relationship with God by "deriving from God our purpose, identity, direction, and self-esteem. Rather than asking the self-centered question, 'What is God's will for my life?' we are empowered to ask bigger questions, such as, 'How can I fit into the work of God's kingdom here on earth?'"

The problem, Boers says, is that we often try to justify ourselves by works. Learning to trust God is the most important step we can take in moving toward a better and whole relationship with the Author of our lives.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

August 5
What's Essential?
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Ecclesiastes, considered part of the Bible's wisdom literature tradition, is comprised of proverbs, poetry, parables, and other reflections that get at life's meaning and how we ought to understand the way our lives unfold. Compared to the book of Proverbs, which extols the wisdom of common sense, and Job, which contrasts human and divine forms of wisdom, Ecclesiastes ends with the author's encouragement to remember that honoring, respecting, and loving God with our entire being is our only responsibility in life. If we think that being wise and discerning means we can straighten what is crooked (Ecclesiastes 1:15), then we'd better think again.

The lection from Ecclesiastes is full of admonition. To paraphrase what the author asks us, "What does all your busyness get you? You're unhappy, stressed out, annoyed at your boss—and when was the last time you got a good night's sleep? Did you ever stop to think that all this stuff you do is just an extension of your ego? You're spending your time doing stuff that doesn't really matter when you could and should work doing something that gives you real meaning, that allows you to embrace God's wisdom."

We all struggle with how we manage our time. We all wish we could have meaningful work every day. We all get impatient with ourselves for wanting what we don't have. But how many of us are ready to accept the fact that some of the stuff we do really doesn't matter and isn't worth the trouble? I know that is something I'm unwilling to do. As I read Ecclesiastes, I wonder if, in my unwillingness, I'm missing an opportunity to be converted and transformed.

August 12
Distorted Christianity
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

As in Ecclesiastes, Isaiah's word from the Lord to the rulers of Judah is intent on keeping things real: "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:16-17).

This message is not new, but it feels as though our collective heart is hard. We live in a nation that is part of a war machine that systematically creates orphans, widows, and widowers daily. And yet, every Sunday I get up and join the assembly of Christians gathered to offer God our worship—assuming, more than hoping, that it is all acceptable to God. But I really wonder if something needs to change.

God is clearly impatient with the people of Judah—and not just the rulers—for how they choose to spend their time. It's not so much what they're doing; this word of judgment is about what they are failing to do. By turning away from its social obligations, Judah's sacrificial offerings and worship become meaningless.

This is in some tension with Luke's eschatological parable that can easily be interpreted as a call to focus on the life to come rather than the life that currently is. But we also know that the church Luke describes in Acts is deeply committed to a common life in the present, rooted in social justice.

When we separate participation in the "already" of God's reign from waiting for the "not yet," the result is empty worship—distorted Christianity. When will we wake up to this reality?

August 19
True Prophecy
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

It takes time and discernment to identify where and how God's reign is growing and expanding in the world. Through Jeremiah, God warns the people against listening too intently to false prophets; it is only the prophet's voice that is trustworthy.

But there is misery, suffering, and oppression now. Why isn't God taking more direct action to overcome evil? Why is God waiting? Doesn't God realize the longer we wait, the more willing we are to wonder if the "real prophets" are actually authentic? We're only human, after all.

Perhaps this is what God is waiting for—our realization that we're only human but act as if we're much more than humble lumps of flesh, blood, bone, and soul.

August 6 and 9 are recognized internationally as Hiroshima and Nagasaki Day, respectively. These fateful days back in 1945 when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan strike me as a terrifying example of what happens when we listen to false prophets. Historian Richard Rhodes explains that to the scientists working on the Manhattan Project, the work of developing a nuclear bomb held with it the possibility of bringing all wars and human suffering to an end. This vision of world peace born of a mushroom cloud is false prophesy.

What is real is the cloud of witnesses who, beyond time as we know it, speak to us through their legacies in prophetic ways. From Isaiah and Mary to Martin Luther King and Betty Friedan, we have authentic voices speaking to us. Do we have the patience and humility to listen?

August 26
Resting in God
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

The opening verses of Jeremiah tell the story of his commissioning as a prophet. God expresses confirmation of Jeremiah with the words, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1:5). The assurance that God knows us intimately is part of the biblical testimony. I wish it weren't so easy to take this fact for granted.

Arthur Paul Boers observes, "The goal of Christian spirituality is to live at all times in the presence of God, keeping God's company and paying attention to God. By doing so, we are conscious of our interaction and involvement with God at all times, all levels, and in all places."

Part of being a Christian means knowing that we're human—and not God. But this awareness urges us also to accept that our materiality (our being) is animated by our spirituality, which is God consecrating us, God breathing life into us and drawing us from our mother's womb, God being patient and waiting for us, God measuring time for us, God reminding us to rest, be still, and know that God is trustworthy. Most of all, being human means resting assured that God will never leave us. God has all the time and patience in the world.

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