Exile: Ash Wednesday, March 2 – The Marriage

Read:

It was possibly the biggest wedding ever planned. Yahweh had descended to the mountain. The people of Israel had consecrated themselves, preened for the ceremony. They had covenanted together and exchanged vows—but with a wrinkle. Because when God came down in his terrible glory, thunder and fire, voice like a trumpet, and power that made the mountain tremble, his bride cowered. They could not bear his voice. Instead, they sent the best man—Moses—on ahead to arrange things. They had said, “I do,” to one another with lengthy vows, done the equivalent of exchanging rings (the two stone tablets, a symbol of their covenant), and shared a meal. Then it was time for the big party. 

But first, God asked Moses to come up to him. Why not go ahead with the party? God was laying out plans for how he would literally pitch his tent among them so they could be together. They had to figure out the logistics of how this God—so good and but also so uniquely different (hear: holy)—could live with his people. No one had been near to God since before Adam and Eve had been exiled from his presence in Eden. But as God and Moses planned, all hell was breaking loose below them. 

Maybe their fidgeting was understandable. This wasn’t 40 minutes of picture-taking. They had been waiting on God and Moses for 40 days! Israel wouldn’t wait any longer; it was time to take things into their own hands. They begged Aaron to make a Yahweh for them. They would still love God . . . just, in their own way. So they spent all their money, all the wealth they had accumulated since God had rescued them from slavery down in Egypt, and Aaron used his talent to make an idol to represent Yahweh. “Here are the gods who rescued you from Egypt,” Aaron says. “Now let’s get this party started!” And then an orgy of eating, drinking, dancing and sex ensues as the people pleasure themselves without their husband.

On the mountain, Moses saw Yahweh’s eyes burn with wounded rage. He almost wiped them out that day. Moses managed to hold him back, remind him who he was and what he had promised (Ex 32:14). Even then, Yahweh couldn’t bring himself to go any further with his people who had so quickly and callously rejected him (33:3). Only, again, when Moses begged him, and said there was no point in them going to the land he had promised them if he wasn’t with them, did Yahweh agree to go (33:12-17). 

God carefully laid out two more stone tablets, like rings—the symbol of their commitment to one another. A commitment both he and Moses knew Israel would break. Yet he would still vow himself to Israel again. Then he reminded them why he would do it. He said, “I am Yahweh. I am an empathetic and gracious God, not with a quick temper, overflowing with loyal love and integrity, always loyally loving thousands upon thousands, and faithfully carrying away twistedness, betrayal, and failure. But I never fail to bring evildoers to justice, even if it takes generations” (Ex 34:6-7). 

Moses knelt before Him and cried, “Please, Yahweh, go with us! You’re right, they’re fickle people. Carry away our twistedness and our failure . . . and make us your own!”(34:9). 

It wasn’t going to be easy. They had hurt Yahweh, apparent by the fact that even after his tent was standing, and Yahweh entered the tent, no one was allowed to enter—not even Moses (40:35). 

We will get fidgety. We are still just as fickle. But as we start this journey through exile, let’s soak in this story, and remember God’s character, even after he is brutally betrayed: patient, loving, compassionate. He still makes a way to be with his people, even when they turn away from him. In a sea of instability, not least of which is our own affections, let’s never forget his integrity is our anchor. 

Watch: Bible Project video on Israel and the broken covenant

Listen: Exodus 32-34; also check out Psalm 106, where the songwriter reflects on Israel’s story of betraying Yahweh and His faithfulness toward them.

Exile: Some backgrounds and definitions

If y’all are anything like us, the exile part of Biblical history is the haziest. Even in our Bible story sets we love and use in our ministry in Madagascar, we basically jump from King David to Jesus, with a brief stop to hear how Isaiah predicts Jesus.

But in terms of Israel’s story–the story of the descendants of Abraham–exile is a critical epoch, a fulcrum. Much like how we view our own wars as Americans, or 9-11, or, now, COVID-19, the exile is a major historical event for Israel that divides her history into two parts: pre-exilic and post-exilic.

So, we want to give some brief background info and starting definitions as we try to dive deeper into the words of the prophets around exile. If you want to go further in your study, here are a couple of great resources to explore:

In the meantime, here are some ideas to get us started.

Exile

Exile connotes the loss of all that is familiar and comfortable. Emotionally, it is characterized by confusion. In the Bible, exile starts in the Garden of Eden, when humans decide to define what is good or bad on their own, without God. As a result, they can no longer live with God and they are cut off from him, Eden, and life itself. But God promised to bring them home and defeat their enemies through another person. 

God promised Abraham, one specific human, he would bless the world through him. Though he told Abraham to leave his home, he would give him another home in the Promised Land. Year after year, people waited for God to bring them home to this place. And though God continued to work through people (like Moses) and save Abraham’s people from death, slavery, etc., they never quite got back to the Garden. Eventually God did come to live with them. They finally made it into the Promised Land. They built a flourishing empire under some good kings—like King David that made people believe that perhaps everything was coming back together. But it wasn’t to be. 

God had already warned them that their people would continue to do things their own way, and it would lead to ruin. The one kingdom split into two, the Northern and Southern kingdoms, and people began worshiping everything but Yahweh their God. God continued to use people, prophets, to try and rescue the nation from itself. But eventually, both Israel and Judah were attacked, defeated, and exiled by other nations. And the hope became that, somehow, God would not only return them to their Promised Land but come to live with them and rule over them again.

The Divided Kingdom: North and South

Under King Saul, then David, and finally Solomon, the Hebrew people had been a united nation. However, due to bad leadership, buried tensions resurfaced and the nation split in two. The Northern Kingdom was known as Israel, as it comprised most tribes from Israel. The Southern Kingdom was primarily the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with Jerusalem still as its capital and, importantly, the temple where God lived. The Southern Kingdom was called Judah. To centralize spiritual power, the kings of the Northern Kingdom made a new capital in the city of Samaria, and a new temple in the city of Bethel. The temple at Bethel was home to a golden calf idol that Northern Israelites worshiped as Yahweh. 

Israel’s capital, Samaria, was sacked in 922 BC by the Assyrians, and the people of the Northern kingdom were either enslaved back in Assyria, or culturally assimilated with others imported into the territory. Assyria tried to conquer the Southern Kingdom at this time as well, but God prevented it. 

Judah’s destruction was a slow burn. First, in 587 BC, the Babylonians forcibly removed all the most educated people and exiled them to Babylon (think of Daniel and his friends). Then, when Babylon’s new territory would not submit, they completely razed the city in 593 BC.

(1)

The Prophets

Beginning with Moses, Israel needed a go-between. Moses is the prototypical prophet: speaking to God’s people on God’s behalf, but also empowered and used by God to deliver his people. In this way, prophets, and those of their ilk, are always a partial fulfillment of God’s promise to defeat evil through the “seed of the woman” (Gen 3:15). 

Later, Yahweh began the tradition of communicating with the nation of Israel through these prophets. Through men and women like these, God tried to pull the nation of Israel back from the brink. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about prophets, whether then or now, is that they were not officially part of either the ruling class or the religious class—they were not priests or kings. They could be anybody. They stood outside of these as a third eye of sorts, a way for God to hold his people, and especially their leaders, accountable. 

It’s also important to remember that although we know these people as true prophets today, they were not acknowledged as such during their lifetime. Prophets and messages of all kinds existed during this time, both good and bad, true and false. Often, the things they warned of happened after they were gone. In this way, prophets are usually honored—acknowledged, even listened to—in hindsight.

Diagram

Description automatically generated

(2)

Conclusion

America is not Israel. Yet, the story of Exile, as told through the pages of the Bible, is the story of how the mighty fall, how an entire nation, that had outwardly pledged allegiance to God, had actually always believed God pledged allegiance to them. It is the story of the corrosive effect of power, as rulers and religion do violence to the weakest in society. It is the story of how God will not leave the guilty unpunished, even through multiple generations, even those he had wanted to bless. 

But it is also the story of profound hope. Not the kind of hope that only glimmers when the sun is shining, but hope that radiates out when all is darkness. God is always calling his people back, sending them prophets to hold them accountable and remind them of his promises. Ultimately, the exile is how God prepared a nation for the Messiah, Jesus. You see, all God ever wanted was a human through whom he could bless the entire world. So eventually, Jesus comes to be that human, through whom God would start to bring everything back together. 

These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:11-13, NRSV).


Footnotes:

  1. https://i0.wp.com/faithelement.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/timeline-graphic.png

2. http://www.thebibleinitiative.com/daniel

Exile: A Lenten Study through the Prophets

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on March 2, 2022 (this week!). Throughout church history, Lent has been a time which many Christian faith traditions have set aside to fast, to pray, and to actively anticipate the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter.

For an exploration of the history and practices of Lent, and how they can encourage us especially during the challenging times these last few years have brought, listen to this interview with Esau McCauley. Tim Keller also has some extensive resources on Lent, and even the practice of Lent for Evangelicals in the Lent Project his ministry put out several years ago: some definitions, an exploration of grace in the practice of Lent, and other resources.

This year, we want to focus during the six weeks of Lent on God’s words to His people, the descendants of Abraham, through the prophets. The story of the descendants of Abraham climaxes in the fulfillment of God’s warnings to them through the prophets: that if they did not obey His commands, He would send them into exile, putting them at the mercy of other nations. These messages are accusations of sin, calls for righteousness, and finally, promises of hope in a future redemption after the time of exile.

That hope is ultimately fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. He is the plot twist that brings Israel’s exile to a close. His coming makes obedience possible for those who accept Him . . . and, conversely, also makes them exiles and misfits in their own families, nations, and cultures, as new members–first and foremost–of God’s new family in his eternal kingdom.

Please join us in studying God’s words through the prophets. As we reflect on the plight of the descendants of Abraham as exiles, may God teach us how to live as exiles in our world, awaiting a future hope of ultimate redemption when Jesus returns.

We will post 12 times over the next six weeks, starting with an introduction post this Tuesday. Each post will be a storied reflection on one of God’s messages through some of His prophets: Moses, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, and, finally, John the Baptist.

Each post will be organized into three sections: read, watch, and listen. First, you can read the storied reflection on the prophet’s message. Then, we’ll link a Bible project video to watch, which will provide an overview of that prophet or book of the Bible. Finally, we’ll share scripture passages from each prophet’s story and book of the Bible. We encourage you to listen to these passages–on your commute, while you’re washing dishes–throughout the week. Where we can, we will include other helpful resources, too.

We’re looking forward to taking this journey together!

Theology Tuesdays: Democracy in the Bible

Tomorrow the United States inaugurates a new president.

If you’re anything like me, this last election cycle has brought out a lot of questions. I’d love to hear yours. Here are some of mine:

  • What is a Christian’s role as a citizen of a country?
  • What does the Bible say about abortion?
  • What does the Bible say about refugees?
  • What does the Bible say about the poor?
  • What does the Bible say about how a government should be run?
  • Is there anything inherently Biblical about representative, democratic government?
  • What is the role of my vote versus my responsibility to serve my community . . . and what is my community?
  • Does the Bible actually say anything about voting in a democracy?
  • And, finally, what in the world is going on? 😩

Maybe some of you share some of these questions. Actually, we’d like to try to address some of these over the next few months, as we’re trying to find answers ourselves. But today, I’d like to hone in on this one:

Does the Bible actually say anything about voting in a democracy?

I’m still a little baffled by the examples I hear from some comparing our current president to a biblical king used by God. In 2016, it was Nebuchadnezzar. Recently, I heard comparisons to Cyrus or even King David. Notwithstanding that only one of those kings was actually the from the same country as the people of God, and not enslaving them, my question, again, since I heard this line of reasoning is, “What does the Bible actually say about voting in a democracy?”

Our government is by representation, which means we don’t have kings who inherit power, or are appointed by God as David was, and so far we don’t have political leaders from another nation and culture who conquer our nation, deport us, and enslave us, as in Nebuchadnezzar.

So does the Bible actually say anything about representative democracies? Certainly there are verses we could appeal to about how Christians should act. But what about an example of voting in the Bible? The following story is actually something I was looking at and wrote up in 2016. At risk of adding fuel to the fire of the political ire at the time, I never did anything with it. Same song, second verse, this past year. But now that the votes are cast, and especially after what the last few weeks have held, I’d like to share it.

The story is, of course, a Bible story. Here in Madagascar, we turn to Bible stories to try and understand what’s going on. This particular story is from the book of Judges (chapter 9), and in my 2016 search it was the closest thing to voting in a representative democracy I could find in the Bible.

God’s people electing their own king in 1 Samuel chapters 8 – 10 might be another example but even then God selects Saul and puts him forward for the people’s approval. Abimelech seems to be the best example of something close to democratic election.

The Story

Abimelech was from a privileged family. His name means “my father is a king,” because his father, Gideon, had led Israel and been treated like a king. But Abimelech was the forgotten illegitimate child. Until, one day, at a time in which Israel is being led by a multitude of privileged aristocrats, Abimelech campaigns to lead them. His strategy was careful, his message simple: (1) Better for one to lead than many—a strong leader can cut through the bureaucracy and get things done. (2) Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Abimelech uses his influence to persuade the citizens that he is “one of them” in order to get their vote.

But the citizens are going through a rough time politically, so they listen to the outsider. He convinces them he’s a better option than their current government because he is really one of them. So they give him religious blood money (taken from the temple), he quickly gathers other evil-minded people around him, and promptly goes and kills off all their leaders, 70 of his half-brothers. What a leader. 

But one of the brothers escapes from the slaughter and decries this new leader’s actions. This guy tells a parable that reveals that while their government had problems, the citizens knew Abimelech was a bad choice. Strikingly, this guy prophesies that the citizens have elected a worthless man who treats the lives of others as worthless—and they will be held responsible for their choice.

For a while it looks like the prophet’s wrong. Things go for fine for three years. But then God brings justice. The citizens decide they actually don’t like their leader now that he’s leading. So they try to get him out of office. That goes poorly. Abimelech starts a war, razes a city, and burns the citizens inside the temple. Like I said, fun guy. Then, while trying to do that same thing to another city, Abimelech is maimed by a woman with a millstone. So God brings justice on Abimelech for his destruction and justice on the citizens for electing him. As Bible scholar, Daniel Block, sums up, God gives the people the leader they deserve, and Abimelech what he deserves (Block, 335).

There is so much in this story, but I just have three questions as we read this story: 

  • What do we learn about people? 
  • What do we learn about God? 
  • What do we learn about voting?

What do we learn about people?

People are blinded and corrupted by what they want.

Now there is obvious unrest in the community. How do we know? The parable describes leaders who act too good to help. The citizens are also willing to get rid of their leadership by paying off their illegitimate, distant relative—which is still pretty shameful in today’s majority cultures. It means these people really wanted something to change in their leadership—enough that they were apparently completely blind to what Abimelech really was.

In part this is because the citizens treat the lives of others as worthless. People who do not respect all life often usher in death. They pay a shekel apiece for the lives of the 70 brothers at a time when you had to pay 50 shekels to buy someone’s life back out of slavery or poverty (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 258).

And with the measure they use it is measured to them (Matt 7:2). Those who do not respect life (unborn, weak, strong, the dying, black, Muslim, etc.) create a culture of death. These citizens mistook hubris, a lack of respect for life, and an insatiable lust for power as the ability to get things done.

What do we learn about God?

God is unfortunately absent in this story—not because he’s not there but because the people don’t care about him. Still, justice is meted out. 

God lets his people face the consequences of their decision. What can we say? the people want what they want. So God let’s them have it. And chaos ensues. God basically lets Israel destroy herself (Block, 309).

God always wins; His kingdom always standsIn different ways, both Abimelech and the citizens were only using each other to get their hands on power. Abimelech wanted to be the ruler and the people wanted a new form of government. Both completely ignored the fact that God rules over all, and it cost them their lives. “In the end Abimelech’s egomaniacal ambition must yield to the kingship of God” (Block, 334).

What do we learn about voting?

God respects the votes of citizens, but allows voters and elected officials alike to reap what they sow. 

The Hebrew wording draws out the idea that the people of the town are leaders able to make decisions for the community. Or, as the NIV translates it, they are “citizens.” These citizens have the right and power to elect a leader (king) for themselves (Block, 313-14).

What we see is that in a setup where people are electing a leader to make decisions for them, those people are held responsible for their vote, especially for the brutality they invoke. In the context of this story, we might say they are held even more responsible when they know they are choosing to be led by a ruthless man.  

Again, these citizens make a bad choice to solve their political situation. The parable shows that for sure there were already problems with Israel’s government leaders. It’s not like those before didn’t have their own issues. But it shows God outright rejects Abimelech’s style of leadership (Block, 321).

Regardless of how bad the government is, these citizens do not take their grievances to God. Instead, they elect a ruthless man who is contributing nothing to society or God’s kingdom . . . but he does think a lot of himself (Block, 318).

Old Testament scholar Daniel Block (from whom I have pulled from throughout) has this priceless quote:

“ . . . persons of honor engaged in constructive activity have no time for political agendas. They are too caught up in serving humanity, and so the rule often falls to the despicable elements of society. Third, rulers have a tendency to desire power for the worst reasons—their own narcissistic self-interest. In order to gain power they are often forced to offer promises they cannot fulfill. Fourth, in the words of a modern sage, people tend to get the leaders they deserve. Jotham’s fable is not only a polemic against a certain kind of kingship; it is actually directed primarily at those who are foolish enough to anoint a worthless man to be their king.”

Daniel Block, Judges-Ruth (NAC; Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1999), 321.

Foolish votes in a democracy have consequences. We should vote in the fear of God, who rules his kingdom with perfect justice and watches over the lives of all. We will be held responsible for who we choose to represent us.

This past week at the Capitol shows very clearly the kind of president we voted for (and when I say we I mean an overwhelming majority of evangelicals) and the kind of violence and shame he has ushered in . . . thanks in large part to evangelicals. We must take responsibility for that. That does not stop with our vote.

Our form of government is built on the principle that the voter is in charge. As Christians, it is our right and responsibility, no matter who we voted for, to use our voices, time, and resources in the fear of God, for the sake of all life, and putting others before ourselves. The issues facing our nation are complex, and aren’t solved with just our votes. We must intentionally invest ourselves in the issues we voted on, learning from both sides–that’s what it means to be in a democracy. We have to sow better things or risk our choices crashing down on our own heads.

Job in folklore and in our own time

We were able to get out to the churches in the South (some of our so-called “bush churches”). Thankfully, we have some good, godly leaders who, even though like everyone else have been slowed down by COVID-19, continued to care for their communities.

Meeting can be very hard for these leaders who are separated by a day’s walk in a place where almost everyone has to walk. So we kept picking up folks in our truck and carried them to the final village. They killed a goat for us and cooked us some of their meager rations of rice. These people will literally starve themselves before being inhospitable. Then we met. And we met. We met well into the night and then the morning. Then we got up early the next morning and continued meeting. We talked about good things and bad things, encouraged one another and grieved together. But everyone was so happy to see each other!

That next morning, as we all sat wrapped in blankets in that sparse, concrete schoolhouse, we presented the story of Job. We brought a recording we had just completed the day before, where a team of Malagasy created a radio drama of the story of Job. The leaders sat in rapt attention and then, when the story was done, we began asking questions and drawing out what everyone had understood and learned from Job.

Those men and women sat there, after they had told us how hard things had been and how hungry they were, and vowed to be like Job and never turn their backs on God. Satan would not get the best of them, no matter how hard he tried!

One leader, Emanda, who serves in a local government capacity and serves as the statesman and wise elder of the group, said it reminded him of a Malagasy folk story, a story I now share with you . . .

In the kingdom before there were two great friends. These guys were inseparable. It didn't matter what they were doing or where they were going; they were always together. They had been friends since anyone could remember and nothing could drive them apart.

But one day, a troublemaker came to the king of that land. The king was watching these two guys walking down the road together, laughing and enjoying one another's company. "Do you see those two?" the king asked. "There's no one else like those friends. Nothing could ever break their bond!" But the troublemaker overheard the king. "What's that, O King?"

The king again point out at the two friends. "Nothing could ever drive those two apart, they're inseparable!"

"I can do it," said the troublemaker. "I can drive a wedge between them."

"You're lying!" cried the king. "And even if you could if would take so long it wouldn't even be worth it."

"Oh no, O king," said the troublemaker, "I'll be quick. I'll have them hating each other even for this day is dark."

So as the king and others watched, the troublemaker set out ahead of the two friends. As they passed him on the road, talking and carrying on with each other, the troublemaker flagged the one down. "Hey," he said waving. "I need to talk to you for a minute. It's important."

So the one friend broke off from the other and came to the side of the road where troublemaker stood. "What's up?" Troublemaker didn't say anything, he just looked at him for a minute. "Make it quick, man," said the friend, "I've gotta get back to my friend."

Then Troublemaker pulled him in and began whispering to him, making sounds with his mouth that never formed into words.

The friend pulled back in horror. "What in the world? What are you trying to say, man?!"

Troublemaker pulled him in again and whispered still, still moving his lips but not saying any distinct words. The friend was angry. "Listen, I'm not sure what you're trying to do but you're not saying anything! I'm going back to my friend." And he left, racing to catch back up with his friend further ahead.

"What was that all about?" asked the other friend once they were walking together again. "Oh nothing. I can't even tell you anything he was saying!" His friend stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. "You can't tell me he didn't tell you anything. I saw him pull you in and whisper to you. Now, please, tell me what he said."

"He didn't say anything!" exclaimed the one.

"You're planning to kill me aren't you? You're going to kill me and take my stuff!"

And the two friends argued and went their separate way to their own houses, each now the others' enemy. And Troublemaker laughed as he watched, having separated the best of friends without ever having said one word.

The whole point of Job is that Job refuses to jump to rash conclusions while still grappling with what he has seen and what has happened to him. Job struggles mightily not to read into what’s happening to him and instead just take his complaints directly to his friend, God. In the Malagasy story, it would be as if Job stands their quarreling with his friend without storming off.

I couldn’t help but ponder our sound and fury right now during this season. It’s not that I think there’s nothing behind all the accusations we’re hurling and the existential panic we feel. But as Job and folklore remind us in our time, we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes. But trust is key, and we need to spend more time building trust than tearing down one another.

Things to Ponder: Hope

We recently did a food distribution here in our town through three of our local churches. In filling out our evaluation form afterward, the final question was something to the effect of: What other measurable spiritual benefits came from this project?  Nathan filled out most of the form, and I came behind him to fill in a few additional details. I was struck by his answer to this question. He wrote one word: hope.

This year has done a number on our hope. I think if you looked the whole world over, you would be hard-pressed to find one community not touched by COVID-19 . . . by sickness, death, loneliness, job loss, uncertainty, fear, upheaval, grief, anxiety. Where do we find hope in a time like this?

I’ve witnessed hope in the faithful lives of Malagasy believers. I want to share that hope with you. From 2017-2019, we worked through a series of stories from church history that emphasized different doctrines with the Mahafaly leaders. We started with the first church in Acts and followed along with stories up through today.

One week we were concerned as we prepared, because our topic was God’s sovereignty and suffering. From our own cultural perspective, we expected this topic to be tough. We wrestle with how a good, powerful God can allow suffering. We’re always asking, “Why?” In fact, we struggle with that question often personally here. We see significant suffering around us every day. Why? Why is life so hard here? Why is our life so much easier? How can I fix this suffering around me—make it stop! 

But when we taught through this lesson, the Mahafaly leaders didn’t bat an eye. The principle is basically that a loving God calls His people to suffer in a fallen world. When I’m confronted with this reality, I buck against it, either from one side or the other. Maybe God isn’t really loving. Or maybe He can’t really control my circumstances. Or there will be some “silver lining”—visible very soon, I’m sure—something that shows me WHY!!!

But our people here just aren’t asking those questions. They are following Christ faithfully. And they are suffering deeply. And these two things simply aren’t incongruent for them. One doesn’t threaten the other. I don’t have either the theoretical or the experiential framework for that, yet I see it over and over in the convicting testimonies of the believers here. 

I’m beginning to hear this conviction too from the testimonies of people of color in the United States. I have always assumed that our propensity to insulate ourselves from suffering is an “American” problem. But I am realizing that I can only speak as a white, American evangelical. I’m learning that right alongside the America I’ve experienced are communities of believers of color worshipping God through deep suffering on a daily basis. 

Please understand. I’m not denying that everyone in the world suffers—it’s a part of being human. Please, don’t hear me diminishing your personal experience of suffering. I know many of you reading this have experienced suffering unlike anything I’ve never known, and my heart aches for you. But God has been bringing specific stories of suffering and faith—from people of color in the United States—before Nathan and me over and over the last few months. I confess I was unaware of so, so much of what these brothers and sisters are facing. I’m committed to continue listening and learning, and to try, as much as I can, to weep with those who weep, whether here in Madagascar or there in the United States.

One of our local pastors here shared with us about the challenges they had faced as a family during the “confinement,” as it’s called here—the time when people were supposed to stay at home, churches were restricted from meeting, and travel was extremely limited due to COVID. He admitted that yes, things had been very hard. Then he continued, “But sometimes you forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”  

“Sometimes we forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”

Pastor Manentesoa

How have the challenges of this year helped us realize our true need for God? Every day? That’s the gift of suffering.

This year has been tough. I know it’s been hard on us. I know many of you have faced significant struggles. If you find your hope flagging, please take courage from communities practiced in suffering. Some of the circumstances we find ourselves in now, we probably never thought we would face. But even if . . . 

You’ve lost someone, there is hope.

You don’t feel confident in the future, there is hope.

You’re worried about you or someone you love getting sick, there is hope.

You’re separated from an elderly person you love, there is hope.

You don’t see anything getting better with the coming election, there is hope.

You’ve lost your job, there is hope.

You feel threatened, there is hope.

Because, as Ekemini Uwan says, 

“Hope is not an abstract concept. Hope is a person.”[1]

Ekemini Uwan, Truth’s Table Podcast

[1] “Truth’s Table Classroom: Why We Can’t Wait : Eschatology and BLM,” Truth’s Table podcast, 4 July 2020, recording from lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, 2014.

Things to Ponder: Chyella’s Concept of “English”

Our daughter Chyella is four. She is a huge talker. She goes to French preschool—or at least she did, before COVID-19. She also talks with Malagasy people as we visit them and go to church with them. She knows words in French and in Malagasy, and likes to practice. She has a category for the French language, and one for the Malagasy language. One day, we started talking about English. She learned a new word, and asked if it was a French word. No, I told her, it was just an English word that was new to her. She gave me a very puzzled look. 

C: Mommy, what’s English?

Me: You know, English. The language we speak here at home. What we speak all the time.

C: (still super puzzled) You mean French? 

Me: No—you practice French at school, and Malagasy at church. But English is most of what you know, everything we’re saying right now.

She shook her head. We repeated this conversation in some form or another for at least a week. She never got it. I’m not an early childhood development expert (if you are, please chime in! :), but I think I can imagine why she struggled with this concept. English is equivalent to just talking for her. It was a “does a fish know it’s wet?” moment for me. For Chyella, English is not a language to be learned or studied or practiced (as she does with French and Malagasy, because her exposure is more limited). It’s just talking. Removing herself from her daily speech to examine it is nearly impossible. 

I believe this same struggle is true for many of us who are white when we think about race in the United States. We’ve never examined our experience, stepped back from it and considered the role our race plays in it, because to us, our experience is the “American experience.” Race has nothing to do with it. We don’t even realize uniquely white elements of our experience. We don’t understand African-American struggles, but the depth and breadth of what we may be missing never occurs to us. We don’t often step back from our own and other Americans’ experience because we expect it to be our own. 

With the murders that have taken place in recent weeks and months—at least, those that have come to the attention of the news—and the protests that have followed, I have found myself in the midst of a powerful lesson. I’m humbled to admit that I haven’t learned this lesson before now, that I’m new to this conversation on racial injustice. When the protests and rioting started, I felt the impulse to reach out to African-American friends, to check on them and ask how they were doing. And then I realized—again, with shame—I hardly know any African Americans. Suddenly I realized—I don’t know anything about African Americans. How could I possibly, when I know so few?

Nathan and I are missionaries in Madagascar. We have the privilege of working among people who are culturally different than we are, and having many deep relationships with Malagasy people. We have worked for years on language learning and cultural observation. We have learned to enter every conversation with open ears and open minds, assuming throughout that we’re missing something, determined to reserve judgment and keep learning. That doesn’t mean we do this perfectly, but we have seen that regular and prolonged exposure to another culture has given us an incredible gift—we now know just how wrong it is possible for us to be. 

When we first came to Madagascar, we were enamored with the differences—it’s called the honeymoon phase on the culture shock continuums. Then, we developed some real relationships and found ourselves reveling in the similarities . . . this culture wasn’t so different after all! Humans are the same, the world over! Then, as time went on and language and culture comprehension grew, a deeper reality set in. We are different . . . very different in many ways. This is not a statement of value—different isn’t bad. But it is real. There are significant differences between American culture and Malagasy culture. If we ignore those, we will not be good missionaries. We will not share our message or our lives in ways that are meaningful here. We will miss huge swaths of what is happening around us. And the more we learn, the more we discover is missing or inadequate in our earlier understandings. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

This experience has changed the way we view life. We now have a growing instinct to listen first, learn first, expect to be wrong, expect to adapt. We are eternally grateful for the development of this learning muscle in our hearts and minds.  

And yet, here I am, failing to practice this discipline in my home culture. I’ve discovered a huge gap in my experience, a whole group of people I’ve lived alongside, yet ignored. And yet I’ve drawn conclusions, as if I could know. 

I’m determined to change this, to listen and learn intentionally to African American voices, to minority voices, especially those who are brothers and sisters in Christ. Even in beginning to listen, I’ve heard stories of suffering I can’t imagine—would not have thought possible. Romans 12:15 calls me to “weep with those who weep” . . . and yet I have brothers and sisters weeping and I’ve been oblivious to their needs. To friends of color who are reading this, I know you don’t need me . . . but I will be doing my best to learn to listen. To those of you who are white reading this, will you join me in learning? 

Darkness and Light: Psalm 139

Tessa here for a quick devotional! This week I want to share a Scripture that has become especially meaningful to me during this strange time of pandemic. Many of us are familiar with Psalm 139. I have loved these verses:

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

This is the version I was used to. However, back in March I heard someone read aloud these verses from the New American Standard Bible.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
12 Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.

For some reason these minor changes shifted my idea of this Scripture, especially at an unprecedented time like this. I think I’ve always understood these verses to mean that God’s presence will make darkness light . . . I won’t notice the darkness because God is right there, lightening things up. 

Though I’m sure this is true, after hearing it in the NASB, I have another impression. The verse ends, “Darkness and light are alike to You.” As in, it makes no difference to God if it’s dark or light, if things are easy or hard, if I feel happy or sad . . . He is the same (yesterday, today and forever) (Heb 13:8). He is always good, always powerful, always at work. His work in the world, His work in His Church, His work in our individual lives, doesn’t change. He is always working. Whether we feel frantic and terrified and confused and are desperately seeking Him, or we feel pretty good about things—He is the same. Whether we recognize sin in our hearts or are blind to it—He is the same. Whether we see the big picture of His work in the world or can only see our own individual struggles—He is the same. 

Darkness and light are alike to You.

Psalm 139:12 (NASB)

I am praying during this time to see Him as He is, to let Him show me sin in my heart, to seek forgiveness, to have greater awareness of His work around me—because He has been and is working always, no matter what personal concerns I’ve been consumed with. I want to look up, and see Him.

A Sunday with the Church

Sitting with everyone there in that small hut I felt like I got a glimpse of the “real” Church. Throughout the history of the Church, people have always tried to narrow the thing down to its essence. What makes a church a church? Is it the bread and wine? Is it the Bible? I’m no closer than anyone else to figuring it out. But as I sat with a man who had just walked away from a dark life of what we would call witchcraft, I marveled at the simplicity and power of God’s people.

Michel, the man on the left in the picture above, is known here as a tromba, a medium for spirits. He’s been in contact with one of our local pastors before. They grew up together and Michel has watched as God’s Spirit has slowly changed his friend. See, Michel is no stranger to spirits changing people. After his father died when he was a child, he also came down with a bad fever. Then the spirits came. He would wake up far from people in the sand near the sea. But the water made no noise and it wasn’t wet. His feet left no tracks in the sand. Then the spirits appeared before him in kinds of forms. His sister, in the middle of the above picture, testified that during these spells he would get extremely cold. Only when they warmed him with fire would the spirits leave, even after they tried to drive the spirits away with a Bible.

As he got older, the spirits would summon him at different times. They would guide people with different illnesses to him. As soon as they told him what was wrong, the spirits would possess him and lead him to different plants which he was able to combine into healing potions and solutions. You might think that’s wonderful these spirits were so helpful. But the tromba is tormented by the spirits. Often they are possessed by different spirits, one after another. There is no time to earn money for their own family or even feed themselves. When the spirits come, they need to satiate themselves first. Often they need blood, and a lot of it. The tromba, possessed by the spirits, will drink bowl-fulls of fresh, animal blood. Sometimes it’s booze the spirits desires as the mediums will drink themselves within inches of their life.

Michel wanted out. But how in the world could he escape this fate? How are you supposed to get out from under the thumb of these oppressive spirits?

Recently, Michel ran into his old friend again, a fisherman who pastors of one of our local churches. He saw how his friend’s life has slowly improved under the influence of Jesus and those following him. Also at that time, this pastor was helping us to lead a feeding project in his community. Michel watched as the church fed the local community, regardless of whether they were Christians or not, even giving away their own portions to those in need. His own family was fed. And Michel saw a way out.

As the church, we all sat in Michel’s hut and listened to this story as he told us how he met Jesus through them. I say, “the church.” There was the local pastor and his mentor, Edia, a man who has helped us craft multiple Bible stories here (you might know him as “The Traveller” from the Bible stories we’re posting here). There were also handful of young guys and girls, along with about six women and our Grandma Melina.

As we huddled together in the dim hut, I couldn’t help but marvel how we all worked together to follow Jesus. Edia led us in prayer and opened our visit by reminding us God loves everyone, even those who deal in darkness. His love is for all people, even when his wrath is against the evil forces of this world. I then told the story we call here the “Two Fences”–a big summary of the whole story of Scripture that our friends here have crafted. It puts special emphasis on the role of evil spirits against God and all humanity, who specifically usurped us humans as the God-appointed rulers of earth. The human kings and queens were enslaved as evil reigned as king. But then Jesus came . . . a man who steps on the scene as the GodMan: not less than God, but more than your average guy, the King of heaven and earth. And he fills those who follow him as king with his own sovereign Spirit to become kings and queens again.

For someone like Michel, that is the only way out. Only by trusting in the King of the Cosmos who can fill him with the indomitable Spirit, can Michel break with his abusive spiritual masters. Only with the backing of a spiritual family who will take care of him and his family can he finally tell them, “NO.”

We then all turned to Grandma Melina. No one knows how old Melina is; not even Melina knows! Years ago, she began to work with Tessa crafting Bible stories. Growing up in a poor, patriarchal society, Melina never learned to read or write. Every time she speaks she apologizes for the way she talks. She speaks in the pure and riveting Tandroy dialect, which is looked down upon by some here. But Melina knows God and his Word. We all sat in rapt attention as she began.

She explained she knew nothing but prayer. We had to talk to our Father. And like a mother teaching her children, she spoke to God. It was not formality but familiarity that we heard. She then began to tell the story of David appointed by God as king of God’s people. It sounded as if she was talking about something that had happened the day before. It was so clear and real. Then she finished by pronouncing, sake-like, “Today, God has made you, Michel, king, just as he did with David. He has not looked at your appearance but at your heart. You are king of your family and of this community, and it is your responsibility to take care of them and tell them about Jesus.”

And as we sat and listened to Melina, I looked around at all of us, different ages, different cultures, different pasts, looking to our illiterate matriarch as she spoke God’s Word over us. Here was the church. Indeed, the Church, like David, is not judged by God by outward signs and marks but by the heart. We are a family, each with our different parts to play, riffing off of one another as we remind ourselves of our heritage, how we all trace back to the man called Jesus. We are all kings and queens, filled with the Spirit of the King of Kings, no matter if we can read, no matter our personal history, no matter what gender, color, or creed.

Theology Tuesday: God and Unsolved Mysteries

Recently, we gave the revitalized Unsolved Mysteries a try. The first episode is about Rey Rivera, a guy who goes missing suddenly after he runs out unexpectedly one night, only to be found days later in an old, hotel conference room where he has, supposedly, plummeted to his death. Props to the show, it pulls you in immediately and gets your mind to working.

But I was disturbed by the time the show ended. Obviously, Rivera’s case is unsolved; but there are so many things that stick out like and cry foul-play (would someone please decode that freaky, little note he left!). It leaves you dissatisfied because you know Rey and his family didn’t get justice and don’t have the peace of mind knowing the bad buys were exposed. Theologically, there’s actually a lot that could be said for this. Our insatiable impulse for justice in unsolved mysteries and foul-play coverups speaks to God’s character, the need for every act to be held to account at some point, and what God is doing in the meantime.

I don’t think it was running at the time, but Job could very well have been the subject of an Unsolved Mysteries episode back in the day. In fact, if we didn’t have the supernatural backstory of how a shadowy figure is running Job through the gauntlet to challenge his trust in God, Job’s story would be every bit dissatisfying as Rey Rivera’s. He’s goes from a respectable, wise leader to a deranged, homeless guy. And from Job’s perspective it’s actually God abusing him.

Job doesn’t get enough credit. In chapter 19:25-27, he burst out with his fundamental belief in God:

But I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the end he will stand on the dust.
Even after my skin has been destroyed,
yet I will see God in my flesh.
I will see him myself; 
my eyes will look at him, and not as a stranger.
My heart longs within me.

What is kinda crazy is that Job has been railing against God for treating him like an enemy. Job trusted him and this is how God treats him? And what is Job supposed to do? God’s too powerful and too smart for Job to get anywhere lamenting his situation with him (9:19). But here, Job tells us what he believe deep-down about God. He pushes past his present suffering to say the God he believes is hurting him is still the God who is good enough to save him.

As one scholar puts it, “Job is beseeching the God is whom he has faith to help him against the God who is punishing him. While this view seems irrational, this paradox lies at the core of Job’s struggle. These two conflicting views of God are at war in his own mind. Although he believes that God is just, he is overwhelmed . . .”

Is Job crazy? To be honest, this sounds more like the excuses of an abuse victim than it does sound logic. However, I think Job is just honestly struggling with two sets of experiences (1) God’s proven track record, with him personally and in history, of personal love and care, and (2) God’s present indifference to his suffering and impersonal silence to Job’s injustice. Which one is the real God? Someone like Luther would say God #2 is not God wearing the mask of evil but actually evil posing as God. Still, Job fundamentally believes that even in God is responsible for his suffering, he will personally come and sort things out.

The resurrection is the ultimate evidence of God’s personable love and care even in the face of horrible injustice. His love and justice can never be too late; they extend beyond the grave.

For Job, this clearly meant he believed God would restore him before death. But Job also sets the stage for Jesus, the who suffers injustice (seemingly at the hands of God) and yet is restored even after death. The resurrection is the ultimate evidence of God’s personable love and care even in the face of horrible injustice. His love and justice can never be too late; they extend beyond the grave.

Although Job’s confession as interpreted does not explicitly support the doctrine of resurrection, it is built on the same logic that will lead to that doctrine becoming the cornerstone of NT faith. Job is working with the same logic of redemption that stands as the premise of the NT doctrine of resurrection. Both hold to the dogma that God is just even though he permits unrequited injustices and the suffering of the innocent. God, himself, identified with Job’s sufferings in the sufferings of his Son, Jesus Christ, who suffered unto death even though he was innocent. Jesus overcame his ignominious death by rising from the grave. In his victory he, as God’s Son and mankind’s kinsman-redeemer, secured redemption for all who believe on him. While his followers may suffer in this life, he is their Redeemer, their Advocate before the Father. In this way Job’s confidence in God as his Redeemer amidst excruciating suffering stands as a model for all Christians

John E. Hartley, The Book of Job (NICOT), 297.

Justice is coming for Rey Rivera, just like it did for Job. How do I know? Because a man named Jesus is representing him. Do we really think Jesus is not interested? Was he not killed in an enormous, political hit-job which was quickly covered up? Did he not die to, in one fell swoop, take down the bad guys and restore the victims? The biblical hope is not that God will magically sweep away all wrongdoing. He’s going to stand in the flesh in front of us all and bring justice for all.

Meantime, Jesus has left us here as his deputies. Whether it’s Rey Rivera or any other silent victim, our job is to represent the Redeemer, advocating and working for justice on behalf of the vulnerable. And if we’re going to look anything like Jesus, we have to be ready to do what he did and stand between evil and the suffering, taking the hit so they have a way out. The boss is still coming, in the flesh, to set everything right. Meantime, we’ve got work to do.