Matthew 6

You look after the sincerity, God will look after the perfection.

The sermon on the mount continues. Yesterday Jesus talked about being obvious to the world. Be like salt, be like light shining out.

I was interested that to a bunch of strangers this is quoted as among the first things he said. Giving that responsibility to those with little theological knowledge. To just anybody!

The teaching in today’s chapter is mainly about being sincere inyour private relationship with God. That is what Jesus says should be the foundation of your presence in the world. Thoughout the Bible, that honest humble sincerity seems so much more valuable to God than lots of knowledge.

Give to the needy because of your sincere conviction before God, not to work the human dynamic of what is considered moral. Ditto prayer, fasting and your attitude to wealth.

He tosses in the lord’s prayer, as you do. It’s a rich section that I can’t do justice in one day’s entry.

This sincerity before God introduces a reciprocity. These lessons are applications of the two great commands, to love God and thereby know how to love your neighbor.

Forgive as you would be forgiven. Give without making need shameful, as you would want help to be. Pray, earn money for the benefit of others, not to build up yourself. That is reciprocated as treasure in heaven. As above, so below; as below, so above.

I read an article this morning that struck me as being full of this spirit, by a gay “teacher in residence” in the US reformed church, where he may never be ordained, about why he stays.

He is in no way ashamed to be gay, but he is present and humble before those who do not agree with him. Here he is discussing a warm-ish email he got from a congregation member who initially would not greet him.

Emails like hers remind me of the power of presence. Our bodies and stories can accomplish what no court can. Even if she never changes her views on sexuality, perhaps I’ve been able to complicate her narrative and to instigate a pause, into which a thought might emerge: Maybe things weren’t as simple as I thought. But that line of thinking applies equally to me. Perhaps she has complicated my narrative, too. She has reminded me that the law that governs my faith doesn’t discriminate, even — and especially — when it comes to those who might discriminate against me.

Jeff Chu

The legal template set by Jesus for the Christian faith says this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Even if I change no hearts, minds or souls, that higher law remains. The instruction is to love God — and to love my neighbor as she is, not as she might someday be. I crave that kind of love myself, even as I struggle to extend it to others. 

Jeff Chu

Beautiful, I think. It has that connection between private honesty before God flowing to loving interactions between people. In the way they disagree, they are being salt and light to each other, and templates of the kingdom of God.

This is the way of Jesus’ scary perfection then. When he says you should gouge out an eye that causes you to sin.

Give up trying by your own efforts to show off to God and other people what a good person you are. You’ll never get there. Every letter and more of the law is fulfilled if we give ourselves with sincerity to god’s mercy. If we sincerely receive Jesus’ perfect transforming love, a little of it will overflow out to others.

Ezekiel 42

So we’ve started our holiday, our first night overnight in New Zealand at a friend’s house. Myself, Kelly (wife) and Rennie (16 son) staying with a family we met at Ren’s school, they have a daughter the same age. I’ve missed them a lot, they were our goto bored-on-a-Friday night dinner companions for quite a few years when they lived in Sydney.

Wonderful, creative, hilarious people. Improbably, we shared Christmas quite often too, not remotely sharing a faith but enjoying each other’s company and the weirdness of Christmas culture together anyway.

Today we head off on a road trip which I hope isn’t too onerous, the First three days down the North island with our friends, and then on down the South island just us three.

The Bible passage today has yet more detail about the temple, today particularly the holy rooms where the priests changed clothes to go and offer sacrifices within the layers and layers of holiness that led to the presence of God.

Before they can mingle with anyone else, they must change back out of the special clothes.

Remembering how comfortable and included I felt in our circle of quite Bohemian people, how much I admire them, and aware often of how far short of God’s holiness I am, the emphasis on holiness as an unattainable standard is confronting. Even I, a god botherer, feel so inadequate, how much more distant from God could my atheist friends be?

But Jesus was inclusive. And when he died, the curtain in the temple that separated humankind from God was torn in two.

It’s a lesson in love. A revelation of the cost of love. Unless you know there is a cost, you won’t know how deep it is.

Like when children grow up with loving parents and go out into the world, and have the prodigal son’s realisation that the world is a lot harsher than home.

They learn the hard way to value and crave the love they took for granted at home. They go back getting a little ashamed, pathetic and uncertain. And there is God running down the field in joy to celebrate, wrap them in an embrace and feast with them.

Holiness helps us comprehend God’s pain and joy in loving us.

I’m feeling very open to joy and adventure as we set out on this holiday.

Ezekiel 23

A word from God that is a surprisingly vulgar and explicit analogy of Samaria and Jerusalem and prostitutes. Have no illusion, God understands all about the dynamics and details of that activity.

Jerusalem is worse because it courted more nations, who are depicted as the clients. So both accommodated the Assyrians, but Jerusalem also turned to the Chaldeans, Babylonians, and back to the Egyptians they came from.

These were all alliances. So it set me thinking about alliances as well as the gravity of sin. It’s who and how they got in bed with…

In message after message to the forgotten Israelites in Babylon, God is desperately saying he hasn’t abandoned them, they abandoned him. He’s allowing this out of desperation as the only way he can reach them.

Lust has a context in love, but can also be separate. God is rejecting our claim to be satisfied in a loveless life.

God wants us to respond.

From the time the Israelites were in the desert, he doesn’t force any of them to love him. He’s showing them the consequences of rejecting him while they can still choose.

The response can be shown in pretty much anything. Wordlessly touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak.

Matthew 8

It’s not a biography as much as an extended CV. The information is organised by category not chronology, so far.

The first few chapters were background and credentials.  Then Jesus’ manifesto, 3 chapters of mission statement and vision.  Now a bunch of significant actions are grouped together to make the point of his divinity.

The theme is Jesus’ supernatural power – a healing, a resurrection, controlling weather, driving out demons. They make it clear that these are just examples, he does it constantly.

The passage is interested in peoples responses, and Jesus’ reactions.  Their’s vary – the disciples are chided for fearing their story might end in drowning (as if!). The most faith is found in a roman soldier.  Tellingly, Jesus responds that he has nowhere to lay his head, and it’s recorded that the response of the town where he drove demons into a pig herd is to demand he leave the region.

The drumbeat of rejection by his own, the Jews, has been sounding since chapter one. The book is written for them, the old testament echos are constant.

Despite the familiarity Jesus still provokes and surprises me. He tells the leper to keep his healing on the down low.  So was it done from compassion more than to show he was God? A follower asks time out for his father’s funeral arrangements, and Jesus says no… bad boss!  But he won’t disguise the urgency and importance of his life.

It’s shaping up to be a stressful week – I won’t go into it. The love of Jesus feels like a given that doesn’t erase the hardness of this world.

In the short term. Jesus had to play it by ear, string it along, buy time and make hard choices, that’s clear from this passage. Which is ironic given he has the power to tell the waves to calm.

The devils temptation was to use his power to take short cuts. It illustrates the dilemma of evil, I suppose.

Waiting for the few to pass through the narrow gate. Why?  Love? The shepherd gives most time to the lost sheep.


Ezekiel 17

Ezekiel is, I’m starting to think the prophet with the most love. The visions don’t hide the horror befalling Israel, but the end point of God’s love winning in the end is repeated more, I think, than in other major prophets. Just a theory.

This prophesy is quite precise about Zedekiah’s reign. He was virtually the last, pathetic king of Judah. He was a puppet king of the Babylonians, but tried a power move of betraying them by relying on a deal with Egypt to protect against them. It was a dumb move that I think made the sacking of Jerusalem necessary.

These political moves are compared to Eagles carrying twigs of Cedar trees -Israel being the twigs. An uncertain propagation strategy compared to flourishing next to a sustaining River.

It ends with a vision of the kingdom of God which Jesus referred to, as a great flourishing tree, full of birds, providing shade and comfort.

At the end of all these alarming analogies of the last few chapters: the cedar twig carried off by Eagles, the prostitute, the dead vine; are promises of God’s salvation.

I’ve read a lot of dire prophesy, and many stories of death and destruction to get this far in the Bible. Maybe I’m just getting de-sensitised to it.

Maybe it was the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s audience, already political captives, learning of the situation at home worsening. There is a lot of grace here. Hope despite everything.

It’s what is so appealing about the Bible: yes there is a reason we have spiritual longings as well as fleshly desires There is a God. The one constant, and God is a God of love.

Jesus is love in human flesh. In a world of evil, against all odds, God’s kingdom is established.

Ezekiel 16

Love and despair.

This is a bitter attack in words that God has put in Ezekiel’s mouth. And we today are probably more deserving of it.

Also, as unsparing as it is, there is a depth of love in there.

Were doing a series of analogies to illustrate how God sees the Israelites.

This one is of a prostitute. God talks about the rescue of Israel from Egypt like saving a baby abandoned in a field, and the glory of Solomon and David as like giving the abandoned child all the advantages in life.

Then the serial rejection of God for the idols of Canaan as like becoming a prostitute.

The chapter ends though, with God promising his covenant to them anyway. Their punishment amounts to their deep humiliation when they accept God’s saving grace despite their actions. Gods love is extraordinary in the context of his awareness of human evil specifically directed towards him.

I thought, we have had more advantages lavished on us than David or Solomon ever did, and more of God’s truth revealed in Jesus than the ancient Israelites ever had, and yet we are just as faithless.

The Christians, those who aren’t completely corrupt, are like the remnant within Israel. The small group of those who ‘get it’.

Though to the extent we leave the world uninformed of God’s love by being weak and passionless, the humiliation of those who reject God surely passes somewhat to those who don’t effectively preach him.

It’s not without consequence, cheap grace, and God is saying it will be revisited on us as deep painful shame.

We are doing people a service if they at least know what we are telling them about God. Even if they reject it, they own their own rejection.

And God here seems to hold out some hope of them finding his love, even through the pain of facing their evil towards him.

Psalm 138

“it’s the potatoes” ” no, it’s the way they’re cooked” “no, it’s the potatoes” “no, it’s the way they’re cooked”.

When I was a child I sat through this tedious ad for Smith’s Crisps so many times, waiting patiently at the TV for the next segment of Road Runner or some such. It was supposedly an argument between two painfully exaggerated Irishmen about what makes Smith’s Crisps the best. Oh, and I think they said “praitees” instead of potatoes. Good grief.

Anyway, this psalm of David reminded me of it, because he suggests God’s decrees are more famous than he is. His decree being his love for the lowly and undeserving, including David. “It’s God” “no it’s his love” “no, it’s God” “no, it’s his love”…that means he’s worthy of praise above all the other so called ‘gods’.

David praises Jehovah above all others because of how he engages: this God answers, and the answers embolden him. With one hand he fends off enemies, with the other he lifts David up. He preserves him from trouble.

Out course in just as many psalms David says “where are you!” “Why have you abandoned me?”.

Or “I will wait. Patiently”

Monday morning, which will it be for me today? Everything peachy, everything a disaster, or somewhere in between? (There are a few a few “meh” psalms, but not many… I suppose “meh” doesn’t lend itself to songs).

I’m a bit anxious about work, but excited for the opportunities. I’m determined to function with family, I’m in an organisation mode for things like mess, bills etc, which is good, and very variable.

I had a good break away with Kelly that reminded us how much we love each other’s company, and what relaxation feels like.

Is it him, or his love? I’m certainly sticking with Jehovah!

Psalm 137

Oh it’s that psalm. Not merely a hit for Boney M, as if that weren’t distracting enough (…by the rivers of Babylon…) but also the one that ends with the happy thought of violently killing the infants of your enemy.

Is it the lost 3rd verse of the song? In the Boney M recording session the producer said “is it just me or is that bit about smashing baby heads not working?”

Kelly, my wife, quotes this verse to Islamophobes, you know, who say Islam is an inherently violent and bloodthirsty religion. It’s not hard to characterise Christianity that way too if you want to, by digging out verses like this. She studies with a number of Muslim believers and she says in practice their culture of empathy and hospitality puts many a Christian to shame.

The commentators ultimately conclude that this verse is an old testament thing. We’re taught better in the new testament.

But even Jeremiah taught them not to be like this. In chapter 29, his letter to the exiles told them to become functioning citizens of Babylon, to prosper, have children, and wait out the prophesied 70 years praying blessing for the nation they were sent to.

However the memory of what they have lost is still too raw for them here. The images of the Israelite’s own children being dashed on the rocks would have been seared into the memory of the exiles, it was standard procedure for conquering armies, including the Babylonians.

The Israelites weren’t even particularly planning to personally execute this cosmic revenge. They were recalling the prophesy of Isaiah that the Babylonians would suffer that on their day of judgement at the hands of yet another Empire.

So watching their children killed, among other horrors, then dragged off to a foreign land and told to sing a joyous song …they instead allow themselves the joy of imagining the same fate eventually being visited on their captors. It’s still not exactly “love your enemies”, I agree, but I can see the temptation.

The psalm is poignant. The people subjugated and in a foreign country, remembering Zion, weeping, and having their culture laughed at. Reminiscent of Jesus being given a crown of thorns and called king of the jews. Promising not to forget God and Zion, but seeing no tangible hope, bitterly remembering their “frenemies” neighbouring Edom goading Babylon on, enjoying their destruction. Ending with the memory of their children being mercilessly slaughtered.

I suppose it’s the sadness of judgement. The Israelites have suffered it, the Babylonians will suffer it. Death, violent or gentle, sooner or later will come to us all.

And those who are left will struggle with the spirituality of raw emotion as Israel does here.

Wild thoughts will either turn you to God or harden your heart, maybe making a God of revenge.

The Israelites are presently channeling their intense homesickness into promises to never forget Jerusalem, their spiritual home. But I think, over time they will learn to sing their songs to their children in the strange land.

In fact, that’s a strong speculation of how the book of Psalms came to be. That it’s a portable temple of words. Prayers, not stones, so they can love God with hearts not rituals.

The Israelites here appear have the wisdom to allow God to judge the cruelty of Babylon, but not yet the grace to forgive it, not to indulge in judgement as shadenfreud.

There’s a lot to learn about sadness, guilt and rage here. Sanctifying our emotions is complex work. God doesn’t want emotionless robots. Jesus was not a picture of that. The firehose of emotion is to be channeled by wisdom towards deepening our capacity for love, and sharpening our priorities.

Psalm 136

His love endures forever. This is a chant, a groove. In this song “His love endures forever” is an phrase that endures forever… In a 26 verse psalm its repeated 26 times. HLEF.

I really want to write music based on this one, and maybe make it like one of those Gilbert and Sullivan pieces, where there is a tradition of writing in new lyrics for the current times.

Maybe it would work better rhythmically if it was “forever his love endures”. “Endures” is an enduring word, it stretches out.

The interposed lines run though God’s saving acts. Exodus. The Israelites can never get enough of exodus.

First we get God’s greatness: God of Gods, Lord of lords.

Then his creation. These are beautiful and elemental: earth, sun, moon, land and sea.

Then exodus. Same order as the Bible really.

Then.. us. He remembered us, freed us, gives every living creature food.

Give thanks to God in heaven!

I’m feeling thankful and proud of the report of the first NAIDOC (week celebrating indigenous culture) morning tea in the Queensland office.

One of our team was there and she was so excited, many of the workers, the people from properties, accounts etc felt moved by the explanation of, and support for the theme: Voice, Treaty, Truth. There were tears. They hung around just talking about it for a long time.

His love endures forever!

Give me wisdom to talk to my children Lord, give me and Kelly happy times. I’m having trouble remembering all the blessings we’ve had because of the challenges we face, may love endure.

Song of Songs 8

The blaze in every soul.

This is the chapter I return to the most.

I was moved, I always am, by the culminating praise of love itself:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.

Followed by the wonderful ownership of her person and her sexuality by the girl: “my own vineyard is mine to give”. I love that passage, it’s one of my favorites in the whole Bible. It says it all about who and what God created us to be. About the nature of his love for us.

It’s one of two books of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. There’s so many things it barely mentions.

It only incidentally refers to marriage, but it is all about monogamy. Passion is jealous, and the giving to each other is absolute, it has no place for casual sex.

It’s not prudish, no sir-ee… but it’s prudent. It acknowledges what unique greatness is unleashed, and what is at stake, when one loves deeply and completely.

And it has more in common in some ways with God’s love than earthly relationships. How often is he described as a jealous God? We’re told to “love him with all your heart, mind and soul”.

This book is all about young love: the blaze of romantic obsession, the power of attraction, delight in the newness and overpowering nature of it all; the yearning.

It doesn’t talk about the different beauty of long marriages: that survive hardship and changes, that bring up children and learn to adapt as life throws u-turns, that forgive failure and weakness, and face getting old, undesirable and sick together.

It made me sad and conflicted. I had to force myself to read it. I’ve loved it, but I had to take it slow, in doses. It’s made me feel inadequate, second best. I haven’t been in the mood, so to speak.

What does it mean for my relationship, which is at a very different phase? It’s a bit like the crummy feeling other people’s perfect lives on Instagram can give you.

I’ve had lot of valuable thoughts about God’s love, but maybe just as valuable is remembering and rekindling some of the intensity of that first love with my life partner. It’s certainly made me think about that. Complex feelings at the intersection of spirituality and physicality.

The open ended invitation at the very end, to come away and be like a gazelle and a young stag on the spice laden mountains… Maybe the whole thing has been a remembrance? Maybe that invitation is for us who need reminding of what it is to be young.