God of tomorrow, some day, and forever

In the season of Advent, a lot of people look to the book of Isaiah and find hope in how the texts point to the coming of Christ (especially Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-9). Ironically, though, I find the texts less hopeful when the focus is primarily on how they’ve been fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. I believe that the point of these Isaiah texts is not simply to provide hope to the Israelites that God would some day do something miraculous connected to salvation. Instead, the texts provide hope of how God would be working in the near future for their salvation. God is, after all, God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, or, in the case of this text, a God who works for salvation tomorrow, some day, and forever.

There is hope in recognizing that God did not act only in history one time: during Jesus’ time on earth. Instead, God is active in all time. God cared enough about the Israelites to provide salvation to them in their time. God gave a sign to Ahaz (and the people of Israel) showing that the siege would end in the very near future. By the time a child not yet conceived was old enough to know right from wrong, the kings attacking them would have fallen and they would have recovered from the current siege to the extent that the child would be eating honey and curds (Isaiah 7:14-16). Isaiah 9 and 11 speak to deliverance through the coming of a king who would bring justice, a king who would do what “was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done.” A king would come of whom it would be said: “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him.” This king was Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, as described in 2 Kings 18:3-6.

Yet, just as the text gives hope for the immediate future of the people, it also provides hope for our future. Because as much as the text was immediately fulfilled in Isaiah’s time and was more fully fulfilled with Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:22-23), it has not yet been fully fulfilled. The justice and righteousness spoken about in Isaiah 9:7 and Isaiah 11:2-5 were not fully established with Jesus’ coming. Nor is the peaceful kingdom presented in Isaiah 11:6-9 a current reality. Recognizing the many layers of fulfillment in the text allows me to be honest about how they have not fully been fulfilled. And so we can read these texts with longing and hope. We can honestly lament that, even though Jesus came at Christmas, the world is still so much not the way it ought to be. The injustices that Isaiah speaks about, such as prioritizing profit over the well-being of others (especially the marginalized) have re-surfaced in new ways today, such as the Flint water crisis, sweatshops, and extreme weather because of climate change.

These texts give me space to lament the suffering and injustices of the world. Yet, they also allow me to rejoice in the significance and wonder of Jesus’ birth while longing for Christ to come again and fully bring about the justice that first was established in Hezekiah and more fully in Jesus. And these texts reassure me that my hope in Christ coming back to bring justice is not in vain. Because certainly a God who has been faithful in assuring that the words of these texts came true in the near future and the some day, this God can and will fulfill the words in a future that is still before us.

Fall Chapel Service: Hope of All Creation

This October we partnered with three other campus ministries – MSU Wesley, One Community Lutheran Campus Ministry and The Peoples Church – to host a weekly communion service in the Alumni Memorial Chapel at MSU. During this service we reflected on Jesus as the hope of all creation and supported each other in our mutual ministry with MSU students.

In our liturgy we lamented through prophetic texts the ways in which the earth is being destroyed: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have … broken the everlasting covenant” (Isa 24:5). This ancient witness should stir us to think about how our institutions have contributed to the destruction of the earth. In keeping with the CEF spirit of intellectual inquiry, we also reflected on some unusual scripture passages including God as a mother in labor (Isa 42) and a “springtime rhapsody” in the Song of Songs 2.

Chapel services offer an opportunity for worship in the midst of busy academic life. The Alumni Memorial Chapel is not usually used for religious services and our continued relationship with the sexton Steve Aikin has allowed us to produce quality worship experiences in an ecumenical Christian tradition and witness to God’s presence on campus.

In our service and our gathering we shared hope together—hope that through Christ all of creation will be liberated from decay (Rom 8:21). Still we wait for the reign of God to come to its fullness. when new leaves will grow and they will be for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge Intern

Isaiah and the Prophetic Call to a Just Society

At the beginning of his book, the prophet Isaiah convicts a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity” (1:4). The society he describes is full of bribes (1:23), fixes itself on material wealth (2:7) and denies justice to orphans and widows (1:23). Even the worship of the people is meaningless without justice: “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” (1:13).

The prophet implores the people to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). As Christians, what do we to in response to this call to social justice? How can we be “repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets” (58:12)? Reflecting on the words of Isaiah, here are some thoughts on how we can faithfully approach justice issues today.

1.    Build Theological Knowledge

Unfortunately many injustices have been perpetuated by theologies that seek to build wealth and retain power.  One way to confront these forces is by reading the Old Testament prophets. The prophetic word exposes collective, societal sins, such as denying justice to orphans, widows and the poor. After announcing God’s judgment on nations and rulers,  Isaiah reveals God’s vision of a just future as nonviolence (2:4), equity for the poor (11:4) and a renewed creation (65:17-25).

The words of the prophets and the example of Jesus affirm that Christians are called to stand with vulnerable people. Fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah (61:1), Jesus announces his mission in Luke 4:18:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.

Accordingly, during his ministry, Jesus identified himself with the poor (Matt 8:2; 2 Cor 8:9), urged followers to sell their possessions (Matt 19:21) and imagined a future in which the guests of honor will be the poor and oppressed (Luke 14:12–14). The words and actions of Jesus have inspired liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and James Cone to argue that God’s justice for the oppressed is at the heart of the gospel.

2.    Learn About Injustice Today

The complexity of human societies make it difficult to know how approach justice issues. Often we participate in systems that have upheld social inequality. This means it is important acknowledge the ways in which society has been constructed that have given us an advantage. Recognizing these power dynamics, Isaiah speaks often about God’s great reversal: the proud will be cast down and the lowly will be lifted up (5:15, 11:4, 14:30). This means that responding to God’s call for justice means listening to the marginalized people (Phil 2:4). We can do this by approaching conversations openly and embracing uncomfortable moments as a chance to learn and grow. 

It can be helpful to start by exploring the historical context behind one issue. Drawing inspiration from the language of Isaiah, concerning issues today include gun violence (2:4), land appropriation (5:8), government corruption (10:1-4) and the climate crisis (24:4-5). Joining a justice-seeking community such as a church ministry or an advocacy group is a a great way to learn about local efforts to combat injustice.

3.    Speak Out

Inspired by the example of the prophets and apostles, Christians are called to advocate for a just society today by speaking the truth to power and performing nonviolent direct action.  While it is easier to stay neutral, the gospel is inherently political and has implications for public policy. Isaiah openly confronts the sins of oppressive political leaders, saying “ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1-2; see also Matt 23:23). While we do not need to walk around naked for three years (Isaiah 20:2-4) or cook food over human waste (Ezekiel 4:9-13), we can draw inspiration from the prophets, who spoke out boldly against injustice.

In the midst of the struggle for justice it is also important that we are called to pray for and love our enemies (Matt 5:43-48). Amidst God’s judgment, Isaiah reminds his readers that “[God’s] hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 5:25, 9:12, 9:17, 9:21, 10:4, 14:26) and on the day of the Lord, even Assyria, Babylon and Israel will together be a “blessing in the midst of the earth” (Isaiah 19:24-25).  By serving in humility (Matt 23:11-12) we admit our mistakes and rely on God’s grace (Isaiah 30:18).

Furthermore, we acknowledge that human political systems are deeply flawed. While confronting unjust leaders, the early church boldly proclaimed that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  No political party will be able to bring about a completely just society, no particular candidate can be our “savior” and no earthly nation will thrive forever (Dan 2:44-45; Isaiah 60:12). The good news is that Jesus is the true ruler of the world (Isaiah 9:7; Rom 1:1-4). As Christians we are called to participate in building God’s kingdom of justice and peace: “Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1).

Potential Resources and Readings

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Justice, Forgiveness, Restoration, and Truth-telling

This past year, we’ve spent some time talking about justice and forgiveness. The Bible shows that God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8; 16:7-8) and that Christians ought to forgive (Colossians 3:13). Yet, how forgiveness and justice relate to each other is not always obvious, as too often people (including and especially Christians) understand justice as an unnecessary part of forgiveness.

However, Rachael DenHollander, wisely argues that forgiveness that ignores justice denies who God is (and denies a bit of our worth as human beings, especially as people against whom injustice has happened). In an interview with Christianity Today, DenHollander, notes:

“I worked to get to a place where I could trust in God’s justice and call evil what it was, because God is good and holy. One of the areas where Christians don’t do well is in acknowledging the devastation of the wound. We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.”

I agree with DenHollander that acknowledging injustice is an important part of recognizing who God is and how things ought to be. It is only in recognizing that God loves justice that we can truly forgive. When DenHollander speaks of forgiving Larry Nassar, she says:

“It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.”

Perhaps another way of looking at justice and forgiveness is through the lens of restoration and/or truth-telling. Both justice and forgiveness are about restoring the wrongs that have been done, especially in terms of restoring relationships between humans and in relationship to God. Truth-telling is about acknowledging that it was truly evil; forgiveness can’t exist outside of that acknowledgement. Nor can any restoration of relationship happen without acknowledging that something truly horribly happened (that deserves punishment.) Or as DenHollander puts it,

“It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.Obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.”

To hear more about Rachael DenHollander’s understanding of justice and forgiveness, you can watch her presentation at Calvin College’s January Series in January 2019. You can start at minute 6 if you’d like to skip the part of how she met her husband.

CRC Statement on Mass Shootings

During our Lenten Communion services, Rev. Betsy Aho led us in a lament on the existence of the phrase ‘another mass shooting.’ How can we not be upset when so many continue to be killed and hurt?

In light of several recent shootings, I am thankful that the Christian Reformed Church, which is the denomination that supports Campus Edge, recently put out a statement on mass shootings.

The following are some highlights of that statement:

“As Christian Reformed people, we grieve this loss of life. We grieve the hatred and extremism behind these acts of violence. We, as God’s church and society, grieve that we’ve been unable to put a stop to mass shootings

What these shootings have in common is a fuel of false narratives that the gunmen were allowed to feed on. They were hearing stories about, connecting with communities that support, and believing in the idea that some people are less human than others, and that these “others’” lives are worth less. As long as this fuel is allowed to continue, senseless deaths will continue.

White supremacist acts of terror have been committed in the United States from its earliest days, at the hands of those most often radicalized on the margins or in secret. Today, these ideas have come into the mainstream, and have been espoused and amplified by people in leadership, even in the highest elected offices.  

Words matter. Using dehumanizing and hateful speech when referring to immigrants, refugees, and people of color, fuels and affirms violent actions against them. And these words, especially when they come from people in leadership positions, greatly displease our God.

The document continues by providing biblical basis for their condemnation of racism, as well as condemnation for those, especially authority figures, who do not use their influence to do good to all people, especially those most vulnerable. We are encouraged to do something since “we know that words can fuel and affirm violent actions.” So the statement calls on all members of the CRC to “take an active stance against false narratives. We ask them to stand up against racism and acts of white supremacy. We ask them to speak up against words of misogyny and of hatred toward immigrants. We ask them to be proactively anti-racist, proactively anti-sexist, and to proactively promote the dignity of all people.”

We, too, at Campus Edge, encourage everyone to:

  • “pray for the president and prime minister of our respective countries, our elected officials, and those with the most resources and political influence, that they will use their positions of power to promote the dignity of all people, particularly people of color, immigrant communities, and women targeted by these shootings
  • pray for those who are grieving following incident of mass shootings and violence
  • pray for Latina/o, people of color, and immigrant pastors and congregants of the CRC who may be feeling overwhelming fear and grief at this time
  • pray for people of color, immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable and marginalized people who are too often the targets of hate speech and violence fueled by false narratives in society
  • pray that the individuals, who have been radicalized or are at risk of being radicalized by hateful rhetoric, would learn truth and find community with truth-tellers
  • lament the ways in which the church (and Christians) have not only been silent about these false narratives but has, at times, used them to oppress others
  • speak up from our individual places of influence when we notice hate-filled speech and white supremacist beliefs being shared around us
  • extend an act of kindness or encouraging word to your colleagues, neighbors, fellow church members, and friends that are Latina/o, immigrants, and/or people of color.”

Why don’t we talk about racism?

As part of our study at Campus Edge on difficult conversations, we talked about racism. It was an important topic as part of recognizing how God cares about justice and because not caring about racism takes away from our witness to who God is. During our discussion, one of the questions that came up is why we tend not to talk about racism in Christian circles. Part of the challenge is that many of us avoid difficult conversations in general, so that means we avoid most conversations that bring too closely into focus our identity, our feelings, and whether we are good enough.

Yet, part of the challenge is that it’s hard to believe that good church folk might be racist. Our actions, such as giving to the poor and advocating for justice, show that we strive to live out our love for God and our neighbor; why would anyone accuse us of racism? As Carolyn B. Helsel notes:

If we are generally good people who feed and clothe the homeless and give our money to the poor, it can feel as if we are being unjustly accused of racism when the rest of our behavior shows our moral intentions. Unfortunately, great harm comes to others not simply by our intentions, but by our inattentions. . . Separating intention from inattention means that if we say something that inadvertently hurts someone else, we do not need to get defensive. Instead, we can say, “I’m so sorry. I did not realize what that would sound like or feel like for you.”

Despite our best intentions, we are still sinners. Social science has shown that we tend to like people who are familiar to us and whom we understand, which means we tend to avoid people of different cultures (and even avoid making space for others’ differences). As Christena Cleveland puts it: “our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing.” Furthermore, when we’re feeling insecure, it’s easy to put others down; in other words, we do our best to disassociate with people who might be considered ‘losers.’ For more on this, I recommend Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ.

I confess that we at Campus Edge haven’t done a great job of acknowledging racism. Campus Edge’s vision focuses on creating community and integrating faith and intellect; we especially want to be there for people who are struggling with faith. It’s not immediately obvious how the question of racism fits in; yet, that might be because we’ve been ignoring how racism (or other -isms) make a community less welcoming and less supportive. Furthermore, when people use the Bible to support racism or even use one’s good intentions or faith to be indifferent to another person’s troubles and/or unique gifts, how can one not struggle with faith?

We’re working on this at Campus Edge. Pray that we might do a better job of caring about those around us who have been struggling in ways that we haven’t seen or acknowledged. I pray, too, that more people would have the courage to have about difficult conversations, especially connected to racism, justice, sexuality, and spirituality.