Saturday Night Theologian
13 August 2006

1 Kings 19:4-8

Sam Houston was in a slump. His allies had lost control of an important fortress in San Antonio, his own troops had lost battle after battle to the superior Mexican forces, and now he was mired in a seemingly endless retreat through east Texas toward the Louisiana border, staying just ahead of Santa Anna's army. He must have been wondering, "How did I get myself into this mess?" Just a few years before, Houston had been a popular political figure in Tennessee, rising to occupy the governor's mansion. However, personal problems led him to resign his office, and he eventually found himself in Texas, at the head of a ragtag group of revolutionaries. He had achieved greatness in the past, but his achievements could not help him in his present situation. As one last hope after another faded, he found himself and his army on the plains of San Jacinto, and he decided enough was enough. The long retreat was over; it was time to attack. And attack he did. Only twenty minutes later, Santa Anna's army had been defeated, Santa Anna himself was captured, and the Texas army had won a decisive victory. The prophet Elijah was also in a slump. He was fresh off his greatest victory to date: the defeat of the prophets of Baal. Surely, he thought, his convincing display of God's power would convince the rest of the nation of Israel to abandon Baal and follow Yahweh. He was wrong. Queen Jezebel, Baal's strongest advocate in the land, instituted a persecution of Elijah that caused him to flee into the wilderness of Judah, far from his home. Here he sat under a tree and wished for death. "My mission has failed," he thought to himself. "I've made absolutely no difference in the world." All he really wanted at this point was to die, but God had other ideas. God wasn't through with Elijah yet, so God sent an angel with food and water to nourish and sustain him. "Get up and eat," the angel ordered him. "God isn't finished with you yet." Strengthened and encouraged, Elijah continued his journey, and a short time later he had a life-altering encounter with God on Mt. Horeb. When things aren't going well for us, it's hard to draw comfort from our previous accomplishments. Like a baseball player stuck in a 2 for 45 slump, we sometimes try everything we can think of, without success. The lesson of Elijah is that even God's best people sometimes have bad days, or weeks, or years. However, that doesn't mean that God is finished with them; there may yet be great deeds to do. In the meantime, though, God doesn't abandon us. Baked bread and a jar of water might not be as impressive as fire from heaven, but it's what we need when we need it. Whether we're en fuego or seemingly adrift in the doldrums, God isn't finished with us yet, and God will sustain us through both the highs and the lows of life.

Psalm 34:1-8

Over a hundred years ago, a group of Jews living in Eastern Europe, distraught over the disgrace they felt and the injustices they suffered at the hand of their neighbors, decided to put God on trial for his crimes against the Jews. After a lengthy trial, in which witness after witness cited evidence from both history and personal experience of God's support of their persecutors, God was found guilty. At that point one of the participants in the trial looked out the window and noticed that the sun was edging toward the horizon. "It's time to go," he said, "and prepare for the Sabbath." The Jews gathered there went to their own homes, ate their Sabbath meals, and worshiped God with their families. They understood what the psalmist meant when he said, "I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth." Sometimes it is very difficult to praise God. The Israeli Jews who have lost family members, killed by Hezbollah rocket attacks probably find it hard to praise God at this moment. So do the many Lebanese whose homes have been flattened and lives destroyed by Israeli bombs. Yet still, through all the difficulty, many on all sides--Jews, Christian, and Muslim--will find the strength to turn to God. Ironically, those who have suffered the least and inflicted the most damage on other people will find it perfectly easy to praise God, but is it really praise? Can you praise God and at the same time inflict indiscriminate suffering on others? More specifically, can you praise God at the same time you are hurting others in the name of God? I don't think so. Such praise is not directed toward God. It is satanic, in the sense that it is directed toward an evil caricature of God. Too much that is done in the name of God today--from attacks on innocent civilians, to suicide bombings, to foreign policies that support the oppressors in the name of political expedience--is nothing short of worshiping evil, chaos, and greedy self-interest. That is not what is meant by the phrase, "I will bless the Lord at all times." Blessing God must include blessing people, especially the poor and marginalized, or it is invalid. Praise isn't just a matter of saying the appropriate words, it's also a matter of doing what's right. Those who inflict needless suffering on others have no idea what praise is, regardless of what church, mosque, or synagogue they belong to. True praise is voiced by those who continue to seek God in the midst of their own suffering, and it is also voiced by those who support the weak and the helpless with their prayers.

For other discussions of this passage, click here.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. Hezbollah didn't launch rockets into Israel until after Israel invaded Lebanon. Saddam Hussein had no political ties to Al Qaeda. Global warming is real, and it's the result of human activity. These statements are true, but there are many in the U.S. and elsewhere who don't believe it. Whether they get their information from Fox News, right-wing blogs, or talk radio, they don't recognize the truth when they hear it. The left isn't immune from telling lies, either, such as the stories about the Bush family's involvement in 9/11. There is no denying, however, that right-wing lies have reached a greater number of people, when a recent poll shows that a full 50% of Americans surveyed think WMDs were actually found in Iraq! It is the duty of Christians, and other people of faith and conscience, to expose the falsehood of lies and to speak the truth, to the best of our understanding. Today's reading from Ephesians urges believers, "Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors." What if our neighbors don't want to listen? That's fine, but if we speak up, at least they'll know that there's another point of view. What if we want to speak the truth, but we find that something we've said turns out to be wrong? In that case, admit your error. Don't try to cover it up, and don't blame it on someone else. Occasional errors do not negate a commitment to truth, as long as we own up to our mistakes. As Christians, we should be committed to telling the truth to our neighbors and friends--in our families, in the workplace, in the neighborhood--in a respectful and positive way. Remember, it's not spin, it's the truth that will set us free.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

John 6:35, 41-51

Feeding the hungry is the duty of every Christian. The whole witness of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, calls on God's people to meet the most basic human needs of the poor and destitute. Unfortunately, we don't always do a very good job. Millions are starving in places like sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. Even in the Mississippi Delta, south Georgia, and the Texas-Mexico border region, in the richest country in the world, children go to bed every night hungry. As Ron Sider pointed out almost three decades ago in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, such a situation is unconscionable in a world with as many resources as we have. Even though world hunger has been reduced since Sider first wrote in 1978, 34,000 children still die every day from starvation or preventable disease, and more than 20% of the world's population lives in abject poverty. Christians can and should provide food for the hungry. However, filling the stomach is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for a meaningful life. In the gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples, "I am the bread of life." He contrasts the manna, which their ancestors ate in the wilderness, with himself as the spiritual bread of life. The physical bread of life is necessary to sustain the body, but the spiritual bread of life is necessary to sustain the soul. A person living in a dark room, who receives food and water but has no opportunity to hear music, view art, read books, or interact with people is not really living. She is only existing. Similarly, many people in the world today go to work, go home, bounce from relationship to relationship, and do not really live their lives. They do not understand the value of partaking of the bread of life, of communing with God and with others who are part of God's fellowship. What's the moral of this discussion? If people are starving for food, feed them. But then, when their bellies are satisfied, share with them the joy that you've found in your relationship with God.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.