I am a coordinator for a group studying Live Justly, a ten-session curriculum designed to help followers of Christ to pursue justice in every aspect of their lives. There would be no need for such a pursuit if our world was already a mostly fair and equitable place, so the study has pointed out various ways in which injustice pervades the world in which we live.

The most recent session was titled “Justice and Prayer.” It included a short essay describing how believers in Africa and North America responded to the plight of 160 women and children who had been displaced by the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan. The author, Kristen deRoo VanderBerg, described an outpouring of prayer for those who had fled the violence and ended up in an abandoned UN camp. VanderBerg reports, “God not only heard their prayers, and our prayers, but worked in us to make clear what we could offer to bring his kingdom in that place.” That meant mobilizing aid–food, plastic sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, laundry soap, cooking pots, and more. As a result, “The semblance of normal life returned to those families in need.”

The essay was written sometime in 2014, less than a year after the outbreak of violence. I recalled later reports of continuing armed conflict, so I did an online search to find out what’s happened over the last four years. There’s an extensive Wikipedia page describing the war and its effects on the population. After the initial fighting, there were a number of cease fires, with each typically violated within days by whoever thought they could gain an advantage by doing so. The rebels split into competing factions, as did the majority Dinka tribe, and no peace deal (including the one that some parties are now following) was comprehensive enough to end all violent conflict. There has been ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, famine, and attacks on civilians and aid workers. Over four million people have been displaced either internally or to surrounding countries. A study in early 2018 estimated that at least 383,000 people have died as a result of the war. I looked specifically for news about Yei, the city to which VandenBerg’s initial 160 women and children fled, and found that the population of refugees there has grown substantially. In July of this year the UN refugee agency was planning to distribute “plastic sheets, blankets, kitchen sets, buckets, jerry cans, mosquito nets, sleeping mats and soap” there. The need for such items seems to be never-ending!

South Sudanese refugees arriving in Uganda, 2017. Image from http://www.worldvision.org.

It was disheartening to find out how much worse things got after VandenBerg’s optimistic report of a successful relief effort. As she notes, by praying for peace we become more aware of how we may be peacemakers, and that’s a good thing. But subsequent events in South Sudan also show us that it is tremendously difficult (sometimes impossible) to make peace no matter how much we pray and work. Why is that so? Why doesn’t God intervene? What’s the point of either prayer or relief efforts in a situation like that?

The persistence of evil and suffering has caused many to lose their faith. We often don’t notice that not only faith but the other two theological virtues are impacted as well. Many lose hope–not necessarily for the blessings of an afterlife, but for “the goodness of the Lord/ in the land of the living,” as the psalmist (Ps. 27) put it. Others lose charity, not only in that they no longer try to alleviate human misery but also that they uncharitably accuse sufferers of being responsible for their hardships. So as not to blame God, they blame the victims instead.

I don’t blame God for what’s happened: He gave humans free will, never intending that they use it to slaughter their enemies or innocent bystanders. Neither do I blame those who have lost their livelihoods, their communities, their innocence, or their lives. For a few days after reading about the war, I was preoccupied with and saddened by the enormity of the suffering that it brought. I was sensitized to news reports of other conflicts, especially the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Unlike South Sudan, my country is implicated in perpetuating that conflict.

My morose state of mind was mild, though, and I knew that it would pass. To some extent it already has. While in the midst of my preoccupation, I happened upon a TIME magazine cover story on parents who have had a child die in a school shooting. They never recover fully from their sorrow, not even after decades. One couple, the Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, sold almost everything they owned, moved into a mobile home, and devoted themselves full-time to helping survivors of gun violence. What would it be like if all of us were similarly touched by the world’s pain, giving our lives to help those who are suffering?

That thought brought me back to God. He is not a distant deity who watches us from on high, tossing down an occasional thunderbolt when things get out of hand. He’s not like me, saddened by what he sees but not doing much in response. He’s like the Phillips’, who changed their lives totally in response to human need. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, after all. God gave up the glories of heaven to be born as one of us, surrendering everything for the sake of the suffering world. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering”  wrote Isaiah (53:4). I take that to mean that he suffers with the victims of every war that has ever been fought. And one day, when God’s kingdom comes fully, war will be no more. For now, when I struggle to hold on to my faith–and also my hope and charity–I look to his example to get the strength to go on.



Mikvah in Chorazin

Mikvah in Chorazin

During the recent tour I took to Israel, Tim, our tour leader, pointed out several mikvot, or ritual baths. They were mostly alongside the ruins of ancient synagogues. Tim mentioned that  synagogues always had a mikvah (sometimes written ‘mikveh’) nearby so that worshipers could wash themselves before services. One such mikvah was in Jerusalem, just outside the wall of the Temple Mount, and was used by worshipers going to the temple.

I had never heard of mikvot before, and their existence intrigued me. I had always been taught that baptism with water was a Christian invention, initiated by John the Baptist then continued by Jesus’ followers. I knew there were some precursors, such as Levitical purity practices and the monarchy-era story of Elisha sending Naaman to wash in the Jordan (2 Kings 5), but I didn’t realize that Jews actually had sites designated for immersion (which is what the term ‘baptism’ literally meant). A couple of the mikvot we saw had been built in the first century. Did they predate or postdate John’s baptism? What were the similarities and differences between washing in a mikvah and being baptized as a Christian?

Having looked into the matter a little, I’ve learned that the use of mikvot seems to have predated John’s baptism, though only by a couple decades. According to the Wikipedia article on the topic, mikvot appeared at the beginning of the first century and soon became commonplace. Today, they are regularly used in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Here are some things I learned about mikvot:

  • a natural body of water such as an ocean, river, or spring-fed lake is a mikvah
  • when a mikvah is constructed, it must be filled with water from a natural source, typically rainwater
  • when a Jewish community starts from scratch, the first priority–before building a synagogue–is to build a mikvah
  • Jewish proselytes are purified by immersion in a mikvah
  • married Jewish women are immersed in a mikvah after menses and before resuming sexual relations with their husbands
  • the most common uses of a mikvah by Jewish men are by a bridegroom on his wedding day, by any man on Yom Kipper, and by Hassidic Jews before Sabbat
  • new kitchen utensils made by a non-Jew are commonly washed in a mikvah before they are used
  • immersion in the mikvah is not for physical cleaning; the person was to be clean before immersion

Here’s a quote from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia about the immersion of proselytes:

“The Baptism of the proselyte has for its purpose his cleansing from the impurity of idolatry, and the restoration to the purity of a new-born man. This may be learned from the Talmud (Soṭah 12b) in regard to Pharaoh’s daughter, whose bathing in the Nile is explained by Simon b. Yoḥai to have been for that purpose. The bathing in the water is to constitute a rebirth, wherefore ‘the ger is like a child just born'” (Yeb. 48b).

So the primary purpose of immersion in a mikvah seems to be ritual purification. There’s a similar theme in Christian baptism, in that baptism represents the washing away of sins. The main difference here is that Christian baptism is a one-time event, whereas Jewish immersion may be repeated again and again in situations requiring purification. Both immersion in the mikvah and Christian baptism also represent new birth. In discussing Christian baptism, Paul describes this aspect as follows:

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

Learning about mikvot was just one of many ways in which the trip to Israel reinforced the idea that Christianity has deep Jewish roots. The story of Jesus was embedded in the Jewish story, his teachings were an extension of Jewish teachings, and, as with the mikvah, the practices he taught his followers were drawn from Jewish practices. The division of the Christian Bible into older and newer testaments shouldn’t obscure the fundamental continuity between the two.

Mikvah Near the Temple Mount

Mikvah Near the Temple Mount

I’m struck by how serious first century Jews were about practicing their faith.  In an arid land where water was at a premium, Jews of that period began the practice of building pools large enough for an adult to be immersed, and eventually all synagogues had such a pool. This wasn’t commanded in the Torah, but it was a way to facilitate obedience to the Torah’s requirements for ceremonial washing. To make such an effort shows fervent devotion to the law. Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders, of course, was that they were more devoted to legalism than to the concerns that prompted the law in the first place–“To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We who follow Christ always need to be aware of the temptation to be passionate about one or another rule but forget what the rules were for in the first place.

It’s only after I learned about what constitutes a mikvah that I realized I had been in three of them during the trip to Israel. I had waded in the Jordan River, a natural mikvah, and three members of our tour group were baptized there. I swam in the Sea of Galilee, also a mikvah. And I along with the rest of the tour group walked single-file through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which diverts water from the Gihon Spring–historically Jerusalem’s water supply–under Mount Zion to the Pool of Siloam. We sloshed through the darkness for about a half-hour, flashlights our only light source, the water fresh and cool, sometimes just splashing around our ankles but other times swelling to our knees. I think it was the most unique hike of the entire trip!

Baptism in the Jordan

Baptism in the Jordan

Emerging from Hezekiah's Tunnel

Emerging from Hezekiah’s Tunnel

During my recent tour to Israel the group visited Bethlehem. While there we went to a gift shop run by Palestinian Christians. Tim, our guide, told us that Palestinian Christians have a hard life. Tim didn’t mention the conditions under which Palestinians in general live, but just by looking out the bus windows we could see that things aren’t so good. Compared to Israeli areas, buildings are more dilapidated, cars are older and fewer in number, and more rubbish is visible. “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” but, from what we saw, at least some of its residents may find bread hard to come by.

It was apt in a way that the place of Jesus’ birth is relatively impoverished. He is the one who, as Philippians 2 puts it,

“though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.”

He was not born to royalty, or even to a well-established family in reasonably prosperous circumstances, but, as Deborah Smith Douglas puts it, “to a transient girl in an occupied country in an improvised shelter not even meant for human habitation” (‘The Poverty of God,’ Weavings, Nov./Dec. 2003). The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were surely intentional. As Douglas puts it,

“The whole amazing mystery of the Incarnation is about nothing else: out of unimaginable love God desires the deepest imaginable solidarity with our radical and inescapable insecurity.”

We all are insecure, of course, even though we defend against our lack of security by denial. Evading awareness of how little security we have is part of the modernist project: Charles Taylor describes us as having constructed “buffered selves” that minimize our sense of vulnerability. We Americans have taken this project of buffering to extremes, using both wealth and empire to quell the discomfort inherent in being creatures for whom our next breath could be the last. Douglas asks how such strategies affect our ability to appreciate what God has done:

“How can we, who go to such lengths to deny our own vulnerability, hope to see the astounding vulnerability of God in the Incarnation? Can we even want to encounter divinity become powerless? Can we even begin to imagine the total ‘self-emptying’ (see Phil 2:7) that Jesus undertook in love in order to ‘live and die as one of us’?”

Our tour may have brought us closer to Jesus in some respects–by showing us the land in which he lived, by taking us places important in his narrative, and by teaching us about his culture. This trip didn’t overcome the gap between the vulnerability we avoid and the vulnerability he embraced, though. One problem was that we traveled as first-world tourists who were provided with accommodations at the opposite extreme from the humble stable celebrated in the nativity story. Fortunately, we were occasionally reminded of the privilege which surrounded us. The bathroom accommodations were often enough so primitive (men were regularly sent behind one set of bushes, women behind another; in one emergency, the facility was two umbrellas by the side of the road) that we became very grateful whenever an actual toilet was available. One day in Jerusalem we took a shortcut through an area where trucks were unloading garbage. We hurried past as quickly as possible, but I was glad that my nose had the opportunity to sniff aromas that were probably much more like what Jesus smelled than anything I’ll ever encounter in church. Of course, these brief episodes didn’t expose us to poverty in anything like the way that Jesus encountered it.

One question I’m left with after the trip is what am I going to do about that? Am I going to respond to Christ’s vulnerability on our behalf by becoming more vulnerable myself?  I’m not thinking so much here about risking my safety as I am about being willing to look unflinchingly at the sufferings of others, even when doing so discomforts me. Am I willing to reach out to them in love? I’ve certainly done some of this, but nowhere like what Jesus did. I certainly can do more. To follow him is to tag along even when he’s on his way to be with the poor, weak, and needy.

"The Nativity" by Albrecht Altdorfer. God among the ruins.

“The Nativity” by Albrecht Altdorfer. God among the ruins.


I’ve been writing recently about my recent trip to Israel. My last post had to do with experiences that helped me better understand the divine nature of Jesus. This post will have to do with his humanity.

Jesus was ” truly God and truly man,” said the Council of Chalcedon in response to heresies that denied one or the other of these aspects. The idea that Jesus was fully human didn’t fit with the Gnostic idea that matter is evil. In line with Gnosticism, the Docetists thought that he was pure spirit and his physical body was an illusion. The modern emphasis on spirit and spirituality can easily take on a neo-Gnostic tint, viewing the physical world as unimportant and, by extension, downplaying Christ’s physical nature in preference for his spiritual and divine aspects.

Going to the places where Jesus spent time helped me appreciate both the physical and psychological aspects of Christ’s humanity. We went to Capernaum, the home base for much of his ministry. Ruins of the town’s living quarters have been excavated. The foundations of the houses are nearly all identical, low stone walls demarcating one house from the next, each house essentially a single long room. Looking at the residential area, it occurred to me that Jesus in all likelihood lived in one of these houses. He wasn’t just an ethereal figure who spent his days on the mountaintop and floated into town now and then to dispense some wisdom. He lived right among the townspeople, sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, one of them. And he taught in their synagogues.

Synagogue in Capernaum

Synagogue in Capernaum

Capernaum has the remains of a fourth-century synagogue, probably on the site where the previous synagogue stood when Jesus spoke there. We visited the ruins of first-century synagogues in the nearby towns of Chorazin and Gamla. Since Jesus was essentially an itinerant preacher, going from town to town, he may have spoken in those places. I imagined a Sabbath long ago, the local community of Jews gathered for worship. Jesus and his disciples walked in, and Jesus started to teach (perhaps after reading from Scripture, as in Luke 4). Everyone was amazed. Not infrequently, though, his message evoked resistance, even rage–again, see Luke 4. Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing, slaughtering sacred cows in order to replace them with something more faithful to God.

Synagogue in Gamla

Synagogue in Gamla

I tried to imagine myself walking into a synagogue knowing that what I had to say would evoke a furor, and I immediately felt a visceral resistance. I couldn’t have done what he did! Is that because he was God and I am not? I  think instead it is because he was more truly human than I am. My humanity prompts me to seek approval from others, to fear offending anyone, and to lack confidence in myself, especially when doing something that is difficult or that provokes opposition. In reacting this way, I am living in only a portion of my humanity, the self-protective and cowardly part. I am being inhumane, since a humane response to others would be to have such compassion for them that I would have the courage to tell them what they least want to hear.

In Habitation of Dragons Keith Miller wrote of his temptation during speaking engagements to say only what gains approval: “I unconsciously tone down the unpleasant aspects of that which I am saying and accentuate those things which affirm the group’s existing beliefs and prejudices” (p. 172). He recognized where that led him: “So for that night I became what the Scriptures call a ‘false prophet,’ more interested in material approval than in speaking any creative, freeing truth God had given me” (p. 173). I admit that when it comes to speaking the truth I am more likely to behave like Keith Miller than like Jesus.

Another way of describing the difference between Jesus’ humanity and mine is to say that he is willing to fully be himself, and I’m not. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that we are all in despair because we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. Maybe I could walk into a gathering and upset everyone with my message, but only if I was a better me, a me who had all my issues worked out, who was sure of himself. In contrast, Jesus was entirely confident in who he was. In becoming human, he not only took on flesh but was more comfortable in his skin than anyone who has ever lived.

So, in this and other ways (such as his relationship with his disciples and his relationship with God), Jesus showed us how to be human. I hope that I will continue to learn from his example.

I’ve been writing recently about my experiences during a recent trip to Israel–see, for example, this post. I haven’t said much about Jesus yet, but he was on my mind throughout my time there. Several times I thought or said to someone “It’s incredible that Jesus was here.” I meant something different by that than when I remarked on places where other Biblical figures had been–David, Samson, Hezekiah, Peter, Paul, and the like. The difference has to do with who Jesus is. Christians believe that he was both divine and human–“fully God and fully man.” During the trip I think I came to appreciate both these aspects more fully.

This post will describe a couple insights I had into Christ’s divinity. First, there’s water. As I mentioned in an earlier post, hiking in the Judean wilderness gave me an appreciation for water and for Biblical descriptions of Yahweh as water for the soul. Thus, the psalmist compares his thirst for God to a deer longing for living (that is, flowing) water (Psalm 42), and Jeremiah said,

“…all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust
because they have forsaken the Lord,
the spring of living water. (Jer. 17:13)”

Ezekiel described a vision of water flowing from the temple–God’s dwelling place–getting deeper and deeper the further it flows, eventually entering the “sea of stagnant waters,” or Dead Sea, transforming it into fresh water that sustains fish (Ezekiel 47:1-12). I swam in the Dead Sea, and it’s truly dead–nothing lives there. The image of it being restored to life is remarkable!

Christ applied the image of living water to himself. In John 4, Jesus breaks custom by asking a woman from Samaria for a drink and, when this puzzles her, he remarks, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” I imagine this response as something of an offhand comment, an “Oh, by the way, here’s something you might find interesting.” The conversation goes quickly from a cup of water to profound spiritual depths.

A couple chapters later, Jesus is in Jerusalem for  the Feast of Booths. Tim Keiper, our guide, explained that during the last day of this feast, there was a celebration in which everyone worshiped Yahweh, the living water. What did Jesus say on that day? “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. (John 7:37)” The connection Jesus made between himself and Yahweh couldn’t be more obvious. As C.S. Lewis put it, someone who makes such an audacious claim could only be one of three things–umad, evil, or truly God incarnate.

So Jesus is the living water available for all to drink. Another metaphor for him is the bridegroom.  Here, too, Jesus is describing himself using a term that in the Hebrew scriptures was reserved for Yahweh. For example, Ezekiel describes God as becoming the husband of his people: “I spread out my hem over you, and I covered your nakedness, and I swore to you, and I entered into a covenant with you,’ declares the Lord Yahweh, ‘and you became mine. (Ezekiel 16:8)” Jesus referred to himself as a bridegroom when the religious leaders asked why his disciples didn’t fast; the disciples are the bridegroom’s attendants, he said, and don’t fast while the bridegroom is with them (Matthew 9:14-15). Other writers of the New Testament pick up this theme, describing the church as Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:23; Revelation 19:7-9).

Something that happened our first night in Israel made the bridegroom and bride theme particularly poignant for me. We were at our hotel, finishing dinner and looking forward to bed, when someone said, “There’s a wedding going on outside.” We went out on the hotel balcony, where we could see the Mediterranean Sea in the distance and, nearby, a courtyard where a traditional Jewish wedding was taking place. Portions of the ceremony were sung, portions were chanted, and portions were spoken. We were fascinated, even though we couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. The service ended; joyful music played; the married couple came slowly down the aisle. Men danced in front of them, gradually retreating; women danced behind them. The bride was dancing, too. On and on it went. The ceremony took place at sunset, and the sunlight was gradually fading, eventually diminishing to a genial glow levitating above the sea.

There was an elderly Jewish lady on the balcony with us. She and I talked a bit about the wedding. Our conversation started like this:

Lady: It’s too bad I lost my husband. He would like to see this.”
Me (thinking he had died): “Oh! I’m so sorry you lost him.”
Lady: “It’s fine. He wandered away after dinner. He’ll show up.”

She told me that traditional Jewish weddings are held at sunset because that’s the start of a new day. She indicated that it isn’t typical for the bride to dance, as this bride did. The lady concluded, “She must be very happy.”

So I don’t think I’ll ever read those Bible passages about Christ and his bride the church without thinking of the wedding at twilight that started a new day, and also of the bride who danced for joy. The eschatological promise is that, when Christ returns, the wedding to end all weddings will take place. There’ll be plenty music and dancing then! I’m looking forward to it more than ever.

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