“Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom…”
Hosea 1: 2
Have you ever been betrayed? I’m not talking about a small insult or personal injury, but rather a betrayal so deep it reached into your guts, leaving you broken-hearted, betrayal so profound life seemed to end.
On two occasions, people who said they loved me, people who ought to have loved me, betrayed me. I loved them with all my being. I still do. Both times, I found my life radically changed. I found myself struggling to understand, caught up in grief so deep I can’t conceive words to describe it. More than 60 years have passed in one case, and I still can’t explain it. So, too, with the more recent event.
I was ordained on a Tuesday. That same week, a parishioner died, and the funeral was scheduled for Thursday. That morning, just two hours before I was due to officiate, my wife of 25 years informed me she had fallen in love with a woman in my church and wanted to explore that relationship. I moved on autopilot that day and most of the next week, carrying out the tasks for which I was responsible, but it was if I were walking through heavy fog. All sounds were muted; all activities occurred in some hazy background. I was unable to eat. Later, when she moved out, a mutual friend called and asked how I was doing.
“It’s as though someone had sharpened a teaspoon on a rough sidewalk and then used it to dig my guts out and put them on the dining room table,” I said.
The book of Hosea is hard to read. Hosea was told to marry a prostitute. Three children were born, and Hosea discovered that Gomer had been unfaithful and had given herself to many lovers. Under Jewish law, she could not remain his wife. She then left or was sent away by him. That was the legal way to handle such a situation in that time and place – to expel the adulteress. This tale is a metaphor, an example of how covenant can be broken. This is like God and his covenant with Israel.
“Go,” God told Hosea. “Take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.”
This is one of the most outrageous commands in the Bible. Go, God tells Hosea, and experience a lifetime of betrayal. Live every day, as I do, with betrayal of your love.
About a year after my dad ran off, my mom called my friend’s home and told me to come home immediately. I did, and she told me dad had returned. She was scared he might try to grab us kids. She was Roman Catholic. It was the mid-1950s. Divorce was unacceptable in her church, but she knew she had to make legal arrangements to keep us with her. So, she divorced my dad and lost her right to receive the sacraments.
Part of the divorce settlement provided dad with visitation rights. He called one day to see if we wanted to go to a movie with him. Mom had carefully prepared us for that call. Her anger burned deep. Her pain was obvious, along with her fear.
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” she told each of us.
I got on the telephone and told dad I didn’t want to see him. My brother did the same. It came time for my sister to get on the phone. She must have been three or four at the time. She got on the phone and heard his voice.
“Daddy,” she screamed, filled with joy.
It was simple: Someone she loved had been lost, but now was found. The prodigal father had returned. We had instructed her to reject my father, but love would not let that happen, could not let that happen. She wanted to see her daddy. We went to the movie.
Hosea divorces his wife, but then is commanded to return to marriage with her. God is revealing here what God will do. God’s love won’t let him reject his people. God’s love is larger than the pain, the loss, the betrayal, and the anger that comes with those things. God will find a way, no matter what, to love us. God chooses to take the pain and shame on himself in order to provide a path for love.
This, then, is love. Not a warm fuzzy. But rather sacrifice. God sacrifices self for others, bears pain for others. God wants us to do that too.
Reflect on God’s suffering for 10 minutes. How will you suffer for another?
“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”
Romans 11: 32
I knew a man with two names.
I first met him in his sixties, and I knew at once that I was meeting a hell-on-wheels free spirit. I had traveled across a continent to a hilly city that smelled of fish. I was desperate. I had worked a year to pay for my first year of college, and here I was, flat broke. I had scraped together my last dollars to travel to one of the toughest bars in Ketchikan, Alaska, to meet Walter Shiltz, a brother of my mom's best friend. He had heard I needed money for school.
Loggers make enough each summer, he told his sister, to go to college. I had flown across the continent to become an Alaska logger.
The bar was long, narrow, dark. A huge moose stared down, unblinking. Here I was, neatly barbered, dressed in dude clothes, chubby, nervous. None of the customers were chubby. None neatly barbered. They were dressed for hard work, and they were all watching. I asked for Walt. The bartender had never heard of him, but a fellow down the bar heard the exchange.
``He means Eddie O,'' the guy said.
``Ah,'' the bartender said. ``Eddie. I heard he was coming in. He'll be along.''
When he came, he didn’t ask who was from Ohio. He gimped his way to where I sat. I learned later someone had stomped him in a bar fight with the needle-like spikes protruding from the soles of a pair of logging boots. The kick crippled him. He appeared ordinary, just a short, stocky guy who needed a shave. But he had ornery eyes. He had a beer, talked with me for a while, then got me organized and onto a little float plane that would take us to the camp.
Walt had fled Ohio when he was 18, frightened because he had killed a man. He spent quite a bit of time hoboing and riding the rails -- he crossed the continent three times in one summer – and ended up in logging. He had logged redwoods in California and finally lost himself in the Alaska woods where he would spend his life working under the name Eddie O’Connor.
He hoboed, logged, and stayed away 30 years before calling home, drunk, one night to talk to his sister. He learned then that the other fellow had recovered and lived down the street. After that, Walter started visiting home. In Ohio he was Walter Shiltz. In Alaska he was Eddie O.
Eddie would say what he thought to anyone, anywhere. He drank like a fish, looked at all women with an acquisitive eye, and had the dirtiest old man chuckle I ever heard. He told me once about the time he and two of my uncles spent a week in a house, trading prostitutes back and forth. He was a good poker player, and he made the best spaghetti sauce I ever ate.
I was 19, and I thought he was the freest man I had ever met.
In Ephesians, Philippians, and other letters, Paul writes about being imprisoned for Jesus Christ. And scholars agree he was often imprisoned. But Paul speaks in Romans about imprisonment as a theological reality.
``For God has made all men prisoners, that he may have mercy upon all,'' he wrote in Romans 11.
Karl Barth, the great theologian, talking to inmates in a Swiss prison, contended that we are all prisoners of disobedience. Augustine, the first great theologian, said the same thing. We do not have a fully free choice, Augustine and Barth argued. Man, in and of himself, can choose only to sin.
I fought this idea for a long time, but Paul says it in Romans. I wanted not to sin, yet I did the very thing I wanted not.
John Wesley, a perceptive observer, saw men living in one of three states: Either as a natural man, as an awakened sinner, or as a believer. The natural man, he said, isn’t aware of God's word and doesn’t heed it, even though he may call himself Christian.
``His soul is in a deep sleep,'' Wesley said. ``His spiritual senses are not awake: they discern neither spiritual good nor evil. The eyes of his understanding are closed; they… see not. It is not surprising if one in such circumstances... dosed with the opiates of flattery and sin, should imagine among his other waking dreams, that he walks in great liberty.”
But Wesley knew a rude awakening lay in store for such people. They may see, finally, the depth of God's command, the depth of our moral obligation, how widely we miss the mark.
For Eddie, cancer was the rude awakener.
I had finished college and had come to visit him in a final hospital bed. He had begun his journey at long last. He was different somehow because he knew, finally, the limit of his freedom. He was a shadow of the man I once knew, and yet he spoke with a calmness and sureness and certainty I had never before heard in him.
He held a Bible.
“Have you ever read this,” he asked.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve done every bad thing you could name, but this book tells me I don’t need to be afraid. You ought to pay attention to this book.”
Later, as I remembered that conversation, I knew Walter had come home. He was free.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. Are you a prisoner?
“The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Aaron and Moses in the wilderness.”
Exodus 16: 2
You may know a dog like Gus. He’s a mutt – a medium sized, short-hair, yellowish thing from the dog pound. When I got him, I asked the vet what he was. The vet looked closely, examined his fur, the shape of his head, studied his paws, estimated his size, then shook his head.
Not a clue, he said.
Gus’s main occupations are eating, sleeping, and dancing near a door. He doesn’t like being inside. He wants to be outdoors, so he dances near a door until someone takes him out. It’s not simple, though. Don’t ask me why, but Gus won’t go out unless he’s wearing a leash. You can open the door, and he’ll just stand there and look at you until you put his leash on. He won’t go out alone. Gus should have been born a chicken.
Once you get out, though, Gus has definite ideas. He wants to chase cats and squirrels, go on long walks, sniff trees, and pee. When we start, he’s full of vinegar. He pulls the direction he wants to go, and if he sees a squirrel… Well, you have to kind of see it to believe it. His paws move faster and faster, usually losing traction on the concrete sidewalk. His front end gets lower, and it takes him about 15 seconds to realize he’s wearing a collar and that he can’t breathe. But that doesn’t matter. There we stand. Gus’s head is down. Paws moving like a blur, scratching tracks in the concrete. Hack! Gasp! Gasp! Choke! Cough!
It usually takes about a block for this phase to pass. Sometimes less if there are lots of trees, hydrants, and poles. Gus likes to smell these things and go to the bathroom. Ten times a block at least, and always at the corner. I don’t know if it’s a sense of smell or something he sees, but Gus can spot a place where he wants to stop before I can, so I’ll be walking along, and all of a sudden, Gus goes into a crouch, all four legs braced. As I reach the end of the leash, I’m yanked to a stop. Gus has dug in. He’s not going anywhere until he concludes whatever he wants to do.
Eventually, we fall into a pattern. Gus gets his doggie grin on, I speed up, and we chug along in tandem, really covering ground, with only an occasional stop. The terrain has a lot to do with this. Sometimes I take Gus up and over a high-level bridge. No other dogs go there, so he doesn’t need to stop and sniff. The sidewalk is walled off on both sides. No trees. We really move out. But the minute we step off the bridge, down goes the nose, out go the legs, and he stops dead to sniff.
We’re a lot like Gus, you know. We want what we want, but we’re scared to go it alone. We want to go at our pace. We want to chase the things we want to chase. Sometimes we stand in front of God and dance, asking God to take us to some particular place. But then, when God takes us in hand, we want to stop. We don’t want to go on. Sometimes we dig in our heels and stop dead in our tracks. Or we push ahead, gasping and choking and ignoring God’s guiding hand.
The Hebrews were like that. God heard their cry and sent Moses. When Pharaoh’s army came, they cried out in fear. They had seen miracle after miracle, but they cried anyway. God parted the sea and saved them. The largest army in the world, held off by God’s hand. There the Hebrews are. Free. No army after them. And off they go again. Complaining. Complaining. Complaining. Grumblers one and all.
If only we had died in Egypt. There we had bread. If only we had water. Now here we are in the wilderness, starving and thirsty. Once again, God responds.
He talks to Moses. Tell the people I have heard. At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread. And then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.
The wilderness story, more than anything, is a story of God’s providence. Of God’s goodness. Of God’s giving heart. It’s a story of ordinary people who again and again find themselves in difficult circumstances and who depend again and again on God. They grumble and complain. Always. Endlessly. They’re stiff-necked and stubborn. But God is good, and God is faithful. The story tells us three things. It tells us that God provides for our needs. That God is with us in our most difficult moments. That, no matter what, God is faithful. God will not fail.
Why must we complain? What blinds us so often to God’s goodness?
Can you explain?
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. What is today’s complaint?
“Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”
Ezekiel 34: 2
I once served a tiny inner-city church that went out of business a few years after I was there. When I first came, it had already shrunk to perhaps 25 souls, mostly folks who drove in each Sunday. One or two families lived nearby, but the old houses around the church had filled with different people, poorer and rougher. Many of them struggled financially. Some were black.
I remember one third Sunday perhaps a year after I arrived. The church always had rolls and coffee after worship on the third Sunday. Folks would hang around and talk. It was always one of the best Sundays. I loved the informal time with the saints. This particular service, I recall, had been wonderful. The music was special, and I thought my sermon had touched some of those present. I remember that I felt aglow as I offered the benediction and marched down the aisle to stand beside Ed, the head usher.
Ed was special. He was one of those who had moved out years ago, but who had remained faithful for decades. When a nearby creek flooded and the basement began to fill, Ed rushed out and bought a giant pump and stayed around the clock for three days to keep it safe and dry. Now, he sat on the board of trustees and the administrative council, and he and his wife gave generously to support the ministry. He would travel alone across three states any time he had a chance to see a famous evangelist. He was an ever-present reminder of the responsibilities of the Christian life.
As head usher, he took special joy in greeting his old friends and leading them to their seats. He knew, of course, exactly which seats they wanted because he had been leading them there for decades. He always stood at the foot of the aisle, and the pastor would march down to him at the close of the service so they could together greet everyone with love as they departed.
On this particular Sunday, we stood there together listening to a wonderful postlude and looking out over friends and families. As we waited to shake the first person’s hand, Ed leaned over and whispered an assurance.
“I locked the door,” he whispered, “to keep the boogies out.”
An Anglican minister, William Law, wrote in the early 18th century a book called A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. One of the central issues he addressed was our seemingly infinite ability to keep our faith and our lives in separate drawers.
“There is a man named Julius,” Law wrote, “who is very fearful of missing his prayers. Everyone in his church assumes Julius to be sick if he is not at church. But if you were to ask him why he spends the rest of his time playing games, why he spends the rest of his time with worldly people and worldly pleasures, why he is eager to engage in sinful diversion, why he engages in idle, gossiping conversation, or why he never puts his conversation, his time, and money under the rules of religion, Julius has no more to say for himself than the most disorderly person.”[i]
Law understood that if we are going to pray for the Spirit of God, then we must let that Spirit rule all our actions in the ordinary things we do.
“Many people are strict when it comes to times and places of devotion,” he wrote, “but when the service and the church is over, they live like those that seldom or never come there.”
Here comes Ezekiel, summoned to speak a word from God. Woe to you shepherds who feed yourselves and allow the sheep to scatter, unfed!
And we wonder why churches fail.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. Which drawer is your faith in? And which your life?
[i] Quoted in Devotional Classics, Selected Readings for Individuals & Groups, Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, eds. [San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1993], 191.