P is for Persistence

Persistence is intrinsic to the divine character. Think of the opening of Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven”: “I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him, down the arches of the years; I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; ... I hid from him ...” But nonetheless “those strong feet ... followed.” God is a hound who pursues us even as we run away from him.
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Once when I had a group of young adults in my New York apartment, one of them was saying that we needed only to remember that God always loves us; just believe and all your problems will go away. I got perturbed at what seemed to me (perhaps unfairly) as simplistic claptrap offered with showy piety. The words burst from my lips: “I think God intends to kill us all. And he will succeed.”
God is persistent.
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When Job is afflicted, he asks God to go away, to leave him alone. Consider these lines from an early speech of his: “When I say, My bed shall comfort me, my couch shall ease my complaint; Then thou [God] scarest me with dreams. . . . What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him? And that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment? How long wilt thou not depart from me, nor let me alone till I swallow down my spittle?” (Job 7:13-19)
God is so persistent that Job feels he can’t even swallow his own spit without being watched.
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The persistence of God, then, is not necessarily welcome news. It can be uncomfortable to know that there is someone we can never get away from. God is going to stick with us, through thick and thin, whether we like it or not.
Job can’t just forget God and die.
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Sometimes people wonder how to interpret the anger of God that we read about from time to time in the Bible. Does God change from being loving to being angry? The answer is no. God’s anger is the same thing as God’s love. When you are working against God, you may experience his love as his anger. When you are resisting God, you may experience his persistence as unwelcome. But God’s love doesn’t change: what changes is in us. Job, in the end, gets the point. He accepts the awesomeness of God. Despite the pains, he enjoys his own place in the human world of friendship.
And we, in the end, accept the persistence of God who sticks with us even in our death, and beyond.
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On the Web. Sunday, January 24, from 9:45 to 10:45 a.m., I will be teaching a class for the church of the Annunciation in Lewisville, Tex., on Christian friendship. This will be online. More info on the church’s website.
 Wednesday, February 3, at 7 p.m. Eastern (6 p.m. Central), the Rev. Jacob Smith, rector of New York City’s church of Calvary/St. George, will have an online conversation with me about friendship.

Thy God Reigneth

For Epiphany (Jan. 6), the Episcopal daily office lectionary gives us for Morning Prayer in odd-numbered years Isaiah 52:7-10. It is an inspired choice.
    How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace, that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation, that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
    Here the prophet Isaiah speaks to Israel in hard, alienating times. The reason Israel is in hard times is because of God himself: God has exiled Israel for its unfaithfulness, its moral corruption, its abandonment of the law, its failure to walk before the Lord in the ways of holiness. But God still loves Israel, and the time has come for reconciliation.
    So there is a messenger coming with good tidings of “peace” and of “salvation,” news that God is going to effect peace between himself and his people and is going to save his people from oppression and alienation and bring them home. The news is beautiful, and for that very reason the messenger is beautiful, even down to his feet—although surely his feet are blistered and dirty! The news makes everything beautiful even before what it announces comes to pass.
    The most important line is this: Thy God reigneth!
    A problem many of us have is that we spiritualize the reign of God. We think, although God does reign over my heart, he doesn’t reign over the United States (or the republic of Texas, or whatever). This is not true and it shrinks the impact of the good tidings that the messenger brings. God reigns over everything! He is the king over kings, he rules nations; in the end, not only individuals come to his throne for judgment but nations do also. This means, for instance, that America is a real thing with an eternal destiny for good or for ill. (Likewise, Texas, Dallas, and Texarkana.) The good news includes the news that good government is coming: government that will protect us, government that will provide true judgment, government that will serve our true identity.
    On Epiphany, God’s light shines forth not only upon Israel, upon Zion, but upon all nations, all humanity, every person. The light shows that the king has indeed come. Thy God reigneth! Jesus is the king of the universe, the governor over all governors, the law-giver over all lawgivers, the judge of every judge. He will save us from wrong that we do and wrong that is done to us, from all that is hard and alienating. He will judge decisively between right and wrong. And he will give us our true identity as a people, an identity to which history has given the name “Christian.”
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    On the Web. Sunday, January 24, I will be teaching a class for the church of the Annunciation in Lewisville, Tex., on friendship. This will be online. More info to come.

 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."