Tag Archives: redemption

Edgar Bazan ~ Redeeming Justice

What is justice?

The theme of justice is pervasive in the Bible but also is widely misunderstood by its readers. Commonly, people depict justice as a harsh judgment or deserved punishment, portraying God as the ultimate punisher or executioner.

But if we look closely in the Bible, this is not how God practices or brings about justice to the world. For God, justice fundamentally has to do with right and good relationships, with fostering and encouraging wholeness and wellness for people and their interactions. The end goal of justice is to make things right by redeeming not destroying.

The ultimate example of this is when it is written, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save the world through faith in him…” God was redeeming the world through Jesus, and for all practical and theological purposes, through this God brought justice by loving all people and not wanting anyone to perish but have eternal life. Jesus did not come to condemn us but to save us, to give us peace. That is God’s justice.

The Book of Jeremiah presents us with the biblical context to learn how this applies to us as people of God.

Consider Jeremiah 7:1-7:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

This text summarizes the issues that Jeremiah address throughout the book of Jeremiah.

The historical context is that in the days of Jeremiah (ca. 600 B.C.), the people of Israel were facing threats from foreign powers. The northern kingdom of Israel was history, taken into Assyrian captivity. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had defeated Assyria and was making his way into Judah. The threat was imminent, they had nowhere to run, and they were soon to be crushed and taken.

The question that I ask when I read this part of Israel’s history is: how did they get there? Did not God promise them a land of honey and milk, and to bless them? Indeed. God said: I will bless you to be a blessing (Genesis 12); you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19).

So, what happened then?

Beginning with Abraham, the people of God (Israel) had entered into a covenant with God to be blessed with the purpose to bless others and to minister God’s love to all people as a missional agency. They were supposed to be different: priests, holy, a blessing, on a mission alongside God to bring healing to the world from sin. They were constituted to join God in “all that God is doing in God’s great purpose for the whole of creation and all that God calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose.” (N.T. Wright)

But over the years, they forgot time and time again who they were meant to be and went from blessing to suffering to oppression, from a Promised Land to a wasteland, for they stopped being the missional agency of justice in the world. Their religion became an oppressing behavior rather than a missional faith. They became unfair, uncaring, selfish, and unjust; oppressors of the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and shed innocent blood (7:6; 19:4).

And this is what the book Jeremiah is all about. As they were facing another threat from a foreign army, Jeremiah was sent to call them out. He, along with other prophets, tried to warn Israel about their sins and the consequences of not keeping God’s covenant.

Ironically, they did not listen to Jeremiah because they felt safe by having the temple in their midst –that which was meant to remind them of their covenant with God. But the opposite was the case. For them, the temple had become an icon of invincibility, and they thought that by having the temple in Jerusalem their lives and nation would be spared. They had a superstitious religion with empty displays of fasting and prayer, but that lacked any inward reality of faith and commitment to God.

Their confidence for their survival was in the Temple, not in God, to which the Lord responded, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” They had been deceived by the false witness of false prophets and God is telling them, “the temple has no power to save you.”

So, the prophetic word of Jeremiah is basically about two main concerns: their idolatry by putting their trust in the temple, and their disregard for the well-being of their neighbor.

For this, Jeremiah, along with many other prophets like Isaiah and Amos, were calling out Israel because they had forgotten their calling. And even after hearing the prophetic word of the prophets they were still not getting it. They were worshiping the temple, while God was telling them,

For if you amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

This is clear, there is no room for confusion, yet they were still not getting it. I mean, how much lower did they need to fall to figure out that they were wrong? Stop worshiping the temple and attend to the needs of those around!

This is the prophetic word of Jeremiah to the people of God that is essentially a wakeup call that demanded from them, as well as from us, to love God and act justly with all people.

What do we make of this? How does this prophetic word speak to us today?

Well, Jesus spoke about some of the same concerns in Matthew 25:35-40. He said,

I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:36-40

Let’s make sure we are getting this right.

God’s calling of Israel and consequently of the church through Jesus is for the blessing of the nations, of all people, particularly those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized. When our mission becomes anything else, we are in the wrong.

What’s our story? What about us? Are we getting it or are we missing the mark too? God is advocating for those in our midst who are invisible to most, for those who are vulnerable and oppressed. Are we acting justly? Are we helping heal and redeem those who are hurting?

Let me give you a specific example to really challenge us today.

Let’s take the widow and the orphan as an example. For all practical purposes, they are also the single parents and their children living in poverty, who have been abandoned by husbands or wives, and are raising their children by themselves. Many of them struggle every day to provide for their children for they need to work twice as much just to provide for the basic needs of their children. Things like childcare, food, clothing, and transportation are barely met. Just think about how much they need to work when daycare cost is at least $1,000 for two children. Add to that rent or mortgage, food, car expenses, clothing, etc. Single parents are fighting for their children with little to no help. How does this make you feel?

Furthermore, consider how little quality time they get to spend with their kids and the side effects of this unjust situation. Next time you see a kid getting into trouble, and you ask, “where are their parents?” Maybe the answer is, “his parent is working two shifts that day while being threatened to be evicted if they can’t afford to pay the balance of their rent, while at the same time trying everything she can to keep her boy in school, so he can have a better future.”

Don’t you think God hurts when God sees his children been treated and judged unfairly, with no regard for their struggles and well-being? God cares and advocates for single parents and their children.

In many ways, this was my experience too. I was raised for several years by a single parent. My mom had me when she was 18 and had to work day in and day out seven days a week to provide for the needs of my brother and me. We were raised by our grandmother in our early years because my mom was almost always working. We never lacked anything because my mom was a hard worker, but we missed many things and time with her too. I am proud of her. I thank God for how she cared for us, but I wish I had more time with her.

Today we are reminded of our calling through the prophetic word of Jeremiah. I am here because my mom was brave and strong. But I am also here because churches – people – went into the community, to children like me, and brought Vacation Bible School, worship, and so on into my community. I did not go to church; church came to me.

Where is our church going today? Or have we settled? Can we not just focus on us, on our temple, but also on what is happening around us in our community?

What are we known for?

Are we known at all?

Can we bring our minds, hearts, and strength together and see our ministry of reaching out to others with at least the same passion we have when we are taking care of ourselves? I know we can, but will we?

Ask yourself: What is driving our vision for our church? What kind of church do we want to be today, and what do we want to leave behind to our children?

The book of Jeremiah is about this kind of stuff. The Gospel of Jesus is still about this stuff. Even James echoed Jeremiah and Jesus when he wrote, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27) And yet still, people before Jesus and after Jesus remain concerned about the wrong things.

Our vision must be about real life: tangible, practical, redeeming, and healing justice. “The notion that the Church is a place only for spiritual deepening, character-building, mutual care and service ignores Jesus’ core message… the inauguration a new reign of justice and peace.” (Storey, preface) We don’t just pray for justice and peace; we act on it. We don’t ask God to send someone to do something about it, we say here I am, Lord, send me.

To all of us, we need to be more intentional about engaging with those God cares about, those who God is naming before us today. Remember that biblical justice is about aligning with God’s commands and faithfully keeping God’s covenant which then, in turn, is reflected in how we treat our neighbor: our aliens, orphans, and widows… our single parents and their children.

We have the mandate to make our world better not just for us but for those who are hurting and in need. We can’t honestly represent God and be Christians if we don’t care about this. Our lives and faith must be in agreement.

The people of Israel were promised a future if they amended their ways of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). So are we: we are promised a future too.

Does our corporate church and each one of us as individuals and disciples of Christ have a voice in favor of those God names in our Bibles and commands us to care for? Would our church speak up and act?

My friends, today God is challenging us to think outside the box – literally – to hear to voices beyond this holy space of worship; to practice God’s justice –a redeeming justice that is concerned about contributing all that is good and kind to others.






NRSV Bible

Storey, Peter John. With God in the Crucible: Preaching Costly Discipleship. Abingdon Press, 2010.

Wright. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. Zondervan, 2010.


Embracing God Who Creates


Creation is never an extra in Christian faith; it is foundational. All else moves outward from there. That idea is not always as obvious as it should be. It is easy to flip things around and think of God as the Redeemer who also creates, rather than as the Creator who also redeems. But that would be a mistake borne of placing ourselves at the center of the universe, rather than the one who truly belongs there – God.

God creates.

God redeems.

Christian faith is deepened and enriched when we get the order right. This is especially true in the arena of evangelism, where our focus is often on individuals and our fervent hope that they might come into relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no doubt this is an extremely important focus. Yet, where we begin a journey often has a significant impact on where we find ourselves at the end. Thus, where we begin our thinking about evangelism is very important.

The faith we receive when we encounter Jesus Christ is faith in a Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of course, the second person of the Trinity is vital; but our creeds remind us of the order: we believe in the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Starting there widens the scope of redemption considerably – it is indeed good news for all creation.

When the essence of evangelism, those values that lie beneath our practices, rests firmly on an understanding of our Triune God, there will be a consistent ethos, a “way of being in the world,” that colors all our efforts, regardless of where we live or the distinctive aspects of our culture.

As Christians, we worship a creating, redeeming, sustaining God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the God who redeems not only human beings, but the entirety of creation, which Paul tells us is even now groaning as God continues to work within it for God’s redemptive purposes.

We worship a creating, redeeming, sustaining God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the God who is working, even now, to eliminate evil and bring to fruition the justice and peace of the kingdom inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth. It is this God who creates. It is this God who redeems.


Adapted from Dr. Kim Reisman’s “Embrace” faith-sharing study.



Steve Beard ~ Aaron Neville’s Road to Redemption

This piece is part of a series on substance abuse, faith, and different expressions of Wesleyan Methodist response. You can read the first installment about one congregation’s prayer vigil over the heroin epidemic in its community here.


There are two striking features you notice when Aaron Neville performs: his massive biceps and his ethereal falsetto voice. Once you come to grips with the incon­gruity of his hulking, muscular frame and his transcendent vocal gift, you take notice of the rosary bracelets, the dis­tinctive mole above his left eye, and the numerous tattoos- including the dagger on his left cheek.

A few years ago, my best friend and I were invited to the CD release party for the Neville Brothers while we were in New Orleans. The Neville family has been a Big Easy music institution for more than 50 years. The brothers (Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril) were in their hometown pro­moting “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life” -a hip-hopish album of French Quarter funk, jazz, soul, rhythm and blues.

The crowd at the House of Blues was mesmerized as Aaron sang his classic ballad, “Tell It Like It Is.” Forty years ago, that song shot to the top of the charts. The heartbreak behind the hit is that although it had been selling 40,000 copies a week and was being played nationwide on the radio, Aaron Neville’s recording label was in a downward tailspin. He never saw the song’s royalties. Someone was get­ting rich off his artistry, but it sure was not Neville. While the song was topping the charts, he was busting his back as a longshoreman on the docks of New Orleans in order to feed his family.

Aaron Neville sings with a sincere earnestness. He is the least flamboyant on the stage, yet he is the most intense when he strings along his vocal offering-treating each note and harmony with the precision of a heart surgeon. He is grateful for his gift and he treasures the opportunity to share it with others. Neville earned his spot on the stage by triumphing over Jim Crow racism, drug addiction, prison time, and financial desperation.

For the warrior, the battle never seems to cease. His wife of 47 years recently died of a long bout with cancer and Neville found himself displaced from his hometown of New Orleans shortly after hurricane Katrina. In the midst of his losses, he sings to bring hope where life’s clouds have turned gray.

His tremulous voice is recognized all over the world. Neville has won three Grammys and has been nominated for numerous others. He has even become a modest pop culture icon by being periodically parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XL with Aretha Franklin, and making a guest appearance on “The Young and the Restless.”

Life was not always so sublime. There were the drug-induced clashes with the law-stealing cars and robbing jew­elry stores. “Deep inside, I was always nervous and scared, but the dope pushed down the feelings,” he writes in the autobiographical “The Brothers.” “Before taking off, I shot up. I went to that otherworld place.”

Neville did the crimes and served his time.

He began smoking pot in junior high and started using heroin shortly thereafter. “First time I shot smack, I was in love,” he recalls. He even got high with the late Ray Charles.”Shooting smack didn’t help my thinking any. I thought I loved the high-and I did-but my mind checked out. I just wanted to stay high.”

Neville was raised in a God-fearing home. His dad was Methodist and his mom was Catholic. He attended Saint Monica, a school run by nuns who used to get death threats from the Ku Klux Klan for teaching black kids. “They were caring women who taught me about love,” he remembers.

The lessons he learned from the nuns faded for a time, but the core message never went away. Although he was a thug-lookin’ junkie with a criminal record, Neville wanted to be something different. “If you saw into my mind.and looked into my heart, you’d see someone who just want­ed to sing. Sing with the Madonna. Sing with the angels. Sing the dreamy doo-wop, sing like Gene Autry out on the range, sing the old love songs, sing my prayer to God to find a way to get off the dope that was turning my mind to black night.”

He was desperate to be unshackled. He would get on a Greyhound from New Orleans to New York in order to try to dry out. “Just climb on that sucker and find a seat in the back and sit and sweat it out.Curl up in a fetal position, all fevered, throwing up in the bathroom, sweating and suf­fering through Indiana and Illinois, up all night, up all day, not eating, not drinking, just sweating out the dope, cold turkey..”

He went to the Big Apple to find his brother Charles, but what he found were the “shooting galleries” in Harlem where addicts were using heroin. “I got to the city clean, but the clean didn’t last. Those shooting galleries matched my mood-dark and lonely..I didn’t want to know about any­thing except floating away from a world filled with pain.”

Heroin was Neville’s undoing. For a while, his wife kicked him out of the house because of his habit. He was never sure if he was chasing the dragon or it was chasing him. All he knew was that he was a slave to the high.

“I knew I needed to make my transformation, needed to get back to the place where I was a little boy who believed in the goodness of God and power of prayer,” he remem­bers. He called out to God. He prayed with tenacity as he climbed up the steps of Saint Ann’s Shrine in New Orleans on his knees. He even called upon the intercession of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

He finally checked himself into the rehab program at DePaul Hospital in New Orleans. That was 25 years ago. In addition to the one-week lock-down, Neville stayed an additional two weeks because he didn’t feel ready to deal with the outside. He did lots of praying. The man with the physique of a fighter was battling for his own soul. “When I left, I left clean,” he testifies. “I vowed to stay off drugs. With God’s help, I’ve kept that vow.”

When he got out, he changed friends-separating himself from the users and abusers. “If anyone came to me or my brothers with dope, I’d get in their face and scare them so bad they’d never come back again,” he says. “I became a watchdog. But a lifetime of drug taking taught me no one stops till they’re ready.”

Despite the temptations to bow once again to his addiction, Neville was ready for the next chapter of his life-one that would include three Grammy Awards and numerous nominations.

In his 1997 song “To Make Me Who I Am,” Neville doesn’t sugar coat the change in his life. “I’ve met a lot of lost souls in the bowels of hell / Traveled some crooked roads, got some stories yet to tell. I’ve shot up with the junkie / Broken bread with the devil, fallen on my knees to God. Some days I was blessed, some nights I was damned / But I always tried to lend a helping hand. Once I was a deceiver, but now I am a believer.”

The revelry of the Neville Brothers gig at the House of Blues came to an astounding and respectful silence when Brother Aaron began singing an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” Without preaching, the testimony went forth. “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” People wiped tears from their eyes. John Newton’s hymn is universally beloved-even in the midst of spilled beer and cigarette smoke. Although we may not all be ready to walk through the front door to the house of redemption, we still like to know that the porch light is on.

A few years ago, The New York Times reported: “In Britain, many social workers have sent Neville’s CDs to suicidal patients as spiritual medicine, hoping his voice will quell depression. In India a bridge has been named for him. Doctors at the Betty Ford Clinic, in California, sometimes use his gospel CD “Devotion” to comfort addicts in detox.”

It was Bob Dylan who was referring to Neville when he wrote: “There’s so much spirituality in his singing that it could even bring sanity back in a world of madness.”

He gets letters all the time about the healing power of his singing. “It’s the God in me touching the God in them,” he concludes.

Looking back, Neville considers himself blessed to have been arrested as well as for getting robbed of his early royalties. “When I did ‘Tell It Like It Is’ in ‘66, I didn’t get paid for it and that was God doin’ that. Man, if I got $10,000 when I was 25 years old, I’d be dead now. When I sing it today and get a standing ovation, that’s my pay. I’m still here, still singin’. That’s my pay.” Since he has tasted redemption, he refuses to lean on regret. “My life, I don’t think I’d change nothing, because everything I went through enabled me to have compassion for the next man. Whatever he’s going through out there, I’ve been through.”



This article appeared in Risen Magazine in 2007.


Harley Scalf ~ Grace and an Empty Pop Bottle

I’m only 34. I’m not old. As life continues on, it seems I repeat that to myself with more frequency each day.

I’m not old, but I do remember something that the teenagers of today do not. I remember the days of glass soda bottles. I’m from West Virginia, originally, so we called them pop bottles…mainly because that’s what they’re supposed to be called! For the sake of everyone reading this, what I’m referring to were soda – or Coke – or pop bottles.

In those days, we lived up a holler: that’s another thing you may not understand. Some people call them hollows. Either way, it was a dirt road with one way in and one way out. It was a holler.

At the “mouth” (aka beginning) of the holler was a small convenience store, an IGA. We knew the owners fairly well. That didn’t mean much in that small, rural West Virginia town. In towns like that, everyone knows everyone. Still, as a young child, it felt important that we knew the family. When we would run out of pop, mom would set the empty glass bottles in their cartons on the kitchen counter. That was a signal to us kids. She wanted us to carry the bottles from our home to the IGA and bring back more pop.

The process was like this: my sister and I would take the empty RC bottles and walk them to the store. There, we would hand them over to a man behind an elevated counter. It seemed like he was 10 feet tall, but he was probably only a step or two above us. Then, in exchange for the empty bottles, he would give us money. It wasn’t much, but it was something. That money was used, generally, to put toward the purchase of more pop for the family. Most of the time, mom would throw in some extra change so that we could grab a few pieces of bubble gum for ourselves. I know now that it was a bit of a bribe to get us to go to the store for her. I didn’t care as long as I got my bubble gum. After checking out, we would walk the pop and chew our gum all the way back to the house. Those were good days.

There was a name for what we did. In fact, I think I recall that they even printed it on the glass bottle itself. It would say something like “Redeem 5¢” or “Return for Deposit.”

Redeem: we handed something to a person in a position of power (high above us), and that powerful person gave us something in return. It was an exchange. It was a redemption.

The Apostle Paul knew something of redemption, though it was considerably more profound than anything having to do with an RC Cola bottle. He wrote of it to the church in Ephesus as we read in Ephesians 1:7: “In [Jesus] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.”

Redemption is an exchange. We pack up the emptiness of our lives. We walk it to the place of redemption – the feet of our Lord. We hand over our lives, placing our trust in the One with all power and knowledge. In return, we are given grace, forgiveness, hope, a new life in Jesus.
I learned of redemption very early in life, though I didn’t think of it in such theological ways. I learned of grace a little later in life, as a teenager, when I placed my trust in Jesus as Lord.

The grace of redemption can come upon us all at once like a crashing wave. It can reveal itself over a season of life similar to how the autumn leaves move from green to vivid orange, red, and yellow. It can even be relentless in how it floods our souls over and over again.

However grace comes to us, I am grateful that it comes at all. I’m ever grateful, too, that it is worth far more than an empty RC cola bottle.

Ellsworth Kalas ~ Singing As If It Were Easter


I think it can fairly be said that Charles Wesley has given the world its best and most popular songs for both Christmas and Easter. The Christmas competition is substantial, because we all love so much of the music of the season. I dare to make the case for “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” not only because it is so exuberant and so easy to sing, but also because it is so packed full of basic Christian doctrine. There’s enough there to summarize the whole plan of salvation and to set your soul to rejoicing while you do so.

But Wesley’s Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” stands alone in the music of Easter. There’s a vigorous “Alleluia!” at the end of each line, as if Brother Charles knew that he’d better write it into the poem because each lead-in line insisted on it – if Charles didn’t provide an “Alleluia,” the singers would interrupt the hymn to shout it. Besides, as the late Robert McCutchan noted, it was an early Christian custom for Christians to salute one another on Easter morning with “Hallelujah!”

Wesley wrote this hymn in 1739, which makes it one of his earliest hymns. As originally written, it had eleven stanzas. This means that there were forty-four declarations to which the people sang their “Alleluia.” There’s no question but that the first line ought to be the first line – “Christ the Lord is risen today” – because all else follows from that premise. If you accept that fact (and God have mercy on you if you don’t), it’s easy to “raise your joys and triumphs high,” and to know as you do so that the “heavens and earth reply.”

And if you know that He is risen, of course “Love’s redeeming work is done,” and the battle has been fought, and won, and you know that “Christ has opened paradise.” And you have reason to affirm Paul’s statement in melody: “Where, O death, is now thy sting? Where’s thy victory, boasting grave?” And you’re very sure that we can now, by grace, expect to “soar … where Christ has led, Following our exalted Head,” because “Made like him, like him we rise.”

It’s all very easy to sing if we believe the first line, that Christ is risen. And you’re glad that you can sing “Alleluia!” at the conclusion of each line because without that exclamation something inside you might burst. It’s a song that makes one sing like it’s Easter, because it is. And that’s the whole, holy fact of the matter.