The Prophet’s Word

I’m grateful for the annual day marked off to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Racial reconciliation and justice is something always bubbling just beneath my consciousness, and MLK day forces it to the surface. It forces me to reflect specifically on the man’s legacy, but also on my own engagement with his cause.

This year, I was glad to participate in our small town’s March in memory of Dr. King. It was surreal and powerful, walking with my children, surrounded by a slice of our community.

I also try to spend some time reading some of Dr. King’s work, and this year I sat down with his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. It’s an amazing piece of work, and its power to convict holds today. The challenging letter calls out the White church for their silence in the face of the struggle for civil rights, and every paragraph burns. The letter is inspiring, instructive, and stinging throughout, and if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, it’s worth sitting down with for a half hour. Word for word, it’s one of the most important things the church produced in the last century.

I also spent a little time trying to reflect poetically on what it means for me, living more than 50 years later, to try and pick up the echo of Dr. King’s message. What came out was the little poem below, which I shared at the ceremony on Monday.

There’s much work to be done, my friends. May the Lord be with us.

The Prophet’s Word

Dreamer, Seer,
Prophet, Preacher,

Sent to us, the Nineveh next door,
He willingly went,
Walked,
Marched,

From you, with you
To us, at us,

With just the word we needed,
a word we could not hear.

We could only see it,
See its drama enacted,
While it called out the violence within us.

We could not hear the word,
but we could see it,
and be seen by it.

We could not hear it, but the word would not depart.

Its echo rumbles through the canyon still,
While the unseen water rushes on below,
like a mighty stream.

Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice

Over
The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.

There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.

Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:

 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here:  What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children?  They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading “Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice”

Unpolluted, Unstained

A metaphor for the ritual effect of cussing.

Growing up, I got the sense that when the church talked about being “different from the world”, that was more or less code for a fairly defined set of behaviors, things like cussing, drinking, and sexual activity.  (Maybe smoking, but that was on the fence, at least for anyone over 35 years old.)  Those things represented something like distinctive marks of christian nonbehavior, another layer in addition to the other marks of good people generally agreed upon by society at large: honesty, respect for other people’s property, etc. I don’t honestly know that anybody was really saying that, or if it was just the way my immature mind heard it all, but for a long while I felt like this was a pretty good summary of what people thought it meant be “different than the world” as a Christian. The back half of James 1:27 would have been given that idea words in my young mind—it was a text I often heard in church.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself  from being polluted by the world.

In my understanding, this text gave a kind of summary of faith, with two main ideas.  Do positive things (care for widows and orphans), and don’t do negative things (“keep oneself from being polluted by the world” Read: don’t drink, cuss, or have sex.). Such was my youthful understanding of holiness.  For a preadolescent kid, before fermented or sexual opportunity presented themselves, the bar was admittedly low.  Still, resisting the small amount of pressure I got from wanting to fit in with my friends in the neighborhood who skillfully cursed while we played basketball and kick the can generally made me feel like I was doing what God wanted me to do. As I grew older and was able to generally fend off the other two behaviors in the unholy trinity of worldly behavior, I reinforced within myself the idea that being a Christian person really wasn’t all that tough.  And truthfully, unless you have some addictions or at least some deeply grooved habits, that brand of christianity really isn’t that tough. I mean, when it really comes down to it, you can do whatever the heck you want, as long as you say heck instead of hell. I suppose I could have lived like that for a long time without much problem, except maybe boredom.

When I started really listening to the Bible, though, I started getting a radically different kind of idea about what God wanted me to be like.  Take that verse in James, for instance.  That earlier line of interpretation of what it means to be polluted by the world is pretty easy to understand in the context of our american church culture.  But it doesn’t really ask the important interpretive question, “What did James mean by polluted by the world?” And when you really ask that question, you don’t just get an ambiguous idea of what it means, because James spends a good part of his letter describing what he seems to see as the influence of the world.  Indeed, the section right after this verse, in James 2, rails against viewing rich people as more valuable than poor people.  At the end of chapter 3, he talks about wisdom that’s worldly as being marked by envy and selfishness.  That discussion that trails into the beginning of chapter 4 where being covetous about physical wealth (and perhaps the honor and respect that came with it) sparks James to ask, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God.”  His rant goes throughout that chapter, and in the back half of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five he uses some pretty flaming rhetoric to talk about the wealthy who presume to set their own agendas without concern for God’s authority over their existence or concern for the needs of the poor! (Seriously, that language in chapter 5 is smoking hot. No wonder it is probably the least publicly read part of James.) When you read all of that together, you can begin to put some content in James’s phrase “keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. It’s not just a few nitpicky behaviors that James is concerned about. James critiques the whole assumption of the world that we have no responsibility for other people, that our wealth is our own to do with as we please. To the extent that I adopt that mentality, I have allowed the world to pollute my faith.

James’s statement about true religion here isn’t a divided concept. Widows and orphans were an important group of “the poor” for the Jewish mind, people who were defenseless and vulnerable without the financial or legal help of other people. Caring for them is a specific expression of what people who are unpolluted by the world do. It is a way people show that they don’t think of their possessions as truly their own.

See, true religion is inconvenient.  Not because of all those church meetings that keep us from sleeping in on Sundays, or it might refine my beverage selection. It forces me to reevaluate the way I think about stuff, and my relationship with it.  It forces me to take responsibility for the poor and the way they are treated in my society. It keeps me from just doing whatever the heck I want. It challenges my “wants”, my desires, my greed, as motivations for my life.

It raises the bar.

There are certain behaviors that we have come to think of as producing something like a moral stain, a sin grease mark that has to be dealt with, and we often think about the biblical language of defilement in those terms almost exclusively. But we could take a significant step forward in understanding our faith if we can grasp that the real stains on our souls are not just behavioral slip-ups.  They are the deep stains of materialism, the deep stains of our thought patterns and habits, colored by the assumptions of the world around us. 

The opposite of being polluted by the world is precisely what James mentions in the first half of 1:27, the care for the widows and orphans. It’s what the Hebrew Bible refers to as “justice and righteousness”, a way of living in the world that respects the dignity of each of our neighbors as an image bearer of God. In the spirit of James, the practice of justice and righteousness is not just the maintaining the absence of evil—it is about the active love of our neighbors that goes beyond words and is fulfilled in action.

The Destructive Mentalities of a Disengaged Church

In this series of posts, I’ve been writing about the concept of church mentalities, and particularly the sorts of mentalities that need to be developed if the church is to be meaningfully engaged with the local community. As painful as it may be, we must recognize that we aren’t developing those mentalities in anything like a vacuum.  There is no truly clean slate.   Rather, we are simultaneously developing one set of mentalities while working to counter destructive mentalities already exerting influence.  Mentalities destructive to the church’s purposes are often thoroughly entrenched within the church for a variety of reasons in the personal histories of church members.  Any of the potential purposes the Church might take on faces this process of reconstructing the proper mentalities, but here I’m specifically interested in our particular purpose of engagement with the surrounding community and its problems, and what mentalities potentially exist that would be counterproductive to that purpose. Below is my initial list of these potential destructive mentalities that threaten to keep churches disengaged. Truthfully, some of them are foils, but I think others ring true and are closer to home than I like to admit.

1. Service is a painful discipline. You just have to suffer through it, and force yourself to get it done. If it was fun, it wouldn’t be service.

2. We serve because we get something out of it.  Service is great for the high school kids’ college applications, our personal resumes, our social lives, and our reputations (particularly in the church). Not to mention the fact that God will someday reward us if we serve!

3. We have what we have because of our hard work. It is God’s way of blessing us for doing things the right way, so that we can enjoy the things he gives us.  We don’t owe anything to anybody, really.

4. Evangelism is about helping people obtain forgiveness. Conversion is infinitely more important than “discipleship”. The first steps of the Christian journey are by far the most important, because they involve accepting God’s forgiveness—if people are motionless after that, at least they won’t be going to hell.

5. We are a peaceful and stable church. This is how we’ve grown! When we take new initiatives, we threaten what we’ve spent years building, and threaten the very peace which brought people to our church in the first place.

6. The church is primarily interested in saving souls. Everything else we might do is a vehicle towards that end. We can judge our success by the number of conversions, and if we don’t see many of those, that we can at least hope that we have planted the seed of the gospel in their mind so that it will eventually bear fruit.

7. Service is a special gift of some christians. It’s great that god has given some people such servant hearts.  It’s the job of the rest of the church to encourage and support those people.

8. We want to support our people in service. The best (or only) candidate for a partner is the one who thinks like we do, talks like we do, and practices like we do.

9. Most people’s problems are a result of their own sin. If they hadn’t made some bad decisions, they wouldn’t need our help.  In fact, most people asking for help are probably abusing the system. They’ll probably go to hell even more because of that.

10. Commonality leads to friendship. Our best friends are people with whom I have common interests, common ideas, and a similar background. In fact, we’ve probably already been friends for a while.

11. It’s us against the world. The world is full of so much corruption that it’s better to isolate ourselves from it, and make sure not to associate ourselves with evil of any kind.

In some ways these might stand as opposites of the mentalities that encourage community engagement, so that they constitute poles on the opposite side of a spectrum. Alternatively, we might understand these mentalities as threads within the tapestry that makes up our mindsets as individuals and as a group with a corporate identity. Within that tapestry are threads of many different hues, some of which are brighter, some are darker.  In other words, some of these darker threads might exists alongside lighter threads, and it is a blending of light and dark threads of many colors that influences our thoughts, actions, feelings, and words in particular moments and over time. Part of our work in creating a good “working” tapestry is developing positive mentalities, in other words, weaving lighter strands into the fabric.  On the other hand, there may be darker threads that need to be pulled, removed from the tapestry.

I suspect these destructive mentalities might be more controversial than the positive set.  I’m not sure I even agree with how negative a couple of them are. I would very much welcome your comments, whether in agreement or civil dissent.  Help me think.

Mentalities for a Church Engaging the Community

In part one of this series, I talked about how complicated it can be to develop a particular set of mentalities within the church.  That’s not all that helpful without some concrete examples of what we mean by mentalities.

The church here at Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) is working to become more engaged with the community, so here is a working set of mentalities that I’m teasing out as part of that transition.  They are not in any particular order yet.

1. We love to serve people. It’s not a burden to us, something we do reluctantly out of guilt.  We find joy in serving other people, and the more we do it, the more we love to do it.  We anticipate having a great time while we serve.

2. Service is a sacred duty. Although we could never repay the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, we receive his actions both as gift and lesson.  The cross is both the means and the purpose of our redemption, a binding path for us to follow if we are to honor our commitment as disciples of Jesus. The Lord bids us honor him by serving our neighbor.

3. Our lives are not our own. Everything that we are, do, and possess is conditioned by the Lordship of Jesus Christ over us. There is no question of convenience or desire.

4. Evangelism is the invitation to participate in the kingdom of God. This necessarily involves the invitation to serve. We don’t view ourselves as servants and others simply as recipients of our service, but everyone as having potential for service in the community.

5.  We are a “Servant” church. It is part of our corporate identity as a people.  Theologically, this is rooted in the idea that the church is the physical representation of Christ on earth today.  In as much as we recognize from scripture that Christ is “servant”, we work to fulfilling that identity in our body of believers.  It is part of who we are.

6.  Whenever we fight against darkness/brokenness, we fight with and for God. Darkness shows up in the world in thousands of different forms. Family failure, financial despair, emotional imbalance and the grief of life unfulfilled are all expressions of evil.  The mission of the church in the world is not just to get people to accept Jesus in order to gain forgiveness in preparation for their death.  Rather, the church exists to embody the God who works to restore and heal his broken creation.

7.  Everyone can serve. Everyone.  Absolutely everyone has a way of fighting darkness in the world.

8.  We want to help people help people. When we see someone taking initiative to push back against darkness somewhere, we don’t immediately suspect their motives, and we don’t jump into criticisms.  Our first reaction is to respect their initiative and passion.  What might they need in support?  Encouragement? Advice? Freedom or space?

9. We do not judge the people we serve. We recognize that before God we have our own problems, and our own sins.  We rely on the forgiveness of God, and are compelled to give what we expect to receive.  We relish opportunities to be gracious and merciful. We know we don’t occupy the high ground, we don’t have a status that allows us to stand in judgement over other people.

10. Service leads to friendship. Our normal thinking about status—that we are superior to others—is an illusion that stands as a fundamental barrier to relationships.  When we serve, he voluntarily dispel that illusion, and open up the possibilities for new relationships. We also deepen the friendships with the people we serve with, so that all the friendships of the church are built upon the identity of service and the practices of service.

11. We want to be great neighbors. Our church is planted within a particular community, and God calls us to be good neighbors to that community.  We are a part of our community, and don’t exist in isolation from the community and its problems.  Jesus teaches us how to be good neighbors, how to interact with the people with whom we share our city.

There’s my initial list.  I hope it’s useful in defining what I mean by strategic “mentalities”.  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below regarding what kinds of mentalities might additionally be helpful in making our transition, as well as how the ones I’ve listed strike you.  How present do you think these mentalities are? Are they sound theologically?

The next post in this series will address common destructive mentalities. I’d welcome comments ahead of that post as well!

Cry Out – A Sermon from Exodus 2:23-25

(This is the first in the Exodus Sermon series. The audio for the entire series is here.)

Israel was indeed a nation born of promises.  It was an entire nation that traced its lineage back to one man, Abraham, a man who had received an outlandish set of promises from God.

At the beginning of Exodus, though, it seems as though those promises were merely empty words.  We find Israel, who had been promised Canaan as a homeland, living as slaves in Egypt.  How they got there was simple enough to explain. A long time ago there was a famine in Canaan, and the only place to get food was in Egypt, so, to Egypt they went.  They stayed there until the famine passed, and went it did they decided they liked it well enough, and stuck around. Why not, right? They were comfortable, they were provided for, and after a few decades, they were as at home in Egypt as they had ever been in Canaan anyways.

Eventually, though, they fell prey to the fears of the powerful in Egypt. To prevent them from becoming a threat, a Pharaoh enslaved them, using them to build his own wealth and power. And so, their not-homeland became a home of oppression for them, one in which they lived without dignity, humanity, or possibility. Even Moses, the man who is to be God’s instrument of deliverance, sees no other way.  He is willing to fight the injustice himself, and he does but, he is quickly forced to recognize that he is no match for the injustice his kinsmen face, and he flees.  While in exile, he starts a family and gives his child a most telling name, Gershom, saying that this name was because  “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”

Do you see what’s off key there?  Doesn’t it sound like Moses has bought into his current situation as an exile from his real home, which he seems to think is back in Egypt.  See, that’s part of the problem.  Israel was too at home in Egypt.  It becomes clearer and clearer as the story goes on that while Israel didn’t really want to be slaves, they also didn’t want to leave Egypt.  They really don’t even understand how extensive, how radical, God’s deliverance would be.  His actions in the Exodus would completely redeem and redefine Israel.

The Exodus is a story of complete and utter redemption, God’s way.  It is the story of how God responded to the cries of his people, how he called out an unlikely leader to help him utterly defeat the forces that were against his people.  It’s a story of how The same God who collides with the powers of Egypt brings his people into covenant with himself, for the sake of living in community with him.  It is a rich story, and over the next five weeks we’re going to see how this remarkable story of redemption can redefine us, just as it did Israel.

[Let us pray together.]

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel-and God knew.

-Exodus 2:23-25

This is the true beginning of the Exodus story.  While it seems clear enough that God was behind the earlier story of Moses’ birth, the text makes it abundantly clear that it is the crying out of Israel that triggers the Exodus event. In the next chapter, Moses is twice told that God is acting because he has heard the cry of Israel.  Later on, in chapter six, after being initially rebuffed by Pharaoh, Moses is told again, “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.”

Israel had become too at home in Egypt, and had disregarded their identity as people to whom God had made incredible promises.  They had become complacent, had fallen asleep.  But when their suffering became unbearable, when they could no longer stomach the status quo, they cried out to God.  And while it may be that they really didn’t know exactly what they were asking for, the simple act of their crying out to God provoked the Lord to action.  It signals to the Lord a crack in their complacency, a readiness for redemption. Their cry means that they are stirring from their slumber.  Crying out is waking up.

It means waking up to all the things around us that shouldn’t be tolerable, but have become so.  It means waking up to our own sins, to our own limitations.  It means realizing that we are not at home in Egypt, that things aren’t just fine, that things must change.

As we begin this journey together, I want to simply ask you to cry out to God with me. Let us cry out to God that, even though we don’t yet know what needs to change around and within us, we are indeed desperate for his intervention, and we rely on his redemption.  Let us cry out, not just in this moment, but habitually, as we continually encourage each other to abandon the things that would enslave us, to prepare ourselves for God’s redemption and redefinition.  Let us be a people that cries out to God. Let us be a community that is always waking up.

We can do this, because crying out doesn’t require much of us.  It doesn’t require us to be courageous or wise, pure or particularly holy.  We don’t have to be smart, or eloquent. Crying out only requires one thing of us, honesty.  Our cry to God, just like Israel’s, flows from an honest assessment of who we are before God.  It requires us to be hints about our flaws and weaknesses, about our limits and sins.  When we cry out we confess ourselves, we confess who we are and what we cannot do on our own.  And so, it requires us to be honest with ourselves as we speak to the one who already knows the truth about us anyway.

We may take that honest cry to God, knowing that we cry out to a listening God. Exodus affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God of action, who responds to the cries of his children.

And lest we think that God only hears the cries of his people, that he only acts here because it is actually Israel, let me share with you another passage, Isaiah 19. Isaiah will not allow us to think about God’s listening ear in exclusive terms.  Like Jonah, Isaiah blows open the limits of God’s attention and care.  Speaking of Egypt, Isaiah writes, “When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them.” The Lord will hear and respond to the cries of even the enemies of the Lord’s people, the original oppressors themselves, the Egyptians! Don’t be afraid that you are too far gone, to distant from God, that he can’t or won’t hear your cry to him.  The Lord is a listening God, and is ready to respond, even to Egypt, even to you and me.

One more thing.  Everything I’ve said before assumes that when we read the story, we identify most with the part played by Israel.  But what if, in reality, we actually are best represented by the Egyptians? Maybe not Pharaoh, or even actual slave drivers, but just run of the mill Egyptians.  Innocent of direct oppression, they are complicit with the system, and destined for the same destruction as Pharaoh. What if we, who are used to being on the top of the world’s power structures, are more like these Egyptians than we are God’s oppressed people?

It’s a horrible, offensive thought, isn’t it? But the more I think of it, there is really only one way to be sure. If we don’t want to be like the Egyptians, we have to learn to be like God. And this story gives us a clear picture of one important way to become more godly.

If we want to be like God, we have to learn to listen like God. We have to be willing to stop and hear the voices of hurting people, the voices of people who cry out against all the things which oppress them, to the things that enslave them.  The God we serve is an attentive God. This texts affirms that God does in fact hear, he does in fact care, and he does respond! This simple fundamental fact is one of the first places we must meet God if we truly wish to be a people like him, who model our lives after him. We know we have to listen to God, but have we not learned to listen like God? We must hear people, give attention to people, be willing to respond to the needs of people.  We must work to hear what he hears.

And so, let us all cry out to God.  Let us cry out for our own redemption.  Let us cry out on behalf of those around us who need redemption, and let us cry out that we may have open ears to the cries of those suffering around us.  Amen.

(Please feel free to comment, or see this note about sermon manuscripts)