Captive

 

hands boundOver the last week news outlets have buzzed with the fallout surrounding the “alleged” racists comments of Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling. Everyone from former NBA players and coaches to the President have contributed to the discussion. Even non-profits who have benefitted from Sterling’s wealth are weighing in – some returning his donations and others refusing to receive any further money from him. Sterling’s alleged remarks have left some wondering how this sort of thing could still be with us in 2014 after all we know how horrible racism and bigotry are. We have seen how it can lead to violence and that it also shows up in apathy and neglect. What we may miss, however, is just how captive we may personally be to racism and bigotry.


john perkins 2John Perkins understands how racism and bigotry enslaves humanity perhaps better than most people. Perkins experienced the violence of racism first hand – with the murder of his brother and welcoming justicehis own brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement in his Mississippi hometown. However, as Perkins lay recovering from near death he realized that if he returned the hatred that is inherent in racism he would be captive. He realized that racism and bigotry cuts across the intent of the Gospel. On recovering, Perkins continued the work that he had done earlier but he also began the work of reconciliation. He realized something incredibly important which is at the core of his life work. In the book, Welcoming Justice, John Perkins wrote, “No one ever put a chain on another human being without tying the other end to himself. We know this. But it can be hard for white folks to see how race continues to hold them captive.”

Is it difficult for white people to see how race holds them captive? Is it difficult for you to admit, to acknowledge racism and bigotry in your own life?

Here is an exercise that might be beneficial (or perhaps not).

  • If you are white, does it bother you that an African-American in Mississippi said this about white people? Why?
  • If you are African America does it make you feel good that Perkins says this about white people? Why?
  • If you are neither white nor African-American, how does this statement strike you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m not a racist but…?” Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t have a problem with gay people but…?” Did it come from your lips? Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you? Or why did you feel comfortable saying it?
  • Would you rather not have certain “types” of people for neighbors? (I once had people react because they didn’t like the idea of living next to a pastor and his family).
  • Does race influence where you eat, shop for groceries, drive, live, or send your kids to school?
  • Does it influence where you worship?
  • Last week a man was sharing with me about where his kids would have to go to school if he didn’t send them to private school. He actually said, “it is a little dark over there – if you know what I mean.” Seeing my reaction he quickly followed up with, “I’m not racist but…” as if that would cover him. How would you have reacted? What would you have said? (I’ve wondered why he felt comfortable saying that to me).

Perkins is spot on and perhaps the Sterling debacle highlights how race and bigotry continue to hold people captive. Here we are in 2014, we have made all these advances in regards to equality and yet it is still with us. Why? Because racism and bigotry do not live in bans, fines, policies, legislation and even in electing an African-American President. Racism and bigotry live in the fertile soil of the human heart where they are planted, take root, bear fruit and harvested. Perhaps we need to ask what is within our hearts.

Perkins could have returned to his bitterness and anger after being beaten. It was certainly an option. It was as much a part of his heart as yours or mine. Instead he went the opposite direction. How?

John Perkins is not the hero of his story. Perkins points to one who triumphed thru him. In the New Testament Gospel of Luke, Jesus, we are told, entered a synagogue and a scroll, from the Prophet Isaiah, was given to him to read. He unrolled the scroll and found what we know as Isaiah 61. He read these words, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As a Christian, it is the image of “liberty to the captive…those who are oppressed” which captures my imagination, especially as it relates to racism and bigotry. It was Jesus that helped turn Perkins away from the captivity of racism. It was Jesus that transformed his life and heart and keeps transforming it.  And yet, as much as I would like to say that racism and bigotry do not exist within a Christian context I can’t without lying. Sunday morningsslavery_hands_chain are often called “the last segregated hour.” Church folk do not always do what Jesus would have them do.

Nevertheless, I believe, as Perkins states so well, that Jesus “came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen.” That is one thing that Jesus does – he pushes against even the hidden places of the human heart – the places where the seeds of racism and bigotry are planted – and brings good things to bear. It starts with something difficult – admitting, at least to God and ourselves – that we simply do not love all cultures and all people.

Perhaps when we are ready to admit some things about our hearts, the way we believe and think, then we can look to Jesus – even if you are not a Christian – and see how he interacted with people. Look at where Jesus traveled (Samaria), whom he engaged (prostitutes, tax-collectors, rich, poor, religious and self-righteous). Take a look at Jesus’ life and see how it differs from the way we make decisions about where we go, shop, eat, live, and especially the way we treat other people who are very different from us (Jesus, after all, was very different from the people interacted with). Perhaps Jesus will help us see the ways we are held captive by racism and bigotry. Perhaps he will help us the way he helped John Perkins – who in turn has brought good to bear in so many places. Perhaps Jesus will help you and I to become more aware of the ways that we are held captive to race and bigotry.

iron-shackles-~-u11832210

 

Resources:

  1. http://www.jvmpf.org/
  2. Marsh, C. and J. Perkins (2009). Welcoming justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community. Downers Grove, Ill., IVP Books.
  3. https://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/policysocial-context/24114-some-nonprofits-keep-donald-sterling-s-money-others-send-it-back.html
  4. http://www.esvbible.org/Luke%204/
  5. http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2008/dec/17/radical-faith-the-revolution-of-john-perkins/
  6. http://www.esvbible.org/John%204/
  7. http://www.esvbible.org/John%203/

 

 

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Falling From Grace

falling_man

I sat across from Jacob[1] as he stared into his coffee. We spoke a few days earlier on the phone and arranged to meet. He shared little with me on the phone except that Trish, his wife, had urged him to call. Trish is the friend of a friend who thought Jacob and I should talk. Though we were strangers we had attended the same seminary a few years apart and we were both pastors. Perhaps I would understand. We sat in a coffee shop in St. Louis Jacob trying to frame his thoughts and me wondering how on earth I could be any use to him.

“A few days ago,” he started, “I gave serious thought to ending my life. Schindler’s List and a picture of my family stopped me.” The clatter of the coffee shop with its ironic, retro-music was a strange but oddly comforting backdrop. “I can’t believe I am in this situation – can’t believe it. The church thing sucks but to make it worse…it turns out that Jesus hasn’t shown up like I thought he would.”

He took a sip and hid half his face behind the cup. “I knew being a pastor would be tough – I’m not naïve. But I didn’t expect to be picked apart by a church that I had given so much of my life to. The worst part is that I felt my faith slip away – in the church and in Jesus. Through no fault of my own I’ve fallen from grace.”

I knew he needed someone who understood, but I wasn’t sure how I could really help him. The story he told was too familiar. He longed for Jesus to show up in a real way, to comfort and assure him in the midst of a dark time, his wounds were deep and perpetrated by the bride of Christ. As painful as it was to be wounded by those he had shepherded for years it was far more severe to feel abandoned by God. “For decades,” he said, “I’ve been telling people Jesus always shows up, brings comfort, healing and hope. But I’ve got to tell you I’m not sure any longer and that terrifies me.”

Sometimes – but not always – the church while preaching grace, mercy, love, and gospel actually embodies judgment and exclusion[2]; it is painful to experience that, especially as a pastor. Jacob dipped a cookie in his cup and bits of it loosened from the whole and floated around the surface. I said little, letting Jacob talk. As he looked up from his polluted cup I hoped he would find the look of a friend who understood.

“It’s hard not to dwell on the past when the future is uncertain – in every way. I mentally replay every conversation, every event to see what went wrong. I confess every sin I can think of. Still there is no relief. I sat in my living room praying, crying out to God. I was wrestling with what it would be like to give up on faith, on the church – on Jesus. I was staring at this picture of my family and I at the beach. We are all laughing. I remember when we took that picture. Then I thought of the scene in Schindler’s List where a woman stops someone from ending her life by saying something like, ‘this is not how your story ends.’ Was God in that for me? Was he in that moment saving me? Or was that just me trying to make God fit into something?”

Jacob’s voice trailed off as he looked out the window of the nearly empty shop. He gathered himself and carefully laid out all that had happened to him. I listened to him for the next several hours. I wondered how to help Jacob – wondered if I could do more than suggest counseling and quietly praying for Jesus to show up.

I have been where Jacob is – felt as if God disappeared – felt the ground give way beneath my feet and all that I thought I knew to be true vanish. Imagine that happening; imagine something that was seemingly solid giving way – only to return stronger than before.

Jacob’s gaze returned from the street. He asked, “What now?” The heart and soul of this pastor had been laid bare; nothing trite was going to bring him peace; no promise to pray for him was going to bring healing. Telling him my story wouldn’t help either. God was going to have to show up or not (though I believe he would). I encouraged him to do as a friend of mine had encouraged me. I said, “Let everything else fall away that can fall away and speak the same words to God that Jesus spoke when he felt God turn away: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).

 

[1] This is a work of fiction…

[2] Allan Gurganus – http://williamgiraldi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/gurganus.2.pdf

Wrestling God

wrestling medal

I have liked wrestling for some time. No. I don’t mean WWE (although I enjoyed watching a Texas Cage Match with Chief Wahoo McDaniel and Rowdy Rodney Piper once). I mean scholastic, collegiate, Greco-Roman wrestling.http://www.clubs.psu.edu/up/wrestling/documents.htm

I wrestled in high school – gave it a go in college (that did not go well)- and helped out with a few high school teams while working for Young Life and in student ministry. Wrestling is a great sport and I appreciate what it taught me. However, all my experience on the mat did not prepare me for what I experienced when my son took to the mat this past year.

Turns out that he has more natural ability than I ever had. Each week he wrestled in a tournament and I would stand as close to the mat as I could. I stayed quiet, not wanting to shout over his coach, and settled calling out moves into my hand cupped over my mouth. I felt myself  twisting and turning, wrestling an invisible opponents as if simply by body language I could convey a message to him. In some ways I felt as I was on the mat with him and by match end, I was exhausted.

He did very well but he did not win every match. At the end of those matches I wanted to be there for him all the more – but in the right way. I wanted him to move forward. I did not want him to stay stuck in a moment he could not fix. I wanted him to reflect on what had happened, see it for what it was and use it to get better and ready for the next match. His feelings of shame and failure had to move out and be replaced by hope and confidence. I wanted him to know that he was deeply loved – win or lose.

I’ve come to understand that I am not the first dad to stand on the edge of the mat and participate move for move. While it may be difficult to understand or believe, the Old Testament book of Psalms says that God is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1, ESV).” This Psalm reminds me that life requires a good bit of wrestling on all our parts – but especially those who have professed faith in Jesus. It also lets me know that God is very present. 

To be present means more than to sit idly by. Some folks have an image of God, if they believe in one, sitting outside of things and not involved. The Bible, however, gives other images of God – including one where God is present in the middle of wrestling matches (collegiate or otherwise), an image of God as Father with feelings and longings for his children.

To be present also means that God is “well proven” in times of trouble. He is not one that is way off but present – there in the moment. That is a great comfort in the middle of tough moments, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the troubles I’ve created or ones someone else has caused. It is good to know that God is wrestling with me and very often for me.

In fact, the New Testament book of Hebrews echoes that idea about Jesus. It points out that Jesus is not something or someone who can’t identify with us. Instead, Jesus gets what it means to be human. We don’t have someone “who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, ESV).” In other words, God does not stand way off but is very present in our lives, move for move.

If this brings up questions – just let me know. I’d love to talk about it.

Oh God – Please Help Me – I Have a Terrible Case of the Adolescents

C.S. Lewis was a man of letters.  Not only did he write books and articles – he wrote letters, lots of them. Lewis was also a man of prayer. He not only cultivated his own prayer life but he encouraged others to do the same. In 1951 he wrote a letter to an American man for whom he had prayed. The man, a veteran of WW II, had come to faith in Christ – which was THE answer to Lewis’ prayer. Not long after that Lewis wrote him a letter, urging him “to be ‘busy learning to pray.’”

I came across that account from Lewis’ life in a book by Lyle Dorsett (one of my profs from Beeson Divinity School). It has stayed with me since. I’ve often turned that phrase over in my mind  – recognizing the simple wisdom in that advice.

At the same time, though I have busied myself in trying to learn to pray, to be honest, I haven’t felt the urgency that is often needed to become a full-fledged man of prayer. In other words, though I have prayed earnestly, with frequency (daily), with faith, hope, assurance and a times out of desperation, I can’t say that my first instinct always is to pray. That is until recently.

It happened rather suddenly. One day I woke up and realized I had a severe case of adolescents – two in fact. Talk about being “busy learning to pray!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Sherry and I have great sons and I am not complaining. I am so grateful to be their Dad I can’t even put it to words. I’m simply stating a fact. As great as our guys are – well – they are teenagers and with that comes a whole new set of challenges.

Since the early nineties I have worked with students in one capacity or another. I’ve met with parents and heard all sorts of stories. All of that has taught me at least two things. First, it semi-prepared me for being the parent to teenagers. Second, it taught me that nothing could fully prepare me for being a parent to teenagers.

If sharing a home with teenagers doesn’t make a person want to learn how to pray, I don’t know what will. In fact, of late I’ve felt more and more compelled to be busy learning to pray. That’s the funny thing about prayer. Sometimes it takes discovering how much we really need God to be at work before we can actually learn how to pray. When our kids our young we may have a tendency to pray huge, broad winged prayers.

However, when they are on the cusp of adulthood, when they are engaged in the wonderful yet strange mid-term years of adolescents we may begin to pray much more specifically. It is during adolescents that kids begin to exert more independence and we have to let them, sometimes holding our breath. That’s when we may actually learn to pray – and pray we must – because the truth of the matter is every parents only hope is God.

Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike

Seven Stanzas At Easter

By John Updike
1964

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, “Seven Stanzas At Easter,” 1964

A Son of the South: Raw Cotton & Hope

Not long ago I signed up for something on Facebook. The reason – the name. Bourbon & Boots. Today I got an email – an ad no less for Raw Cotton.

Get your lb of cotton at http://www.bourbonandboots.com/

For $25 you can buy a pound of cotton from North Carolina – The Cottonman. I think that’s awesome and I’m thinking of buying some but not just because I like cotton. Rather, it is because the first time I saw cotton fields they captured my imagination and led to an experience that I’m not likely to forget.

I was driving in rural Alabama. It was the time of the cotton harvest. It was a beautiful day – which is mostly the case in the Deep South (even when it is so hot it feels like someone wrapped you in a wool blanket and poured hot water over it). The sun was out – but there was something white blowing across the road. I had seen white stuff blowing across the road before – but that was when it was gray and cold and the sky full of clouds. This wasn’t snow.

It was cotton. Some bits and pieces pulled free from huge cotton bundles on trailers as trucks took them down the road. Other bits and pieces blew from the once white fields made mostly brown/black stalks by enormous, green harvesters. The fields were a jumble of sticks and dirt and bits of left behind cotton.

Harvesting Cotton John-Deere-7760

Cotton and cotton fields have long-held a place in my imagination. As a little boy I was drawn to Civil War history, to Mark Twain, and pretty much anything to do with the south, her history and culture. Cotton and plantations were always somewhere in the background of my imagination. The reason, I think, was quite simple. I could not make sense of it.

What I mean is that I have always loved the south but as young boy I couldn’t make sense of the painful, sad parts of her history – which was most often represented in my minds eye by cotton fields. I can close my eyes and see them – the white fields – plucked clean now by machines – where once they were filled with men, women and children – stooping, pulling, and filling sacks. It is hard not to connect the full white fields to days when Americans “lawfully” enslaved people. In the land born of liberty and freedom there was slavery, injustice, and oppression; all for money. That painful, sad history extended beyond the fields, entering into city ordinances, state laws, churches, and schools and my imagination.

Black people picking cotton while their white overseer rides a horse (Photographer unknown, ca. 1895)

It took the law of love to bring change. It was encouraged by pastors and extended by children, some as young as six. The children went from churches – marching to pray, singing hymns and spirituals as they went, all the while suffering abuse and jail from their fire-hose and dog wielding oppressors. This history is not lost on me as a Christian, a student of history, and a southerner who hates racism while loving the south (and one who for love of union and abolition is glad “we” lost the war).

And yet – now the image of cotton fields reaches into my imagination and memory reminding me that even out of pain and sadness there is hope. God’s children are not without suffering. We are not without pain and sadness. And yet there is hope – God can bring good out of the worst possible places, out of slavery, out of racism, and out of the cotton fields of Alabama.

My family and I were living in Alabama – a state filled with places that look like a scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird. A friend, Mark, invited me, to attend an unusual gathering of folks. Mark ran a farm of sorts near the campus of Alabama A & M. All the work Mark and others put into raising food was so that poor people could eat. Mark believed that God wanted him to farm (despite not knowing anything about farming) and give the food to the poor. Turns out the Bible supports that notion – and Christians are to care about folks flourishing – it has something to do with shalom.

It also turns out that many folks really needed the help (that’s true everywhere but AL is the third poorest state in the US – “23.4 percent of households said they were unable to afford enough food, which is the second highest rate in the country“). It also turns out that folks wanted to help. That included Alabama A&M – which provided the land as well as a canning facility. It also included local farmers who brought crates of fruits and veggies to give. Whether they knew it or not they were living out of an Old Testament practice of leaving enough food in the field for the poor to glean. When it came time to harvest, men, women, children stooped, pulled, and filled sacks stooped, buckets and crates; poor people, white, black – just people.

When all the work was done folks didn’t leave. Instead they started to gather in a large, hanger like building that had once been A&M’s cannery. This was what Mark had invited me to witness; it was an experience I will not easily forget. Folks began to gather at one end of the building, in a close semi-circle. They sat on buckets, chairs, and the concrete floor. An elderly, African-American gentlemen sat down and the shuffle of feet subsided. Mark looked at me with a big smile as the gentlemen began to sing.

I did not know the song. I had never heard it before and at first I thought he was making it up – beautiful, soulful as it was. Then, just as he finished the first chorus – folks around me joined him. They filled the room with their voices, with their songs, and they were tied to the fields painful, sad history.

There was no way for me to know the words to the songs. These were not my songs because these were songs born out of the pain and sadness of slavery, of injustice, of oppression. They were songs born in the fields and tied to the cotton field’s history of pain and sorrow songs BUT not left there. These slave songs were born out of pain but written and sung and passed down with hope that God by His Son and through His Spirit would redeem his people. 

What I saw that day was truly one of the most amazing worship services I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know the first song. I could only stand back and listen. Mark couldn’t help smiling at me. “It’s like this every week,” he said.

That worship experience was more than fourteen years ago. I’m not even sure if Mark is still farming – we moved away from AL six years ago. Yet I can close my eyes and just about hear them sing. They sang songs that had been passed down to them by their parents and grandparents, slave songs – which, though born out of something terrible, connected them to the same hope and joy which has lifted God’s people up since Adam. They knew the same God who sets the captives free in the Bible is the same God who set their great grandparents free, set them and their children free from injustice and  sets them free in Jesus.

So they sang the same songs their ancestors sang. They sang as the Psalms teach God’s people to sing and to pray; fully, holding nothing back.  The Spirit filled their songs, reminding them (and teaching me) that God does bring good from the painful, broken, sad, places of our lives.

In the Old Testament book of Psalms – David (the Psalmist) wrote, “For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. (Psalm 37:28 ESV). It is an extraordinary claim – isn’t it? It is if you believe it (which I do). When we are in the midst of painful, sad places we often have trouble believing this about God – especially when it seems like nothing will change or God is taking a very long time. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, has a book of poetry the title of which captures this feeling: Swift, Lord, You Are Not.

If you haven’t spent much time in the Bible you might be surprised to find that it isn’t all “puppy dogs and rainbows.” In fact, it is true to life – telling humanities story and God’s intervention in sometimes graphic terms. Some folks struggle with that aspect but I think it is quite helpful because most folks I know struggle with one thing or another. I don’t have much capacity for the pushers of Pollyanna theology, the “God just wants you to be happy and healthy and rich” – you know the big ego, big stadium, big hair kind of folks. I’m not sure what version of the Bible they are reading – if they are at all.

The Old Testament doesn’t skip over the bad parts. Those slaves songs, like the Scriptures, were passed down from parents to children (Deut 6). They were meant to prepare people for life in a fallen world and point them in a Godward direction. Sometimes I think we do kids a bad turn when, in an effort to protect them, we insulate them from reality. They are bound to have troubles because, until Jesus comes, that’s the way of the world. There are things beyond our control and we’d do better by our kids to prepare them – shape their character and their moral imagination.

The Psalms, in particular, give shape to the way God’s children learn to pray and sing and live. Reading them gives a person the full scope of life. The people who sang  and prayed these Psalms had once been slaves in Egypt, and they sang of God’s deliverance.  They knew pain and sorrow – a great deal of which was their own fault (which sound familiar to me). They also tasted injustice and hatred – and they cried out to God. Psalm 137 is one of those Psalms; it is written from anguish and heartbreak: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:1-6 ESV)”

These were God’s people – they had been carried away in exile. They knew pain and sadness well. Their lives were ripped open. They were mocked, abused, forced to leave their home. They knew hardship and pain in ways that I don’t even want to imagine. But they wrote about it – as prayer to God. 

What stands out to me is the fact that this text still remains. It is a painful Psalm to read because of the anguish, the anger, the pain. It was a dark time in the lives of God’s people, a terrible time. And yet, this Psalm, marked this time and it was passed on from one generation to another – down to this very day. 

I think I know why – at least I can speculate. The Babylonian Empire hasn’t existed for – well a very long time but God’s people still do. Apparently, God really does love justice and he does keep His saints. I also think what is expressed in this Psalm gives shape to the way God’s people pray and sing. Because sometimes we feel the way they did and because God delivered His people – and still does.

That’s not to say that the bad times we go through aren’t bad. Sometimes all we have to hold onto is a stubborn resolve that God will do as He has said. That’s when Psalms like “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5 ESV) and “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” (Psalm 30:11-12 ESV) give shape to the way we think and pray. I think Psalms like these are most beneficial when things stink – really stink. They may help us to rejoice when the time is right but they also form our lips to sing, to pray, to hope for the day when we will be dancing, clothed with gladness and singing forever. They point to the fact that one day this will be true of God’s people.

The New Testament shapes our hearts for the tough parts as well – and it gives shape to hope. In the New Testament book of Romans – chapter 8 – Paul wrote, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!” A bit later in the same chapter it says  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:15, 28).

Verses like these giving shape to our hopes by telling us that we are God’s children. We have been adopted by God (and I love adoption); we are His sons and daughters. Of course, our adoption is made possible through Christ – that’s what Paul is trying to tell us – our place is sure in Christ.

But something else gives shape to our hope – its phrase cry Abba or Father. When does a child “cry out” for their dad? In times of pain and trouble, of course. And – since we know we are his sons and daughters we know that we can do that – approach God as Father in the midst of troubles.

But how does we hope a father will respond? Well, in all honesty I don’t alway respond with the sort of kindness and compassion that I should. Sometimes when my sons cry out I’m busy and I don’t want to be bothered. Well – that’s my way but not God’s way.

Children also cry out in moments of joy and surprise. That’s always a good sound – when your kids are glad to see you – when they say, “I love you.” When they thank you for the good things you’ve done for them.

But this “crying out” in times of pain and joy both have an element, an expectation of hope linked to them. Hope that the one who hears the cry will care respond and step toward us – make things good and right. That’s where Romans 8:28 fits into this: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:28).

Isn’t this a nagging verse? Is the Bible giving an assurance that things will turn out for good for God’s people? It sure seems so…But isn’t this the hope we long for? 

I think it is. Even though we may not understand why it is that we go through things and they may be terrible – in the midst of them we want and need hope that things will work for good. God gives this hope to His children which is part of the way we can  persevere. In fact, I believe the story of the Bible is wrapped up in this hope – that Christ by His life, death and resurrection makes new lives out of broken ones (something I can personally attest), sets captives free (and we are captive to something), restores human beings to God, brings peace (shalom) to fractured relationships, and brings light into dark places. The essence of the Biblical story is that God, through Christ, redeems the painful, sad parts of life and makes them good as only God can.

I think this hope has carried God’s people from the time of Adam until now – ultimately God will restore all things and make things right and good. I think it was this hope that shaped the slave songs. Their assurance was bound up in Jesus in ways I could only image. Jesus turned their mourning into gladness – even as they worked those fields. The foundation of their songs wasn’t sorrow, nor self-pity – it was hope, a hope in Christ, a hope that all their suffering and hardship was going to turn out for good. It is a hope that all God’s children can sing about.

I may buy a pound after all…

Links and Resources:

  • Learn to sing the Psalms: http://psalter.org/
  • Want to know more about Civil Rights & The Children’s Crusade – Birmingham 1963 http://library.thinkquest.org/  http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/interviews/clayborne-carson.html http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Home.jsp  http://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement   http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders                                      See King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
  • Check out the history of Negro Spirituals, Cabin Music and Slave Songs http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/             http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/index.htm           http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/                                                                               Honey in the Rock: The Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection of Religious Folk Songs By Olivia Solomon, Jack Solomon
  • Check out the ad for Raw Cotton here: Raw Cotton | Cotton Man | Bourbon & Boots.
  • Want to learn more about the South and the Civil War – Professor David Blight’s course from Yale on The Civil War and Reconstruction – Lecture 2 is all about King Cotton. They are free and worth the listen.

The Conclusion of Desire and the Kingdom

 

Not long ago I sat at my favorite coffee shop here in Charlottesville, VA. Across with me sat a man I have come to respect and appreciate – largely due to a book he authored (which is given some shape to the way I parent). In the course of our conversation he said, “You know – these are anxious times.” I listened to him as he unpacked that statement. He was right – these are anxious times.

So why would Jesus say something like, “do not be anxious”?

Well – like I said before – I don’t think he’s trying to be cruel or ironic. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Jesus understood people – very, very well. I think, in fact, that if Jesus is saying don’t be anxious then he’s probably got a way figured out for folks not to be anxious. It may be worth thinking about. Perhaps Jesus wants to give shape to our image of a good life – and what is really essential for us to know.

All of this began for me with a claim that James K.A. Smith made. He said, Our ultimate love moves and motivates us because we are lured by this picture of human flourishing. Rather than being pushed by beliefs, we are pulled by a telos (end, purpose, goal) that we desire. It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then muster the will power to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons. It is not primarily our minds that are captivated but rather our imaginations that are captured, and when our imagination is hooked, we’re hooked (and sometimes our imaginations can be hooked by very different visions than what we’re feeding into our minds)…So many of the penultimate decisions, actions, and paths we undertake are implicitly and ultimately aimed at trying to live out the vision of the good life that we love and thus want to pursue…This is just to say that to be human is to desire “the kingdom,” some version of the kingdom, which is the aim of our quest. Every one of us is on a kind of Arthurian quest for “the Holy Grail,” that hoped-for, longed-for, dreamed-of picture of the good life – the realm of human flourishing – that we pursue without ceasing. Implicitly and tacitly, it is such visions of the kingdom that pull us to get up in the morning and suit up for the quest.

That’s not to say, as Smith points out, that all human beings desire the same kingdom. In fact, he concludes that the vision of the good life that we have is something that has been pictured for us and there are very different visions of what ‘the kingdom’ looks like. The shape of the kingdom is contested, generating very different stories and thus different kinds of peoples, citizens who see themselves as subjects of rival kings.”

So – if Smith is right – and I think he may be – then why are these anxious times? Why are folks so anxious about everything? Why are children suffering from anxiety disorders – more so now than perhaps previous generations? Why are parents anxious about their kids’ future? Why are seniors anxious about their golden years?

Is there a connection between our ultimate love, our desire for what we imagine to be a good life and anxiety?

I think there is. Think about the fact that the average American family is in debt because we bought cars, clothes, homes, went on vacations, went to concerts, or went to university, sent out kids to camps, etc. Why? Most likely because we were pursuing our vision/image of a good life – but now we are anxious about making those payments in a shrinking economy. A lot of folks have less income now than they did and things that seemed like essentials a few years ago are clearly not essential any longer. But the anxiety is probably still very much a reality – each month when the bills come due.

Perhaps that is why Jesus tells us not to be anxious about what we think are essentials. But he doesn’t just say, “don’t be anxious.” That would be cruel and ironic. What he says is, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

I think Jesus is trying to give shape to our desire – our vision/image of a good life. One of the first things that He says is that “your heavenly Father” knows what you need. That’s a comforting reality – if you understand/believe/ have God as Father. That takes some pressure off – it is not all up to us. God knows what His children need and He provides.

If this is true, and I think it is, how does this impact our anxiety levels? It may impact them a lot – because if we think about it  – it means that God is the one who not only supplies our needs but also defines our needs. What I mean is that we will have to start thinking about what is really essential which will impact our desires. That means that our vision/image of a good life may need to change – which probably means that someone else will have to shape our ultimate love.

Perhaps this is why Jesus follows this up by saying, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Is this the cure for anxiety? Is this the vision/image that people, parents, children, students are supposed to have? What does it mean to seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness?

What if God’s kingdom and His righteousness were your ultimate love? What if that was what motivated you to get up and get going in the morning? What it the notion of God’s kingdom and His righteousness gave shape to the way you raised your children, spent your money, loved your family, did your work, saved for retirement? What if the vision/image of God’s kingdom and righteousness shaped your desires and your understanding of what was an essential and how those things were going to be provided? Would that be an end to anxiety – would it at least curb it?

Jesus seems to be saying so – especially in the next verse (Matthew 6:34). He says, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Wouldn’t that be amazing – to be able to put anxiety aside? How different do you think your life would be – if you could really have no anxiety? Well – Jesus says it is possible. But maybe he is wrong. Maybe Jesus got it wrong and we are supposed to live with chronic anxiety.

Or perhaps Jesus is right, and I think He is, and He is trying to give shape to the right vision/image of a good life. Maybe Jesus is right and human beings really are creatures who desire to live out an image of a good life – but that desire/vision/image is supposed to be shaped a vision for God’s Kingdom and Righteousness.

If he is wrong then we seem to know what we are doing; anxiety is part of being human. That doesn’t seem right though. Anxiety seems to be killing us. But we just have to evolve.

But if he is right then perhaps we need to learn what it means to live out this vision/image of God’s kingdom and righteousness. I think it’ll mean learning a lot about what Jesus meant by God’s kingdom and righteousness. At a minimum I think it’ll mean:

  1. That we care about the things that God cares about.
  2. It means that we pursue good –not just for ourselves but also for others.
  3. It means that we look not only for our interests but the interest of others.
  4. It means that the decisions we make about how we spend our time and our money matter beyond ourselves.
  5. It means that our first order of life is about pleasing – not ourselves – not our parents – not our friends – not our teachers – but God –first and foremost.
  6. It means your life matters more than you actually think because it belongs to God’s kingdom and God’s work in the world – your life has eternal significance – what you do in this world matters because it is part of God’s kingdom.
  7. It means our ambitions need to line up with God’s purposes in the world.
  8. It means that for those who are in pursuit of God’s kingdom are in pursuit of a good life – and one where needs are provided…there is no need to be anxious.
  9. It means that our children will be raised with a different view of the world, and people, and God and themselves.

Let me ask you – as you think about what it is that you desire – what is driving you –when you think about how you would define “a good life,” do you give any thought at all to the fact that Jesus calls people to “seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness?” – is that your first priority when leading your decision making?”

If not perhaps you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Perhaps you need ask if you are part of God’s kingdom and if not why not. The truth is I don’t think you can pursue God’s kingdom and righteousness apart from God. I don’t think you can ignore Christ and just try to be good. I’m pretty certain that if Jesus is the one pointing toward this vision of the world then God intended for people to consider Christ and what He’s saying in the process. I don’t think we get to pick and choose what we like and discard the rest.
  2. If you have put your faith in Christ – trusted Him for salvation and look to Him as your only hope – but you realize that you are not seeking God’s kingdom first – that’s okay – this is a good time for you to pray and ask the Lord Jesus – by His Spirit to help you.

Honestly – even as a pastor – I have to do this all the time because the cares of the world sidetrack me easily…but God is faithful. In my own family I have been guilty of driving my kids to think about their future – not so much because they are part of God’s work in the world – part of God’s kingdom – but as a means to an end – an end toward happiness.

I mean – the vision/image of a good life that I’ve passed on to my sons is one shaped – to some degree – not by God’s kingdom but by, well, perhaps the American Dream. However, I recognize my failure in this. I think life is more than a good education, job, etc. Life isn’t supposed to be all anxiety. I think Jesus is right. I think the right vision is a vision of the kingdom. I want to help my sons have that vision. I want to have that vision of seeking God’s kingdom and righteous – I want to pass that along and not a roll of Tums.


[1] Ibid., 54.

Part 3 Desire and the Kingdom

Sermon on the Mount - Tewkesbury Abbey see http://professor-moriarty.com

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

This statement of Jesus may seem to contradict what I said earlier about him. Remember, I said whatever it is that you believe or don’t believe about Jesus there is something undeniable about Him. Jesus understands people. It might seem that Jesus saying, “don’t be anxious” to folks could be either ironic or cruel. Because the simple truth is that people are anxious – very anxious – about lots of things. That is not only true of adults – it is true for children and students as well. I am not a professional counselor. I am a pastor who has worked with families, children and students since 1992. In that time I’ve done a good bit of pastoral counseling (I often refer folks to professional counseling). A common concern has been anxiety and children. Some of the anxiety is over children, i.e., the parents have concerns over the child’s future, their attitudes, their grades, their friends, their habits. Some of the anxiety belongs to the kids, i.e., the child is suffering from an anxiety disorder. Some of the parents anxiety may be their marriage, some with their kids, some with family  finances, some with jobs, some with a desire to be happy. I don’t downplay the reality of any of those things and the impact they have on how families work. However, what my experiences has done for me is helped me to be reflective. First – with my family. I wonder how I’m doing as a dad –how my sons are doing with me as a dad (not to mention how I’m doing as a husband). Second – I try to think about what it is that Jesus has said – and here is one of the things he said specifically about being anxious: “do not be anxious…” My first reaction to this is normally – honestly – “well no kidding.” The question that comes up isn’t “why not?” Most people do not like being anxious. It is a human response to want equilibrium. But the truth of the matter is we all have a proclivity for anxiety – even our kids. Something makes all of us anxious. Perhaps we ought to be honest about that. Perhaps we ought to be thinking of ways to deal with it – because it is real. I don’t think it is possible for us to just ignore anxiety. I think we are supposed to deal with the things that make us that way. Because what makes you anxious just might make your kids anxious too. The effects of anxiety are well-known and numerous – and we ought to deal with it. So the question really isn’t “why not?” Rather the question is, how? Does Jesus really intend for people not to be anxious? Well – it might be helpful to notice what it is that Jesus said folks shouldn’t be anxious about. In verse 31 he says, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” Most folks that I know – and most of the folks who will read this – are concerned about what we eat, drink and wear – just not in the way that the first folks who heard this were. It is important to remember that every part of the Bible has a context. What I mean is that every book of the Bible (there are 66 total – 39 in the Hebrew Testament and 27 in the New Testament), and every chapter and verse was written at a specific time with a particular audience in mind. What makes the Bible amazing is that it can still speak into the lives of folks in the 21st century. So –Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – in fact His life and work – was in the first century. As you know those folks actually were anxious about their next meal and how they were going to feed their children. They actually were anxious about what they were going to drink – not only did they have to dig wells – but they had to be concerned about the quality of water – in ways that we don’t. And they were anxious over what they were going to wear – it wasn’t as much about fashion as it was a matter of protection from sun and cold. Most folks were anxious about what they were going to eat, drink and wear for survival. In a sense what Jesus is talking about are essentials. In those days folks were anxious about the essentials for living. So are we. We are just as concerned about what it takes to survive in the 21st century as folks were in the 1st century. I don’t think Jesus is trying to give people a hard time. I think he’s trying to speak truth into our lives. He seems to know that we get anxious – particularly about things that we believe to be essential for living – or perhaps what we image to be essential for living. He seems to be suggesting that we don’t need to be anxious but rather focused on something else. I know I get anxious about things that I have defined as essential for living a good life and I’m passing that along to my sons. I’m not trying to live in the lap of luxury and I’m not trying to pass that on to my sons. And yet I get anxious about the essentials. Do you? Are you passing your anxiety on to your kids? Are you anxious that you will not be able to give them the essentials for the good life that you’ve imagined for you and your family – for your future? Lots of folks are. I think it is one of the things that drives our culture – anxiety, fear, chasing an image – or perhaps what we might call an essential. So Jesus is saying that folks are not to be anxious about essentials for living – even, perhaps, what we image are the essentials for a good life. So why is it that Jesus is telling us not to be anxious? Why shouldn’t we be anxious  about essentials? Well – I think because he wants to give shape to our image of a good life – and what is really essential. I think he wants us to know something in order for us not to be anxious.  Perhaps I’ll share more about that tomorrow…

Miracles

I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation right now but, well, clearly I am not. Instead I’m sitting here thinking about something I read early this morning. It is about miracles.

“Another problem with defining miracles as ‘violations of natural law’ is that this definition overlooks the fact that we now live in a fallen creation where, for example, enslavement, sickness, and death appear to be natural. Is it indeed the case that liberation, healing, and resurrection from the dead are contrary to the ‘laws of nature’? They may be contrary to what we have come to expect in this world, but from the perspective of God’s good creation and his coming kingdom, enslavement, sickness, and death are unnatural, and liberation, healing, and eternal life are natural (Gen2-3; Rev 21:4). From that perspective, then, miracles are not to be seen as ‘unnatural’ but as signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our fallen world, provisional indications of the restoration of God’s creation to its original goodness…Miracles, in short, are signs of God’s kingdom.” Sidney Greidanus – The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text 

 This is Advent on the church calendar. We are just a few days and nights away from Christmas Day – as my sons reminded me yesterday. I cannot think of a greater miracle than the Birth of Christ. Bethlehem was the epicenter of God breaking into fallen creation.

After all, we celebrate Christmas because of a claim that a virgin gave birth to a baby, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. We celebrate angels filling the night sky over some shepherds in a field – telling them that Christ the Lord was born in Bethlehem and saying, “Glory to God in the highest on earth Peace toward those with whom he is please.” We celebrate wise men, following a star bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh in order to worship the new-born king.

Adoration of the Magi by Rembrandt

There is more to the story, of course, that isn’t all we celebrate. We celebrate the fact that this child grew up and turned water to wine at a wedding, that he calmed a storm, walked on water, feed thousands, healed the lame, raised the dead, and gave sight to the blind. We also celebrate the fact that He died, conquered sin, death and hell, rose again, and sits at God’s right hand. In so doing – Jesus provides the way for salvation – to those who will put their faith in him. In the midst of celebrating the miracle of Christ’s first Advent we long for the day when Christ will come again – triumphant – and the celebration will have no end.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Rembrandt

Whether we realize it or not what we celebrate every 25th of December is a miracle. Foundational to the Christian faith is a hope that miracles happen – that angels really do light up the night and that God love us and is at work in the world. Above all else, this miracle of Christ coming into the world, is a sign of God’s Kingdom and the promise that all things will be made new – restored, fully and wholly to God’s good purposes.