Tag: Religion

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).

Birmingham Children's Crusade 1963
Young boys on their way to jail

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.
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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.

Bert and Ernie won’t be getting married

Bert and Ernie won’t be getting married.

I suppose this sort of thing shouldn’t surprise me – or anyone else (see link above). But I have to say that the topic of Bert and Ernie getting married sort of threw me off kilter for a bit. I realize that there is a lot of talk going around about the government staying out of the bedroom, but I had no idea that the topic of sexuality has entered into a somewhat safe, clean and perhaps to some extent sacred place – Sesame Street.

Do we really have to sexualize every relationship? Does sex really have to be included in every conversation? Have people really wondered if Bert and Ernie were gay? Did a group of folks really sign a petition and send it to the powers that be at PBS requesting that Bert and Ernie get married? Apparently. (http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2011/08/bert_ernie_gay_married.php)

This just brings up more questions for me – but then I suppose that some of the thinking was that if Bert and Ernie got married it would help to support the notion of marriage equality. But seriously – Bert and Ernie? That’s going to help push it forward? Really? Characters from Sesame Street?

Or perhaps an underlying thought is more about normalizing the concept of gay marriage for a whole new generation of kids within the U.S. That’s equally disturbing. Since when has it become okay for such highly charged political issues to be mainstreamed to children especially when it deals with sexuality – especially the kids who watch Bert and Ernie? Why is it okay to even go there?

There is a right time and a good time for children to learn about sexuality. Unfortunately for many parents the topic is coming at their children from a range of directions – before kids are even old enough to comprehend. Parents have to be diligent and not fearful. We do have to prepare our children – but things need to be age appropriate and in a timely manner. But Bert and Ernie? Is that appropriate? Who thought that was a good idea to create that petition?

Fortunately the creators were wise enough to dodge that bullet. But it is pretty incredible that the question would even be brought up. I think it shows something – and something not so great about our culture.

I think we have a problem – a huge problem. I think it is growing and will most likely continue to grow. We’ve all known for a long time that our country has a huge preoccupation with sex. We can’t turn on the TV, go to a movie, read a magazine, or even listen to some music and radio stations – without being blasted by all sorts of images and messages. I think those things are really beginning to take a toll.

In a recent lecture I heard a disturbing reality for some counseling interns. In the last five years the number one issue that they have seen is sexual addiction – usually but not always in the form of addiction to pornography. A great number of these folks were in their early to late 20’s. Some of them were newly married and their spouses discovered the addiction within the first year.

There are a lot of young men and women who are broken and wounded, hurting, who are struggling with all sorts of issues and problems related to sex. It takes on a lot of different forms – but these folks are struggling to get control of something in their lives. Many of them are responding to some sort of hurts from deep in their lives – they go to sex for help and healing. But they will not find it there. But our culture keeps putting it out there.

And now – now we have some folks who thought it would be a good idea to get Bert and Ernie married. That’ll fix everything. That’ll make the next generation stronger and better people. Our culture is already awash with young men and women who are struggling to understand just what it means to be mature – to be human – so let’s complicate things a bit more for the next group of kids and start talking about sexual identity when they don’t even know their alphabet yet. Yes – that makes sense…

I suppose it really shouldn’t surprise me that a group of folks thought it would be a good idea for Bert and Ernie to get married. What surprises me is that for some reason they actually thought they might be gay. That’s sort of a surprise. When did hand puppets become sexual? Is there a connection between the overly sexed up aspect of our culture that led to that sort of thinking? Who does that? Who spends time thinking and working that out?

Nevertheless, this is our culture. This is the way things are. I don’t see us going back to some other and we’d be wise – very wise to prep ourselves for what it is going to be like in 10 years. We ought also to prep our sons and daughters too. They are going to be the ones that have to help our grandchildren. God help us.

The End of a Chapter

This is my last evening in St. Louis. This is a really great town. I’ve sampled (okay engulfed) some of the best food. I’ve also enjoyed some great company. The people I have met over the last three years in the Doctor of Ministry Cohorts at Covenant Theological Seminary are some of the finest folks – and I’m not just saying that.

But alas – the end of a chapter is upon me.

I can honestly say that the three residencies at Covenant have were some of the most important investments in my life as a pastor. There is something pretty special about this school. I am deeply grateful for all the work and time and prayer that the staff of this seminary has poured into this program. I’m thankful beyond words for the Rev. Dr. Bob Burns.

But now – the “real” work of the DMin begins – the dissertation. But honestly, I’m excited about it. I’m excited about my topic (how pastors lead significant change). I’m thrilled to be able to pour some of my time into studying and writing something which I hope will benefit the church – the kingdom. That’s a pretty great thing to be allowed to do.

That topic may seem strange for folks. It generally does when folks ask me what my dissertation. That gives me an opportunity to talk about something I mentioned in an earlier blog – change.

Over dinner this evening someone asked the me question and I got the usual, “Oh.” I smiled and then I threw something out. I brought up the notion of shalom and God’s mission in the world. I talked about the notion of Christians doing good in the world – about being a blessing to their community and the push back that some folks get for wanting to do that. In a moment it generated some good conversation. I sat back and listened and enjoyed.

What brought me to this topic?

Well, a few years ago I was introduced to a book by Nicholas Wolterstorff called Until Justice and Peace Embrace. In that book, Dr. Wolterstorff brought up the subject of shalom. He defines Biblical shalom in relational terms. Basically, shalom is when we as human beings are in a right relationship with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors and with creation. When those relationships are right – that’s shalom. There is truly an absence of war and strife, there is justice, everyone has what they need.

Our relationship with God can only be made right because of Christ – and that extends then beyond ourselves into our relationships with our neighbors and into all of creation. It is in that relationship that we are fully human and we flourish. A friend of mine explained it in this way. He said, “If I want my kids to be safe, clean, get a good education, to be free from harm and disease – then as part of loving my neighbor – as part of shalom – I should want that for your kids too.”

Wolterstorff, in that same book, goes on to say that God’s mission in the world is the mission of restoring shalom. If that’s God’s mission then it ought to be the mission of God’s people as well (I’m not doing the book justice – you ought to read it). He suggests that we are not to sit around with our arms folded waiting on shalom to arrive but to take part in the work of the kingdom – the work and mission of shalom.

I think he’s right. What’s more I think a lot of Christians really want their faith to matter – to be relevant and significant – not just to them and their family but to their communities. I think a lot of Christians feel this way – and I think they are right. Don’t get me wrong. We need to know and study the Bible. We need to pray and worship. The Christian life isn’t less of those things – it is actually more. It isn’t less of what we’ve done in the past to make strong believers – it is more – building on our solid foundations.

All of that got me thinking about the church and pastors and change and the mission of shalom. I don’t fully understand all of what it means to live out the mission of shalom – but I understand some things – and Sherry and I are training our boys to think and live in those terms. But I know something. I know that in some places to begin talking about moving a church in that direction brings a certain degree of resistance.

But resistance isn’t bad. It is important – in that it helps to give shape and it helps to maintain the proper perspectives. But resistance, tension and conflict are often the very things that Christians want to avoid. But it is often the very thing that leads to significant change – and significant change is the kind of change some churches would have to make (a significant change (or adaptive) means a change in long-established behavior, beliefs, practice, tradition).

I wondered how have pastors in established churches led significant change – I wondered how they did it given the nature of conflict. One day the notion of strategic planning and conflict sort of feel in my lap. I had never thought about pastors and ministry leaders strategically using the resistance, tension and conflict to lead signficant change before. In fact, Bob Burns was the first to sort of open that world up to me. I wondered if there were any pastors – or seminaries that even taught that idea.

But it isn’t really that novel of an idea – not really. I mean most pastors that I talk to about this think I’m crazy. But counselors and therapists do this all the time. In fact this morning I heard a lecture on pastoral counseling and our lecturer told us how in her practice of over 30 years she often uses tension, or a clients resistance in the hopes of leading them to significant change.

I like that – really. Of course – I’m a pastor. Which means I’m a shepherd. It means that I have the best interest of the person and the church at heart. That’s true. But as a pastor – shepherd – I am charged with leading those whom God has called me to serve. That doesn’t mean I just tell them they are okay and everything is alright. It is not true. The scriptures tell us who we are as human beings – and our hearts tend to verify what the Bible says – often with tension, resistance and conflict.

So, over the course of the last three years I have been preparing for this moment – for all the class work to be finished – for all the projects and papers to have been written. Now, the real work of research and reading and putting things together begins in earnest. This chapter has ended – but it looks like I’ve just opened a new book and I’ve got five more chapters to go. All right then – let’s crank it out!

 

Change

Today, as part of an assignment for a DMin, I worshipped at a church here in St. Louis, The Kirk of the Hills. This is my third time to worship at The Kirk. The first time was three years ago – at the beginning of my studies at Covenant. It was also a beginning for The Kirk; Mark Kuiper had just become their Senior Pastor. I was in the congregation only a few Sundays after he began his pastorate. I have since been back twice. What I have noticed is a steady but not overwhelming sense of change with each visit. It, from my perspective, is good. But I have no idea how they got to the place where they are – and if I know anything about the pastorate I’m pretty sure it was not without some difficulty.

For the past five years I have studied the subject of leadership and change – especially as it relates to the church. It is not a stretch to say that the church is one of the most change resistance institutions on the planet. There are lots of reasons for that and not all of them bad.

For the last week, each evening, and this entire weekend, I have spent hours and hours pouring through books on leading change. I have read books written from the church’s perspective and those written for the world of business and politics. What I have seen again and again is that conflict is an ever-present element of leadership – especially when it comes with change. That did not surprise me. What did surprise me was how all the authors kept pointing out how important, vital, it is for institutions to have a very clear mission and vision.

That is something that most of us know – instinctively – I think. Yet we may not realize how much conflict is related to not really having a firm grasp on the mission of our church, our work places, our families, and our lives. I wonder if you were to be asked what the mission of your church is and how you fit into the vision of that church – I wonder if you could answer. I wonder how many Christians have ever given much thought to how their vocations, their families, their very lives are tied into God’s mission in the world – God’s mission for His people.

That may be the sort of change that is worth considering. Perhaps considering what it would mean to give our lives to the greater purpose of God’s mission in the world might be the “answer” that so many Christians are looking for. The reason is it takes us out of ourselves and connects us to being a part of something greater and very, very good. That’s the sort of change that is worth doing the hard work for.

In the Perpetual Ruins

This morning I came across Psalm 74:3 and the words that spoke to me in some strange way. The Psalmist cries out in prayer – asking for God to, “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins…”

For some reason I wanted to cling to that part of this passage – not so much for some fatalistic, black cloud, hopeless reason. Rather, I think it is right and fitting that these words would give shape to the way that people cry out to God.There is something about seeing the world from the perspective of a perpetual ruin that draws me to hope in the gospel all the more. In fact, the whole notion of working for the renewal of all things and the promise of Jesus that He has come to restore us God and to bring about the fullness of God’s Kingdom is the only counter to the notion of ruin.

That’s what is so astounding to me. There are some things – some words – some ideas – which will not exist in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Ruin is one of those things. When Christ comes – and fully and finally directs His steps to this perpetual ruin – all ruin will be gone – forever and ever.

But there is more to the notion of perpetual ruin – because it speaks to me about me. I find, the older I get, the more ruined I become – physically. Now, I’m not old, really. I’m middle-aged – hopefully. I’m young by a lot of standards. But I’m feeling the change in my body. I can’t run or lift or hike or swim or eat like I used to. In fact I’m in the shape I’m in because of the way I did run, lift, etc. But I’m trying to get in shape – but I’m fitting a loosing battle to some extent. I’m fighting against the perpetual ruin of my physical body.

But When Christ comes in His fullness – when He steps toward this perpetual ruin – I will be made new, whole, not for a while – but forever. There will be no more ruined knees, or back, or shoulder, or neck (thank you contact sports). There will be wholeness.

So, I can pray as the Psalmist prayed – asking God to “step toward these and this perpetual ruin” and know that in many ways I am really praying as John prayed in Revelation “Amen – Come Lord Jesus!” Direct your steps to our perpetual ruin!