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Archives for 119 – Turning the world upside down

Did your mom, perhaps your dad, sing to you as a child? You know, the songs while being rocked to sleep at night or while you were going down the road in the LTD station wagon? They are songs that never cease playing in our hearts and our minds.

Luke tells us that Mary sang songs much like her biblical namesake the Prophet of God (it is a horrific tragedy of the English Bible that many disciples do not know Mary the mother of Jesus is named after one the three deliverers of Israel, Miriam). I am certain that Mary did not sing this song merely once. Nor is this the only song Mary sang to not only Jesus but all her sons and daughters. Mary’s song is representative of what Jesus and his sisters and brothers heard from the lips of Miriam.

Mary was born, and bred, as a faith filled Jew. She was nourished on the vibrant heartbeat of the Hebrew Bible. She poured her hopes, and dreams, into the names of her children because the song was already in her heart. As any student of the Bible knows, names were not randomly picked out of a baby name book. Names were chosen to express something. I know my own daughters names were prayed over before chosen. Rachael is God’s lamb full of joy and love, while her sister Talya is the Lord’s rain/dew that blesses and nourishes the earth with grace. These names were chosen on purpose. Have you noticed what Miriam (named for a prophet) and Joseph (named for the savior of world and father of two tribes in Genesis) named their kids. Notice this “pattern” in Mark 6.3:

– Jesus = Joshua the salvation of the Lord

– James = another tragedy of the English Bible, is Jacob who is quite literally “Israel” himself (God changed his name and the word “Jacob” frequently is a stand in for “Israel” in the Hebrew Bible) and is the patriarch of the Twelve Tribes

– Joseph = named for dad and shares in the meaning

– Judas = named after Judas the Maccabee, the hammer of God, who delivered Israel from the Seleucid Empire

– Simon = was the brother of Judas the Maccabee who continued to lead the Maccabean Revolt

Notice anything about these names of Jesus’s brothers as the Gospels record them? They say something about Mary and Joseph. Their hope for Israel has not vanished in the slightest.

That hope is expressed in her song. Scholars have noted that “Miriam’s” song is Hebraic, it is so “Old Testament,” it is just so Israelite. And it is. Mary taught her sons and daughters to dream of the salvation of Israel. Or as New Testament scholar Richard Horseley called her songs, “revolutionary songs of salvation.”

This song by Mary set the agenda for Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospel of Luke and the pattern of the church in the book of Acts. There is a Miriam at the creation of the old Israel, and there is a Miriam at the beginning of the reNEWed Israel … the prophet who gave birth to the Lord’s Salvation.

What did that song sound like. What song flowed through Jesus’s mind as he mingled with the lepers, the prostitutes, the poor, the traitors (tax collectors) … Jesus has the Hebrew Bible in his soul via his Mother.

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant Israel in remembrance
of his mercy according the promise he made to our ancestors  …

The most obvious Hebraic root here is Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2.1-10, but the thought is ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible. But Miriam/Mary identifies herself among the lowly, the down and out powerless people of this age.  This taps into the fundamental identity of Israel as being the lowliest of nations. So lowly was Israel that the state sponsored terrorism against their baby boys. Thus Deuteronomy and Ezekiel stress that God “loved” Israel because no one else would (Dt 7.7-8; Ezk 16.1-7, in Ezekiel, Israel is an unwanted and exposed infant girl, not boy, whom the Lord saves). Jesus never forgot the songs of his mother and was always proudly among the unwanted of the world.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty

It is impossible not to hear the Psalms pulsating through Mary’s song. And perhaps this is why that holy books was so treasured by her son. Texts like Psalms 18.27; 89.10 and a dozen more come to mind. 

For you deliver a humble people,
but the haughty eyes you bring down
.” (Ps 18.27)

you scattered you enemies with
your mighty arm.
” (89.10)

But what is it that God has done? What is it that Mary poured into Jesus, James, and Jude’s heart (the last two have epistles in the NT)? In other words what did salvation look like?

First, salvation meant the powerful are brought low and the low are lifted high (v.52). A great reversal is what salvation brings. This perspective permeates Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel of Luke. There was a Rich Man who saw Lazarus, the lowliest of the lowly. We know what happened. Mary was pouring Jubilee theology into Jesus in her songs.

Second, salvation meant the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty (v.53). This is also Jubilee. This is also Exodus. This is also reversal. This is not pie in the sky escapism as in Gnosticism. Salvation is not from God’s creation rather salvation is experience within God’s creation. Salvation meets the hurting and out of wack world exactly where it needs, in the flesh and blood of reality. So Jesus tells all kinds of stories of a Jubilee banquet (Lk 14.15-24) in which the poor, the lame, the blind are brought to feast at the table they would routinely be excluded from. Salvation impacts and revolutionizes the world in which we live. 

Third, salvation is an act of mercy and faithfulness to the promise to the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Israel (v.54-55). Why did Mary name her sons Jesus/Joshua, Jacob and Joseph? These sons all represent the HOPE of the Promise “to his servant, Israel.”

To put this in terms we normally use, Mary’s says that salvation comes because of the Old Testament, salvation comes on Old Testament terms and not contrary to it or in spite of it. Jesus did not forget this. Lazarus is “carried away to be with Abraham” (Lk 16.22). And Abraham tells the rich man if he wants to know salvation then he needs to listen to Moses and the prophets (16.29-31).

Miriam’s song reverberates throughout Jesus’s ministry and the life of the church as Luke tells the story. Mary’s song became treasure buried in the heart of Jesus, James and Jude and defined the content of their mission and ministry (James is clearly an advocate of the lowly in his short letter).

It is not a stretch to say that Jesus’s ministry would not be what it was had it not been for his Mother singing the songs of Israel to him. Today, the church needs to hear her song afresh. Mary’s song reminds us that the Gospel is not a message of what happens merely after we die. The Gospel is a message that says death itself will no longer rule the world God created, even for the least of these.

Mary’s song reminds us that the mission of God was the mission of Jesus and ought to be the mission of the church. We bring good news to the lowly, a message that changes the world. And finally Mary’s song reminds us that it is simply impossible to have either Jesus or the “New Testament Church” without being “Israel” and part of the family of Abraham, Isaac and … Israel (Jacob).

Mary’s Christmas song is one we need to remember all year long. 

disarmbombWhen we start talking about speaking truth to power…there is only one side of that equation we typically like to be on. We want to be the truth teller, not the truth listener. We want to be the hero…the one who has the insight and the courage to “stick it to the man.” Whether it be the nasty letter you wrote to your home owner’s association or the post you put up on Facebook decrying recent decisions by our branches of government there is a push for people to be the truth speakers.

Rarely do we find encouragement to be truth listeners. It goes both ways. It must go both ways because the reality is you and I are not incorruptible. We are not infallible. We can get caught up in the same power struggles and abuses that the world is so good at using. That is our temptation just as much as it is the world’s. That being said, we must be willing to be truth listeners when we find ourselves on the wrong side of abuse of power and privilege. We are not above being wrong.

This is also true of the church. The church has not always been on the right side of every issue since the beginning of time. Do you know why Paul wrote all the letters he wrote? He wrote them to Christians who were doing it all wrong. He was speaking truth into abusive situations…divisive situations…situations that God’s people were on the wrong side of either with each other or toward the world.

The church needs to be a better truth listener just as much as individual Christians need to tune our ears to know truth when we hear it, particularly when the truth challenges us personally.

That means the “powers” are not just “out there.” They are also “in here.” Church power games and politics are the reality because people are involved and people are imperfect. People will always find an angle. They will seek to find the leverage they need to get things their way and uphold what they deem most important.

Naming the powers
I want to spend a few moments listing a few of the “powers” that are very much present in churches today. I am not saying they are present in all churches, all the time. I do think that these are present frequently and prevalently enough to mention them. Feel free to add more in the comments.

1 – The power of tradition.
There are just some questions that aren’t to be asked and traditions that aren’t to be challenged. They aren’t to be challenged because these traditions have been confused with scripture itself. I am convinced there are people who are more interested in upholding tradition with white-knuckled determination than they are interested in pleasing God with open hands of receiving what God is trying to give.

2 – The power of position.
Any time someone has a position, influence or decision making ability there will eventually be problems. We find position problems in everyone from nursery workers to elders to preachers. No one is immune. The solution is submission. The solution is to take on the very nature of a servant…just like Jesus Christ (Phil 2). Christianity doesn’t come with a crown…crowns are laid at the feet of Jesus. Leadership is service. The exalted are the humble. Living is dying. We recognize biblical leadership but those biblical leaders must understand what that entails in order to not get entangled in worldly ways of leading and shepherding.

3 – Words.
Our words are powerful and they can be used to abuse people. Gossip is powerful. It is far more powerful than we give it credit. It results in tearing people down rather than building up. It undoes the work of the Spirit and produces the fruits of the flesh. Gossip satisfies our own longing to belong and to have power and control at the expense of others. We think we give when we use words but often words are used to take more than they are used to give…they can take dignity. They can take sanity. Words can rip someone open and steal the peace from their heart. Words also have great power for good…let us check our words and make sure they are useful for building up, not tearing down. Let us also make every effort to make sure our words are spoken truthfully.

4 – Serving others
This is an odd one but hear me out. In our own selfishness…we can even twist serving others into a backwards route to prop ourselves up. This is when serving others becomes leverage for our own agenda rather than helping someone because we love them. I did this for you…now you owe me. Service in the world works that way in many cases…but not service in the kingdom.

5 – The worship hour “at the building”
These too can become powers that need disarmed when they are overemphasized in the life of the Christian. There are people more convinced someone will go to hell over what happens in that hour of worship (who passes a plate or says a prayer or gets things out of order or forgets to say “In Jesus name, amen”) than they are over the sin in their life 7 days a week.

6 – Prooftexting
I am listing this as a power because it borders close enough on this to be just that. This is the attempt to decipher from scripture whatever it is we want the Bible to say. That makes me the authority rather than scripture as I work and mold and manipulate verses to fit my agenda. Prooftexting is a power in and of itself that can result in some deadly things.

7 – Gender
Gender in and of itself very quickly gets into power plays and power dynamics. Change a traditional practice in regard to what women can do in worship and pay attention to what people say. You will hear, “Why can’t they just be happy taking care of the babies and teaching the children?” or “They are taking away opportunity for the young men to learn to serve.” Those statements in and of themselves show gender to be a power that can be used to keep people in check.

Disarming the powers
There are many more that could be listed but these will due for now. We have to look at these things with our eyes wide open and ask ourselves this – when am I the one in the seat of power and in what ways have I abused what little power I have at the expense of others? When we start asking that question we become truth listeners…it is only from the posture of the truth listener do true truth tellers emerge.

A second thing that must be done to disarm the powers is to speak truth. Speak truth even when it is hard. Speak truth even when it comes at your expense. Speak truth and speak it directly to those who need to hear in as Christ-like a manner as possible.

Third, ask questions. If you are honestly interested in truth then you ask questions from those who have the answers. That leads us to…

Fourth, don’t speculate. It just isn’t helpful to assume and speculate and then speak as if your conclusions are absolute. If you don’t have all the information just ask.

Fifth, commit yourself to not repeating things to others that are not true, are questionable or even that are true but just shouldn’t be said.

The powers fear the truth because it removes their throne, their crown and their ability to control through manipulation. We must be transparent. We must be honest. We cannot hope that the only way forward for the church is to uphold ways of doing things that disregard the truth or keep us from having to face the truth. Remember, the truth shall set you free…even if you are the one in the wrong.

diploma        “Readers are Leaders.” That’s a mantra that I’ve heard ballyhooed from teachers and those involved in education for as long as I’ve been attending school. My love of reading did not come naturally. I can still remember skimming through the required reading materials all the way through college exerting the bare minimum effort because I just didn’t care for reading. I think it was sometime in graduate school when I began to actually enjoy reading. I can still remember sitting on our front porch reading a book one day, not long after I had finished graduate school, and thinking to myself – “Why am I reading? I don’t have to read anymore!” They had neglected to tell me that a side effect of my graduate school education could be an increased interest in reading. Now, I find myself reading all the time.

I recently finished my Doctor of Ministry degree, and for each of my doctoral classes I had to read anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 pages. Even for someone who enjoys to read – that’s a lot of reading. All this time spent in formalized education has helped instill in me the habit of reading. I read as often as I can, but recently, I’ve been taking note of just how much more I read than most people.

Usually, a statement like that is followed by an affirmation regarding how important reading is and how it’s what smart people do. However, I’ve been realizing that all this reading could be a detrimental thing for ministers. The thing is, people in my church don’t read nearly as often as I do. No one in my extended family reads as much as I do. As a matter of fact, the only people that I come across who seem to read as much as I do are either English majors or other ministers. Just about all the ministers I know read a lot. But the people who are a part of our churches don’t seem to read as much. And something about that difference seems significant to me.

This series of articles I’ve set out to write are really a reflection on at least one part of the church subculture that I am realizing that I am a part of. Churches have long been a leading voice in the need for formalized education. Look no further than the institutionalization of education in the United States and see the fingerprints of churches all over it. It was largely pseudo- seminary education that helped craft the landscape of today’s liberal arts. Pastors, priests, preachers, and clergymen have long been some of the most respected and highly educated scholars in their local communities. These attributes all seem to point positively towards an enduring, scholastic legacy, but I’m wondering if there aren’t side effects.

A few years ago our congregation conducted a survey of our membership, and I remember the most astonishing finding was the fact that like 80% of members of our church had a college degree. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when you consider the fact that our church is in a wealthy suburb, but I never would have supposed the number to be that high. People often talk about the comfort of the suburbs in terms of financial comfort, low crime, and big houses – but we often seem to overlook the implications of being, generally speaking, more highly educated.

This series of articles is about some of the blind spots that I have noticed in my Christian tradition, and this has been one of the most glaring to me. We don’t seem to be speaking to the uneducated very well anymore. I don’t want to suggest that people without degrees don’t read, but clearly the higher a person’s education the more likely they are to read. Consequently, highly educated ministers like myself are much more likely to use sermon illustrations that we read in a book somewhere, or quote a popular author of the day, than references to working on our cars or reworking our plumbing.

I’m not writing this to bash education. I am overwhelmingly thankful for my degrees and the time that I spent in college and graduate school. However, I do think it is important for those of us who are church leaders to consider how well we relate to those who never went to college or who haven’t read a book in a decade. Sometimes I think we give the impression that when a person comes to faith in Jesus, they’ll suddenly be as interested in theology as we are. Perhaps we need to consider more often what Jesus’ message would be to truck drivers, factory workers, and farmers.

Preaching for a church that has so many college graduates makes it easy to relate to the majority of our members when I talk about God. But I’ve tried to begin asking myself how well I’m relating to the smaller group of people in my church who never went to college. To Margaret who often comes over to me and moves her hand flatly over her head to tell me my message went “right over her head today.” Shame on me. Shame on all of us for taking the message of a man who spoke in everyday parables and feeling the need to dress it up with technical language and illustrations and quotations from latest cool and trendy book.

Christian conventions and conferences are too often a dog and pony show of the highly educated and the affluent who often talk about what their hip suburban churches are doing to draw crowds on Sundays. When is the last time that a Christian conference invited a recently paroled convict to talk about what they learned in “the pen”? Who was the last high school dropout invited to preach the Gospel at a mega-church? When is the last time you’ve taken a break from reading?

As with each of the articles in this series, I know I am generalizing and overstating here. I am blessed to know that there are exceptions to the pictures that I’m painting. I, personally, have been deeply inspired by the work of Richard Beck and Richard Goode – working in prisons in Texas and Tennessee, respectively. But they remain exceptions. Have we considered that perhaps Jesus has called us to the last, the lost, and the least educated? Would they even be able to understand our message?

hipsterchristianity            One of my favorite movie scenes is from the cinematic masterpiece Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. It’s when Pee Wee goes into a biker bar to make a phone call on a payphone (remember those!?) The bar is too noisy causing the uptight, gray-suit-clad Pee Wee to shout over all the bar noise in his nasal-driven voice, “I’m trying to use the phone!” You can watch the clip here, but hasn’t it been long enough since you watched the whole movie? A true cult classic.

The whole episode leads to the famous scene of Pee Wee dancing across the bar to the song “Tequila.” The comedic element of the scene works because Pee Wee is so out of place. The bikers are dressed in leather, sporting tattoos all over their bodies, and capped with do-rags on their heads. Pee Wee is in his token, gray suit wearing a red bowtie with short, slicked hair. The bikers are rough and gruff while Pee Wee is . . . well, Pee Wee. It’s one of those great scenes where the music stops, everyone stops what they are doing, and looks up to take notice of the intruder.

I think this scene serves as a helpful illustration for what I see taking place in church culture over the past several years. While I’m not sure that the church has begun to look and act like Pee Wee Herman, I do think that there is a certain “hipster” culture (for lack of a better descriptor) emerging among church leaders – and subsequently, churches. A few weeks ago I attended a local pastor’s gathering where several leaders of recently-planted churches were in attendance, and what struck me was how incredibly similar they all looked. They were all white, all dressed like they had just stepped out of Old Navy commercials, and they all even kind of talked like each other.

It made me start thinking about the blogs I follow, the books I read, the church leaders I pay attention to, and a trend I’ve been witnessing within my own tradition, the Churches of Christ. I realized that they all kind of reminded me of the pastors from that recent gathering I had attended. They all kind of look alike. They all read a lot. They all listen to U2 and Mumford and Sons. They all like to talk about unwinding at night with a glass of wine. And they all seem to either have some kind of trendy eyeglasses or facial hair. The really cools ones have both. I thought about this, and it made me think about Pee Wee Herman.

It also made me think about home. Now, I didn’t grow up in a biker bar, but I did grow up in a beer-drinking family. Like a lot of small towns littered across the good ole United States of America, beer was a cultural staple of my little Northwest Ohio town. Even though I grew up in a little, ultraconservative church, beer was such a staple of our community that I’m pretty sure most people who attended our church drank it – they just never talked about it on Sundays and put the orange juice in front of their 12-packs in the fridge when they had church company over.

Sometimes I think that if one of these hipster Christians walked into a gathering of my hometown with their bottle of merlot, skinny jeans, and U2 tee shirt it would look a lot like that scene of Pee Wee walking into the biker bar.

This might seem to be a strange way to begin an article about church leadership, but I wouldn’t be the first minister driven to alcohol by his church. This article isn’t really about alcohol, though. It’s about people. It’s about beer-drinking people. Some guy named Thomas Rhett even has a song called “If I Could Have a Beer with Jesus.” I’m not much of a country music fan, but I appreciate his sentiment. Moreover, the sentiment of this song actually has me thinking a lot about drinking beer and the kinds of people who drink beer.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of these hipster Christians drink beer too, but I’ve never seen one of them take a selfie while kicking back a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The truth is, you can tell a lot about a person by the kind of beer they drink, and when the hipster Christians aren’t sipping a dry, red cabernet, they tend to be kicking back on some trendy microbrew’s craft beer.

All of this is, of course, a completely unfair over-generalization of the contemporary American church. However, I also think that this caricature helps illustrate some important trends that are taking place that should force the church to do some critical self-evaluation. Now, to be clear, I am white, just finished my doctorate of ministry degree, enjoy red wine while listening to Mumford and Sons, and therefore confess, up front, to being part of the problem here. However, as I have spent the past few years analyzing a church culture that I feel more and more alienated from, I have begun to wonder if there hasn’t been a fair bit of elitism slowly creeping into churches and church leadership circles.

I have composed three subsequent articles that address what, in my opinion, are some of the most disconcerting trends emerging within the church, particularly the group I am most familiar with – the Churches of Christ. The first article proposes that a byproduct of the church’s focus on learning and education, particularly through formal education, is contributing to a cultural divide between academically-inclined church leaders (the Pee Wees) and blue collar, high school educated individuals (biker bar folks). Many churches are (mostly unwittingly) contributing to a resurrection of a pre-Reformation climate where the chasm between the clergy and laity is ever-expanding.   While Jesus taught using every day, agrarian parables, church leaders seem to be having difficulty translating their high brow theology into everyday life.

The second article suggests that the softer a pastor’s hands are, the more difficulty he or she has in relating to working-class folks. A more technical description of this article is: how has the professionalization of ministry affected church culture? Like many pastors, I enjoy reading scores of books each year. However, I have come to realize how much more often I read than the vast majority of the people in my church. This doesn’t have to be a negative trait, but how often do we consider how this impacts our perspective and our ability to minister to others? I read often and count myself regularly blessed to be able to do so, but I have begun to wonder at what cost all this time reading has had. Certainly, there is a need for pastors to be able to connect with the professionals of our communities and reading is an essential part of keeping the well full, but we must not forget the non-professionals. This emphasis seems, to me, to be almost completely absent in the church circles I described above.

The third article highlights how the suburban context has come to dominate the landscape of church leadership conversations. Next time you see a convention or national gathering, notice how many of the speakers pastor in suburban communities. Again, I speak as part of the problem here, as my church sits in the heart of Midwestern suburbia (Columbus, OH), but I have noticed how vastly ignored urban and rural ministry have become. This is, no doubt, a byproduct of the hipster Christian movement that has seemed to dominate church leadership discussions in recent years. I’ve noticed that many of these hipsters give much lip service to urban ministries and social justice, but (perhaps it is my cynicism talking here) I rarely see that emphasis put into any kind of tenable action. The fact of the matter is the suburbs possess the financial resources to be able to support professional ministers like myself, and thus provide broader influence through platform like conferences and books – all the while neglecting other significant demographics.

The point of this series is not to be unduly critical or to be reduced to bleak cynicism. I’m convinced that there is much good happening in the Lord’s church and that God’s hand is alive in all corners of our world. I speak, instead, to a subculture that I love and care about, but often do not feel a part of. I speak with a heart of the pastor of a small church that is not in the Bible Belt. I write as a nonconformist who has always struggled to go with the flow, and I believe that while swimming upstream, several of the characteristics I see on display in the stream must be addressed. Hopefully, these articles can prove to be a prophetic reminder of some of our most neglected blind spots and can spark discussions about how they might be addressed.

In 1967, Jim Morrison and the Doors sang what would become a popular and enduring song: People Are Strange.

Indeed.
I have met some of them.
To some, I probably am one of them.

People are strange.
Aren’t we all?

Aside from the debate over who is strange and why they are, the lyrics themselves are haunting. As you read them, I wonder if you hear the echoes of the Gospel?

People are strange when you’re a stranger

Faces look ugly when you’re alone

Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted

Streets are uneven, when you’re down

When you’re strange

Faces come out of the rain

When you’re strange

No one remembers your name

When you’re strange

When you’re strange

When you’re strange

Purportedly, Jim Morrison was in the grips of depression when he wrote those lyrics.

I can believe it because I hear the loneliness and alienation. I hear it because I have been there…

So what does the Gospel have to do with it? What does the Gospel have to do with life lived on the ragged fringes?

Everything!

If you will allow me to define the Gospel more broadly, it is so much more than the last few chapters in any of the Gospel stories. In fact, it is more than the first four books in the New Testament.

The Gospel is the story of God. It is everything He has done and continues to do for the redemption of man! That’s a broad definition, but it encapsulates all of God at work in the lives of humanity–especially for those on the fringes—outcast, alienated, and alone.

Especially.

The story.
Yes, the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection–the story hinges on those pivotal events. But it is so much more…

The Gospel is your story too.

It’s your story as salvation envelopes you, gives new meaning to your existence, and invites you to be a participant–to share this story that is your story that is the story of God.

Do you remember reading of the sadness, grief, pain, and tears of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? Can you feel and grasp the loneliness and alienation of Jesus as He cried out on the Cross?

My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?

(Matthew 27:46 HCSB)

 

When Jim Morrison wrote those words of despair and pain, there is a Savior who understood and understands still.

That’s the Gospel.

Out of the pain, anguish, and ragged fringes of Jesus’ life we find not only our redemption, but also an answer to the suffering of this world.

Have you embraced, hugged, and grabbed the Gospel for yourself?
Then be the Gospel.
Be the story–someone on the fringes of life needs you to be!

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS

The Apostle Paul - Rembrandt

The Apostle Paul – Rembrandt Van Rijn.

The aging Apostle Paul breathes in the damp air of the cell around him. It is pungent with body order and human waste. Whether imprisoned in Rome or Ephesus – I lean toward Ephesus1 – the conditions would have been equally distasteful. Still, Paul’s mind wanders not to his own circumstances as much as it does to those in the budding church plants in Ephesus, Colossae, and Philippi.

Called the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul remained faithful to his own tribe. His thoughts were never far away from the plight of the Jewish people and how he might share the great news that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah who had brought an end to captivity, not only for the Jews but for all humankind. His detractors would not hear Paul’s alleged blasphemy and many would trail him from city to city instigating trouble in their wake.

How he agonized, restricted to the squalor of a prison2, as he thought about his friends without. I hear that pain resonate in Paul’s words to Philippi. Though tagged as the epistle of Joy by many, chapter three begins with a diatribe – a critical form of speech that can utilize irony or abusive language. Confined? “Yes.” Quiet? “No.” Paul would have his say.

Dogs! Evil doers! Mutilators of the flesh! No, dogs were not loveable lap companions. They were mangy street scavengers. Dog is a descriptor reserved for your enemies. Goliath called young David a dog. I’m pretty sure Goliath was not concerned with minding his words. Evil doer. That may not sound too impolite but imagine dedicating your entire life to a cause you believed to be right. These opponents of Paul believed they were right. I believe I am right (i.e. right with God). Yet, I have gotten a couple of those creepy anonymous letters in my day reminding me that my doctrine is false. Worse, people I know have used the dreaded phrases “false teacher” or “of private interpretation” when speaking to me. I would rather be called a dog. Next, there is mutilator. That sounds like the name of one of the Decepticons. Paul’s play on words here is absolutely wicked. It, “is the most ‘cutting’ (Ha ha) epithet of all.”3 Gorden Fee explains that Paul’s usage of an alternate Greek word in this context derides his opponents in a way that would be highly offensive and personal.4

Then Paul goes nuculer (I know I misspelled it. I’m also swaggerin’ like George W. Bush when I say it). He trots out his impressive resume. Having served in the highest echelons of the Jewish community, there are few who could top him. He wads it up with a flourish, arcs it across the room, and rings the waste can with it while he screams and signals that it was a three-pointer by calling it a steaming heap of skybala.5 That’s right. Paul smells it all day every day. He has been locked up in a dungeon. It was probably one of the first words that came to mind. Sanitize it all you want with English translations like rubbish, trash, dung, or my favorite “street swill.” Fecal matter is universally offensive.

Why so emphatic? Some might even ask, “why so hateful?” Paul was up to his metaphorical ears in it. And, maybe he sat in it a time or two. He was sitting in prison awaiting trial because he had the audacity to say that, “Jesus is God and he loves you whether you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. You are free, the captivity has come to an end. Sin and death have been defeated. A whole new creation is underway and you are God’s beloved co-creator in this new world.” The irony of Paul’s physical circumstances could not have been lost to him at the moment he penned these caustic words found in the third chapter of Philippians. For me, that is why this is the epistle of joy. Paul is laughing a belly shaking laugh. He has stepped into the light and though this present age can be abysmal; it is not the final chapter. God has written an epilogue to this story and the names of those who confess Jesus as Lord are found inside rejoicing.

I believe Paul was so carried away with the Spirit and the gravity of the moment that no other words could properly convey his strong displeasure for any who would define righteousness in terms of rites, sacraments, and forms rather than in terms of knowing Jesus. He is the heart of the matter. Like Paul’s complaint about his contemporaries who had traded in the substance of a real relationship with God for the shadow of ritual, we should have an equal amount of indignation with the institutional church that so much of the de-Christianized culture around us observes to lack “humility and virtue.” according to a recent article in the Washington Post.6

The article entitled, The End of Casual Christianity responds to the Pew Research report regarding the Changing Religious Landscape. Many such articles have been written of late that discuss what some call troubling and others label affirming. One phrase within the Post would likely find agreement with a large majority. “…we are certainly seeing the collapse of casual Christianity and of religious belief as a civic assumption.”7

Why? I do not claim to have all the answers to this. But, I believe the sharp uptick among people who claim no religious affiliation is a response to a perception that institutional Christian culture has lost touch (i.e. going to church, performing acts of worship with correct form, always asking for money to build a building, or the many reports of abusive church leaders). Whether the perception is accurate or not makes no difference. The narrative is written and it will continue to stick unless we do something.

Now, Paul didn’t abandon the Jewish way of life. For instance, he continued to self-identify as a Pharisee many years after his encounter with Jesus. He participated in temple life. At the heart of many of his letters, one will find Paul soliciting money to be taken back to the temple in Jerusalem. What Paul did was re-interpret everything in his life through the story of Jesus. His ethnic and party affiliation were redefined in Jesus. His religion (where religion is understood as a verb in the first-century sense) was redefined in Jesus. And, his offerings were redefined in Jesus. When not in prison Paul could be found taking up a collection for the temple of God which he understood to be the people of God who were suffering.

Paul’s well-chosen words were about the “we will do it my way or no way” attitude of his opponents whose tradition and ritual had become their god. Neither tradition or ritual are inherently wrong. Simply, they are vehicles and not the destination. By way of explanation, I love one of the core values of a sister church plant here in New England. The family known as OceanPointe Christian Church says, “We will do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ.” A year ago when they held their first public gathering my family and I joined the celebration and witnessed that message being lived out in the community. Today, Jesus is being proclaimed throughout Newport, RI and this little group is making a big difference.

Paul’s “S-bomb” is not directed at particular church practices that glorify God and fit the culture and time. I don’t think you have to end your capital campaign for a new building. I am not into shaming a person for wearing a suit and tie or sandals and shorts at a gathering of the church. It’s not our business if a woman leads an assembly in prayer or if a gay couple joins a gathering to celebrate Jesus. We need not concern ourselves with whether one group of Christians is all out to share Jesus with the incarcerated and another points their compass toward a rich suburb. But, without reservation we should all notice our blood pressure escalating and the interjections crowding our thoughts when someone seeks to impose the opinions and preferences from their culture / sub-culture upon another. Jesus said drowning wasn’t good enough for such a person. Paul suggested they castrate themselves. Speaking of Paul, let’s give him the last word.

Now, in these last sentences, I want to emphasize in the bold scrawls of my personal handwriting the immense importance of what I have written to you. These people who are attempting to force the ways of circumcision (Note from Eric: you might include other words here…interest group, dress codes, worship style…) on you have only one motive: They want an easy way to look good before others, lacking the courage to live by a faith that shares Christ’s suffering and death. All their talk about the law is gas. They themselves don’t keep the law! And they are highly selective in the laws they do observe. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast of their success in recruiting you to their side. That is contemptible!

For my part, I am going to boast about nothing but the Cross of our Master, Jesus Christ. Because of that Cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate. Can’t you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do—submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life! All who walk by this standard are the true Israel of God—his chosen people. Peace and mercy on them! (Galatians 6:11-16, The Message).

Eric Greer

Restoration Community Church

1 I think there is good evidence for the Ephesian provenance of the Prison Epistles and I have written about the subject in the past. Though the most detailed sources are early 20th Century, Fitzmeyer picked up the banner for this theory in 2000 in the Anchor Bible Series. If my suggestion interests you I will be glad to share more sources. For now I leave you with the most recent. Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Letter to Philemon. The Anchor Bible, vol. 34C. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

2 Who is the person that suggested Paul had some sort of penthouse set-up as he awaited trial? I have heard the sermons suggesting Paul would sit in some sort of apartment on house arrest. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of corroborating research for that theory. Roman citizen or not, Paul was likely treated with very few dignities. I love the expression on Paul’s face in Rembrandt’s painting, but I seriously doubt he would be surrounded by furniture. Likely, he sat chained to a wall scribbling his notes that were carried out at least on one occasion by a slave named Onesimus.

3 Fee, Gordon, Philippians: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series,. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1999 p. 133.

4 Ibid.

5 My working title for this blog was, S#*t Paul Said: Turning the Church Right-Side-Up. After having several people review the article, I decided on an endnote. One of my reviewers reminded me that the evidence for Paul’s usage of vulgarity in Ph 3:8 is in no way settled. He cited several of the best scholars: Witherington, Fee, Silva, Hawthorne, Bruce, & Theilman who have disagreed with the idea that vulgarity is intended. There are other voices on the matter and the aforementioned scholars will acknowledge the specific meaning of the word skybala (σκύβαλα) is uncertain in its context. My source for understanding the term as at least offensive and likely vulgar is the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) by Kittel et al. The TDNT first explains Paul’s threefold usage of the word hegoumai (ἡγοῦμαι) translated “consider” beginning in the latter part of verse seven. They demonstrate the use forms a crescendo…consider lost, consider lost, consider skybala. Then Kittel specifically notes that “The choice of the vulgar term stresses the force and totality of this renunciation.” Further, the word seems to be most frequently associated with fecal matter in the context of Hellenistic Judaism. Josephus uses it in reference to the manure piles that the Jewish people ate so that they might subsist during the Roman siege of Jerusalem (Wars of the Jews). Symmachus’ Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible included the selection of skybala in the following passages of Ez 4:12,15. So, I did not pull this out of thin air. There is certainly strong evidence for the word to mean dung or fecal matter. And, there is good reason to believe it could be used in a vulgar sense though this is in no way conclusive.

6 Gerson, Michael, Washington Post, The End of Casual Christianity, 25 May 2015. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/rweb/commentary/the-end-of-casual-christianity/2015/05/25/75e6b06c-009f-11e5-833c-a2de05b6b2a4_story.html?tid=kindle-app on 1 June 2015.

7 Ibid

It had been a few years since I watched Shawshank redemption. I noticed it was coming on and recorded it a few weeks ago (the made for TV version…the unedited version is hard to watch for me). Missy and I finally had a couple of hours the other night to watch it. I am sure most of you are familiar with the movie but for those who aren’t, there is a rich banker named Andy who is in jail for the murder of his wife. The truth is that Andy is innocent and yet there he sits in jail…day after day, year after year. He endures abuse and punishment. This is not the easy life.

Then one day a new guy gets locked up with Andy. His name is Tommy. As they get to know Tommy and are sharing stories of their exploits, Tommy shares a story about an inmate he knew who killed a lady and the man she was having an affair with…”She was some rich banker’s wife.” Andy realizes, this is the story of the murder of his wife. He realizes someone knows the truth and it is exactly what he needs to be set free!

Just one wrinkle…Andy had been using his banking skills to his advantage in jail, getting in good with the warden (a seemingly pious man) to embezzle money. Andy knew too much. He knew enough to bring the whole system and the warden to their knees. The corrupt power systems in the prison were safe as long as Andy’s life sentence was lived out and they were willing to do whatever it took to keep him there…including killing the man who knew the truth, Tommy. So Tommy is killed for trying to “escape” in order to keep Andy behind bars. The powers that be maintain their position by suppressing the truth.

Corrupt power systems play that game. They must put down and suppress the truth because when truth speaks into their world it is a threat to their power, their throne and their kingdom. Truth sounds a lot like loss and deceit sounds a lot like gain. That is the way the world works. In John’s Gospel, from first chapter to last, is how Jesus came into the world and why Jesus died.

Selma
A few days before watching Shawshank, we watched Selma. The same thing. Corrupt power systems from the Sheriff to the President. People who are set on maintaining their status, their power, and their privilege. Truth is suppressed because truth challenges their power.

The tipping point in the movie came when truth finally entered the picture and images of what was happening on that bridge were broadcast all over the country. Images of helpless, harmless Blacks being beaten by whites on a bridge all because they wanted to be treated like everyone else. The truth was out. The tide turned. Change was inevitable and unstoppable.

We see this same thing throughout the pages of scripture. We see it in foreign powers like Rome and Pilate’s famous question “what is truth?” The crucifixion of Jesus was a testimony to the fact that Caesar doesn’t like competition…especially from those who speak truth because that is the biggest threat of all. We see it from Pharaoh to the Philistines…from Egypt to Assyria. Even more problematic…we even see it in Israel & Judah…and if we are completely honest with ourselves we see it in church and in our very selves.

The antidote is for someone to stand up and tell the truth. Someone must stand up and state reality…speak toward the “elephant in the Rome”…point out the emperor has no clothes! It shouldn’t take children to say it…grown adults must be willing to tackle this head on. People hesitate because it feels like the cost to do that is too high…I believe the cost of not doing it has already cost us much.

There are people who lose jobs for speaking the truth. There is a great risk in challenging the systems because the system also keeps those who speak employed. That can result in self-perpetuating systems that have little room for challenge, truth, or change.

This article has laid the ground work for a follow up post that I am going to post that will give specific examples of this in churches today. I hope to hear from many of you on how you have experienced this to help shine a light or share a prophetic word against what ought not to be but will not be reversed until truth is spoken. Only then can we clear the way to experience Christ free from the unnecessary burdens that institutional systems tend to create over time. Speaking truth on difficult subjects is a lot like digging our way out of prison. It is hard work, tiring…but necessary. Speaking truth on difficult subjects is a lot like crossing the bridge in Selma…it is going to come with bruises, scars and horrible memories…but it must be done for those who will follow in our steps. Let’s walk through this together and dream about a better way.

PS – No matter what “better way” we want to envision…it will always come with the tendency to go right back to the problems of the past because people are involved. There is no perfect system but there is always a need for truth to be spoken and for people to be willing to listen and change where God calls for it.

bartimaeusAn upside down world? Or an upside down church? Where we sit determines not just our perspective but also decides whether or not we need to be turned upside down in order to effectively live out the good news of the Kingdom.

If you spend any time reading Mark’s Gospel, you can’t help but feel your world being turned upside down. Is Jesus upside down? Or are his followers in need of being turned upside down in order to follow him?

Maybe the following meditation on Mark 10 will open our eyes. A blind man sits by the way in Jericho. His name is Bartimaeus. Huge crowds of pilgrims are here at this last stop before Zion. They’re on their way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.

Bartimaeus hears someone say that Jesus of Nazareth is among the travelers. He begins to shout out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Many people tell him to keep quiet, but he becomes even more belligerent, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus’ disciples, meanwhile, are worried. They’re worried about where they get to sit. They’re not sitting by the road in the powerless position of a beggar. They want to sit in positions of power and greatness.

James and John secretly ask Jesus for a favor. When he asks, “What do want me to do for you,” they say they’d like to sit on his left and on his right. When the rest of the disciples hear about it, they’re incensed. They’ve already been fighting about who is the greatest, and now James and John have tried to make an end-run around them and secure places of prominence.

They’re focused on seats of power. They’re sitting in the wrong place. They want prayer in schools. They want to be able to wave flags in the auditorium and say “in Jesus’ name” before the Friday night football games. They’re anxious about the “degradation” of the family and how heterosexual marriage is losing its place of honor. They’re worried about where they get to sit.

Meanwhile, blind Bartimaeus sits by the way.

Do we pay attention to people who sit by the way? Or do we mostly care about our own seats?

We want the best seats. We want to camp out in places of prominence and glory. We believe that, because our church was once the place to be in our society, we should always be the happening and influential place to sit. We want to be able to proudly tell our friends, “Look at the church I attend. See how successful it is!” We tend to think as James and John, fixated on our desire to sit in glory.

Jesus tells a story about a sower (Mark 4), a reckless farmer who wastefully throws seed not just on the good soil, but also on rocky and thorny ground—and even by the way. Jesus knows the importance of sowing seed in unexpected places and of paying attention to those whose hearts are most open to him.

While arguing about seats of power, the disciples are unable to see the blind man seated by the way. Ironically, Bartimaeus sees Jesus more clearly than they. He knows who Jesus is. He knows Jesus can give him what he most needs. He is unstoppable in his quest to get to Jesus, who notices him and gives him his sight. In the process, the disciples are shown to be upside down, unable to understand who Jesus is or what it means to follow him.

Perhaps it takes getting flipped upside down to finally look at Jesus the right way. Perhaps we can never see our role as disciples until we sit beside the road. Perhaps it takes getting our tails kicked off our seats of power and onto the ground as beggars before we finally understand that Jesus isn’t here to make us free, famous and wealthy.

Perhaps we have to leave everything in order to gain our sight. It’s what the rich young man can’t do. He goes away sad because he has so many possessions. The disciples have left everything to follow Jesus, but they can’t leave behind their false hopes and dreams.

Can we in the North American church leave behind our taste for power and prestige? Bartimaeus has been sitting by the way with his cloak spread in front of him. This was the way beggars collected alms: spread out their cloak for people to toss coins onto. When Jesus calls to him, Bartimaeus leaves his cloak, his only tangible possession, and runs after Jesus with single-minded devotion. “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way.

Is there hope for people who sit in powerless positions? I hope so. There is for Bartimaeus. Perhaps by losing our power we will once again discover the power of faith in Jesus.

Bartimaeus leaves everything to follow Jesus. Can we leave it all? Can we stop fighting over who gets to sit on the left on who on the right? If we deny ourselves, we just might gain the ability to take up our cross and follow Jesus. And in so doing, we might find renewed hope for the upside-down church in North America.

11257247_10153328147990993_6497036371958961952_nI stayed up late November 4th, 2008 to watch the presidential election with my son. I held his chubby three-year-old hand like a vise, stone-faced, too nervous to eat the bag of popcorn we made.

A few days prior an African American woman at a Christian event told me, while Joshua was there pulling a juice box out of my purse, that I was contributing to modern day slavery by adopting him. I remember few details of our conversation, but I do remember thinking, “Thank God Joshua is too young to know what ‘slavery’ means.”

Before that there was the white woman in Walmart who touched Joshua’s hair because “I always wondered what it felt like, but I couldn’t just touch anyone’s head.” Other than he having a white mother, I’m not sure what made my son’s head so accessible to her.

And then before the adoption, the whispers, “Aren’t you afraid he won’t be very smart? Black people aren’t as smart as white people.”

I learned to tilt gently Joshua’s face away from some people, cover his ears from others. Black people know the hearts of white people, and white people know how best to save black people.

We’re full of foolish wisdom.

Once, on a road trip, I told him he’d have to wait for juice because ‘that gas station is closed’ when really it was because we were in a small town in Mississippi, and the store windows were covered in Confederate Flags. An unsettling fear crept over me, and I stepped a little harder on the gas pedal.

“I’m paranoid,” I told myself. “Not all small town people from Mississippi waving Confederate Flags are racist. Right?”

The more true and perceived racism I saw come his way, the more determined I became to shelter Joshua from it. “If I never bring it up…” I thought, “ If I pretend slavery never was, that the Klan is simply cousin to the Boogey Man, and surround him with enough African American doctors and teachers and plumbers and firefighters, maybe he’ll never catch on that racism lives.”

There was only one hurdle to reaching my goal of post-racial illusion. I had to be able to say honestly,“Joshua, you can be anything God made you to be.”

So, everything rode on that night in November. I felt connected, gripping his hand and an uneaten bag of popcorn in the other, at least in some small way, to African American mothers all around the country praying up the same prayer, “Dear God, for the sake of my child, let him win.”

Many question the righteousness of voting for a candidate, a pro-choice one, a spend-money-we-don’t-have one, a not–quite-Christian-enough one, based on race. If we are honest, there were some who voted for the too-old one, stay-in-war-forever one, let’s-just-pray-he-doesn’t-die-and-leave-Sarah-in-control one because of race too. Isn’t the grand irony here that it is indeed racist to cast a vote based on race for either side? Probably. But sometimes a mom’s drive to deliver hope and a future to her child trumps everything else. It can even pull her to the street to give her full-grown son a very public whooping. Planting hope in young African American hearts first requires casting out a lot of rocks from the soil.

I will never forget the moment CNN announced that Obama had won Virginia. Hope lurched. And then the screen went blue. I sighed a weight so heavy I fell to the floor with it. Popcorn spilled. Immediately, I grabbed my son’s face and looked into his eyes. I looked past the lady at Walmart, Jim Crow, and the cotton fields. I peered past the North Star glimmering in him, omnisciently created on the fourth day so that God’s children could find their way to Canada millennia later in 1851, and saw all the way to the dew on the lily of the valley of his soul. I found that place of purposed being, and I said as firmly as I could, “Son, you can be anything God calls you to be.”

Just like that, America was post-racial. My plan to shelter him from the monster of discrimination was working; he would be able to arrive into adulthood never knowing there was a time when people considered him ‘less than’ because of his skin.

But, he went to preschool.

One day in the parking lot after I picked him up he said, “Those girls are mean to me. See them?” He pointed to the slide swarming with yellow ponytails. “They won’t play with me. They say I’m ugly because I’m brown.” I was mortified. How dare they undercut my election victory!

There was Vacation Bible School the summer after his 1st-grade year. “I don’t want to go back,” he said. “The boys in my group were laughing at the way I was dancing and said I’m supposed to dance different because I’m black. I don’t know how to dance black.” (They were Caucasian and Filipino.)

Then there was the time Joshua and a little girl were writing letters in the dirt with rocks at baseball practice. Upon spotting her, her dad leaped off of the top bleacher, and ran to swoop her up-blonde hair flying, blue-eyes startled. He scowled at Joshua, and said to his daughter as they marched back to the bleachers, “You don’t need to play with him.”

Finally, at the ripe old age of eight, there was the incident that irreparably broke me, that convinced me my master plan to raise my son believing that racism was a distant fiction was fiction itself. We were at the park, and he said, “I don’t want to get out, Mom. Whenever I get out of the car I never know if white people are going to be nice to me or mean to me. You and Dad are the only white people I can trust.” He hung his head and sobbed. “Can we just go home?”

I died a little then. Really. Part of my heart that pumps for that son of mine, it broke.

Racism, that beast I so wanted to have died on Nov. 4th, 2008 was not only alive, but had found its way into my son’s soul to such a degree that he never wanted to leave home again. I thought I had done everything right. Though I grew up in St. Louis, we lived in North Carolina, attended a multi-racial church, had an African American pediatrician, neighbors, and school vice-principal. A truly multi-racial community. Yet, even here, racism, real or perceived, had changed my child.

I know we think we’re smarter than it. I know the dad at baseball may have been carrying off his daughter for some reason other than race. I know we all perceive things that sometimes aren’t there, like monsters under the bed. But whether or not the monster under the bed is real does not change the very real fear in the child. And fear reacts.

But other times I’ve peered under the bed with my son in the dark of night and seen the yellow eyes glow. This monster, Racism, is still alive and well. I’ve unmistakably stared him down in the mall, at the grocery store, and in the church. The deep presuppositions we don’t want to admit about the young, black male walking down the street after dark in a hoodie are real. The presuppositions about white people with Confederate Flags flying high are real.

Today, racism lurks, snips at heels, and sometimes hunts and chokes.

Our placating wisdom isn’t fooling anyone.

Even so, sitting in the car forever, afraid of the playground, is not an option. For the sake of his soul, I must hear Joshua’s words as his true experience. Beyond the playground, into the streets of Baltimore and Fergusson, the way forward is the same. We must love someone enough, consider ourselves a part of the other’s faith journey enough, trust each other enough, to hear each other’s truth as legitimate.

Fear’s reactionary friction creates heightened distance, like opposing walls of the Grand Canyon. Polarizing fear has created a nation with only two primary political parties. Republican or Democrat. Driven by fear, we divide churches down dual-ing doctrines. Progressive or Conservative. We are a people who still refer to race in terms of black and white-the same words we use to denote right and wrong. Innocent or guilty.

Peering through our binoculars we shout wise solutions and judgment to those standing on the south rim of the canyon while they analyze us through periscopes and shout back what’s really going on in our lives that we’re too naïve to see. So much foolish wisdom without any relationship.

It’s an ancient story. It’s the disciples looking at the mountain south of them, Zion, and proclaiming, “That is where God is!” while the Samaritans point north and counter, “No, God is there!” all the while ‘God with us’ stands in the sacred valley between the two offering Living Water to a woman who is willing to move beyond polarization.

Paul has to address polarization in the church in 1 Corinthians 1.

My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? (vs. 11-13)

Everyone chose a side.

By our experience, our perch high on the canyon ridge, our blog base, and ‘this one friend I know’, we mark the truth of the matter. Quotes from the past two years surrounding Fergusson and Baltimore show this encampment well. All one needs to do is peruse news report comments for hundreds of examples.

Paul’s solution is simple – admit we are all sinners, and lay down our wisdom as foolishness.

19 For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?. . . 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength . . . 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’”

God pleads across the polarized picket line, Unite in me. Your human insight derived apart from love for each other is foolishness.

A strange phenomenon happens when we boast only in the Lord. We’re leveled. The privilege of our perch is kicked away. We are humbled there together, one foolish heap of saved souls in the valley of the Cross, able to work through our mutual sin together.

The exhausting part of this journey is that we have even managed to polarize sin. Personal sin destroys on one side – lying, insulting, stealing, hitting, boasting and judgment. Social sin corrupts on the other-apartheid, racial profiling, judicial corruption, unequal pay, communities ignoring orphans and widows. We’ve bought the devil’s foolishness that these sins aren’t morbidly addicted to each other. They do not excuse each other, but our righteous perch is a façade.

When society and churches fail to bring physical and spiritual food to a community, people will likely steal. That personal sin- stealing- precipitates resentment in the shop owners, which puts the poor on the defensive, and that inspires unjust laws. This injustice increases petty crime, which fuels racial profiling, which lights angry outbursts that give rise to blanket character judgments. This prejudice motivates violence that contributes to mass incarceration. . . .and before long, in America’s case within two hundred years, we find the Colorado river has cut so deep between us that we can no longer hear the shouting of the broken on the other side of the canyon.

No one’s sin is excused by another’s behavior. The lack of funding in inner city schools does not excuse theft. Late night drug deals do not excuse violations of dignity in arrests. It is all sin. Yet, one action does excuse our wretchedness- Christ’s death.

The Cross is the great leveling ground – the Place of the Skull, the dark valley between the two mountains. And it’s in this place, full of fear and hurt, and arrogance and anger, desperation and panic, where we can sit together with Christ, and drink a cup of water.

There’s peace in the valley.

In his book, Churches That Make a Difference, Ronald Sider explains how mutual depravity can mend polarization.[1] Many of us fixate on personal sin, and this person, he says, “will point to another’s lack of respect for the law, his unwillingness to accept a traditional job, and his disregard for moral authority.” In contrast, the person fixated on social sin “will point to the persistent racism that limits African Americans’ vocational opportunities and crushes self esteem, failing urban schools that graduate students who cannot read, and the lack of transportation in cities.”

He offers the solution, “A holistic view of persons in community [that] understands that individual responsibility and social justice are not an either-or. God holds individuals responsible for their own sinful choices, even when the social context for those choices is oppressive and unfair. God also holds each member of society accountable to help create just, wholesome communities, regardless of whether people are personally responsible for the injustice. Holistic ministers thus reach out to individuals with compassion while working to correct unjust structures” (emphasis mine).

Before we judge an entire race of people innocent or guilty, let us come together as compassionate ministers of reconciliation. Let’s adopt each other into our holy families; let’s listen to each other’s truth in community.

Let’s share a chunk of bread and water in broken silence with Christ, our wisdom, before we offer foolishness outside of covenanted relationship.

After all, Jesus’ wisdom has been solving big social impasses for eternity. The Jews and Samaritans, judging each other by upon which mountain they prayed, were so distrusting of each other that they didn’t cross territory unless necessary. The Samaritans scoffed, “They don’t like us. They don’t consider us full Jews. They won’t listen to our story, and they think they’re better than us.” The Jews countered, “Their temple is in the wrong place. Their blood isn’t pure, and they’re looking for the wrong savior.”

A Jewish ruler from the first century said, “The daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from the cradle.”[2]

It got ugly.

Both sides forgot how complicated the story was. After all, the Samaritans believed they were in the right-the true Israel-from the moment the sacred center of God’s people was moved from Gerizim to Shiloh in the eleventh century B.C.. Adding to the complexity, the Jews and Samaritans had grown apart culturally, for the Samaritans adopted much more Hellenization than the Jews considered appropriate. They dressed differently. Worshiped differently.

Then there’s the whole thing about there being more than one sect of Jews and not all Samaritans being alike. It doesn’t take much imagination to see us in their story.

Thankfully, the solution is as old as time too. One woman and one man decided to meet between two polarizing mountains and have a conversation. The One who knows the layers of all of our stories entered into one woman’s truth. He chose to be transparent with her and reveal to her his true identity, and she allowed herself to be laid bare before him, standing there with her bucket full of secrets, poured out.

He, the only one who is right to do so, reminded her of her sin, then gave her validity and a purpose in spite of it. He was willing to drink from her vessel. She drank from His.

As a result, a community was transformed.

Wisdom in Christ. Purpose from humility. Commonality in the family of God.

Research out of Italy in 2011 shows that white people and black people assume black people feel less pain than white people.[3] How did we get here, to this place where racial misconceptions are ruling even our sub-conscience? Take a moment to consider how just that one subconscious thought-black people feel less pain than white people– contributes to our racial polarization. What snaps in a tense protest when everyone on the street assumes the African Americans must be hurt harder than white people to feel pain? What prowls in our medical system when we believe black people have a higher pain tolerance? The crippling tendrils of the Fall dig deep. Yet we proudly point and accuse others of inventing prejudice, crying, “Monster!” when none are there, and offer community planning solutions without communing with the broken, taking on their truth as our own.

The cleansing blood of Christ must be allowed to flow and seep deep into us, to places we don’t even recognize are in reed of restoration until they are gently exposed through honest dialog with our family at the foot of the Cross. We need vulnerable conversation in our churches that goes deeper than the location of our buildings and stereotypes about our diverse nature. We must come down from our assuming mountaintops to commune with Jesus in the valley of Wisdom. There is a healing hope there, bright as the morning star.

 

[1] Sider, Ronald J., Philip N. Olson, and Heidi Rolland. Unruh. Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. Print.

[2] b. Nid. 31b as quoted in Williamson, H. “Samaritans.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Ed. Joel B. Green. 2nd ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013. 832-36. Print.

[3] “Racism and the Empathy for Pain on Our Skin” (Frontiers in Psychology) Forgiarini, Matteo, Marcello Gallucci, and Angelo Maravita.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108582/

One of our goals is to keep you informed on good resources out there that can help you in your faith and ministry. We want to make sure you are aware that ACU has helped launch a new site called Charis. It has some similarities with Wineskins and so we thought you might find it helpful as we will have a pretty similar audience. We appreciate ACU providing more and more resources to help Christians, congregations, elderships, etc. It makes a difference.

Charis

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