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Rome News Tribune, November 10, 2017

“My family is just not normal!” It’s a common lament from parishioners. My response is always, “There’s no such thing as normal.” Just because a family looks put together from the outside doesn’t mean they are “normal.” I’ve never seen a family that didn’t have rip tides and undercurrents flowing in its DNA.

My own family doesn’t fit any pattern of respectability. My mother’s father was a minister whose career was ended because of infidelity. More than one family member has struggled with drug addiction. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Rabbi Burton Vizotsky notes that, “when we read [in Scripture] of the dysfunctional family with strong lust and murderous intentions, we recognize that it is our family—although we may be reluctant to admit this revelation out loud.”

Biblical families from Genesis to Revelation demonstrate the brokenness of the human condition. Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer and a murderer. Abraham and Sarah have serious marital difficulties. Eli’s sons were candidates for juvenile detention. Our Holy Book does not make any effort to cover this up.

In fact, it is through the language of family that the Bible speaks of those we call “the people of God” or the church. “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6.18). “Father,” “Son,” “children,” “bride,” and “bridegroom” are commonly used terms for God’s people, all of which is the language of family.

Despite the witness of Scripture, we expend huge amounts of energy in the church trying to cover up our own imperfections in order to present a polished façade to the world.

After a brief stint living with and teaching a group of seminarians as the Nazi’s consolidated their power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “Life Together.” He noted that for all of the closeness of study, prayer, worship, work and meals together, there was still a resistance among the individuals to admitting their own failures, their own brokenness to one another. Community, he said, could not be formed among a group of “pious” believers. The pious community can’t allow that any among them are real sinners, thus leading each to conceal their brokenness from one another. In a pious community, said Bonhoeffer, we are not allowed to be sinners. The result is overwhelming loneliness, anxiety and worry over our failures and sins.

In contrast, the grace of the gospel says, “you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you—a sacrifice, a good deed—but rather desiring you alone.”

The signals we send say, “Get your act together, then come join us in church.” What we ought to be saying is, “I am a sinner, a great, unholy sinner, loved by God. Welcome to our family.”

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I wonder how often the prophet Jeremiah had to force himself to
get out of bed to face the day. The prophet and poet for whom truth is grasped through metaphor and image (as Dorothy Sayers stated, “we have no way to think, except in pictures”) must have demanded, “How long, oh, Lord must I do this?” King Zedekiah, no king at all really but a puppet of the Babylonians, was a shape shifter in his allegiances. When the Babylonians were present, he paid them suitable deference – at least enough to convince himself he’d convinced them. To the Egyptians he called, “Come deliver me!” More than once King Zedekiah
commands Jeremiah, “Tell me the truth.” Jeremiah must have burst out laughing at the irony of a
king of God’s chosen people asking for the truth while calling on the Egyptians of all people for deliverance. But Jeremiah keeps on getting out of bed in the morning, even though he knows the images of truth will keep coming and God will command him to speak and, because his life is bound so intimately to the great I AM, speak he will.

Jeremiah’s call forced him to confront a puppet king and his puppet bureaucrats who cared for
nothing but their own survival. And that call demanded he live among people who were suffering
because of a king who served only himself. The mind’s eye of the prophet stayed in overdrive
painting images of truth as he bore witness to the suffering and demanded the king do his job.
Jeremiah’s insistence on speaking the truth put him in danger from those in power who do not
want their incompetence and indifference exposed.

The prophet’s refusal to keep silent got him thrown in prison. I wonder if Jeremiah hoped that in the dark of the cistern prison the images in his mind would fade away so he wouldn’t have to speak the truth nobody wanted to hear.

But God, who seems to delight in turning everything on its head (or perhaps he’s actually turning things right side up) often brings us friends in unexpected places. Ebed-melech was one of Jeremiah’s friends in unexpected places. In a palace where suspicion and intrigue were swirling in every dark corner, who would’ve blamed Ebed-melech if he’d just kept his head down? Instead, he risks his own life to remove Jeremiah from the cistern and tenderly care for him. I wonder how many conversations he and Jeremiah had about God’s demand for justice and if Ebed-melech’s imagination was fired up and his mind’s eye sharpened to the truth through those conversations?

Jeremiah? Well, it appears that he kept on thinking in pictures and the puppet king kept on asking for a truth he’d no intention of hearing. I wonder how often Jeremiah had to force himself to get out of bed to face the day.

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Should we be concerned? Is now the time to speak out, speak up and show up, to protest the bureaucratic structures that impose an “otherness” on those with Arabic looks and Arabic names. Is now the time to resist words and processes that seek to convince us of the danger perceived by those who are not like us? 

Henry Rousso, a Jew exiled to France from Egypt following the imposition of anti-Semitic measures by Nasser in 1956, was on his way from Paris to speak at Texas A&M in College Station. But all did not go according to plan. He was, instead, detained by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), in spite of the fact that Nasser is a French citizen. Rousso was about to be deported when someone got word to the University. (Washington Post, Feb 26, 2017, 2:12 p.m.)

Muhammad Ali, Jr. and his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali (the son and second wife of the great boxer Muhammad Ali) were detained at a Florida airport by Immigration officials. Camacho-Ali was released after showing a photo of her with her husband, but Ali, Jr. was detained for two hours and asked repeatedly, “Where did you get your name from?” And “Are you Muslim?” (USA Today, Feb 24, 2017 8:00 p.m.)

“They were just doing their job,” you might say of the work of CBP. Their job is “to keep us safe.” Therefore, what they did is okay. But moral choices are made each and every day by those who are “just doing their job.”

Zygmunt Bauman explores the place of the ordinariness of bureaucrats just doing their job in the machinery of German extermination of millions of Jews and non-Aryans. He notes that “Stalin’s and Hitler’s victims were not killed in a dull, mechanical fashion with no emotions—hatred included—to enliven it. They were killed because they did not fit … the scheme of a perfect society…They were eliminated, so that an objectively better world could be established … a harmonious world, conflict-free … People … with ineradicable blight of their past or origin could not be fitted into such unblemished, healthy and shining world…They had to be eliminated…The more rational is the organization, of action, the easier it is to cause suffering—and remain at peace with oneself (Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, 91-92, 155).”

We have rationalized the actions coming out of Washington and the concomitant work of ICE and CBP as “necessary” to keep us safe. Bauman continues, “It was not public rejoicing, but public indifference which ‘became a reinforcing strand in the noose inexorably tightening around hundreds of thousands of necks.’ Racism is a policy first, ideology second. Like all politics, it needs organization, managers and experts. Like all policies, it requires for its implementation a division of labour and an effective isolation of the task from the disorganizing effect of improvisation and spontaneity. It demands that the specialists are left undisturbed and free to proceed with their task. … The design gives it the legitimization; state bureaucracy gives it the vehicle; and the paralysis of society gives it the ‘road clear’ sign (Bauman, 74; 114).”

Moral outrage is made more difficult when we are able to separate ourselves from “others,” from those not like us, when we are able to separate ourselves from the process that depersonalizes and dehumanizes those who are different. No one need claim responsibility when distance and “otherness” builds a wall of separation between us and them. It was this separation, notes Bauman, which made it possible for thousands to kill, and for millions of others to watch the murders without protesting. “It was the technological and bureaucratic achievement of modern rational society which made such a separation possible.”

When should we resist? When should we speak out? Yesterday is not too soon!

Eric Godal penned this after his mother was deported back to Nazi Germany. She was murdered at the hands of Nazis.

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Jesus, the Refugee

It was one of those family stories. The kind that get told over and over again. The stories in which your identity is both rooted and revealed. No matter how often he heard the story, his father could never tell him quite what it was that woke him in the middle of the night. He could only say that he woke suddenly with a sickening sense danger was close. He KNEW he needed to get his family away, immediately. When they left, his father didn’t know where they would go or what kind of reception they would find when they got there. All he knew was that staying was not an option.  

The boy was too young to remember that terror filled night and the days and weeks that followed. He did remember, vividly, what it was to be a stranger in a strange land. To be different in speech, dress, customs. To be laughed at and ridiculed simply for his presence. To work long exhausting hours with his mother and father to eke out a living. To be told, “You’re not wanted here. Go home!”

Then, one day, word came, “The king is dead.” The boy remembered the joy on the faces of his mother and father. “Home,” they told him excitedly, “we’re going home.” The boy did remember the journey home through the scorching heat of the desert and freezing cold nights, the days when food and water were scarce, when they were dependent upon the hospitality of strangers. He remembered the endless miles of walking.

When they arrived back in Nazareth, he remembered how the joy turned to grief. The sense of impending danger that had driven his father to flee with his family in the middle of the night materialized into horror when the king’s armies exploded from the dark of night bringing death and destruction. There was not a family left untouched by the violence of that night. So.many.children.murdered. All for the madness of a politician.

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Matthew 2.14-15a). Those verses are a stark reminder that Jesus was a refugee, a small child whose parents were so desperate they would take unimaginable risks in a bid for survival. Little Alan Kurdi must have been about the age Jesus was when his father was awakened in the middle of the night with an impulse to flee. The image of that little body on the beach in his red shirt and tennis shoes can only be framed by this long ago story of Jesus.

Jesus’ humanity was shaped by his experience as a refugee. When Jesus was traveling the countryside as a young man teaching his followers, wasn’t it his own family’s experience that informed his teaching?

The vulnerability of life in a strange land was still fresh in his mind when he responded to the crowd’s question, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ … ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these … you did for me.’ (Matthew 25.37-40).”

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(published in the Rome News Tribune December 12, 2014)

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners (Isaiah 61:1).

This passage from Isaiah seems to be an odd reading for Advent. What does it have to do with Sweet Baby Jesus? It is a familiar passage, nonetheless, to those who are familiar with the Gospel of Luke.

When Jesus returns from the wilderness and publicly launches his ministry, this is the passage he reads, and concludes with this statement: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus lays out this passage from Isaiah as his mission statement. This is what he has come to do.

When we talk about the coming of Jesus, when we wait and watch, I wonder how many of us in the church think about this passage as our own mission statement. After all, if we are followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we be doing what Jesus does? Shouldn’t we adhere to Jesus’ mission statement?

Yes, I know. It’s Christmas and our congregations are hard at work collecting toys and food for the poor of this community. That’s a good thing. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

What are we doing to engage Jesus’ mission statement on those days? How are we bringing (not just proclaiming, but bringing) good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to captives, release to the prisoners?

A couple of years ago, I was working with some seminary students as they surveyed a neighborhood in south Atlanta, one of the most economically depressed areas in the state.

Within an area of about 1.5 square miles, they discovered some 30 churches. What was most disheartening was that most of these churches were surrounded by gates and locked fences.

Most of them had no visible presence in the neighborhood beyond these heavily secured buildings. Once a week, members of the congregations arrived on scene, opened the locked gates and “worshiped.” When worship was over, they locked up the church and left the neighborhood as quickly as possible.

One of the students asked, “If the church is supposed to be a hospital for sinners, then why doesn’t it keep hospital hours?” Yes! Why not?

I believe one of the most important questions a church can ask itself today is: “If we close our doors tomorrow and fold this church, would anybody (beyond those who gather here for Sunday worship) miss us?” If we cannot give a strong, “Yes,” in answer to that and put names and faces to it, maybe we aren’t really following after Jesus.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me … can you feel the Spirit?

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(Published in Rome News Tribune November 14, 2014)

Several nights ago on my drive home, I was listening to the radio and heard Bryan Stevenson speaking about his work through the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.

He used a phrase that triggered a strong response from me: “Each of us is better than the worst thing that we have ever done.” My first instinct was to say, “Really? What about the murderer? Or the pedophile? Or the rapist? Are they not defined by what they’ve done? Are they not defined by the havoc they have wrought in other peoples’ lives?”

Then I began to think about Jesus’ response to evil doers, to Zacchaeus the tax collector (and by inference, a collaborator with Roman occupation and oppression, a man who extorted as much money as he could from the populace). Jesus told all the townsfolk who had put on a spread for him, “No thanks. I’m going to be a guest of Zacchaeus today.” (Luke 19:5)

To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “I do not condemn you.” (John 8:11) Most tellingly, however, from the cross, Jesus called out to God about his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)”

Now, I’m not advocating a free ride for murderers, or pedophiles or rapists. An orderly society must exact some form of justice if there is not to be total chaos. But what should that justice look like?

In the Presbyterian tradition, here’s what we have to say about the purpose of discipline, “(which) is to achieve justice and compassion for all participants involved; to correct or restrain wrongdoing in order to bring members to repentance and restoration … the exercise of church discipline, is for building up … not for destroying, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath …”

For me, this is one of the most difficult demands of the Gospel, justice that is woven through with forgiveness and mercy.

Saint Isaac the Syrian, a Christian writing in the 600s asks: “How can you call God just, when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? … How can you call God just when you came across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, (yet the father’s response) is to run to him, fall upon his neck and give him authority over his wealth? …

“Where, then, is God’s justice? — for while we are sinners Christ died for us! (Romans 5:8) If here God is merciful, we may believe that he will not change.”

God declares that each of us is better than the worst thing that we have ever done. God does not let our sins define us. God’s justice is mercy. That is the scandalous injustice of God.

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(Published in the Rome News Tribune, October 10, 2014)

The baseball playoffs are here! Since opening day, the 15 teams of the National League and the 15 teams of the American League have all been moving (or attempting to move) toward a fixed goal: the World Series and, ultimately, Champions of baseball 2014.

In social theory speak, each baseball team is a “Bounded Set” – that is, there are rituals and rules about who is in and who is out on each team. Perhaps it’s stolen bases, RBIs, batting average; or on-base or slugging percentage. Not just anyone can walk onto the field and play for the team; it is a “bounded set.” All teams in MLB constitute a “Centered Set” – it is the team’s relationship to the center that is significant. Every team aspires to be at the center as post-season play ends. Movement toward the center is the goal of every team.

“Wait a minute,” you may say. “I thought this was a column about religion, not sports.” Right you are! But I want us to think about set theory as we consider the state of the Church today and her relationship to the world around her. Most churches (in the West) today, still adhere to the “Bounded Set” theory. Those wishing to cross the “boundary” into a congregation or perhaps a denomination, must do so through prescribed methods and rites, and are expected to adopt language, values and life styles consonant with the congregation/denomination. For instance, if I, a Presbyterian, want to join a Baptist congregation, I must undergo the ritual of baptism within the Baptist understanding of baptism (a profession of faith and baptism by immersion), even though I was baptized as an infant within the Presbyterian tradition. Or to take communion in a Catholic parish, I must be a Catholic. All denominations (my own Presbyterian denomination included) have rites and rituals that must be observed for a person to be considered a member.

There is a new movement within the Church today toward “Centered Set” practices. Let me give you another analogy besides baseball. In the Australian outback, cattle ranches often run thousands of head of cattle. I am told that it is impossible to construct and maintain enough fences to keep the cattle in (the bounded set theory of cattle ranching) so they drill wells instead (the centered set theory of cattle ranching).

Many on the outside of the Church today take a look in the window and much of what they see is rigid rules and mean spiritedness. Like the Pharisees who brought the woman “caught in adultery (John 8:1-11)” to Jesus (I always want to ask, “Where’s the man who was caught in adultery with her?”), many congregations are about keeping strict boundaries in an effort to protect the faith. Throughout the Gospels, the Pharisees were harshly critical of Jesus: “He eats with sinners, (Luke 5:30)” “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner (Luke 7:39).” They constructed rigid rules and expectations. They were not bad people; they just wanted to protect the faith. But it is to the Pharisees that Jesus directs his greatest criticism, ““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead … on the outside [you] look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)”

What if, instead of erecting more and higher boundaries, the Church were to drill some wells? “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. (John 7:37-38)”

What might it look like for churches to be wells? They would be places where the grace and mercy and forgiveness of Jesus was the invitation to come in.

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When we gather in Worship on Sunday, is it about equipping the members of the congregation to “be the church” when we are scattered back into our neighborhoods and offices during the week? Yes, the Christian congregation “is a company of men and women who gather, usually on Sunday’s, for worship, who then go into the world as salt and light. God’s Holy Spirit calls and forms this people. God means to do something with us and he means to do it in community. We are in on what God is doing and we are in on it together (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way).

Yes, but…I believe there is something more going on. Is the Spirit calling us, gathering us together, in a particular place for a purpose? Is there a purpose in the geography of the place to which we’ve been called for assembly? As the church gathered, are we the visible presence of Jesus to the neighborhood in which we gather? If so, what are the implications? What is required of us? At JCSTS, we ask the question: “What does God look like to those in the neighborhood when the church is indifferent to, even scornful and afraid of the neighborhood? When the church doesn’t care about and isn’t involved in the life of the neighborhood? When the church is barred and gated against the neighborhood?”

Lesslie Newbigin wrote that when the church is not involved in every aspect of neighborhood life – not just religious, but secular – the implication is that God’s grace does not extend into the neighborhood. What, then, does God look like when it appears that His grace is reserved for a few privileged people? When God’s grace and mercy does not extend into the neighborhood?

Many of us live in one part of the city and worship in another. And, as Dick Halvorsen said, “Wherever you go, God is sending you there because Christ, who dwells within you, has something he wants to do through you.” But what about the sending God is doing when He sends us out of our own neighborhoods and into the place of worship? Is there something God wants to do through us there, as well? I believe so! And to understand what it is God’s Spirit is calling us to, we need to get to know, really know, the neighborhoods within which our congregations sit. Only then will we begin to understand our purpose.

Seven years ago, I read an article by the vicar of a small congregation in England, John Davies. In it, he explains how he began to know the neighborhood in which he’d been recently called to minister. In Reading the Everyday, Davies writes that, “My epiphany came on walking out into the area with notebook and camera in hand, taking time to observe closely and to note carefully the details of the place…to know God and to express God to others, we need to become deep students of, and fluent communicators with, the ordinary.”

Of course, it doesn’t stop there – the people are key to deep knowing about a neighborhood, about a place. We must also get into the neighborhoods and get to know the people. In seminary, we are taught to “exegete” the Scripture – to become keen observers, attending to the most minute detail that may have implications on the text with which we are engaging. We must also learn to exegete the neighborhoods and cities to which we’ve been called. To do good exegesis, you have to learn to ask good questions: What are the key slogans of the city or neighborhood? What are the prime landmarks, and how do they shape the narrative of the neighborhood? What kind of music do people tend to listen to?
What lyrics do they have committed to memory, and what story is that calling them into? What are people’s favorite films and what lines can they quote by heart? What are people’s dreams and hopes? What are their fears and stresses? These and other good questions are raised in this article that gives tools to “exegete” the neighborhood.

We are recipients of the gifts of an incarnational God, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish (John 1:14, MSG).” Jesus didn’t pretend to become human – he became one of us. His hands were roughened from his work in the carpentry shop, he was tempted, he prayed, he wept, he was rejected – he became part of our neighborhood with all that implies. The ordinary was transformed by encounter with the extraordinary. If we are really following after Jesus, I believe He will lead (is leading) us into the neighborhoods where we gather for worship.

Jesus is God in action, God speaking, loving, touching lepers, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving His enemies. Peterson notes that Jesus isn’t just our way to God. Jesus is God’s way to us – it’s a two lane highway with traffic moving in both directions. “The Way” is a person whom we follow, Immanuel, God with us.

If we are following Jesus, I believe that we, too, must become action verbs, to heal, to feed, to forgive, to speak, to listen. We have to move in the neighborhoods, be with the people, listen to them, learn from them, walk with them. We are, after all, the Body of Christ.

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Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.
—Habakkuk 3:17–19

There are seasons of life when it feels like you’re living in a desert. The landscape is parched, you wonder if you’ll ever bear fruit again. Everything is bare and life itself seems to be in question. This is life in the wilderness.

Though it’s counterintuitive, Scripture tells us this is a moment for praising God and giving thanks because that’s often when i realize, yet again, that my only hope rests in “my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…who has paid for all my sins with his precious blood… [and that] he watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven (Heidelberg Catechism, answer to Q.1 “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”).

I once had a pastor who said, “In the Bible, when you read that someone is heading into the wilderness, you know they won’t emerge from the wilderness without being changed in profound ways.” No one goes voluntarily into wilderness; but if that’s where you find yourself, don’t try to fight your way out. Pray that God will lead you out once his work has been done in you.

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Clued In

You want to know what being missional looks like? This article in HuffPost is thought provoking. I know so many churches that talk about being missional but don’t have a clue (or don’t care) what’s going on in the neighborhoods around their church. Some of the students at the seminary are working in and “exegeting” the neighborhood around the seminary – one of the most poverty-stricken, crime-ridden neighborhoods in Atlanta. Within about 1 square mile there are more than 30 gated churches. These are places of “worship” on Sunday but barred and gated (or simply empty) against the neighborhood the rest of the week. One student asked, “if churches are supposed to be hospitals for sinners, why don’t they keep hospital hours?” In response to this challenge and others like it many churches say, “Yes, but the church isn’t the building. The church is the people and we’re about preparing the people to be the church when they’re sent out from here, to be the church in their own neighborhoods and work places.” That’s a laudable goal. But I wonder if this just gives permission to comfortable Christians to stay in their comfort zones. “God would never ask me to put myself at risk. Safety first.” Oh yeah? Well Jesus “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (Jn 1:14, MSG)” and it got him killed. I think Jesus must weep every time he looks around his neighborhood and sees one of these empty, barred and gated places of “worship”.

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