Archives for the month of: January, 2014

Write what you know, otherwise there is no fire between the words. As I looked back over my journal these words struck me as I thought about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, we celebrate the great man whose fire for justice and peace rushed through his words. Dr. King’s prose was powerful on its own, but it was strengthened by his resolute pursuit of justice for all. There was a fire that rushed through his words and touched the very practices he lived out. ImageIn his final speech, “The question is not if I stop to help this man in need what will happen to me. The question is if I do not stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to them, that is the question.”

Dr. King understood something about justice. As I listened this morning to the “Mountain Top Speech” in its entirety, I was taken aback by how powerfully King spoke on the eve of his death. The justice he was fighting for was not restrained by fear. The justice King was fighting for was driven by the call of God. King knew things were not right in the world. He knew there was trouble all around. He, just as we all have, had seen the darkness, but he also believed something was afoot. He said, “It is only when it is darkest that we can see the stars.” He continued, “Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.” Dr. King was certain God was on the move, and God’s kingdom was breaking in.

The past day as I have listened and read Dr. King, I am forced to think about what is going on in my world. I am forced to look at my life and my church. N.T. Wright begins Simply Christian talking about justice. He says, “Those who follow Jesus are committed to, as he taught us to pray, to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And that means God’s passion for justice must become ours, too.” This passion for justice has become muddled in my mind because so often I fall back on what is just for me. I am driven by my thoughts, my values, and my rights. This is not the call of Jesus and this is not the justice of God.

Why I find King’s above quote powerful is because it paints a picture of real justice. If we are going to be extremist about justice then we are going to have to be driven not by our concern, but the concern of the other. We must learn to ask what would happen to my neighbor if I did nothing.

When the sanitation workers went on strike they chose a simple but powerful slogan, “I Am A Man.” The strike was not simply about fair wages. It was not only about benefits, it was about their humanity. The leaders understood the only way change would happen was if Memphis—and the rest of the world—recognized them as human beings. This slogan is not only the cry of the strikers in 1968, it is the cry of injustice everywhere. “I Am Human.” Justice begins when we are able to see the other person as a human being. It is easy to dismiss injustice through the eyes of objectification, but if we learn of the humanity of the oppressed, we will be moved. We follow a God who sees, hears, and acts to save.

When it comes to justice it is easy to see the pain and hear the cries of the people but be paralyzed at the vastness of the task. It is also easy to bury our heads in the sand, to pursue lives that do not come in contact with injustice. But neither of these responses will do. Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, the preacher who stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel when King was shot said, “Yes, you can kill the dreamer, but no, you absolutely cannot kill the dream.” We carry the dream of men and women like Martin Luther King because they have shown us the way to follow Jesus. We are the people of God who live and pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

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I am not a hopeless romantic, to confuse me for such would be like confusing a color for a square. Proof of this fact is not in short order, but one story will suffice. Last week, we got into a conversation with friends about our first dates. I turned to Jill and asked if she remembered what we did on our first date. She quickly answered, “Yes, we ordered carry out pizza and watched the World Series.” Admittedly, I might need to sign up for a romance tutor, but I have also learned relationships are less about that stuff than we imagine.

One of things Jill and I have often done together is go to concerts. I have two favorites, Death Cab for Cutie during the Plans tour and the Avett Brothers this year. It is great to gather with other lyric-singing fans and spend an evening listening to live music. The thing is, concerts are not the height of music for me. The beauty of music is in the bonds it creates and the memory it holds. A particular song has the power to transport. The brevity of a concert is nothing to a consistent sound track to life.

I think often about the incarnation, the coming of Jesus into our world. This decision as Phillipians tells was a decision to leave glory and become a servant. God became flesh and dwelled in our neighborhood.  God notices and is attentive to the deep human quandary in such a way that God becomes man. This is the ultimate act of listening and being present with creation. In Exodus, we read about a God who turns his ear towards the Israelites. These cries for liberation compelled God to action, just as the groans and cries of all of creation compelled the sending of Jesus.

Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, in The Wisdom of Stability writes, “Marred though it may be, our world has not been abandoned but rather embraced by a God who saved us by refusing to leave the place where we are—by drawing closer, even, to our self-inflicted violence and suffering on the cross. . .The incarnation is the ultimate testimony to the revolutionary power of stability.”

The Creeds say very little about the life of Jesus. It is birth, death, and resurrection, but this leaves us in the high moments. The life of Jesus cannot fall off the page nor can it be turned into a moral slogan where we use Jesus as an archetype for our daily quandaries. The incarnation shows us God’s consistent decision to love us year by year, day by day, moment by moment. It is the vulnerable way of a God who comes near.

This kind of decision is not the way I am formed. It is much easier for me to work in short bursts of love and kindness. These moments allow me to care for and take care of another person on my terms. It holds the other at an even arms length. We are allowed to foster a sense of relationship, but no one is asked to be vulnerable or to make real space for the other.

The decision to a consistent love requires a full incarnation. It demands that we make ourselves open and vulnerable to the other and it invites us to stability. As green as the grass looks on the other side, we are called to embrace a people and a place. Any serious relationship is based in this kind of commitment.

The teachings of Jesus centered around this way of life. Around forgiveness, hospitality, patience, peace, and the love of enemies. In a world of rights and individuality this way of life makes no sense. It is weakness and foolishness, but in the Kingdom of God it is the power of God. These kinds of practices offer us to relate to the other in the highs and lows of relationships.

In college, I read Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity. The book developed how the Christian movement grew from a small sect to a world religion. One of the key themes was the consistent decision of the early Christians to love and care for those around them.

Stark tells of the early Christians who gain the reputation as those who took care of people, even their enemies. He describes an epidemic early in the 3rd Century. Contagious disease tore through the community and at times the area doctors would run to the hills to escape the certain death sentence. The Christians, however, stayed and helped those who were ill, They would gather up the bed ridden and hold them in their arms. These acts were part of the particular way of the early Christians. Their consistent decision to love the world sparked something.

The embrace of a community of people in the ordinary space of human life is the call of the Kingdom. We are to inhabit the ordinary spaces of life with others, so they can find in us a consistent commitment. Just as God is known by steadfast love and kindness, we must be a people known for our faithful, commitment to all people.

They will know us by our love.

UnknownAs of this writing, we are a little over a week into 2014. The New Year comes like a blanket of fresh snow. Collecting everything under its crisp, white weight. Everyone is full of hope and expectation; the new year offers a chance to reset our gaze towards an ideal you, the you that sounds wonderfully successful and productive.

This kind of reset is important. New goals and aspirations are valueable. Our days can begin to stack up on us. If we are not careful, the ins and outs of life can dull us to progress or renewal. Lost under the pressures of the grind, we easily lose sense of the story we find ourselves in. A new calendar awards a chance to engage our purpose and glance at the big picture. This kind of activity is crucial to help focus us and to help us take stock of the narrative we inhabit. As I have written before, the Christian narrative calls for a particular way of life.

While the new year offers us a chance to take stock of our identity, modify problem areas, and chart a course for improvement, we must be careful. We must remain open to surprise and interruption.

This week was the first Sunday of Epiphany. The Epistle text was Acts 10. The story of the mission to the Gentiles. It is a weird story that begins with Peter in asleep. During his slumber, Peter has a vivid dream. In the vision, Peter is witness to a large sheet lowered from Heaven. In the sheet are four legged animals that Peter has abstained from all his life. Then the Lord commands him to kill and eat the animals.

“Surely, not Lord,” Peter returns. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

The next day, Peter traveled to Caesarea and went to the house of Cornelius. His home was filled with expectant people. The Good News had proceeded Peter’s arrival and the household could not wait to hear from him. But here is the thing. Cornelius and his whole household were Gentiles. So Peter walks into the room and  it struck him. He remembered the vision as he looked at expectant strangers. God was doing a new thing. Though the law stated these Gentiles were unclean, God was moving Peter toward a new way of life.

What follows is a huge break for Christian faith. These people, who were once cut off, were welcomed into the family of God. The Holy Spirit rushed through Cornelius’ house and surprised everyone with new creation. Peter made himself interruptible by the living God and it changed everything.

Miroslav Volf says, “The Christian difference is therefore not something new into the old from the outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old.”

God’s news creation can be surprising because it is not the future we might expect. For us the future is the expected course that follows the chain of events from moment to moment. This is what goal setting is based on. We can chart the future if we focus on the variables and our talents. Our vision and goals can help us progress to the next place, but they can also take us off track because we might miss the unexpected surprise. The bursting forth of God’s new creation.

Now, this does not mean I am against setting goals and resolutions. I think it is crucial to order one’s life. A disciplined way of life is crucial to stability and growth. I just hope the way you order your life allows to attend to the interruption.

This kind of attention leaves room for friends and loved ones to call us out of our tasks. It pays attention to the goings on in other people’s lives, and is open to times of reflection and silence. More than anything, an attentiveness to surprise is grounded in an openness. A humility that allows your best laid plans to be held loosely.

This year might be the year where you finally breakthrough. A year where your resolutions become accomplishment. I hope it is a year of productivity, but I hope you will also be open to interruption. I hope there is enough room in the plans you make and the relationships you keep for surprise.