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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dan Schweissing pointed me to an excellent remark on pop theology at a blog called Mental Slavery. In a post called "You Have the Power," Ward Minnis comments on Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi and Morgan Freeman as God as examples of a certain kind of character in movies, and I guess in other stories.

They play the minority figure as "wise and enlightened sidekick." It takes one back to the days of yesteryear, the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The major action and making a difference is left to the white protagonist, but the wise minority sidekick plays an instrumental role in helping the whites reach their destiny of world changing and world managing.

In modern, or should I say post-modern, culture, God is often thought of as the wise sidekick who may occasionally give a tip or some advice that helps the white protagonists achieve their destinies. They, not God, are really running things. So Minnis points out that a black God figure in the movies may not be so clear a statement of the goodness and capacity of blackness as some might think. When God becomes quaint enough, then no longer is it necessary to portray God as the dominant cultural icon, a white male.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Robert Parham said exactly what needed to be said. Frank Page did not preserve the confidentiality of Rudy Giuliani. Telling a crowd about his conversations with candidates for president is to be expected for the president of an organization such as the Southern Baptist Convention. That's why candidates meet with presidents of large organizations. They want to get to the organization through the president. But when the conversation became a very pointed and personal appeal for Giuliani to adopt Page's theology of salvation, it went from public consultation to pastoral counseling. In that case, it is Giuliani, not Page, who should determine whether it gets reported. Thanks, Robert.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

John Perkins has been saying lately that "we have over-evangelized the world too lightly." He is remarking on the contrast between the reported religiosity of the U. S. in comparison with the lack of fruit in the form of compassion, justice, and reconciliation. He is pointing out that the so-called evangelistic fervor of modern churches has asked less and less of the convert. A mere momentary statement of desire to know God becomes enough to be deemed "saved" or "Christian." He challenges evangelical and evangelistic churches to review the Great Commission, which says to go and make disciples through teaching and training in the ways of Jesus. What we have is Christian Lite, Church Lite, Jesus Lite.

A professor from another institution took me aside after my workshop at the Christian Community Development Association on Thursday. The workshop title was "On-the-Ground Theology: Seminaries Learning from Faithful Practices," and I was reporting on some parts of my research on exemplary churches and church-related organizations. This professor wanted to talk more about what I had said about how these churches understand the term "gospel." He said that he and another professor from his institution had discussed this same topic after hearing some speakers earlier in the program. If they were to accept what they were hearing at CCDA, and if they were to hope to teach it at their school, they would have to spend some time redefining "gospel" among their constituencies. He was right. Christian Community Development is not merely a set of techniques and programs. It's a theological renewal movement.

I have found myself over a number of years experimenting with ways to articulate this very issue. Gospel has been watered down so much in the U. S. churches that it often has little resemblance to the ways that it was used in stories told about Jesus and in his recorded sayings. It's almost a homeopathic gospel--like a solution so diluted that no more molecules of the active ingredient remain. Often, it seems the gospel comes down to following a four-step syllogism and repeating a prayer composed by someone else. That is considered by many the essence of bearing good news. The assumed result is an invisible transaction in a hidden place within a person.

The CCDA movement has been committed to sharing the whole gospel for the whole person and the whole community. They resist the temptation to boil down and dilute the gospel. They look to the word when it is spoken by Jesus (Luke 4:16-21), and find it to be inseparably linked with liberation of the poor and oppressed. John Perkins talks about how God finds us at our point of deepest need and brings good news to us. Those needs can take many forms, including physical needs, economic issues, and longings for justice. They also recognize that the redemptive work of Christ includes the establishment of loving community according to the pattern of God's intention for creation. Community itself is good news. That was Jesus' way of describing how people would know which group were his followers--because of the love they have for one another (John 13:34-35).

Why would we have settled for anything less than the full richness of the whole gospel? The beauty of the good news is far greater than many of us have ever heard in church. It's time we swear off Gospel Lite.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The three former lacrosse players who were wrongly accused of rape have filed suit against a long list of law enforcement officials in Durham, NC, as well as against the City of Durham and a lab which played a role in the investigation of their case. Repeatedly saying that the suit is not about the money, punitive damages of $30 million are being sought.

That means that each of three lawyers intends to make at least $4 million dollars off the citizens of Durham, for a total of $12 million. It's a shame.

According to the Durham Herald-Sun, the lawyers wrote in superlatives when they claimed their case is "one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial and scientific misconduct in modern American history." Hmmm . . .

Hundreds of lynchings from the late nineteenth century into the past decade have usually had the cooperation of law enforcement. The reporting of Ida B. Wells and others helped to reveal the collusion of the legal system with these festive gatherings for murder. The entire history of the enslavement of Africans included the cooperation of the legal system, with laws to enforce the subjugation. Laws would clearly be a kind of premeditated action.

In 1999 in the town of Tulia, Texas, an undercover cop organized a major "drug bust" based only on his testimony, in which 46 people were rounded up, including over 10% of all black residents of the town. By 2003, the discredited undercover cop was convicted of perjury, the Texas legislature had passed several laws to reform the system that had allowed this travesty, and all who had been convicted (and sentenced to as many as 431 years in prison) had been released. Judges and law enforcement officials had supported the prosecutions based on fabricated evidence.

As for scientific misconduct, the single word Tuskegee speaks volumes.

How many years did these young men spend in jail? How many of them were grabbed and beaten by a mob? How many died of their mistreatement?

What was done to them was wrong, but "one of the most chilling episodes" is way over the top.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Today is the anniversary of a tragedy--the despicable murder of children at an Amish school near Nickel Mine, PA. As I stated in the aftermath of that terrible day, it is a stark reminder of the devaluation of young women's lives in our culture. For all parents, all brothers and sisters, all aunts and uncles, all grandparents and godparents, it is a day to remember the gift of knowing and loving, and of being known and loved by a girl. As I reflect on that day, I am always brought to tears. God's gift of two girls and a boy to the marriage of Everly and Mike is wealth immeasurable.
In an NPR story yesterday, I was deeply moved to hear of the work being done among the grieving in southeastern Pennsylvania. Jonas Beiler, who lost his own daughter nineteen years ago in a tractor accident, emerged from that grief to become a family counselor among the Amish. The story paid close attention to his discussions of how families can work through their grief. The gospel shone brightly in his comments, such as these:
Tragedy changes you. You can't stay the same. Where that lands you don't always know. But what I found out in my own experience if you bring what little pieces you have left to God, he somehow helps you make good out of it. And I see that happening in this school shooting as well. One just simple thing that the whole world got to see was this simple message of forgiveness.
That work of God is a work of grace. When people become formed in virtue, they develop habits which guide them through their routine activities, but also guide them in their times of crisis. Habits of virtue regularly practiced become the structural elements of a community's identity. Thomas Aquinas says that this is true of human nature broadly, inherent in the design of humanity by a loving God. Yet he adds that when humanity unites itself to God in faithful relationship, the virtues become infused with grace to go beyond the mere morality of human striving. An article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer examined this aspect of the Amish community of Nickel Mines.
The Amish famously avoid publicity, and they are even more protective of their privacy now. The school was closed yesterday and will remain closed today, and there will be no public ceremony or commemorative event. Privately, the Amish will observe the occasion by visiting each other's homes, talking, eating, praying, sharing memories of the departed children, and exchanging cards featuring poems of appreciation.

The way the Amish are handling the anniversary is of a piece with their behavior throughout. F. Scott Fitzgerald once defined style as "an unbroken series of perfect gestures." That could be said of the Amish response. But those gestures, undergirded by faith and moral resolve, surpassed mere style and became displays of grace. . . .

Hours after the shootings, several Amish, acting on their own, walked to the homes of the shooter's widow, parents and parents-in-law to express sympathy and offer forgiveness, by proxy, to the killer. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. When Roberts was buried, about 30 members of the Amish community attended and mourned. When a local bank set up a fund for the Roberts children, the Amish contributed. The Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which was organized to handle contributions to the community, gave some of its funds to Marie Roberts.

"Over the centuries, the Amish have learned that hostility destroys harmony and that if there are ill feelings among people, you have to confront them," says Herman Bontrager, an insurance executive who serves as spokesman for the accountability committee. "Forgiveness is a very important part of that. It's a decision that you're not going to let your life be controlled by vengeful thoughts, which are destructive for the self and for the community."
The article interviews the three authors of a new book about the events, aftermath, and community of Nickel Mines, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. All three are quoted in the following excerpt.
The Amish tradition of forgiveness is "in their cultural DNA," says Donald B. Kraybill, a coauthor of Amish Grace and a professor of Anabaptist and Pietist studies at Elizabethtown College.

"So much of Amish life is about submitting individual will to the will of the group and the will of God," says Steven M. Nolt, a coauthor of Amish Grace and a professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College. "For them, there's a clear connection between that lifelong process of sacrificing and giving up and what one needs to do in the process of forgiveness - give up grudges and the right to revenge."

In dealing with sorrow, the Amish are helped by distinctive rituals of grieving. As they readily admit, however, they are not saints. They fail and they sin like the rest of us, and they do not want to be put on pedestals. Nor is practicing forgiveness easy.

"The Amish people struggle with this as well," says David L. Weaver-Zercher, another Amish Grace coauthor and a professor of American religious history at Messiah College in Grantham. "It's too simple to say the Amish forgive and other people don't, but in these kinds of awful situations, they have a habit they fall back on, and that's the habit of seeking to move beyond grief, pain and anger by offering forgiveness."

While researching the book, Kraybill never heard any expression of vengeance toward the killer, he says. "None of the Amish said, 'I hope he rots in hell. I hope God punishes him.' When I asked about that, they said, 'God is the judge. The killer's eternal destiny is in God's hands.' One Amish man said to me: 'I wish for the killer in his eternal destiny the same as I wish for myself,' meaning that he hoped God would be merciful."

Some moved beyond forgiveness to what Kraybill calls "remarkable empathy." A father whose daughter was among the slain said to him, "Can you imagine how painful it must be to be the father of a killer like this? That would be 10 times more painful than what I went through."
I can spend endless pages and hours trying to describe virtues to students, but unless they can see it in me, in someone else, or hear or read of it in stories like this, the descriptions fall dead to the ground. Here is a story of forgiveness, of grace, of love, of caring. It challenges all of our everyday pettiness in relationships. It shames our pecking orders and our struggles against every imagined slight and insult. It offers us hope that people can love one another through the worst of times. Tell it over and over again so that we can imagine how to love one another.
A racialized society (using a term from Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith) has become skilled in living a double life. Having demonized overt racism, this sort of society has expunged explicit racist speech. Only the most careless and the most bigoted persons ever speak in overtly racist terms in our day.

People express racial prejudice now in code. These codes of speech substitute acceptable language as a way to avoid saying explicitly unacceptable ways of thinking. The encoding of the language allows a great deal of self-deception, so that people can state with full sincerity, "I'm not prejudiced." Coded speech also allows for the reproduction of racist social structures through indirection. Indirect arguments which never address race reinforce and reproduce barriers to overcoming deeply entrenched inequalities.

For instance, the "Southern strategy" of the Republican party has been to use racialized rhetoric in code by associating blacks with crime (Willie Horton) and "welfare queens." Even a reborn David Duke did not use overtly racist arguments in public events when he ran for office. But Republicans have no corner on the market in a racialized society--coded language is pervasive. "Living in the past" is code to argue for ignoring the long-term effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial inequality. Being "angry all the time" is code for unwanted resistance to racial injustices when people don't want to hear about it.

So it was not a big surprise that the discussions about the Jena 6 are full of claims that "this is not about race." By trying to keep the focus on only one fight that took place in Jena, District Attorney Reed Walters was hoping to convince people that his approach to enforcing the law had no variation when it comes to race. Observers who saw the differential treatment of white kids who beat up a black boy and black kids who beat up a white boy saw something different. This sort of racialized law enforcement gets renamed in public rhetoric.

Walters was unable to hide another thinly veiled example of racialized thinking at the press conference (see the article and a video of the press conference at MSNBC.com) when he announced he would not appeal the ruling that threw out his prosecution of Mychal Bell as an adult. His problem was not merely that he had surrounded himself with white people to support his statement to the public. His problem was that black people were even in the room to hear his remarks.

During the statement to the public he began to wax theological. He said, "The only way — let me stress that — the only way that I believe that me or this community has been able to endure the trauma that has been thrust upon us is through the prayers of the Christian people who have sent them up in this community." In his context, that remark seemed to be broadly appreciated, regardless of what people think of the justice or injustice of his decision.

However, the comments he made during the press conference revealed a racialized theology at work. He did not say directly that large groups of black people inevitably produce riots, violence, and crime. That would have been unacceptable. He said it in code: "I firmly believe and am confident of the fact that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened. You can quote me on that."

A local black pastor in the crowd did not let that coded message stand. Reverend Donald Sibley's reaction led to the end of the press conference. He stood and replied that he thought it a shame that Walters could not give credit to thousands of black people acting respectfully and responsibly. Walters responded in his own defense, interpreting his previous statement clumsily, then ended the question period and abruptly left the room.

Rev. Sibley noted that Walters seemed to have two Jesuses at work in his theology, "his Christ and our Christ." Sibley went on to say, "I can't diminish Christ at all. But for him to use it in the sense that because his Christ, his Jesus, because he prayed, because of his police, that everything was peaceful and was decent and in order -- that's not the truth."

Rev. Sibley deserves a strong commendation for his insight, his wit, his courage, and his clarity in dealing with a racialized justice system and the racialized theology which supports it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Justice Everywhere Now, Always

Today on the campus of Shaw University, students from at least seven North Carolina colleges rallied to join their voices for justice in the legal system. The occasion for the rally was the September 20 protest against the treatment of six black high school students accused of attempted murder and aggravated assault against a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana. Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP spoke powerfully to the crowd, and he suggested the acronym for Jena that I used for the title of this entry.

The rally was not a call for ignoring any acts of violence which have been committed. It was a call for fair treatment of blacks and whites caught up in the same legal system. Numerous web sites and newspaper articles tell the story of the events which unfolded in Jena. Whites assaulted blacks in Jena during the period of unrest which followed the racist threat of nooses hung in a tree outside the high school, but district attorney Reed Walters brought no charges in those cases. But in this case against a group of blacks who beat a white boy, leaving minor injuries which allowed him to return to a school activity the same day, the district attorney brought charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and aggravated assault. Setting bonds very high for these students meant that they spent weeks and months in jail. The case bursts with examples of the unequal application of the law.

It is a case which has caught the attention of black students across the country. It has touched a nerve in their world. Many have friends who have been victims of legal injustices. Others fear what might happen to themselves. Primarily, they recognize that this widespread problem affecting African Americans long after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts must be challenged. As Jesse Jackson was widely quoted to have said, there is a Jena in every state of the United States.

Apparently, blogs and social networking sites became powerful tools in organizing the large protest in Jena on September 20, as well as many local events. It was only in the last week that the brewing protest was noticed by major news organizations. Prior to that, it was only a few news sources, such as the Chicago Tribune, the BBC, and NPR, to name some, which made note of what was happening in Louisiana. I tried to get local news coverage in Durham, but had to settle for writing my own Op/Ed article. So clearly some other form of information exchange and organizing made the difference.

Some used existing organizations, churches, and just plain word-of-mouth organizing. In Durham, a father named Kevin Williams became agitated by thinking about his own teen-aged son getting caught up in an unjust legal procedure. He became a leading organizer to bring attention, and ultimately busloads of North Carolinians, to Jena.

At Shaw, Dean of the Chapel Quincy Scott and his staff deserve praise for their work to facilitate the student rally. President Clarence G. Newsome and other administrators joined their support and presence to the event. Over half of the participants were Shaw students, but large contingents came from North Carolina Central University, Livingstone College, and St. Augustine's College. Other groups of students came from Elizabeth City State University, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and North Carolina State University. There were also Shaw alumni and other community members who joined in the event.

Well-deserved attention is finally being brought to this case. Recent developments seem promising. The bait and switch tactic of lodging a charge of attempted murder allowed Walters to bring underaged Mychal Bell's case into an adult court. After the trial started, the charge was reduced to a charge that did not justify taking Bell out of juvenile court. Yet the case was carried through, and Bell was convicted. The appeals court threw out the verdict on the grounds that it should never have been tried outside of the juvenile court. Charges have been reduced for the other youths who have not yet stood trial. Will the legal officials of Louisiana rein in this rogue prosecutor? Will the full story be told, rather than the abbreviated version which focuses only on the one event which led to these students' arrest?

Finally, we must remember the important early publicity given to this case by a couple of ministers. Eddie Thompson of Jena spoke frankly about racism in his town, at the same time acknowledging that it is not unique to Jena. Alan Bean of Texas worked hard to get the details of the case publicized.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Maker and Appraiser, part 2
Jeremiah 18:1-11

(This was the Men's Day message for the 8 am service at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on September 9, 2007.)

If we turn to today’s text, I think we can gain some solid footing for an answer. Jeremiah’s prophetic hermeneutic urged the people of Jerusalem in his day to think again about the measure of a man. He told them about going down to the potter’s house to watch the skilled craftsman work. The potter was throwing clay on the wheel. He was shaping it with his hands and maybe with some specialized tools of the trade. A lump of clay that seemed ready for service was being transformed into a pot, a vessel, a useful implement and a thing of beauty. But somewhere along the process, things went wrong. The clay took on a mind of its own. It warped and got out of shape. A crack appeared in the soft clay that would be a fatal flaw in light of the purpose the potter had for the vessel. As Jeremiah said, the vessel “was spoiled in the potter’s hand.” What had begun to look like a fine clay pot turned out to be a warped, cracked, useless vessel.

Had it been our day, in our throwaway society, we might have tossed it in the landfill and run out to Wal-Mart to replace it with something else we can throw away next month. Sometimes that’s the way our society deals with boys and men, too. When they get out of hand, when their problems get too big to handle, when their frustration builds up to the point of lashing out, we give up on them. The problems seem to hard to solve, so we throw them away. Put them out of school. Put them out of the house. Put them in the jail. Put them out on the street. Put them in the ground. But human beings are not throwaway commodities. We are not single-use, disposable items. Thank God for showing Jeremiah another way.

When the vessel was spoiled, the potter did not throw it away. The potter reworked it. He found the hard spot in the lump of clay and worked it with his hands until it become smooth and malleable. He kneaded the place that had cracked back into the rest of the lump to get rid of the variations in moisture and flexibility and build up the stability in the clay. He wanted the lump of clay to have the character required to make a pot hold together, be useful, and last a long time. He wanted it to be sturdy so that it could be adorned and display the beauty and goodness that already lay within it as a potentiality. So Jeremiah said, “he reworked it.”
The skilled potter did not go out on the street and grab someone who knew nothing about the craft to ask, “What should I do with this?” No, the skilled potter was both the maker and the appraiser. The potter knew how to make a pot, and he also knew a good pot from a bad pot. He knew good, reusable clay when he examined it. He had the ability to judge when a pot was spoiled in the making. He could appraise the measure of a clay pot.

I went outside this week and found a surveying crew next door. Someone is thinking about buying the house there. They want to know exactly what piece of land they are buying. Now I could have walked over and told them that as I see it, the property line runs along this driveway and this fence, comes to about right here and runs up through those bushes to a spot on the hill. But they don’t want that kind of sloppy guesswork. They want someone who knows how to spot and measure the lot. The survey crew was skilled, had precise equipment, and was trained to locate each corner of the lot.

Another example more directly about appraisal may be helpful here. Apparently it has become very popular to go to a big meeting hall, carrying some old stuff from your house, and ask experts how much it is worth. I’ve seen a couple of television programs that show people telling a story about a piece of furniture, a photograph, a sports souvenir, or some other item. Then an appraiser responds with some historical information, offers a few tidbits of trivia, and finally states an estimate of the dollar value of the item. It’s not a wild guess, but it’s based on experience of seeing other similar items and evaluating their condition. An appraiser knows a lot about certain kinds of items and is therefore qualified to make a statement about their value.

The potter was both the maker and the appraiser. Who knew more about the pots than the one who made them? He could tell when they would function and when they would fail. He could evaluate their strength and stability. He could appraise their usefulness, their value, their worth. And if he saw that they fell short of what they should be, he could rework them. It was his skill that gave them their value in the first place. He used high quality materials and high quality methods to produce a high quality product. He put high quality labor into the task and took pride in doing good work. And when he needed to, he reworked the pot to make sure it met the standards of quality that matched the vision of the maker.

Thanks be to God for the potter that reworked the clay. On Men’s Day, we need to praise the God who reworks spoiled lumps of clay. We need to call on that same God to rework our spoiled lives and make us useful, good, beautiful vessels for God’s service. God will rework us. Turn to your neighbor and say, “Neighbor, God will rework you.” We need to admit our sins, the ways that we have been spoiled for service to God, and pray, “God, rework me.” Say it with me, “God, rework me.” And Mt. Level needs to be ready to let go of the pebbles that are mixed up in our clay, the cracks in our vessel, and cry out, “God, rework us.” We know we are flawed as persons and as a congregation. We know we leak and can’t sit right without wobbling. We know we do stuff we don’t need to do while we let slip away things we ought to have done. But the God who is like the potter has no intention to toss us in the trash heap.

God will rework us. It may not all feel good. An effective muscle massage may have to work some sore spots to get the tightness and knots out that are keeping us down. A successful cycle of physical therapy means fighting through some tears when the pain seems more than we can bear. But all through the struggle, and waiting for us at the other end of the struggle is the God we know in Jesus Christ. God has already envisioned what we are to become. And God’s purpose for men, and for all of us, is that we grow up to the measure of true humanity in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the measuring tool. And God is able to appraise the measure of a man because God’s own self became flesh, became clay, and lived among us. He has thorough inside knowledge of what a human being is capable of being. He is the maker, he is present in creation with us, and he is the appraiser, the measurer. God knows the measure of a man. God has shown us the measure of a man. God will rework us into the measure of a man.

A good measuring tool must be precision made. If you are trying to measure a board, you don’t want a measuring tape that marks off a foot as 12 inches, give or take an inch. You need to know precisely how many feet and inches you measure. Otherwise what you build will be crooked and unstable. If you are trying to measure a piece of fabric, you don’t want an inch to be sometimes longer and sometimes shorter. You want a tape that is precise. Otherwise, the waistband may not go around you when you finish, or one leg of the pants may be shorter than the other.

Well, Jesus is the precise measuring tool for humanity. He is begotten from eternity, the very Word of God, the true Adam, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. He knew temptation just as we do, but he did not give in to sin and evil. He was faithful to the end. He loved those God had sent his way to the end, even to his death on the Cross. He is the firstborn of the dead, the firstborn of many brothers and sister. He is the measure of humanity. He was loving, just, and merciful in the use of power. He took time to give of himself to those who could not repay him, and he took the lowest place when he could have tried to claim he highest place. He was the same non-violent, faithful friend in private and public, in comfort and in trouble.

Today on Men’s Day, I profess to you that Jesus is the measure of a man. And just as God raised him from the dead, God will rework you and bring you from death to life, out of darkness into his marvelous light. God will rework us. God, rework us. God, rework us. Say it with me, “God, rework us.”

Perhaps this morning you have come to see that the flaws and irregularities of the way you are living have spoiled you as a vessel of love, as a vessel of service. This may be the day when you need for the first time to say, “God, rework me.” This may be your hour to come to Jesus, to call on him to be the Lord of your life. If you want to place your life into the hands of the potter who is your maker, who measures by a righteous standard of love and grace, then come to follow Jesus today.

Perhaps you already have started down the path of following Jesus, but you find yourself wandering and going astray. Maybe you simply have lost the passion of bringing good news to the poor and setting at liberty those who are oppressed. Maybe you have left off the weightier matters of justice and mercy, and find yourself going through the motions of tithing your mint and your cumin. Your heart is on treasures that rust and rot and can be stolen away. This may be your day to come to God and say, “Rework me to be a useful vessel for your service. Restore unto me the joy of my salvation. Make me a channel of blessing to all those I meet.”

There may be someone here who is a follower of Jesus but is not a member of a congregation in Durham. Maybe you are actively looking for a church home. Or maybe you have been drifting without committing yourself to be part of the work of a church. If the Holy Spirit is prodding you to put your life alongside the lives of others who are serving God here at Mt. Level, then don’t resist. Come and unite with this congregation today, so that God can rework all of us together to be a better witness to God’s love in this community.

The doors of the church are open. Whosoever will may come.
The Maker and Appraiser, part 1
Jeremiah 18:1-11

(This was the Men's Day message for the 8 am service at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on September 9, 2007.)

Imagine yourself on the grade-school playground. Two or three children are playing together, climbing the jungle gym, and one proclaims, “I’m up higher than you are.” In response, another child says, “So what? I can jump off of here and land farther away than you can.” Soon the whole group has jumped down to the ground where they are comparing who jumped the farthest. Out of their arguing another voice says, “Big deal. I can run to the fence faster than you can.” And so on and so forth, the remainder of the school recess is filled with inventing contests to measure who can claim superiority over others in one way or another.

Our obsession with measuring our rank and status does not end in the competition of the playground. Those games, full of importance for the moment, are a rehearsal for more long-term, more expensive competitions in later life. Who is tallest? Who can sing lowest? Who can eat the most hot dogs? Who can whistle loudest? Who can throw a rock the farthest? Who can make a rock skip the most times across the surface of the lake? Who can catch the biggest fish? Who has the coolest sunglasses? Who has the fanciest car? Who has the most seniority? Who has the highest rank in the office? Who has the most expensive suit? Who is wearing the most outrageous tie? Who went to the most prestigious school? Whose favorite team won the championship? Who got a date with the most popular girl? Who makes the most money? Who has the biggest house? Who has the largest number of Christmas lights on his house? Who has the biggest collection of baseball autographs? Who has the most tools in his workshop?

It seems that we have an infinite capacity to invent ways of measuring our value. We seem driven to find some quantifiable way to be sure that we are worth something, or at least that we are worth more than that other guy over there. I may not be as rich as Oprah, but at least I’m doing better than my lazy cousin. I may not be the president, but at least people look up to me more than they do my stuck-up neighbor. I may not be as smart as Cornel West, but at least I read more books than old motor-mouth down at the coffee shop.

Most of us know, when we stop to think about it, that there is a problem with always making up new ways to compare, to measure, to compete with others in order to try to prove what we are worth. As soon as we start to depend on one of these self-construed ways of measuring our value, another kind of measurement comes along and sets aside our temporary imagined triumph. I may have lost the most weight, but someone else has done better in lowering his blood pressure. I may have accessorized my car with a global positioning system, a DVD player, and new hubcaps that don’t stop spinning when the car stops, but someone else just got a great big Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I may have just been on a long and impressive trip, but the other guy has twice as many frequent-flyer miles. I may have the best statistics for meeting my goals at work, but the other guy has the best relationship with the boss. I may have the most cable channels to watch basketball games, but the other guy has the biggest high-definition tv screen. It’s like a never-ending cycle of escalating standards. Trying to prove ourselves by creating contests is like walking on a treadmill. You keep on taking one step after another, but you never get anywhere. You can speed it up and walk faster, but you still are in the same place. And on top of that, the guy next to you has one of those fancy elliptical walkers that’s better than your treadmill.

I’m not giving you any breaking news. Anyone here who has stopped to think for a few seconds knows that the constant effort to set a standard to get ahead and prove our worth by comparing ourselves with others is a road that leads only to disappointment and frustration. Through the centuries, many people have reflected on our theme for men’s day, “the measure of a man.” When they have been honest and critical in their analysis, they have often arrived at valuable insights to help us know what it is that makes for a good life, a life that leads to fulfillment, a life that can be admired.

Sidney Poitier named his memoir The Measure of a Man. He undertook to write it because he was wanting to reflect on and evaluate his life. He said, “I wanted to find out, as I looked back at a long and complicated life, with many twists and turns, how well I’ve done at measuring up to the values I myself have set.” Those values have to do with his vocation as an actor and his integrity as a human being. His way of stating it was in terms of personal goals and commitments. Of course, he did not make these up out of thin air. They must also be related to those high standards of excellence which were passed on to him by his family, his teachers, and the community. He is right that he would not be able to take stock of how well he had done on his own goals unless at some point he had come to commit himself to those standards and long for their achievement.

In a less individualistic way of speaking, we might turn to the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the Philippians, “I want to take hold of that for which I have been taken hold of.” Paul wants his achievement to be appraised by what God has called him to do. Paul helps us see that we cannot purely on our own claim to invent the standards for measuring the worth of our lives. Paul understood that the maker of the pot is also the appraiser. In fact, he spent some time reflecting on this very image of how to evaluate the worth of a person compared to a clay pot. He said to the Corinthians, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” in “clay pots,” in “jars of clay.” The true measure of the value of these clay pots is not in the dirt they are made from, but in the use they serve for the household. And it is God who is the one who appraises our service.

It is fascinating to see how other people through the ages have considered the measure of a man as not merely self-initiated, but socially and externally evaluated. I want to take a few minutes to look at three examples of statements about “the measure of a man” which have come down to us across many centuries. One is over two millennia old. Another is over two centuries old. And the other is about fifty years old.

Looking way back, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato is recorded as saying, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” No doubt he had seen some people who seemed just fine when they were “one more Joe” on the street, doing their job, making their way. But when they got promoted or appointed or elected to a higher position, it seemed like they had lost their minds. Instead of building relationships of mutuality and reciprocation, now they start looking down on people, shouting orders, and taking revenge. Instead of making sure the benefits and privileges are shared, they start hogging all the good stuff for themselves. What does power do to people? It opens up the chance to get by with things you never would have tried when you knew someone could call you on it. That does not mean that if we get power we are forced to become abusers of that power. We have a choice. We can use power to serve the community’s good. When that is what we do, we have passed the test of what Plato has stated. We can be measured as exemplary, because we did not let power corrupt us.

Around the time of the founding of the United States, the English literary scholar of the late 1700s, Samuel Johnson, said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” Johnson seems to be drawing on the tradition of Christian teaching which urges us to do good to others regardless of whether they can repay our good deeds. Like Plato, he is pointing out that the power relations that exist between people can turn us into calculating, scheming self-promoters. This is the opposite of what we call good character. A person of good character holds to his convictions steadily, in all sorts of situations.

Who is it that I find myself facing here and now? Maybe that person I have to deal with at this moment appears to be many notches below me on the social register. Maybe the man I meet appears to be wearing and carrying all his worldly possessions on his body. Maybe the least influential person at work is the one who has come my way today. What will I do when I know I probably won’t get anything out of it? When I know it probably won’t help my career? When what I share can’t be restored to me? Here Johnson, like Plato, is helping us to see that the measure of a man is not something we can simply choose for ourselves and say, “I did it my way.” It also has to do with what is good for others, regardless of our own benefits. “Who is my neighbor?”, was the question asked of Jesus. And as the story unfolded, it was full of all sorts of unexpected answers. Clearly, for Jesus, the kinds of social, political, ethnic, economic, religious barriers that we put up around us have little to do with how we should respond to the people we meet along life’s way.

More recent, and better known to us is the iconic figure of Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Maybe you have been there like I have. The newspaper has an article about something that gets under your skin. You hear about something the president, the mayor, the principal, the school teacher, or your boss has done. You start your next sentence, “If that happened to me, I would . . . .” Out of your mouth pour the most powerful oratory, full of catchy turns of phrase and plenty of “gotcha” points. You convince yourself, in the comfort of your armchair or the seclusion of your kitchen, that you will be courageous, heroic, unbending, and untiring in your opposition to all perceived wrongs.

What Dr. King wants us to realize is that those dress rehearsals are not the real test. Now it may be fine to have those dress rehearsals of what I would do or what I would say. But if they never lead to a performance in the face of a real challenge, when people are watching, when somebody might confront us and push back against us, they really don’t amount to much. Character is proven when it faces a real test. The measure that matters comes when we arrive at the big event. No matter how many times I run a sub-44 time in the 400 meters in my yard, Michael Johnson still has the world record. Until I run that time at an official meet up against Jeremy Wariner, Angelo Taylor, Darold Williamson, and LeShawn Merritt (the four members of the 2007 World Champion U. S. 4 x 400-meter relay team), then it doesn’t count. If I can’t do it then, then it does me no good to be bragging about how fast I am when I practice.

From these three estimable persons, we are led to ask the following questions about the measure of a man. What does he do with power? How does he treat those who can’t repay him? How does he act in the face of challenge and controversy? This question of what is the measure of a man has caught many people’s attention, not only the philosophers, literary critics, and theologians.

In part, the conversation is happening now because we live in a time when certain traditional ways of showing manliness have been called into question and challenged. Consequently, there are conflicting ideas of being a man. If I had only heard it one time it would have been enough, but I have far too often heard it said that the way to show you are a man is to put a woman in her place and show her, if necessary through violence, who is in charge. That is the measure of a brute or a tyrant, but not of a man as God has made us to be. Part of the reason we have to talk about the measure of a man is that false gods and false understandings of human nature have led people to false ways of trying to be a man. It’s not who has the biggest gun. It’s not who seduced the most sexual partners. It’s not who has the most explosive temper. There must be something deeper and more socially edifying that is the measure of manhood.

I was surprised to quickly find no less than five pop songs which take up the topic of defining “the measure of a man.” They range across a variety of musical genres, and even local pop star Clay Aiken named an album with the song title, “The Measure of a Man.” Now I’m not one to go first to pop music to find the answers to life, but that does not mean that I don’t sometimes find some insight and wisdom there. These pop songs talk about being willing to sacrifice for love, being steady in difficult times, working hard, being loyal, giving your time and possessions to others, standing up to injustice, standing by commitments made, passion for what is important, and what’s in the heart. This list of character traits and behaviors gives us plenty to chew on as we ask, “What is the measure of a man?” --continued--

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

For an update on the Jena 6, go to this CNN report.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Over 100,000 people have asked Governor Blanco to intervene on behalf of the Jena 6, young black men who are getting a dose of Jim Crow justice in the small Louisiana town of Jena. On September 20, the first convicted teen-ager, Mychal Bell, is scheduled to be sentenced for a trumped up charge against which his court-appointed lawyer did not even offer a defense. If you have not expressed your concern about this matter to the governor and district attorney, go to colorofchange.org and add your name to the list of those who are standing with the families of the six accused young men. You can learn more about the case by following links there and in an earlier post in my blog.
Public housing ought to be for the public. One of the strangest developments after Hurricane Katrina was the closing and fencing of public housing developments. These multistory buildings sometimes had flood damage in the lower floors, but upper floors escaped with relatively little damage. Upper levels of two-story or three-story apartment buildings could have been partially rehabilitated with relative ease, leaving time to finish the rehabilitation of the lower floors as additional residents could find jobs and return. Instead, the powers-that-be chose to lock the gates on public housing, assist homeowners and not renters, and waste the taxpayers' investments at a time when they are greatly needed.

Colorofchange.org is addressing this issue by supporting U.S. Senate action on HR 1227, which would fund repair and opening of minimally damaged public housing units. The quotation below is partly written by colorofchange.org (first two paragraphs) and partly personalized by me. It is an important concern for New Orleans. Some people clearly do not want the low-income residents to return. That makes no sense in a hospitality and service oriented economy like New Orleans. Home ownership is a goal many of us want to pursue through groups such as Habitat for Humanity, but in the meantime, renters need a decent place to live.

Dear Senators Vitter and Landrieu,

Last month the House of Representatives passed HR 1227--the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007. It promises to reopen desperately needed public housing units and ensure that there is no loss of affordable public housing in New Orleans. HR 1227's passage is critical if the idea that all New Orleanians, regardless of race or class, are welcomed home is to be meaningful.

Now that the bill is in the Senate, your leadership is critical. Several senators are behind the bill, but they have said that without the senators from Louisiana in the lead, the bill will go nowhere. As a concerned American, I’m asking that you show leadership and urge the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to take up HR 1227, immediately.

I have been to the Central City to assist pastors such as Rev. Aldon Cotton of Jerusalem Baptist Church, Rev. Marvin Turner of Mt. Ararat Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Donald Boutte of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, and Rev. Sam Johnson of Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church No. 2. I have seen the need for housing, and I have seen the empty housing units. This is a great waste of the taxpayers' investment in that property and those housing units. Low-income renters need a place to stay in New Orleans that is not trashy and flood-damaged. This bill could go far in helping to meet that need. Recovery in New Orleans can't happen without recovery for everyone.

Please support immediate Senate action on HR 1227.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

We take our highway bridges for granted. I know I do. When I got word that pastor Doug Donley and his congregation in Minneapolis are safe from the terrifying bridge collapse there yesterday, I thought again about how quickly so much can be lost. I was able to talk with pastors from New Orleans who a brief two years ago found out that we can't take for granted that our congregations will even be in the same city the next day if a big enough storm and a big enough failure of infrastructure occurs.

As one article I read pointed out, thousands of miles apart along the Mississippi we can see the results of cutting corners and playing the odds with human lives. The levee failures in New Orleans and the bridge failure in Minneapolis had become more and more likely to happen. The game of how much risk can we take for how long seems to be leading to deadly consequences.

I've listened for three decades to the attacks on the public services the national government owes to its people. The attacks get coded by race. Anecdotes of extreme cases get publicized. People of all sorts get demonized as wasters of the taxpayers' hard-earned money. But as the time goes on, the legislators and executives run out of things to cut. But because the momentum of cutting taxes gets them elected, they keep on cutting essential services.

A certain segment of the population feels good about the tax cuts when they don't feel the pinch. If a few people across town have dilapidated housing, no health benefits, and can't afford an education, that seems to be the price of building the economy. But nobody is safe from a levee break. Nobody who needs to cross the Mississippi River can avoid using a bridge. The odds would tell us that if we risk too much too long, we will eventually have to face some losses. But the euphoria of beating down the tax and spend liberals blinds people to the reality of the kind of society they are helping to create.

We must hope and work so that bridge and levee maintenance can be completed in time to avoid more disastrous events such as those in Minneapolis and New Orleans.

May God be with the families who suffer in Minneapolis this week.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I posted a while back about the racially charged events in Jena, Louisiana. Today I did some research to get an update on those events. So far, one of the young black men has been convicted of aggravated assault. "Aggravated" means, in Louisiana law, that a weapon was used. The prosecutor claimed that the boy's tennis shoe constituted a weapon when he kicked the victim. Ten white prosecution witnesses disagreed about whether Mychal Bell had been the one to initiate the assault. Strangely, the defense attorney called no witnesses and made no case for the defense, even though a coach at the school had observed the fight and publicly stated that Bell was not the one who struck the victim. The other five boys who were charged have not yet been brought to trial.

I got the image above from the website of a former Baptist preacher turned advocate named Alan Bean. His organization is called Friends of Justice, and he is the one who got the word out in April that led to broad coverage in national and international media. Another thing I learned from him was that when the black youths protested by sitting under the controversial tree, law enforcement and the District Attorney were called to the school for a sobering assembly. District Attorney Reed Walters has been quoted as saying (while looking at the black students), “See this pen in my hand? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” Sounds like he "Nifonged" them. A summary of other shocking details of the case can be found on the blog Pursuing Holiness. The news report from the local Alexandria, Louisiana, newspaper is here.

A quick web search will find many other sites discussing this case. Sadly, it still does not seem to be making the news. If you are so inclined, it would be good for the faith community to write letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, or otherwise make it known that this sort of thing is not any more tolerable in Jena than in Durham. In addition, I located a campaign to contact Governor Blanco and District Attorney Walters at colorofchange.org.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Getting ready to see a child go off to college opens the floodgates of self-examination and historical review. What have I done and not done that could have made things better for her during the past eighteen years? How has living in our household prepared her for what she now goes out to face?

Every time I hear about someone else's home life or read a story about what a family did regarding a) study habits, b) prayer or devotional life, c) family time, d) living space, or e) anything else, I start comparing it to my own history. Part of my personality makes me always see the shortcomings of my own ways. Of course, there have been real shortcomings. Some I could have done something about, and I others, probably not.

It's a time for thinking about what I hope can happen in the coming weeks to get us all ready for what is coming at the end of August. It's also a time for remembering the relationship changes but does not end when she moves away. And finally, it is a time for trusting grace and living in hope because of all that I cannot do for her.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Central and South America have endured much "aid" from the U. S., often resulting in coups-de-tat, civil wars, counter-insurgency campaigns, wars against the poor and the indigenous, and the rise of leaders who in the words of Bruce Cockburn "kiss the ladies, shake hands with the fellows, and open for business like a cheap bordello; and they call it democracy." Two specific aspects of this imperialist, exploitative relationship with our southern neighbors came up for policy review this week.

One was the restructuring of aid to Colombia. For many years, Columbia has been under attack with U. S. support, destroying the crops of the poor, poisoning their water, filling their bodies with toxins, destroying their villages in the name of the "War on Drugs." The powerful drug cartels have been a formidable foe, and the U. S. corporations who want to exploit Colombian resources have been pressing for military solutions. This week, military aid was drastically cut and humanitarian aid was correspondingly increased. This was an effort supported by Witness for Peace and many others. Find out how your Congressional representatives voted and contact them about it.

The second was the vote to cut funding for the SOA/WHINSEC, where the U. S. trains most of the terrorists who have committed atrocities in Latin America. By six votes, the funding was continued. It was close, but the time had come for this to happen. The new legislature should have listened to the call from the people to stop training torturers and terrorists. The terrible disclosures about torture in Abu Ghraib and in Europe and elsewhere through extraordinary rendition should have opened their eyes. The hoopla over Alberto Gonzales, who wrote the position papers justifying torture, should have made them act. Again, check on your representatives and let them know what you think of their votes.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Continuing the discussion with my students, I am taking a look at the book The Hip-Hop Church by Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. Efrem Smith is senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN, and Phil Jackson is associate pastor of Lawndale Community Church and pastor of The House in Chicago, IL.
  1. Smith and Jackson say, "Hip-hop is not, of course, the first popular movement to use the arts to speak to political, social, and spiritual issues, but it has done so representing the underclass of urban America as well as the African American middle class as it fights assimilation (p. 64)." This claim seems to be central to the argument of the book. Along with it, Smith speaks of the potential to "spiritually hijack" hip-hop culture as a way to proclaim the gospel. What do you make of this perspective on hip-hop culture and the church?
  2. What is the most important theological or practical insight you gained from reading this book?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Today I am taking a second look at the concept of relocation, a primary missiological principle from the work of John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association. I am asking two students to respond to this mission practice by reflecting on two books they have read. The first, With Justice For All, by John Perkins, addresses the principle of relocation after about twenty years of ministry in Mendenhall and Jackson, MS. The second, To Live in Peace, by Mark R. Gornik, also addresses the principle after fifteen years of ministry in Baltimore, MD. Gornik, having been influenced by Perkins, began his ministry four years after the Perkins book was published. So between them, they represent about forty years of experience and discussion on the idea of relocation.

They are different people with very different backgrounds, including the region of the country, the historical economics and demographics of their locations, their skin colors, their opportunities and accomplishments in formal education, and much more. In both cases, they have moved into neighborhoods where they were outsiders and become part of organizing and community building for change.

What are the barriers to relocation? What difference does it make that Gornik is white, moving into a mostly black neighborhood? What difference does it make that the Perkins family was middle class, moving into a poor neighborhood? Finally, why do these ministry practitioners believe that relocation is so important?

Monday, June 18, 2007

I read one good quote about the Nifong disbarring in the Durham Herald-Sun. The rhetoric on this case, from commentators, principals, and lawyers, gets really high and self-righteous. I am not a fan of Nifong. I don't think the evidence shows that the young men committed rape. I think the case was handled wrong, and I am glad that attention has been drawn on the way that public comments by law enforcement and court officials affect the chances of justice for the accused. Here is the quote from Duke University Law School professor James Coleman.

Everybody wants to say that Mike Nifong is some kind of rogue prosecutor, but in fact, what he did is not that different from what other prosecutors do on a regular basis in cases out of the spotlight.

The defense attorneys and the NC bar officials have spoken in idealistic terms about how prosecutors, and perhaps defense lawyers, too, should handle themselves in public statements. It is a very high standard they are describing. Lawyers I hear on radio or read about in the newspaper do not always reach this standard. I wonder how widely it will be enforced. Is this case the beginning of a new day for respecting the rights of defendants? Let's ask the prisoners at Guantanamo what they think.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

According to the Durham Herald-Sun, in an article printed on June 14, 2007, Marsha Goodenow, an assistant district attorney in Mecklenberg County testified before the Disciplinary Hearing Commission of the North Carolina State Bar:

Marsha Goodenow, a senior assistant district attorney in Mecklenburg County, said she believed Nifong's conduct had created "a lack of confidence in the justice system, a perception that justice might depend on who your lawyer is, how much money you have and whether you're white or black."

Nifong handled it wrong. I'm glad he resigned. I am sorry for the young men that they had to endure public ridicule because of false charges. No one should have to go through that.

On the other hand, Goodenow's remarks stretch credibility. The lack of confidence in the judicial system did not start with this case. She is concerned about the "perception that justice might depend on who your lawyer is, how much money you have and whether you're white or black." Any careful analyst of the legal system in the state of North Carolina, in other states, and in the United States, would already know that these three factors have an enormous impact on justice.

Money can often trump justice. Lack of money leaves the accused poorly defended and unable to challenge the lack of evidence against them. Race has enormous impact on justice. Pay attention to jury selection processes. Notice the difference between court treatment of crimes against whites and crimes against blacks. Don't forget the terms "racial profiling" and "driving while black" which were coined to make note of differential law enforcement. Finally, who your lawyer is must make a difference or else people with money would not pay the exorbitant fees to get the lawyers with a record of winning.

Goodenow is worried about perceptions. I think we need to be more concerned about injustice structured into the legal system. Otherwise, all Goodenow is defending is a perception of justice which is a facade upheld by a system of power which continues to exclude the poor and minorities from justice.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Driving from Durham, NC, to Dayton, OH, takes between eight and nine hours in good weather. In the rain, it takes a little longer. I talked a friend into making the drive with me, and we made it to Dayton on Thursday evening in time to check in at our conference and get to the supper we had paid for in advance. Our Sunday return was in rainy weather with a few traffic problems to slow us down.

I did not realize that we had so much to talk about, but both ways we managed to fill the hours with conversations about our work, our friends, our families, and our lives. It is a blessing to have good friends, and it would be even better to make more opportunities to be together.

The conference we attended is the annual joint meeting of two groups. The larger of the two is the College Theology Society, made up of mostly Roman Catholics who teach at mostly Roman Catholic University Departments of Religion. The smaller tag-along group is a sub-group of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion. The Association is divided into regions, and this region is called the "Region At Large." We are not from any particular geographic locations, like the Southeast Region or the Southwest Region. Instead, our region began meeting eleven years ago, at the suggestion of the late James Wm. McClendon, that we consider a joint meeting with a sibling society to foster ecumenical exchange and more opportunities for conversation than our usual half-day meetings allow.

Eleven years ago in Dayton, Ohio, some Baptists arrived to participate in the College Theology Society's annual meeting, including having some sessions of their own to present papers and some joint sessions with the College Theology Society sections. Over the years since that time, the NABPR group has met with the almost every year, having as many as 35 participants and as few as 15 (these numbers are approximate). This year, twenty-two people gathered, including thirteen who presented papers.

Much of the discussion focused on ecclesiology, including papers on church-state relations and others on how churches engage with other aspects of culture. Several papers were presented by Baptist students enrolled in a Ph. D. program at the University of Dayton, studying their tradition in dialogue with the U. S. Catholic tradition. These younger scholars brought well-researched and well-argued papers, which makes me believe they are in an excellent program. Their knowledge of Baptist history and theology is excellent, and they are being prodded to study it carefully.

The conversations in formal sessions, over meals, and in the hallways, and in dormitories were rich and invigorating. Talking with new and old colleagues helps encourage me to get on with my research and writing. I got good suggestions concerning publications I am working toward. I heard others developing ideas about which I have been thinking for many years.

So thanks to the NABPR, the CTS, the U. of Dayton, and to friends who made this conference go so well. As the Vice President, I planned this year's program. Next year, as President, I will be responsible to prepare and deliver a presidential address. The meeting will be held at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. We look forward to having great discussions about Baptist history, theology, and biblical studies there on May 30-June 1, 2008.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It seems like too little . . . . These repeated words reflect the recent experiences of Amy Dean of Charlotte, NC, who traveled with four other women from her church to visit and work in New Orleans through the organization Churches Supporting Churches. Rev. Amy Dean is co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte. Park Road BC has become a partner of Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church #2 in New Orleans. You and your church can be part of rebuilding New Orleans by partnering with a church in New Orleans through this program.

The following is a report on Amy's New Orleans trip.

We’ve just returned from New Orleans. The weather was perfect – beautiful sun, no humidity – a rarity in that neck of the woods. The French Quarter is alive and well, though “well” is a relative term here. I’m not sure wellness has ever been a part of life on Bourbon street! But if by “well” I mean that shops are open and restaurants are serving and booze is flowing – then Bourbon Street is definitely well. But all is not well in New Orleans.

LeDayne McLeese Polaski, Wendy Watson, Lorie Gabriel, and I had a few great days in the Big Easy. We have stories share and pictures to show (be sure and make reservations for our last regular Wednesday night supper on June 6 and plan to stay and hear our full presentation), but in the meantime I’ll share a few of my highlights:

  • The Lower 9th Ward is no more. We worked within spitting distance to the new levees – even walking up on them. And where hundreds of houses used to sit – now there is nothing but cement remainders of front porches and a few houses that were made out of brick or stucco. A few good minded folks are planting sunflowers and cypress trees to help draw the lead out of the soil, but it seems like too little. One man was cutting his grass where no house stood. And the dilemma? Should the land be used as wetlands or return to the people for whom it is home? And who gets to make the decision?
  • We were a part of hosting a street party for this section of town. We cut green, red, yellow, and orange peppers and onions to make some kind of good New Orleans feast. People began to gather to eat and get some furniture or clothes and to celebrate life. And if you are apprehensive about how to start a conversation all you have to say is, “Where were you during the storm?” And then all you have to do is sit and listen. So we heard maybe 20-30 individual, personal stories of folks that stayed on their roof or brothers that fought off alligators, but it seems like too little.
  • We worshipped with Corinthian Missionary Baptist No. 2. As we noted, it was the shortest 2 ½ hour worship service we have ever attended – and we mean that very seriously. Pastor Johnson just about preached up a storm and the choir sang their hearts out and Lorie sang the old spiritual “Give Me Jesus” until all that was left for the people to say was “My, my.” They hosted us to good, home-cooked New Orleans cuisine – apologizing all the while that “their best cooks had not returned home yet.” We broke bread around their tables and held their babies and learned some new names, but it seems like too little.
  • I would have expected this part of the city to look as it did 6 months after the storm. But after almost two years, this was not what I was expecting. And this is just one of the popular locations – perhaps the most noted location. What about all the other neighborhoods? And all the other neighborhoods that have been destroyed by tornados since Katrina? Whatever we do and wherever we go simply seems like too little.

But we did not return with a defeatist attitude. We returned energized and excited and grateful to have gone to see for ourselves and to offer a little sweat of our own on the place. I was particularly struck on Saturday morning as I was sledge-hammering some signs into the ground and just about throwing myself on the ground with every swing. We started laughing so hard and I became aware as I heard my own laughter ring through the emptiness of the neighborhood that the air there has not heard very much laughter in the last 2 years. So we left a little sweat and some laughter and a few hugs, and strangle it didn’t seem like too little at all. It seemed just about right.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rivers of Water from the Faithful Heart, Part 2
John 7
Delivered at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC
Pentecost May 27, 2007

(Continued from previous post)

Jesus’ proclamation about rivers of living water was a promise of the Spirit. It was the Festival of Tabernacles this time. On another festival day, Jesus would already have ascended into heaven. On that day of Pentecost, after his death and resurrection, the Spirit would come, bringing rivers of living water. Its sign on that day would be flames of fire. But on this parched day in Jerusalem at the beginning of the hot summer, Jesus promised life-giving water that would flow in and through and from the lives of all who followed him. Praise be to God. What a blessing he was pronouncing. Anyone thirsty can come to him. Anyone ready to follow can go ahead and take a drink. And the water will be so wet, so quenching, so cooling, that it will transform the drinker into the source of a great river of refreshment and life to share with others. No wonder the crowds were ready to follow him. He was fulfilling right before their eyes the promises of God through the prophets. He was proclaiming the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. And as Jesus was glorified, then the Spirit’s presence would be poured out.

The chapter ends by reminding us how things go in this world. We end up back in the private chambers of the powerful. In the council chambers, in the office of the chairman, in the legislative committee, in the lobbyist’s private club, in the closed session, in the national security agency, in the cabinet chambers, in the oval office, people with money and connections and official status try to make the rules, bend the rules, break the rules, and rule the rest of us. They heard what people were saying. All their efforts to neatly do away with Jesus were not working. Their own police officers were afraid to arrest Jesus.

“Were you deceived by him, too?” they asked, but it was not really a question. It was an accusation. Then they made a clear statement of the class divisions that governed their view of the world. They said that people with an education don’t get fooled by Jesus. We know our place, and we know his place. But that crowd out there is full of ignoramuses. They don’t know the law. The law is our playground. We own the law. They know nothing. They are a bunch of god-forsaken, empty-headed morons. Because they don’t know what we know, they are cursed. We are the blessed ones. And we do not intend some half-breed bumpkin from Galilee to interfere with our way of running this city. We will defeat this man one way or another. Who elected him president of Jerusalem? We are the ones in charge, and don’t you forget it.

A lone dissenter in the room spoke up. Nicodemus, a secret admirer of Jesus among the Pharisees, asked whether a person who is charged under the law should get a hearing. But this group was way past dealing with procedural justice. Jesus had challenged them too many times. The law would now become a tool of their wills. They would twist it in whatever ways seemed useful to get this man out of the way. It might take some time and planning, but they were confident they could prevail. They did what we would expect. They questioned Nicodemus’s loyalty. “Are you with us or against us? Maybe you are a Galilean too. Are you part of that mongrel race? Maybe you are aiding the terrorists. Where is the yellow magnet that should be on your car? Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? You don’t let your daughter date Galileans, do you? Do you believe in miscegenation?” I guess Nicodemus decided to shut up at that point. He had been around long enough to know who ran things in the city of Jerusalem.

The next chapter shows how the authorities raised the stakes in their efforts to bring Jesus down. It is the story of the challenge to Jesus about a woman caught in adultery. But it turns out to be one of his greatest triumphs. He pressed them so hard and made them so angry they called him a Samaritan and said he was crazy again. But he did not let up, so they picked up stones to stone him to death, but he was able to disappear into the crowd.

What can we learn from Jesus’ days in Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles? First, we can see how the crowd was not fully aware of how the powerful forces at work were affecting them. They knew to be wary of the authorities, but they could not always see the way that these authorities were working to keep their privilege and advantage over others. In public, it seems that there is a debate going on between different points of view, which are worthy of consideration. But often at least one side of the debate is based on lies and deception. Someone says that this country tried to buy weapons grade plutonium. Someone says they have labs capable of producing nuclear weapons and chemical weapons. But if it is not true, then the whole debate was thrown out of balance by falsehoods.

Did the Hurricane cause the damage, or did the inadequate levees lead to flooding? Was there an adequate evacuation plane, or were the poor and the prisoners simply left to die? Was it impossible to bring in water and food and busses and trailer houses, or were the decisions and resources caught up in red tape and negotiations about how much profit the no-bid contractors would make? It’s easy to say in public, “Heck of a job, Brownie,” but what is really happening in the rooms where decisions that affect life and death are being made? The Road Home promise of up to $160,000 for homeowners took months to get organized, only to find out that not nearly enough money has been appropriated, that the money is being held up at both federal and state levels, and that as much as one-third of the funds are being taken off the top of the grants to homeowners to pay the government’s expenses rather than rebuild the homes.

Somewhere, people are making decisions, and someone is benefiting from these decisions. But the people whose homes were destroyed seem to be on the outside of all those benefits. Parts of New Orleans where the wealthy and powerful live are bustling and booming. But not far away one can see devastation in block after block of the residential neighborhoods where the average working families lived, where blacks owned homes that were flooded and destroyed, and where the poor found low-cost housing. The city’s population is half what it was before the floods from the broken levees. People wait for information. They share what they have heard. They debate the merits of this or that proposal. But mostly their fates are determined in secret places where the powerful divide up the pie.

We can also learn that the powerful make use of this confusion and lack of information to manipulate, to divide, and to conquer. The ones in power are benefiting from the status quo. They have no interest in seeing things change. They are set in their ways. They don’t want the empowerment of new groups. They don’t want any new ideas to shake up the world they have just where they want it. So they leak out enough information to keep people divided, to keep them afraid of somebody else. All the while, they are looking for ways to prey on the poor and weak. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the investment in recovery seems like it will never arrive. The city leaders say they can’t spend money there since it is almost completely deserted by its residents. The backroom discussions with developers are full of proposals to get this land and redevelop it with expensive, high-rise condos. Some rumors say Donald Trump has bought up many of the lots in the Lower Ninth Ward and that he has plans for luxury housing. One organizer explains how the homeowners, whose homes are completely demolished, are stuck in a waiting game. If they can’t get assistance, they can’t rebuild. If they can’t rebuild, they can’t move back. If they can’t move back, they can’t do much on their own to get the rebuilding started. How long will their patience last? Their pockets are not as deep as the speculators who can find venture capital and leverage big financing from banks. Who will be able to wait the longest? Are the decisions already being made that will force out the long-time residents who fell victim to this enormous flood?

We can also learn that when people are bold enough to speak the truth, there can be a turning of the tide. Jesus kept speaking the truth to power. He was careful and strategic. He did not let himself get isolated and alone to face the powers. He planned the right time. He brought the right message. He called it what it was—people with power who loved to be treated as VIPs and who did not want the people to know the truth. They did not like their masks to be taken off. They worked ever more intensely to find a way to get rid of him. He knew that the day would come when they would give him their very worst, and he knew he would be ready for it. But he also knew that he must plan for himself when that time would come. He had some building to do among his disciples and the crowds that were following him. He had to lay the groundwork. He had to get them ready to face the task that would come.

And when that time would come, they would have the power of the Spirit giving them life. God’s Spirit would be poured out on the sons and the daughters to prophesy. The old would dream, and the young would put their legs and arms and voices to the task. And out of a desert there would flow rivers of living water. One of the old who is dreaming a dream is the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian of Atlanta, GA. He has gathered his allies across the nation and across the denominations. Out of his dream has come the organization Churches Supporting Churches. The vision is to have three churches in each of twelve districts of New Orleans, a total of 36 churches, receive the support they need to become the leaders of redevelopment which serves the common good, the working class, the poor, and all ethnic groups. Those 36 churches will be matched with ten churches each from around the U. S. and Canada, who will pledge their support at the level they are capable of giving. These 360 churches and more will become the allies who help to build a new city in which the gospel is not a way of placating the masses. It will be a city in which the gospel helps to shape the very neighborhoods that emerge from the destruction.

The young men and women who are leading the way are pastors whose church buildings are destroyed or damaged and whose congregations are scattered across the continent. Aldon Cotton told me that when the storm was over, he rushed back thinking that the disaster would have everyone turning to the church and seeking God. He was disappointed by what he found. People were too stunned and angry to want to care about God. Moreover, most were gone. There was not even a handful of people in the neighborhood from which to rebuild a church, much less enough to fill the dozen churches that had gathered in the neighborhood before the storm. He had no home to live in. He had no building to meet in. There was no income for the church that had previously paid him as a full-time pastor. His library was a drenched, muddy mess. He quickly realized that he would have to have a whole new way of thinking about his work as a minister.

Through Churches Supporting Churches, devoted pastors like Rev. Cotton have banded together to retrain themselves. They are learning to think and plan strategically in a holistic way they never had before. They are learning to analyze their obstacles, to understand political and economic systems, and to negotiate for the good of their neighborhoods. They speak to all who need to hear, and they work together so that they cannot be merely ignored or set aside. They depend on their allies in other places for advice and support. Churches from Brooklyn and Queens, New York, who have experience in housing development, are sharing their expertise and encouragement. Churches with teams of carpenters or youth groups send workers to deal with specific needs and tasks.

The Spirit is at work in the cities where people grow, live, struggle, and overcome. In the wilderness of the Lower Ninth Ward where the Mt. Nebo Bible Baptist Church building used to be, where only a bare slab remains, there will be rivers of living water. In the Central City where the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church has no place to meet, Jesus is calling to anyone who is thirsty, “Come to me and drink.” In the Mill Grove community of Durham, all who believe may receive the Spirit of God to work God’s good will in them. In East Durham, in Trinity Park, in Old Farm, in Walltown, in Old North Durham, in Summer Meadow, along Alston Avenue, shall flow rivers of living water. The atoning life of Jesus has shown us the way to walk and live in the truth so that we may confront the powers with the very power of God’s Spirit.

It’s a strange thing to say, and the pastors and laypersons I met in New Orleans were careful how they said it. They said that they would never blame God for the terrible losses that people in the Gulf Coast region have endured because of the hurricanes. They said that they did not mean that they thought the terrible conditions of their neighborhoods were a good thing. But they also said that they were finding themselves to be in a unique position for envisioning what the power of God can do. Without buildings and church power structures and committees and ongoing patterns of doing things the same way year after year—with all those things swept away in the flood, their eyes have been opened to what God might do to make their neighborhoods better places to live than they were before. Their ears have been opened to listen to their neighbors and learn what they hope a church can offer to their lives and their community. They feel like they are getting a fresh start. The wind of the Spirit is blowing in that city.

Is the wind of the Spirit blowing here in this city? There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit is among us, prodding us, burning within us, calling us, awakening us, convicting us, comforting us, drawing us ever nearer to God. Are we seeing what God’s Spirit is doing around us? Are we hearing what God’s Spirit is saying through the people God is sending our way? Have we drunk of the water Jesus offers to all who thirst? Has it overflowed in our congregation to be a stream of living water flowing into the lives of others?

Perhaps today you need to come to Jesus in faith to receive the drink that will quench your thirst. He is the one who can forgive your sins. He is the one who can ease your loneliness. He can answer the questions that are nagging at your conscience. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” He is the way, the truth, and the life. Through him you can come to know God. If you are ready to follow Jesus, then come today to offer yourself a living sacrifice.

Perhaps you have let yourself drift with the crowd. You’ve debated the possibilities without true insight into what God is at work to do. You are ready to set aside the foolishness and confusion and set your eyes firmly on Jesus. You are tired of claiming to know Jesus, but living as if all that water of life is dammed up inside of you to be protected and hoarded. Let it flow out from you starting today. Let your life be a channel of blessing to others. Come today to let yourself be guided by God’s Spirit, the same Spirit poured out on Pentecost so long ago in Jerusalem.

Perhaps you are in this city but not united with any church. You have been meaning to take care of this, but you have been too preoccupied with the day-to-day matters of work and bills and family, as if you could work all those things out without a constant acknowledgement of God’s call on your life. Maybe you have been straying from your service to God, and you need to make yourself accountable to this congregation on this day, saying from henceforth I will covenant with you to serve our Lord. Come today to unite yourself with this church. The doors of the church are open. All who thirst, come to the Lord Jesus today.
Rivers of Water from the Faithful Heart, Part 1
John 7
Delivered at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC
Pentecost May 27, 2007

God created humanity as social beings, and one of the most obvious ways that we display our social natures is in the building of cities. Augustine of Hippo called his magnificent account of the history of God’s relationship with humanity The City of God. In it he explores the ways that those people who have been called to be the people of God live a distinctive life of love in the midst of the City of this World. The very word we use to describe the organized, culture-making, productive life of humanity, civilization, comes from the Latin word for city, a community of people working together.

Our own city is a complex web of interdependent people, institutions, organizations, structures, and edifices. We depend on certain stores for food and gasoline and other components of our lives. Hospitals, manufacturing plants, distribution centers, research labs, malls, apartment complexes, and all manner of buildings and organizations grow up in cities, mutually dependent on one another and on services such as roads, water supply, sewer systems, electrical grids, phone wires and towers, police patrols, jails, and garbage collection. My making these lists does not even begin to reveal all of the complicated interdependence that cities require.

The major events of the world are often connected to cities. We speak of Washington when we talk about decisions that affect the entire world. Nairobi, Baghdad, Paris, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Beijing, Moscow, Atlanta, Athens, New Delhi, SaƵ Paulo, Cairo, and New York all shape our awareness and understanding of the world and its people. Even the Bible gives special prominence to cities. Rome, Babylon, and Nineveh stand out for their power and oppression of others. Jerusalem symbolizes the relationship between the people and God, and its character wavers from faithfulness to self-serving and disobedient. After the exile, the people long for Jerusalem. In the visions of the consummation of all things, a New Jerusalem descends from on high, in contrast to the human centered effort to reach God at the great city of Babel.

In this passage from John 7, Jesus appears in Jerusalem, a great city. He has traveled secretly, for his safety, to the festival of Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Booths. He did not announce his plans to go, even to his teasing brothers. He probably was still trying to make up his mind whether to make the trip. When he did join the throngs of people, he let himself remain inconspicuous and hidden in the crowds going to celebrate the harvest and make offerings and to live in huts and tents as a reminder of their ancestors who lived in huts and tents between Egypt and the Promised Land. Even more than usual, Jerusalem was filled with the hustle and bustle of activity. There were special plants to be brought as an offering to God. There were tabernacles to build. There were friends to see and relatives to locate. Officials gave readings and rabbis taught in the open places.

The crowds brought excitement and joy, but also tension and anxiety. We know from other stories, not everyone was honest about prices and trading. Visitors might be worried about thieves and unfair merchants. Local residents might worry about the rabble that could be coming to town for the festival. The crowds who did not measure up to their spiritual stature annoyed the proud Pharisees and Scribes. Herodians and Romans would be concerned about political and military intrigue that could be going on among the many visitors.

Jesus had a reputation from previous trips to Jerusalem. He had already crossed enough leaders and shown up enough pretentious religious pretenders that plots had been launched to kill him. He was not taking chances on letting that happen. He knew that if he was going to have to die, it should be on his terms and at a time when his mission would be ready to go forward without him. This was not that time. His closest followers were loyal, but they did not understand who he was or what they were called to do.

When he did not make a grand entrance at the beginning of the festival, people started talking about him. “Where is he?” they asked. The differences of opinion about him became a regular part of the conversation. “How ´bout them Eagles?” “What’s the price of gas today?” “Think it’s gonna rain?” “Do you think Jesus is a good man or a deceiver?” “What’s for dinner?” However, it was not just an insignificant matter. This was a big deal, like asking which presidential candidate you are planning to vote for. The people were confused, and on top of that, talking about Jesus could be dangerous. Verse 13 says that no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

This is a good point for us to think about the terminology used in this passage. Many times we read about the Jews in this passage. Yet often, the choice of that word in our modern English context misleads. In verse 13 it says the people were afraid of the Jews, yet the people who were afraid were also Jews. We could conclude that they were afraid of themselves, but that would not make sense. It is obvious in this passage and in most of the Gospel of John, and in some other New Testament texts, the term “Jews” has a specific meaning that does not include all of the people who are from the genetic heritage of Jacob’s offspring. For that matter, Jesus himself is a Jew, from the lineage of Judah and Tamar. We could misread this chapter and think that all Jews were against Jesus, if we did not stop to think that all the people who were following him were, as he was, Jews.

So when it says they were afraid of the Jews, it means that they were afraid of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders of the Jews, the ones who were in power, who interpreted the laws, who controlled the economy, and who defined the social pecking order. They had their own police force, and they would use it against people who did not conform to their directives. They could keep people out of the temple and out of the synagogues. Everyone knew that these official leaders of the Jews, these religious and political authorities, did not like what Jesus was saying and doing. All knew that they did not like to see an outsider like him have such a following. They were glad that Herod had gotten rid of John the Baptist and saved them the trouble. But Jesus did not stay out in the wilderness. He kept coming into their midst, into the city, to face them down where everyone could see and hear. Everyone could see how red in the face they got, how they clinched their teeth, how they turned aside to whisper to one another, and how they tried to push Jesus into a corner. So they were afraid, like when the principal comes walking around the corner or when the boss wanders through the cubicles.

This chapter reveals that there was a lot of confusion in Jerusalem. People seemed to be wondering about Jesus, disagreeing on whether he was a good teacher or a clever charlatan. They wondered whether he was right in his interpretations of the law or whether the Pharisees were right in saying he was a lawbreaker. They were confused by the leaders who challenged Jesus and disputed with him but did not seem ready to condemn him.

Part of their confusion came because they did not know what the Pharisees and Sadducees said when they were in private meanings. They did not know of the plans to kill Jesus. They did not know how they plotted to put Jesus on the spot, to try to turn the crowds against him. They did not know what the Pharisees said about them, their own people, when they were behind closed doors. Instead, the Pharisees and Sadducees were pretty good at keeping their public image spic and span. They tried to stay on the high ground in their challenges to Jesus. They were performing for the crowd. Jesus was better at moving the crowd than they were, but they mostly kept themselves at least in a respectable position.

Don’t get me wrong: the conversations were heated. More than once, the exclamation rang out, “What’s wrong with you man? You're crazy!” For instance, when Jesus asked why they were looking for an opportunity to kill him, people in the crowd were exasperated. They knew of no plots to kill Jesus. They responded, “You have a demon!” which was their way of saying, “This man has lost his mind! Who’s trying to kill him? Here we are trying to listen to everything he says. Maybe the Pharisees are right about him.”

Jesus pressed on and clarified his point, and before long more of the crowd was catching on about who was out to get Jesus. He pushed the conversation back to his last visit to Jerusalem when they got all over him for healing the lame man by the pool of Bethzatha. At that time, the Pharisees had stopped the man on his way to the temple because they saw that he was carrying his sleeping mat. They had reminded the formerly lame man of the Sabbath law, which stipulated that he, should not be carrying something around. Not having been able to walk before, it had not occurred to the formerly lame man not to carry his mat when Jesus said, “Take up your mat and walk.” So he told them that the man who healed him had told him to carry it. When they found out it was Jesus, they were so tired of the way that the seemed to flaunt the Sabbath laws. They got after him for his sloppy ways, but he gave them a long lecture about Moses and where Moses got his authority. He made it clear that he could do nothing apart from God, but that they would not know the power of God if it slapped them in the face. All they were concerned about was getting recognition from other people.

Jesus did not want them to forget what he had been telling them that day, so he brought it up all over again. He pointed out that they considered it legal to perform circumcisions on the Sabbath. Circumcision was an important religious rite that showed in the body the commitment to serve God. Jesus did not challenge whether they should do that on the Sabbath. He simply compared the symbolic value of circumcision to the healing of a lame man’s whole body. How could that kind of work of God not be right on the Sabbath?

People began to wonder what was going on. Knowing that the authorities were plotting to kill him, they were puzzled that he could be so open in his criticism and not be arrested. The tide of confusion began to turn toward clarity about Jesus. Now they began to second-guess the Pharisees. “Are they hiding the truth from us? Do they already know that he is the Messiah and just don’t want the secret to get out?” But all the confusion did not go away. People started debating fine points of Messianic lore. They were saying that the Messiah would come dramatically and his origin would be unknown.

Jesus answered their disputations by boldly saying that he had been sent from God. And he challenged the Pharisees’ authority by saying to them that they did not know him. It made them mad enough to try to arrest him, but he got away. More and more of the crowd began to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They talked about what he said. They recounted the things he had done. They listened as people told how he had stood up in the face of the rich and powerful and claimed to have higher authority than they. They looked for more opportunities to hear and see Jesus.

As the Pharisees heard this happening among the crowds, they went into a caucus with the Sadducees. In their private chambers, they agreed to give the orders that the temple police should arrest Jesus. So the guards and the leaders went out to find him. He continued to speak to the crowds. The timing never seemed right to make the arrest.

The climactic scene of chapter 7 comes when Jesus speaks on the last day of the festival. This was the highest day of the festival, the Great Supplication, when the worshippers paraded seven times around the Temple and made special prayers for the quick coming of the Messiah. The Messiah was on their minds, and Jesus was present to address their longings. The Gospel says that he was standing among the crowd, and he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who is faithful to me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the faithful one’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” All who were students of the scripture heard the echoes of the Prophet Isaiah. (These quotations are taken from the NKJV).

Isaiah 44:3
For I will pour water on him who is thirsty,
And floods on the dry ground;
I will pour My Spirit on your descendants,
And My blessing on your offspring;

Isaiah 55:1
“Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters;
And you who have no money,
Come, buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.

Isaiah 58:11
The LORD will guide you continually, 

And satisfy your soul in drought, 

And strengthen your bones; 

You shall be like a watered garden, 

And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

The worshippers were walking in procession and among them were some who carried the Torah scrolls. Perhaps they had already heard a reading from Moses. Jesus had spoken of Moses earlier in the week, and now they heard in his words the echo of water flowing from the rocks in the desert. As Jesus said it to them, these rivers of water would flow from them to the world. What an amazing proclamation he made.

Some began to say out loud, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “The Messiah has come.” Yet the spin-doctors in the crowd began to dispute about whether the Messiah could come from Galilee. To be Galilean was not so bad as to be Samaritan, but it still raised questions about one’s lineage. Ethnic purity became the manipulative tool of the powerful against the commoners, as it so often has in the millennia since Jesus was on the earth. If the Pharisees from Jerusalem could get the festival attendees to be concerned about bloodlines and pedigrees, they could distract them from the truth of what Jesus was saying. Some confusion remained, but the temple police did not dare arrest Jesus on this day.

(Continued in next post)
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