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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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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Another Look at Elijah

I was listening to a Rich Mullins song this morning.


The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.
My heart is aging I can tell.
So Lord, I'm begging for one last favor from You:
Here's my heart--take it where You will.

This life has shown me how we're mended and how we're torn;
How it's okay to be lonely as long as you're free.
Sometimes my ground was stoney,
And sometimes covered up with thorns.
And only You could make it what it had to be.
And now that it's done,
Well, if they dressed me like a pauper,
Or if they dined me like a prince,
If they lay me with my fathers,
Or if my ashes scatter on the wind,
I don't care.

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire.
And when I look back on the stars
It'll be like a candlelight in Central Park.
And it won't break my heart to say goodbye.

There's people been friendly, but they'd never be your friends.
Sometimes this has bent me to the ground.
Now that this is all ending,
I want to hear some music once again
'Cause it's the finest thing that I have ever found.

But the Jordan is waiting,
Though I ain't never seen the other side.
Still they say you can't take in the things you have here.
So on the road to salvation,
I stick out my thumb, and He gives me a ride.
And His music is already falling on my ears...


It is an insightful reflection on the uncommon life of the prophet.  It suggests the roller coaster of emotional and mental states the itinerant messenger of judgment must have faced.  Of course, Mullins intermingles his own life with Elijah's, bringing them together in the refrain by saying he wouldn't mind going out like Elijah.


At the heart of the lyrics (the quote above is only partial--for more click here) is the weariness Elijah must have felt after so many difficult years spent in isolation, under threat, and bearing the heavy weight of a message it seemed no one wanted to hear.  He felt like a pariah, and he wondered whether he had a friend anywhere.


But Mullins also captures what must have been a deep assurance in Elijah's being.  "Only You could make it what it had to be."  That abiding hope in God would allow Elijah or Mullins to ask one last favor:  take my heart, and take me where you will take me.  It is the basis on which he can say that his hope for salvation means risking it all on God:  "I stick out my thumb, and He gives me a ride."


Having turned the screws on Elijah recently by employing the hermeneutics of suspicion, let me come back to him with a sympathetic reading by means of Mullins's theological imagination.  Elijah bore the burden of unwanted leadership in one of the most difficult episodes of the history of Israel.  It is understandable that he resented how he was treated and that he wondered why he got stuck with this gig.  

Whatever else one might say about him, he stuck with it and pushed back the darkness to let in the light.  He set a standard of boldness (even though he sometimes ran away) that nourished the subsequent prophetic tradition to stand against the crowd.  So with Little Brother Rich, I think I can feel the old prophet.  Going out on a chariot of fire, looking back on a world that treated him bad--that's a pretty fine poetic ending.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Attacking Health Care, Medicare, Social Security: Class Warfare Waged by the Wealthy

Dean Baker reiterates two of his key ideas in this critique of a recent article full of poor analysis of the economy, published in a major newspaper.  First, the high cost of health care is the major cause of the deficit and a major contributor to economic problems for most Americans.  Second, the political struggle over who gets the most financial benefits from government economic policies is not a philosophical debate--it is a political war waged by lobbyists trying to allow a very small group of citizens to keep more of their wealth at the cost of the rest of us.  It is not philosophical.  It is class warfare waged by the wealthy.

It is also worth noting that, at least in the U.S. case, the projected long-term budget problem is due to our broken health care system. If our per person health care costs were comparable to those in any other country then we would be looking at long-term budget surpluses, not deficits.

While the health care industry is incredibly powerful in the United States, making cost reductions difficult, it is in principle possible to open the sector to trade, which would allow people in the United States to take advantage of the more efficient health care systems in other countries. Unfortunately the NYT and most other major media are such hardcore protectionists when it comes to the health care industry, they do not allow the topic of freer trade in health care to even be discussed.

Finally, this piece tell us that at its core this debate is about philosophy:

“Everywhere, though, the debate is about much more than just partisan advantage or the next election. It is a philosophical debate.”

The only evidence for this assertion is a quote from Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. There is nothing obvious philosophical about this debate. The issue is whether we are going to cut benefits like Social Security and Medicare that the overwhelming majority of the working population depends upon now or expects to in the future. The protection of these programs is supported by large majorities of every demographic and ideological group. Even large majorities of self-identified conservatives and Tea Party supporters are opposed to cuts in these programs in poll after poll.

Of course paying for the programs will require some amount of additional tax revenue (presumably mostly from upper income taxpayers) and also restructuring of the health care system in ways that will hurt the incomes of insurers, drug companies, medical instrument manufacturers, and doctors. These powerful interest groups will fight the effort to reduce their incomes in any way they can.

Since they are a small minority of the population it is understandable that they would want to confuse matters by turning this into a debate over philosophy. However there is nothing obviously philosophical about whether we should pay more than necessary for prescription drugs and medical equipment so that some people can get very rich.

Monday, November 07, 2011

An Honest Preacher

In mid-October, I participated as one of several teachers in a course for seminarians and college students as part of the Christian Community Development Association annual conference.  Jimmy Dorrell of Mission Waco coordinated the course.  He is one of the bright stars of Christian ministry in recent decades.  You can read about his work in his two books:  Trolls and Truth and Dead Church Walking.

I gave a presentation on the church and the economy, and if you follow this blog you would be familiar with much of what I had to say.  I was on a panel with several leaders discussing Community Transformation.  There were students from a dozen colleges and seminaries participating, including a pastor from North Carolina who will soon complete his M Div degree at Shaw University Divinity School, Elder Henry Rodgers, of Bethlehem Disciple Church.  Among the other students present were Jeff and Kathy Burns of Truett Seminary of Baylor University.  As we became acquainted, I found out that they attend a church not far from where I am living in Salado.

Miller Heights Baptist Church is on the southeast side of Belton, Texas, in a neighborhood that reminds me of parts of Durham.  There are small houses and some multifamily dwellings, some built for working class families and others likely built as subsidized housing for the working poor or disabled.  A little research revealed that the neighborhood is multiethnic and transitional, as a generation who first settled there gives way to new arrivals.  Having been part of urban churches for my adult life, I recognized these characteristics of the neighborhood, common from small towns to big cities.

I went to worship with the folks at Miller Heights Baptist Church this week, and there were many ways in which it felt like home.  Their web site told me I could come dressed as I felt comfortable, so I wore my standard uniform of a guayabera, slacks, and sandals.  I was a bit early.  A few dozen people were conversing the sanctuary, but the Sunday School classes had not arrived.   I found a pew near the front and hoped I was not taking someone's "assigned seat."  I apparently chose well, because people came in to sit all around me, saying their polite, smiling hellos.

Soon Jeff came in, making his way through the crowds, greeting, chatting, and doing those important pastoral things he has to do on the run before service.  Along another aisle came the pastor, Bro. Mike Meadows.  I took it as a good sign when I found the website listing him with the title "Bro."  I've always held a deep respect for my dad's commitment to be one among many, a minister set aside but not set above the people.  He always chose the title Brother, refusing to be Reverend as long as he was a pastor.  As he got older and no longer served a single church except in interim roles, it was harder to enforce, but he never changed in his convictions.

Jeff introduced me to his pastor.  Bro. Meadows made the obligatory self-effacing remarks upon finding out I was a seminary professor--he would have to go back and work on his sermon some more.  I continued to watch him work the crowd, and he has the face of someone who cares for the people God is sending his way.  Near the front of the sanctuary, he passed through several rows of children who sat together with a few adults mixed in.  They seemed neither awed nor afraid of him, but greeted him playfully, or blissfully ignored his passing by.

Having mentioned that the children were sitting in the front, I should remark on the arrangement of people in the sanctuary.  The building has a traditional central-aisle arrangement, with pews facing the front; there is a small, low platform area with a pulpit and a choir stand behind it.  The piano was moved forward toward the congregational seating, and a group of four miked singers stood just behind the piano.  One of the singers also played a guitar.  Opposite the younger children on the front left side, many of the teens sat in the front pews on the right side.  Jeff, whose duties include youth ministry, sat in that general area, as did Kathy and a few other young adults.  The rest of the pews were not stuffed full, but a respectable sized crowd mostly filled them.  Overall, the congregation looked like many urban protestant churches of this era, with many senior adults. 

One of the clearest signs that the church is making transitions from what it once was to what it will become was the music leadership.  In the more traditional location and arrangement for a choir sat a group of mostly older women.  As already mentioned, there was also a group of what many churches call "worship leaders" off to one side, and these four plus the pianist had individual mics for leading the songs.  The singers blended together well, and we sang a collection of songs of the sort that I like to see:  some hymns from the hymnal along with some contemporary chorus or worship songs that were strongly tied to biblical texts.  The congregational singing was robust, but what was more notable to me was that I did not see anyone opting out of the songs to listen or let the mind wander. 

Finally, to get to the point of my title, I want to comment on the pastor's worship leadership and preaching.  My judgment on this day was that far more significant than his sermon content (which was fine) was the way the pastor offered himself to the people through his leadership.  I use the phrase "an honest preacher," knowing that it could be interpreted differently.  Some preachers think that being "honest" means saying whatever thought they have on their minds.  They think it means telling people off by "being honest about what I believe."  There is a difference between honesty and arrogance, and there is a difference between honesty and untested emotive outbursts.

What I am talking about with Bro. Mike is an honest presentation of himself.  He chose what he knew would be a controversial topic, and he chose to deal with it in a nondogmatic way.  That in itself is admirable.  But even more important was his willingness to open up his own reflective process and growth to the congregation.  He gave them a picture of himself as a real person, and in the process created the reflexive space for them to be real people before one another and before God.  He assured them that even if they did not agree on everything, they would be able to continue to grow together and serve together.  He was respectful toward the people in the pews. 

Let me emphasize again what I saw as the key opportunity for communion with God in this worship service.  Along with everything else, the pastor lifted up God as he offered himself to the people.  He gave them a person on pilgrimage with God, and through that narration offered them a glimpse of what walking with God can be for all of us.  If this Sunday is in any way a snapshot of the ongoing work of God at Miller Heights Baptist Church, they should have many opportunities to be blessed and be a blessing in the place where God has planted them.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Elijah in the Cave: Encouragement, or Maybe Not

I recently heard a very good sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-18.  Delivered to a couple thousand people engaged in front-line ministries, the preacher found in the story "teaching, reproof, correction, and training unto righteousness" that could encourage the hearers in their work.  I am not going to reproduce that sermon here, but it was a well-structured exposition of the text.

It is not uncommon for me to have a sermon and a biblical text set my mind to racing in various directions.  This was one of those times when I was listening and reflecting on the sermon at the same time that I was puzzling over the text.  My imagination kept pushing me to look at other paragraphs in this section of 1 Kings, sections which this particular sermon did not highlight.  I'm not criticizing the hermeneutical decisions or homiletical strategies for the evening.  I appreciated the message I received from a pastor worthy of my admiration.  But an impeding thought kept interrupting my concentration.  A divergent trajectory kept pushing its way around my reading of the stories.

I can thank some of my former students like Sam Ewell and Vincent Chun-Pang Lau for helping guide me onto this trajectory of biblical narrative.  As good readers of James W. McClendon and John Howard Yoder, they facilitated my deeper understanding of these theologians on whose shoulders I stand.  Particularly in For the Nations, Yoder describes a way of reading the biblical narrative that locates a critical interpretive key in two events which bracket the Bible's historical presentation of the Israelite monarchy.  These events are
  1. the people's demand that Samuel appoint a king over them, with Samuel's warning of their folly, and
  2. Jeremiah's presiding over the end of the failed monarchy with a theological "told you so."
This framing of the monarchy helps to offer a counterhistorical arc of the biblical narrative, embedded in a historiographical presentation which maintains a dual agenda:  it is constantly critical of the monarchy's failures while at the same time it retains an element of conventional histories with their heroic kingship story lines.  Against this dual agenda, the counterhistory places front and center the conviction that power structured by domination, violence, and economic oppression will never achieve what God intends for humanity in the world.  For Israel to be the pilot project of human social existence, it must not give in to the temptation to be like the other nations.  It must understand power in a different way and live in different forms of social structuring.

This is not an easy hermeneutical place to arrive for cultures shaped in the mission of European world domination and the white man's burden.  Leading theologians who helped to provide grounding for modernity (even our beloved Jean Calvin) came to believe that, with all its flaws, the Israelite Monarchy and its legal system should be the model of human society in the temporal world.  (Modern Reconstructionists still hold this, perhaps more literally than Calvin himself.)  In the wake of such reasoning, God remains, for so many of our churches, the political manipulator, willing to assassinate rulers, starve cities, and demand genocide in the name of some higher purpose.  You know I'm not exaggerating.  Many of you who attend Bible studies and listen to preaching regularly have heard people explain why God would do such things in biblical times, and perhaps now.  Pat Robertson has certainly made much of his beliefs that any particular disaster can be interpreted as a direct act of God to bring judgment on Pat Robertson's enemies and call the world to Pat Robertson's agenda.  Of course, Pat saw them as God's enemies and God's agenda, because it all fit neatly into his narration of the character of God.

So how does this pertain to Elijah near the end of 1 Kings?

The standard interpretation I have heard over the years when preachers have spoken or written of Elijah's flight to the cave takes the following path.  In the time of terrible drought, Elijah arranged to do battle with the false prophets by calling for a demonstration of God's power.  After the prophets of Baal prayed, shouted, and otherwise acted out to no avail, Elijah made a show of calling for God to send fire and burn the sacrifice on the altar.  Once this great challenge had gone his way, Elijah incited the crowds, and together they killed hundreds of prophets of Baal.  Jezebel grew angry, and her threats struck fear into Elijah.  Therefore, Elijah fled far from the antagonistic rulers to a cave to hide and feel sorry for himself.  It is told as a story of Elijah's greatest triumph suddenly followed almost immediately by his deepest despair.  Many a preacher characterizes Elijah's defeat (killing) of the prophets of Baal as his greatest triumph.

This story arc is what was troubling me that evening as I kept rereading the passage.  So I went looking for any textual clues that the reader should think of this event as Elijah's greatest triumph.

The first thing I noticed was that God sent Elijah to meet Ahab, but God did not specify anything about having a contest against the prophets of Baal.  While we appropriately conclude that God blessed Elijah's demonstration of YHWH's power and supremacy by sending down the fire to burn the wet sacrifice and evaporate all the standing water, there is no recorded command to take up this strategy.  I'm not saying that people seeking to serve God, whether Elijah or someone today, must have a direct command in order to take any action.  Certainly it could be that Elijah was acting in accord with his understanding of the calling of God.  He sought to publicly demonstrate what God had often shown in smaller venues:  God has power over all.  God can keep the hungry fed in times of famine.  God can raise the dead.  So why not call a convocation and demonstrate that God can light a fire on an altar, unlike the impotent false gods that the royal family has helped to promote in the land?

On the other hand, Elijah may not be much more pure than the rest of us in calling forth this great public demonstration.  It certainly made him look like the hero he imagined himself to be.  Through several chapters, Elijah repeatedly refers to himself as the only one left who is faithful to God.  He repeatedly finds out that he is exaggerating his significance.  Obadiah, a servant of Ahab, has risked his life to save many persecuted prophets of YHWH.  Even having been told that, and having won the crowds on his big fireworks demonstration day, Elijah still describes himself as the lone faithful follower of God.  This ongoing discrepancy ought to raise our suspicions.  Perhaps it should remind us of the counternarration.  It certainly shows a kinship between Elijah and Samuel, both of whom get a little confused about whether the people should follow them or follow the God they serve.  Both have to be reminded by God of their place in the larger scheme of things.

Having let suspicion urge us to look behind the veil of the triumphal narrative, an even more disturbing element pushes itself upon us.  Having seen the glorious work of God, Elijah's ecstasy does not lead him to sing a praise song as Miriam did, or to dance before the altar as David danced before the Ark.  He does not call the people to prayer as Solomon did, nor does he instigate  a festive celebration of God's goodness as the Torah prescribes for many annual feasts and other holy days.  What does Elijah do?  He incites mob violence.  He lets the ecstasy of seeing God's power demonstrated become warped into blood-lust.  He leads a mass execution of those he deems his enemies.  He exterminates the officials who stand for his arch-enemy, Jezebel.  As the story is told, he leaves no quarter.  His thirst for blood is not sated until all lie dead.

Again, we have to notice that there is no command from God to kill these false prophets.  Was Elijah acting out of his conscientious devotion to YHWH, or was he acting out of his human desire for vengeance against those who had usurped his "rightful place" as the prophet and judge of Israel?  There is enough uncertainty in the narration to incline me toward the latter conclusion.  Elijah got carried away with his victory and gave himself over to violence.  Now many would argue that Elijah was simply following the trend of the biblical narrative in which God metes out reward and punishment upon the faithful and unfaithful.  Humans become God's instruments of punishment through violent acts in many of these narratives.  Of course, many other violent acts are judged to be outside the divine will.

It is a complex narration of theme and antitheme, story and counterstory.  In the midst of the historiography, one may discern that the people of Israel, their prophets, their griots, their chroniclers, their historians, their compilers and editors, are passing through moments of recognition and misapprehension, of vision and blindness, of enlightenment and opacity.  Like their forebear Abraham, who began his pilgrimage not even knowing who this God is who sent him to a strange land, they live in the midst of a slowly unfolding understanding of God.  They compare God with what they have heard, what they know about the gods of the nations.  They assume who God is, and experiment with God's expectations.  Often they are wrong.  Amazingly, they often are right.  But the truth and falsehoods about God remain mixed in their faith.  Perhaps Elijah mistook the God of Israel for a god of bloody revenge.  Perhaps he glimpsed another possibility, but chose to cling to the vengeful idol.

Am I second-guessing the great prophet?  Of course I am.  But what else is expected of us as we grapple with the word of God in Scripture?  Moreover, if we believe the word of God is in Scripture, we must also remember that our primary confession of the Word of God is the eternal Son, incarnate in Jesus Christ, revealing the true and full picture of the Holy One of Israel, the Triune God who is Alpha and Omega, superabundant in goodness and love from everlasting to everlasting, the Prince of Peace.  Is this the God whom Elijah longed to know and diligently sought to serve?

Yes this the same God, but Elijah had not the benefit of Jeremiah's backward look upon the failure of the monarchy.  He did not see the vision of the suffering Servant of Isaiah, of Ezekiel's fantastic glimps of the Majestic On enthroned on a chariot throne to reign over any and every land.  He had not come to see that it would not be in magnificent spectacle, but in a minor village of Bethlehem that God's salvation would arise.  He did not yet realize that the longing would outlast the monarchy and be replaced by a hope for a servant-king, riding on a colt of a donkey.  Yes, Elijah listened for the word of God, but in all his faithfulness also remained far off from knowing what it would take his people centuries more to begin to discern.  Standing in the dawning of the prophetic line, he did not yet see what his descendents would come to know.  They stood on his shoulders, and from that height they saw even greater vistas of divine revelation.

So where does that leave me in reading the rest of this story of Elijah.  It is worth noting again that in his flight from Jezebel, Elijah repeatedly whines about his mistreatment.  He claims that he only has been faithful, and challenges God for not rewarding him in the manner he thinks that he deserves.  Having made this claim once, he has a long time to meditate on what God has done to take care of him, only to repeat the very same whining complaint again.

How does God respond?  Many a preacher or teacher would have us think that God comforts Elijah in his despair.  That may not be completely wrong, but I think it is a pretty big stretch to let that be one's primary conclusion from the text.  What does God say to Elijah?  God does not praise Elijah for massacring the prophets.  God does not tell Elijah not to worry, that Elijah will have many more years of fruitful ministry.  The text explicitly says that all the spectacle and whoopdeedoo are not the place to look for the work of God.  Should one conclude that God is more interested in a steady faithfulness, obedience to the Torah, neighbor love, and justice rather than frenzied acts of violence in defense of a God who needs no human defender?  That is part of what occurs to me in this text.

A harsher reading is certainly defensible.  Has God listened to this whiny prophet who is too full of his own desire for status until God has had enough?  What are God's words to Elijah after the last time the prophet claims to be the only faithful one?  They are final instructions:  Go anoint a king of Syria and a king of Israel.  Then go appoint your successor.  I have no more need of you.  Pass on the work.  You have become an instrument of violence rather than a healer of my people.  You took up the same strategy as Jezebel--killing the prophets.  You have cared too much for your status and too little for the building up of the faithful.  Don't you realize there are thousands more who are faithful?  The prophets Obadiah saved, of whom you are well-informed, are just a drop in the bucket.  YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE!  So Elijah, let's call it a day.  Wrap it up.  The mess in Israel was not fixed by your frenzy of violence.  The people you anoint will continue their violent ways, killing each other in a cycle of violence that never seems to end, unless someone has the courage and love and devotion to say no to violence.  It's a wrap, Elijah.  You gave it your best most of the time, but this last debacle has worn me out.  It's time to give someone else a chance.

Now maybe that harsh reading is not the best one.  My mom certainly thinks I've pushed it too hard.  She listened to me talk this through for long time over the kitchen table.  She was not convinced.  She might be right about that.  Mom is a good Bible teacher who has never led me astray.  So let's say God was not that harsh.  Even so, God did not offer comforting words.  At the most, God told Elijah things will not get better anytime soon, so why not let someone else carry the load.  Come on over and let's have a cup of coffee together and remember old times.  Even if they were hard times, we were in them together.

Frankly, trying to understand scripture has become both harder and easier over the years.  I have reason to hope that I have come to know and love God better through the years, but I have also come to know my limitations better.  I have no imprimatur to offer on this textual reading, but I also do not offer it without some degree of confidence that it sheds light on the Scripture.  I also have come to trust that when the text of Scripture troubles me, I had better try to pursue that troubling Spirit to see where it leads me.

May the Holy Spirit illuminate and guide our reading in community, that the Spirit and Word may bear witness together to the mysteries of God and our calling to live as God's people.  Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Homeowners' Shame

Since the foreclosure crisis began to be named in 2009, I have been noticing a pattern among homeowners facing hardships.  They are ashamed, so they keep their problems to themselves.

This speaks to certain moral convictions that form the bedrock of what many would believe makes a good U.S. American.  Because in the U.S., the concept of what it means to be a Christian is largely derivative from, or a corollary to, what it means to be a good U.S. American, these moral convictions find their way into the character and lives of good, church-going people.

Self-reliance is one of the moral convictions of which I am speaking.  Christians are likely to cite Paul's remarks to the Thessalonians in support of a belief in self-reliance:  those who will not work, shall not eat.  Again in Galatians, just after telling the church folk to bear one another's burdens, Paul turns around to say that each one should carry her own load.  Thus it is not outside of Christian faith to believe in the goodness of carrying one's own weight. 

Yet for faithful biblical and theological teaching, self-reliance is always tempered by being set in the context of community mutual responsibility.  Isolated from the communal context, self-reliance can become arrogance and blind optimism in times of good fortune, or it can transform into self-hatred in times of bad fortune.  "Fortune" is a key concept here, but one that self-reliance likes to ignore. 

Contrary to the self-deceptive claims of the Romantic/Progressive era, which led poets to wax eloquently about being "the master of my own fate," human beings are not individually in control of their own destinies.  First of all, human society is a complex, dynamic system in which many people are engaged in non-coordinated activities and agendas.  What I do may effect you, and vice versa.  Second, many powerful forces can affect the lives of particular people, completely without their own knowledge and participation.  The housing bubble, the house of cards called credit default swaps, and the entangled labyrinth of mortgage-backed securities were mostly invisible to average people.  Yet when these huge economic systems began to implode, they took away jobs, home values, credit availability, health insurance, and hope for many people.

Under new circumstances, people formed by self-reliance and the assumption that it mechanically leads to success, found themselves in a pit of shame.  They should have known, they thought, not to buy that much house, get that big a mortgage, borrow against their equity, etc.  Certainly there was a time, in another generation, when many people would have been more cautious.  Yet fed by a steady diet of "the rules of the old economy no longer apply" and "low downpayments are the new norm" and "housing values never go down," plenty of people were pointed, urged, or lulled into believing that extending more credit and taking out more debt would be an excellent plan, even a good example of self-reliance.

Closely related to self-reliance is the moral conviction of individualism.  This more encompassing concept asserts that knowledge, value, and action originate in the individual person.  Thus, individualists make up their own minds for themselves, adopt their own values, and do what they decide to do.  The myth that individualism perpetuates is that "doing it my way" is both a good idea and an actual practical activity.  The outcome is that people who do not have all the information that they need, have not experienced the pitfalls of certain activities, and may not be reasoning with full clarity, become convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt and "know that they know that they know that they know" what they should do.

Individualism linked with positivity can be a dangerous combination.  Many people think that if they do not think bad thoughts, entertain bad consequences as real possibilities, or say out loud what might go wrong, then everything will be fine.  This ignores that one person's thoughts and words operate without any relation to the risky, careless, and unjust actions of others who may be controlling millions and billions of dollars of economic power.

Individualists, counting on self-reliance, operating with positivity, expect that their efforts will lead to satisfying results.  They don't deny risks, but they have done what they should have done and things should go well.  If things don't go well, the self-reliant individual has trouble avoiding the conclusion, "I have no one to blame but myself."

Thus, shame has a powerful role in an economic crisis.  It protects the wealthy securities traders from a mass uprising against them because the average people blame themselves for their economic problems.  Many keep the problems to themselves, ashamed to admit that something has gone wrong. 

People who lose their jobs, have their homes foreclosed, and fall into medical debt may stop going to church, or even leave their churches, ashamed to admit that they are not prospering.  They theologize the problem to believe that they have sinned or failed God, interrupting the input-output machine of being a good person in order to get blessings from God.  They must be bad, for the blessings have stopped.

This shame makes it hard to organize people harmed by the economic downturn.  Some simply give up.  Others keep trying the same thing over and over, sure that if they just try harder the system will work.  Only a few get so fed up with the way that powerful economic institutions abuse and oppress them that they start to fight back.

What got me to write about this was a personal experience.  I am not facing foreclosure.  For now, my wife and I both are holding our jobs.  We are not in economic distress, as compared to many people.  We are, however, making lots of big financial decisions because we are relocating from North Carolina to Texas, while I still work in North Carolina.  After a year and a half of transition, we are finally preparing to sell our house.

Credit is tight, so even with a respectable credit rating, borrowing may not be easy.  Optimistically thinking that the process of getting a construction loan would not be hard, I was awakened repeatedly to realize there are many hoops to jump through and obstacles to overcome.  I can take that--life is not easy.

What caught me by surprise was a powerful emotional hit that came when a lender suggested that there were undisclosed details that would hinder the loan process.  Along with dread, there was a deep feeling of failure and inadequacy that welled up.  The dread was that feeling of wondering if there would be anything I would be able to do to solve the problem.  My self-reliance had not worked.  I was ashamed.

Now frankly, it was a very minor setback.  We continue to make progress on remodeling and getting credit to put our house in order.  It is not all worked out, but I'm not in the kind of mess many people are in.  But the reason to write about it is that I had a temporary and partial glimpse of what is multiplied millions of times over in this country with people who have lost jobs, lost homes, face foreclosure, face medical costs they can't pay, and feel ashamed.

If there is any truth in the Christian faith, then the teachings of the Bible should make it clear that the winners and losers of economic life do not equate to the ones God loves and hates.  Economics is rough in its sorting process.  Leverage, muscle, cheating, and injustice have inordinate power over people's destinies.  That is why the Sabbath Year and Jubilee systems were put into place in the biblical economic teachings. 

No economic system can claim to be just if it allows and promotes permanent indebtedness, homelessness, poverty, and joblessness.  There has to be a reset system to get people back into the economic game.

Moreover, our wealth is not our own.  It is for all of God's children.  Churches must find a way to leave behind their accommodation to modern economics and recommit themselves to be communities in which "there is no one in need among you."  We don't have to be ashamed to love one another enough to share our lives with one another.  That is the way of Jesus, who said, "Follow me."

Friday, July 08, 2011

An Ironic Reading of Psalm 8: Is Humanity All That Much?

Psalm 8

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
  you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
  the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
  mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
  and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
  you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
  and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
  whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!

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I recently attended Emmaus Way community's Sunday worship gathering.  The preaching at Emmaus Way usually takes the form of a conversation, or at least a dialogical sermon.  Pastor Tim Conder led the conversation on Psalm 8, calling on persons in the congregation to read the Psalm aloud, then launching some open-ended questions for the gathered community to ponder and discuss.  If you are not familiar with Emmaus Way and Conder, then you may be interested to check out a book written by Conder and fellow pastor Dan Rhodes, Free for All:  Rediscovering the Bible in Community.  Dan and Tim and their congregation have developed a way of reading in community that seeks to embody what numerous theologians and church trendspotters have been describing in theory.  Now that I've given Emmaus Way and Free for All a plug, I'm going to shift away from that event and do some of my own reflections.

+++++++

I have been thinking about the reading and misreading of this Psalm for many years.  At the heart of it is the phrase that the Authorized Version (KJV) translates "a little lower than the angels."  "Angels" translates the Hebrew plural of the generic term for God:  Elohim.  Thus most recent translations have changed the sense of the text to say that humans are a little less than God.

Perhaps it is in part the reference to the angels that leads to the problem I have with common readings of the text.  I am not a person who rejects the notion of hierarchy in all of its possibilities, although I do reject the idea that systems of domination are a necessary part of human existence.  So theories of hierarchy always evoke a sharper scrutiny when I find them imposed upon or derived from biblical texts.  In conversations about this text, I usually hear the construction of a vast hierarchy of being.  This assumption rightly understands that God is that than which no greater can be conceived.  Then the ranks get assigned from higher to lower:  angels, humans, various land, air, and sea animals.  The heritage of dominion theology finds its way into Christian theology, to a great extent, from this passage linked to other biblical texts.

But is this Psalm an effort to assert the rank of humanity within the great chain of being?  Certainly we know that has been a common reading of it through many different eras and in many different places.  Perhaps that ought to be enough to convince me to just "leave it alone."  I can't do that.  The concept of dominion as domination has too great a corrupting influence for me to leave it alone.  

Churches teaching dominion as domination, combined with Americanized pre-millenialism, is what led former U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt to claim that industries should be allowed to rapidly use up the earth's resources without regard to pollution or damage to ecological systems.  For Watt and his fellow-travelers, God gave humans the earth to use, and since the world would end soon humans must get to work and use it up fast.  Dominion as domination is what led European Christian leaders, theologians, bishops, popes, kings, and speculators to theorize an Imperial World Order under domination of the white races, in which all other peoples of the world find their value and meaning in serving the good of the superior white Europeans.

If dominion as domination corrupts Christian theology and practice so horribly, then it seems incumbent on readers to think again about constructing an extensive hierarchical metaphysics behind, around, and in front of this Psalm.  There are other possibilities here.  Issues of empire, of environmental degradation, and of the potential for human damage to one another all may help the reader raise questions about received interpretations of this text.

One thing a reader has to remember about reading the Psalms is that they are the outcries of God's people in lament, praise, thanksgiving, fear, and longing.  They are not necessarily statements of divine ordering, even if they often do give insight into the divine order.  They are written as the words of Israel to God, not as divine decrees.  This characteristic of the Psalms helps to explain statements such as the one in Psalm 137 which proclaims a blessing upon those who "take your little ones and dash them against the rocks."  Infanticide, although it may serve to display an exaggerated or distorted anger toward enemies, will not bring a blessing from God.  The prayer of Psalm 137 expresses the vengeful orientation of some of the Jewish exiles.  It is not any kind of divine decree.  Elsewhere, the Psalms call on God to destroy enemies and other self-centered acts.  Just because someone, even someone as prestigious as King David, prayed such a prayer does not mean that the prayer expresses the will of God.

With that caveat in mind, Psalm 8 offers a vision of humanity's place in the grand scheme of things without necessarily revealing a divinely decreed ranking of species.  It says that humanity has been made a little less than divine, made to be the dominant force among species on earth.  It need not be interpreted to say that God made everything to be under humans, or made humans to dominate everything else.  Any of us could observe, without the need of a theory of hierarchical status, that in the grand scheme of this planet's existence, human beings are capable of great and fearful acts.  Our species, just short of the divine power of God, can burn down a forest, pollute a lake, wear out fertile land, poison waters, and more. 

I have heard some people say this Psalm can't be about environmental degradation because that is a modern concept that ancient peoples would not understand.  I disagree.  Archaeologists tell a history of the Greek islands which hosted prosperous communities only to have their soil eroded by deforestation, overpopulation, and overcultivation, leaving only bare rocky crags jutting out of the sea.  The ancient cities of Babylon were eventually abandoned and buried in sand, in part from the deforestation and overcultivation of land which became barren and underwent desertification.  In the wealthy city-states of the Maya, in fertile and productive regions, silting of rivers from deforestation and overpopulation led to the decline of highly civilized communities.  Ancient farmers of China, India, and Peru developed sophisticated methods of combating soil erosion, recognizing how it occurs and what its results would be.  So environmental degradation caused by human activity is not anew idea.  People of ancient times, before and after the Israel of the Psalmists, knew of this human possibility.  Human beings are capable of building up and destroying great life on vast tracts of land, across great empires.  Why else would we find existing in ancient Israelite law a plan for letting land lie fallow?  They knew that human activity can destroy productive farmland.

It is not uncommon in biblical interpretation to identify a statement as ironic, as representative of a view to be upheld for ridicule.  With that in mind, it is worth considering whether some of the latter portion of Psalm 8 might be rhetorically ironic.  Are there any textual clues that might make us alert to potential ironic language?  I think there may be more than one.

Clearly the Psalm displays a primary theme of the majesty and sovereignty of God over all creation.  The opening and closing lines bracket all else with this affirmation.  After the initial affirmations of God's greatness, the Psalm takes a surprising turn (in a text that scholars say is very difficult to translate) by saying that the cries of infants and babes protect the people from the enemies of God.  Hmmm... That is not an image of human might.  It is not elevating human cleverness to near divinity.  As we move beyond this difficult verse, the next part reverts to the majesty of God as the context to offer an inquiry of perplexity.  God's works are so great, who are we scrawny human beings?  Why would God even notice us?  Here we find an acknowledgment of the incapacity of humanity to approach the greatness of God's works.

Then comes the passage that many use to justify a divinely sanctioned hierarchy of beings.  "You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor."  It is not hard to imagine such words coming from the mouth of the emperor, or from the official mouthpiece charged with praising the emperor.  We know that this sort of praise of imperial power was widespread in the era of biblical writings, lasting even into the era of Eusebius's praise of Constantine in the post-canonical era.  Could it be that the Psalmist, who has been belittling human capacity in order to evoke humility before the majesty of God has now put these ironic words into the mouths of arrogant humanity?  We are just a little less than divine (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).  We can run this world (into the ground).  King Soandso is the head man in charge of this world and day by day everything is getting better and better (oh, yeah, right!).

To say that all creation is "under their feet" is to acknowledge that it is far too easy to crush and stomp God's good creation to death.  It is to acknowledge that walking softly, leaving a light footprint, is necessary in this world.  Other species can disappear and be destroyed because of the power of humanity.  It is not to say that ever living thing and every non-living thing is our underling.  It is to say that we are capable of sustaining the good of all, or of destroying all of it, including ourselves.  The cattle and sheep, the wild creatures, birds, fish and sea creatures, are all also God's good creation.  An overestimate of human importance is another attempt to do what the first humans in the Garden did--an attempt to become like God.  Thus, the final line returns to the first.  It is God, not arrogant humanity, who is great.

I recognize that I am swimming upstream with this proposed interpretation.  Many doctrinal questions arise concerning the imago Dei, human uniqueness, visions of creation, and probably more.  Of course, this literary interpretation faces many possible objections from other literary readings, along with other types of textual analysis.  But I've chewed on it long enough and lived with it long enough to think that it at least deserves some conversational scrutiny.  I have, as always, plenty more to say.   But for now, have at it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Attorneys General Must Get Tough on Foreclosure Fraud

NAAG is the National Association of Attorneys General.  AGs from the fifty states and the various other jurisdictions such as territories, districts, etc., gather periodically to cooperate in how to manage common issues and work together on multi-state problems.  Some of the cooperative work they have done includes the Tobacco Settlement and the current Foreclosure Fraud Investigation.

Through North Carolina United Power, I have been participating with a working group of national organizations who are in conversation with the AGs about the Foreclosure Fraud Investigation.  Recently, we took a group to Chicago to meet with some of them about their work to protect homeowners and keep families in their homes.  I was interviewed by the local CBS radio affiliate in the hours before our meeting.

Among the key items of our agenda are:
  • broad availability of principal reductions to reset the housing market and remove the risk of more foreclosures;
  • remedies for all who have been harmed by fraud other criminal acts, whether they have already suffered foreclosure, are in process, or are facing impending foreclosure;
  • the end of dual tracking, with simultaneous loan modification discussions and foreclosure procedures;
  • all possible efforts for loan modifications and other non-foreclosure procedures should precede the initiation of foreclosure procedures;
  • criminal prosecutions for criminal acts; and
  • regulatory regimes to keep this kind of mortgage fraud from being repeated.
We were able to meet with four of the state Attorneys General:  Lisa Madigan of Illinois, Tom Miller of Iowa (the leader of the task force working on the foreclosure fraud investigation), Roy Cooper of North Carolina (President of NAAG who pushed the foreclosure fraud investigation forward), and George Jepsen of Connecticut (newly elected).  Our conversation was formal, perhaps overly so.  We discussed our agenda, they discussed their records, and then we exchanged questions and vague answers.  The time was short:  only 30 minutes.  There was very little new that came out of the meeting, but do not assume that I am saying it was not worthwhile.  Let me clarify why this was such an important meeting.

In organizing, we plan an action to get a reaction.  When we get our reaction, then we evaluate what we have learned and begin to plan future research and actions in light of it.  Our action in Chicago revealed a number of important things about our work on to change the conditions faced by so many families being hit by foreclosures.

This action showed something to our organizing groups, to the four AGs present in our meeting, to the many other AGs at the hotel but not at our meeting, and to the press and their readers.  To us, it showed that we have the power to bring the key law enforcement figures in the foreclosure negotiations to the table, even if we and they know they cannot negotiate publicly with us about potential criminal proceedings against banks.  Not only do they meet with bankers.  They also meet with us.

To the AGs present, we were able to deliver a multiracial, multiethnic, knowledgable, prepared, faith-based and non-faith-based, nationwide constituency to speak intelligently and passionately about this critical work they are doing.  They found us to be what we said, representatives of hundreds of thousands of citizens, thousands of churches and synagogues and mosques, and from states all across the nation.

To the AGs not present, we made it publicly clear that their colleagues who are leading in this foreclosure investigation are willing to meet with us.  Miller, Cooper, Madigan, and Jepsen will meet with us not only in their private chambers back home but in a public forum where they can express, even with the press in the room, their strong agreement with our agenda.  They were very adamant that they would not settle for an agreement that did not fundamentally change the practices of mortgage lending and foreclosure.  They believe the result must benefit homeowners and borrowers, not primarily get lenders off the hook.

To the press and their readers (including bankers) we were able to show that the case for principle reduction remains strong, with a powerful constituency.  Among the key items reported was the commitment to take banks to court if the negotiations do not bring fundamental change.  These AG negotiators  have not given up on a strong settlement and will not accept a weak settlement.  Our action got broad coverage in newspapers and in banking industry news sources.

The investigation and negotiation of a settlement could come very soon.  Or it could drag on through the summer.  Sooner is better, and we are expecting to see a court decree with tools to provide real help to homeowners.

Ticks and Chiggers, and a Wild Goose Errand

Last year, a local boy, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, was a speaker at a conference in England called Greenbelt.  In conversations, I learned a bit more about the conference, and I looked up the lineup.  I was pretty impressed with the mix of artists, activists, preachers, and intellectuals.  So a few months later when I heard there would be an attempt to hold a similar event in North Carolina, I thought it would be worth a try.

I sent information to my daughter, Lydia, who would be living with me in Durham while I stayed there to teach summer school, and she said it looked like something she would like.  Thus, the two of us got tickets to the Wild Goose Festival at Shakori Hills, not far from Carrboro or Pittsboro, NC.  There were lots of big names on the program, and quite a few not so famous people who I also knew about. 

The first session we attended dealt with the question, "Why can't the church be a place where people can find healing for their darkest struggles?"  That may not be the exact wording, but it gets the point across.  I was not so sure how it would go, but some very good insights came up along the way.  When one of the discussion participants offered a testimony, he ended his comments with a question he wants his church to be able to answer affirmatively, "Can I trust you with me?"  (I burst with pride later when I spoke with him to find out he is a Shaw University Divinity School graduate, from before I was at teaching in divinity school.  But I digress.)  Not long after that, floods of memories washed over me about regrets in certain relationships, and I could not hold back tears.  It was an unexpected grace to begin thinking and planning about how to respond to those thoughts and emotions.  Afterward, I told Lydia some of what had touched me, and I commented that if the first informal discussion would hit me that hard, the rest of the conference looked promising.  We were not disappointed.

I admit to being an old fogey in the realm of popular music.  I've become a news junkie when it comes to radio.  Consequently, I do not really keep up with pop music.  A couple dozen musicians played on the main stage or in other side venues.  I had never heard of any of them, except Psalter.  Still, the music was great.  We had a couple of nights out under the stars listening to the last band.  I enjoyed what I heard from several:  Derek Webb, Over the Rhine, Tom Prasado-Rao, Ashley Cleveland, Agents of Future, Psalter, and David Bazan.  With every band or soloist I heard, I thought, "I could listen to a CD of this music."  On a blanket, watching the clouds go by,  or tracing the Drinking Gourd constellation, even mediocre music would have sounded better.  As it was, we heard some great performances.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Rev. William Barber shared a stage one morning.  Their story of a friendship is interesting to hear on its own, but Barber did not disappoint with incisive analysis of race relations and contemporary politics, especially the politics of health care and education.  Shane Claiborne told stories to a crowd that burst out of the tent shelter and into the adjoining woods.   I got a brief portion of Richard Rohr speaking about two halves of our lives, and it was just enough to make me want to hear more.  Friends like Nancy Sehested, Jane Childress, Linda Weaver-Williams, Joyce Hollyday, Diana Butler-Bass, Nick Liao, Jesse Deconto, and Amey Adkins also made the time worthwhile.

One theme of the conference that still intrigues me was a collection of speakers who come from exquisite Evangelical pedigrees, only to undergo faith crises and end up far away from their previous theological and ecclesiological homes:  Bart Campolo, Jay Bakker, Frank Schaeffer.  I heard Campolo and Bakker, and I read some remarks by Schaeffer.  I sometimes wonder why we don't hear more stories like these.  I suspect that for many who undergo a crisis of faith, coming anywhere near the church is not something in which they have any interest.  But stories like these represent one of the authentic paths of faithfulness in an era when so many churches are thoroughly co-opted by empire.

When my Dad used to take us kids to the State Fair, I remember asking in the parking lot, "What ride is your favorite?"  His response puzzled me, with my concrete and physical reasoning about rides and having fun.  He said, "I just enjoy seeing you all have fun."  I remember thinking that was strange, when the real fun would be on the Ferris Wheel or the Sky Ride.  But at 53 I know just what he meant.  Even if I had not enjoyed the festival at all, spending it with Lydia and seeing her enjoy it was the best result I could have hoped for.

Oh, yeah.  I picked up a couple of ticks and a large clan of chiggers while out in the country.  It was nothing to get upset about, although the chigger bites kept me itching for a week or so.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Halloween, Masquerades, Bandits, and Burqas

I wrote this guest post for Stan Dotson's blog "Daily Passages."  Check out his blogs and other great work at his website In Our Elements.

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Fellow Travelers:  This week’s Pastoral Passage (2 Corinthians 3:12-18) transports us to childhood play and childhood fear.  Children hide their faces on Halloween to play a game that promises lots of free candy.  Part of the game is shouting a mostly empty threat, “Trick or treat!”  Dressed in costumes with masks, the little ones see others who are also wearing masks, and sometimes the fear overwhelms the fun.  Adults laugh when children turn around running to Mom or Dad or Big Sister to escape a masked figure too scary to pass by.

Many, if not most familiar occasions for wearing a mask circle back around to conjuring up fear. A masquerade party aims at fun, but part of the fun is the uncertainty and fear that come from not knowing who one might end up talking or dancing with.  In a less playful vein, bank robbers and bandits use a ski mask or bandana to hide their faces, knowing that their anonymity arouses the fear that they will act more violently since their faces can’t be identified.  Part of the fear of Islam in the 21st century often gets focused on the burqa or niqāb, sartorial interpretations of the Qur’an which encourage women to cover their faces.  French legislators outlawed this sort of Islamic dress in public, in part for fear of what the “foreigner” may be hiding, and in part for fear of the loss of hegemonic French cultural identity.

The Apostle Paul retold a story about Moses and a mask in this letter to the Corinthians.  Actually, it was a veil that Moses wore after he came down from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets (Exodus 34:33).  The people saw him coming, and his face was shining like a light.  They were afraid and would have run away, but Moses called out to them so they would know who he was.  Aaron and some of the leaders got the courage to go meet him.  After he talked with them for a while about what God had to say, he put on a veil.  So in this case, the mask was a way to calm down the fear rather than stir it up.  Don’t ask me to explain how Moses’ face got shiny.  I’ll just let the story stand as it is.

Paul isn’t particularly concerned with the details of Moses’ veil and its purpose according to Exodus.  He’s out to make another point.  He says that Moses put on a veil so that the people would not keep staring at him while the shiny face faded away.  Paul seems concerned that people might have stared at Moses and become mystified.  Instead of recognizing the unrestrainable, indomitable, effusive glory of God as having left a residue on the prophet who talked with God, Paul says that back in the day people missed the whole point.  They might have fixated on Shiny Moses himself, as if he were the source of all this glory, the Divine Lawgiver in the flesh.

Then Paul says something else completely about the veil.  He says the thickheaded and offbase thinking of the ones who were afraid of Shiny Moses is a kind of thickheadedness that endures down the ages in all humans who can’t see the signs of the glory of God when they show up.  Barry Harvey, in Can These Bones Live?, writes about the persistent inability of humanity to understand the presence and work of God when we try to “read the book of the world.”  Paul sketches a picture for us of people who are not interested in having God lead the way, going around like we have a veil on our faces.  The veil makes everything blurry and fuzzy, and we end up stumbling over things that should have been in plain sight.

The shocker of this story comes when Paul explains why things don’t have to be that way.  He says that God in Jesus Christ has come to set us straight on how to recognize God's leading, prodding, nudging, and dragging us toward our purpose in this world.  When we turn to look at the Lord Jesus, the veil gets lifted.  He’s the Rosetta Stone, the Rand McNally Road Atlas, the corrective lens that makes it possible for us to see what God is up to.  But I said there was a shocker, didn’t I.  Here it comes.

When the veil gets lifted, when we turn to look at Jesus, we find out that this man born of woman, this humble servant who is God incarnate, is the true image of the race of humans.  He’s the pattern, and we find ourselves and our lives when we look at him.  So with unveiled faces, the glory of God shows up in the mirror.  As brothers and sisters of Jesus, we come to see the truth about us is that we “sort of favor” Jesus.  We may not be his spitting image, but the image is there, growing, becoming visible in our faces because the Holy Spirit is transforming us.  The glory of God is visible when humanity lives in the mutual giving and loving goodness of the Triune God who loves immeasurably in eternity.  Look in the mirror, brothers and sisters.  Don’t you see it?  It’s right there as plain as your face.

Don’t be afraid to lose that veil.

How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost and Education Day at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church



Numbers 11:24-30 (NRSV)

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent.  25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp.  27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”  28 And Joshua, son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”  29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Getting an education, going to school, is like having a job.  It has its good days and its bad days.  It has its steady tasks and its deadlines.  It has issues of getting along with supervisors and peers.  It requires an everyday dedication that at worst becomes drudgery and at best reveals new blessings from day to day.

In one way then, completing a course of study or finishing a degree is like finishing a task on the job.  Deadlines have been met.  The work has been approved. Catch your breath.  Okay, what’s next?

But in another way, finishing a course of study or a degree is a major crossroads in life.  It is both a consummation and a watershed.  It is an ending and a beginning.  It is a time of looking back and looking forward.

For this reason, we gather as a congregation to celebrate Education Day.  As God’s people, we gather today to consecrate the accomplishments and achievements of all who strive to better themselves through education.  As the body of Christ, we gather bearing sacramental witness to the work of the Holy Spirit who pours out grace upon grace into our community of faith. 

This Education Day is therefore both a joyous and a solemn occasion.  It is a joyous day of looking back as we remember the blessings of friendships, the fascination of new knowledge learned, the satisfaction of a tasks completed successfully, and the affectionate pride of our loved ones.  It is a solemn day of looking back when we remember the sacrifices required of us and others to reach this accomplishment, when we recall the many times when the line between success and failure was as thin as a hair’s breadth, when we relive the moments when the first try was not good enough, and when we meditate on the grace required to hold us up through the challenges we faced.

It is also a joyous and solemn day of looking forward.  It is joyous to revel in the knowledge that fifth grade or middle school or high school or a bachelor’s degree or a graduate degree is done and we never have to do that again.  It is joyous for many who have been waiting while studying, looking ahead to the opportunity of work or further education that can only come when this degree or course of study is complete.  We are joyful when we realize the possibilities for serving God that have become greater because of what we have learned and now know. 

It is also a solemn occasion of looking forward.  One segment of life is complete, and whatever comes next will have a whole new set of challenges.  It is solemn for those who move forward to jobs or further education, knowing the opportunity will still require striving and struggle.  It is solemn to look ahead and see that God’s purposes for our lives draw ever nearer and require greater faith and discipline than we have yet demonstrated in our lives.

Education Day, thus, is a day for celebrating the joy and reflecting on the solemnity we meet at the current crossroads of our lives.

You may not realize that this Education Day has also fallen on one of the high holy days of the Christian year.  By habit, Baptists are keenly aware of Christmas and Easter, but we often do not hold in mind the third great festival of the church, Pentecost.  On Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit with power to enliven and commission the church to be the body of Christ in the world, receiving the task of living out the very purposes of God for all creation.  On Pentecost, we receive the calling to break down the barriers of race, class, nationality, language, and any other superficial distinctions, and we become the family of God, a holy nation, a peculiar people who up until Jesus called us together were not a people.  We become a family, not by blood relations but by a new creation, united with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection as a new race of humanity from every tribe and nation, people and language.

As the festival of the Holy Spirit and the church, Pentecost has much to tell us about how to celebrate Education Day.  On Education Day, we don’t want to merely acknowledge accomplishments from a secular realm of life, say a prayer over them, and then let our education and worship part ways for the remainder of our lives.  As I said earlier, we celebrate Education Day as a consecration of the work we have done in school, not for ourselves, but for the good of all of God’s people and for the glory of God who made us able to learn, grow, and achieve.  In that way, the diploma or degree takes on sacramental significance.  Just as Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humanity, so we mark our educational achievements as steps toward taking onto ourselves the full stature of Christ, bearing his image as a new creation.

The Old Testament lesson for this Pentecost Sunday speaks to our reason for celebrating Education Day.  It is a familiar story about Moses and the children of Israel during the time of the Exodus.  Moses, as the leader of a great crowd of people, often found himself overworked and worn out.  Perhaps Moses had the kind of personality that sometimes led him to think only he could do things right.  If you want a job done right, he might have said to himself, do it yourself.  Or maybe, and this hits closer to home for me, Moses tended to put off getting things planned and finished.  Dragging everything down to the last minute meant that when the crunch time hit, it was too late to get the help that he needed.  We don’t fully know the cause of Moses’ problem as described in Numbers, but we do know how his God recommended that he solve the problem.

God told Moses that he was not the only one who could do the important tasks needed to lead the people.  He was not the only one who could discern the will of God and speak a word from the Lord.  So God told Moses to select seventy elders from among the people to share the burdens of leadership.  Spread out the work, God told Moses, and don’t be surprised that there are many more gifted people out here ready to lead.

Well Moses was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and he eagerly did what God told him to do.  As Numbers puts it, God “took some of the spirit that was on Moses” and spread it out by putting some on each of the seventy elders.  It is a kind of crude image in a way, but it gets the point across.  If we imagine that Moses had power from God smeared around all over him, then what was to prevent sopping up some of that and smearing it around on a bunch of other folks? 

So there we have it.  Moses and God transferred some of the leadership responsibilities to others, and the story tells us that all of the seventy elders began to prophesy, just as Moses had been prophesying.  Now we don’t use the word prophesy very well in our time.  We tend to narrow its meaning to be the same as predicting the future.  But Numbers is not telling us that the seventy elders formed a psychic hotline and started predicting the future.  No, prophesy means first of all to deliver a message from God.  These elders became leaders who spoke the truth of God and guided the people in solving their problems and getting their lives moving the right direction.  These elders became servants of God to serve the common good.  They began to focus their life’s work around making everyone’s lives better.  With all of these elders serving the common good, less of that work fell on Moses.  And since it was no longer just one man’s job, probably a whole lot more got done.

One of the questions that came to my mind in reading this story has to do with the number of elders.  Now we know that symbolically, the number twelve is very important for understanding the people of Israel.  The twelve tribes are a constant organizing principle, and so we might have expected God to tell Moses to choose twelve elders, one for each tribe.  Instead, God told him to choose seventy.  Seventy is not even a multiple of twelve.  That would have been seventy-two, making six elders per tribe.  But the number is not seventy-two, it is just seventy.

If we analyze the number seventy, we can see some possible reasons for choosing that number.  The most obvious thing to see is that it is a multiple of seven.  With seven days of creation and Sabbath, a seven year cycle of debt remission and letting the land rest, a seven day week, and for many other reasons, seven is also a highly significant number.  It is a number that expresses completeness.  It is a number that implies a cycle of restorative justice.  It is a number reminding us never to get too carried away with our schemes and activities without stopping to devote ourselves to God and renew our covenant relationship.

So choosing seventy has within it a symbolism of completion, of divine remembrance, and of just social existence.  But Moses did not choose only seven elders, but seventy.  Now seventy is a round number, and round numbers have a biblical symbolism of many and plenty.  If seven is symbolic of completion, seventy symbolized complete and more, plenty to accomplish the task.  So what we see in Moses’ selection of seventy elders is choosing a number adequate to do a very big job.

Sometimes in church we get a couple of people together and just try to get by, do the minimum to say we have fulfilled our responsibility.  In this case, Moses is choosing enough to get the job done effectively and get the job done right.  This plan from God for Moses does not operate in an economy of scarcity, fearful that if Moses does not have most of the power, then these other leaders will edge him out or steal his turf.  It is not about jealousy and control.  This selection of elders is about what is good for the people.  And unless Moses wants to be a candle burned out by next week, it is also going to be good for him.

So on Education Day, we acknowledge with Moses that the work of God is far too great for Dr. Turner to do it all himself.  The work of God is far to vast for a few people to hoard all the power of God’s Spirit as if it were their personal possession.  On Education Day, and on Pentecost, we recognize that the Holy Spirit has come with power.  God has poured out the Spirit on all flesh, on the young and the old, on the women and the men, on the slave and the free, on the Jew and the Gentile.  By striving for knowledge and working to complete a course of study or a degree, we offer ourselves as servants of God, as vessels of the Spirit’s power.  Today, on Education Day, we gather to consecrate this commitment to serve God and to share in the coming of God’s Spirit with power on each of you who have offered yourselves as a living sacrifice to God.  You today stand in the position of the seventy elders of Israel.  The Spirit is calling on you to use your gifts to prophesy, to speak a word from the Lord, and to serve the good of all the people.

Now there is another interesting detail in this story of the seventy elders that we do not want to miss.  Joshua got very disturbed about one thing that happened.  He was a young man with a lot to learn.  As the story unfolded, a couple of the elders chosen to lead did not manage to make the official meeting at which they would be set aside for service.  We don’t know why Eldad and Medad did not make it to the big house . . . I mean the tent where they were supposed to gather.  Maybe they got preoccupied with work they were already doing.  [From the pew, Dr. Turner inserted, “Maybe they overslept.”]  Maybe someone told them it was a mistake that their names got on the list, and they should just go on home and not try to be uppity.  Maybe they never got the message that they were supposed to go to the meeting.  Maybe a family crisis came up, and they decided to give up their dream in order to support the family.  We don’t know why they did not show up.

However, when the meeting was held, and the elders were set aside for their task, the power of the spirit came upon all seventy of the elders.  That means that when the other sixty eight who showed up for the meeting started to prophesy, Eldad and Medad started prophesying, too, back in the hood.  It was such a big deal that a youngster got all excited and ran to the tent of meeting to tell what was going on.  Joshua heard the news and started worrying that Eldad and Medad were getting out of line.  He burst out to Moses saying, “This has got to be shut down.  We can’t have stray people prophesying here and there and acting like they are in our select, elite group.  There are rules and precedents to follow!”

I suspect Joshua was pretty surprised by Moses’ reply.  The Bible says Moses was the meekest man on earth, and here is one of the occasions when we can see what that means.  Moses did not need to be the head man in charge of everything.  He was happy to see the work of God done, no matter who was doing it.  He told Joshua that as far as old Moses is concerned, he wished everyone would become a prophet of God. 

Whoa, Moses!  Thank you God for setting Moses’ mind on You.  On the day of selecting the seventy elders, Moses has caught a glimpse of Pentecost.  He is looking for and longing for the day when God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh.

Moreover, this day of setting aside seventy elders to lead and speak a word from the Lord also looks ahead to a day when Jesus gathered his followers and sent out seventy missionaries to all the towns and villages to tell them the good news of the Kingdom of God.  As it was when Jesus’ sent the seventy, the God of Jesus Christ is in the business of calling all of us out to take up the task of living and loving and bringing about the beloved community.  These elders could no longer live merely for themselves, but they now would live for the good of the entire community.  Eldad and Medad, back in the hood, would live for God and for the good of the whole community.  No more looking out only for number one.  Now they must look out for the way that we can all become one.

Some of you, in completing this season of school work, may remember bitter moments when you were told you were too dumb to finish school.  Maybe someone told you your clothes were too plain, your teeth too crooked, your hair too nappy, your skin too dark or too light, your speech too country, your voice too squeaky, your people too poor, your neighborhood to run down.  Maybe it was even someone with the status of Joshua who stood in your way and made you feel like you should not even try. 

But like Eldad and Medad, if you are here today, you have found the courage and strength to put that dispiritedness behind you.  You have risen over that adversity, using it as a stepping stone to remember that God has called not only this preacher and the teachers and the ministers and the deacons, but God has called you.  Maybe nobody wanted you to know that you could come to Moses’ meeting.  Maybe somebody got in your way.  But praise be to God that the Spirit is poured out on all flesh.  If God is calling you, nobody can stop the power of God from filling you with all that you need to do what God has for you to do.

On the Feast of Pentecost, we unite ourselves with the Holy Spirit who gives gifts to all.  The Apostle Paul, who sometimes reminds folks that he was a latecomer to his work, maybe like Eldad and Medad, wrote to the churches that we are one body with many gifts.  The Spirit gives each one a gift, and each gift is needed for the good of the whole community.  If you don’t cultivate your gift, grow it, and allow it to flourish, all of us will be diminished.  God’s Spirit is poured out on all of us, and our educational milestones of maturity are part of the process of learning to exercise our gifts for the good of all.

The Gospel Lesson for today comes from John, chapter 7.  In that passage, Jesus says to the crowds in Jerusalem that the day will come when the Spirit will work with power in the lives of all believers.  He says, “Out of the believer’s heart will flow rivers of living water.”  This is the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in all of us, and in all of you whom we recognize on this Education Day.  God is at work to will and to do in you what has not yet been seen or imagined.  The transformation of your life underway through the work of the Spirit will make you into a wellspring.  The gift of the Spirit will be the water of life for all those whom God sends your way.  Whether back in the hood with Eldad and Medad, or at the big meeting with the rest of the elders, you will be a vessel of the very life of God. 

Receive this work of the Holy Spirit.  Lift up your hearts to God.  You stand here today as a sacrament of the work of the Holy Spirit.  You are gifted.  Hasten to use the gifts you have received.  Amen.
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