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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, December 16, 2012

Rachel Weeping

Another day, another massacre.  This is where we have arrived.  Psychologists have studied the pattern by which people become desensitized to violence.  Although there are plenty of arguments about what such desensitization might mean for future human actions, there seems to be an agreement that exposure to acts of violence over time has the effect of reducing emotional responses, sensitivity, to subsequent exposure to violent acts.

Once, television viewers had little experience of the grotesque images of death in war.  Then reporters from Vietnam began to dispatch film of the horrors of that war.  Eventually, the dinnertime news viewing included a daily dose of explosions and war.  Now, the instantaneous images of weapons, explosions, dismemberment, and death, are round-the-clock backdrops for ads to shop at Target or take Cialis, but avoid four-hour erections.

The regularity of mass shootings in the US is making them blend into the background.  I sadly admit that I read the headline about Newtown, CT, on my screen, clicked to get a few details, and went back to whatever I was doing.  It was barely a blip on my daily rounds.  The facts of a young man killing his own mother and also killing kindergartners, continued to work on me, so I can say with some relief that I am not utterly desensitized.

What became obvious to me, as I seek to be formed by the Christian calendar and live these days in the Season of Advent, was that church people would need to turn to Matthew's text on the slaughter of the innocents.
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (NRSV).
I was not alone in this judgment, and various fellow-travelers began to write about these words.  I was even blessed to hear a sermon on this text on Sunday morning.  I posted on facebook that I was glad not to have to preach today because of the danger of sounding smug:  Christians sometimes sound like they can pretend bad stuff is not so bad since they know how everything is going to turn out in the end.  But that is a little bit of a cop-out.  Lots of other preachers had to step into the pulpit whether they felt ready, capable, or not.

I think what speaks most loudly to the church in this moment is that the so-called best country in the world is no less marked by the radicality of evil than was the land of God's chosen people twenty centuries ago.  In Bethlehem's case, it was a powerful ruler exercising ruthless power to try to cut off any challenges to his dynasty, even if it meant killing babies.  In Newtown, we only can begin to imagine the tortured mind of a killer who plans and executes the murder of little children.

In both cases, we find ourselves living in a world armed and capable of massive, unexpected, unspeakable violence.  Someone within reach of all of us could carry it out, whether it be under orders in an electronically furnished bunker controlling unmanned Predator drones, or it be an unknown, largely unnoticed average guy picking up a gun here, some bullets there, planning, plotting, stirring up the impulse borne of rage, recklessness, anomie, or whatever drives such methodical, industrial, technical, prolific, cold, steely murder.

In everyday places--theaters, malls, classrooms, sidewalks, office towers--unspeakable violence can and does erupt.  In Nigeria and Pakistan it can happen in church, or on a train.  In Iraq it may be in a mosque or in a crowd on pilgrimage.  In Gaza and Israel it's on a bus or in the workplace.  In Wazyristan it's at a wedding.  In Afghanistan its among a group of girls learning to read.  In Congo it's in a village that got in the way of a war.  In all these places, even in our own hometowns, evil organizes, buys and sells its wares, seduces and steals hearts, corrupts intellect, breeds violence.

Rachel weeps and continues weeping for her children.  On that day long ago, Mary escaped with the little one, Jesus, and fled to another country where he continued his childhood as an undocumented immigrant, a refugee, a boy on the run.  So many other mothers were not so fortunate.  They were not consoled, because their babies were no more.  They would not see them play again.  They would not get to feed them again.  They would not see them grow, make them new clothes when they outgrew the old ones.  They had left only a long emptiness.

The kind of love that endures, relives, cherishes the moments, longs for one more shared embrace, is itself a sign of the depth of love we might find in God.  The mothers who weep in Gaza and Israel, in Columbine and Newtown, are themselves the image of a God who weeps.

It's not a day to say something sweet and neat about God's ultimate victory.  The boy in Bethlehem whose parents helped him flee infanticide, as a grown man eventually had to run away to Galilee after the next king in the dynasty beheaded his cousin and was looking for him.  The mother who was blessed to see her son live to adulthood had to witness his murder at the hands of another ruler from another land.  Rachel is weeping and is not consoled.  It is not the will of God that any should perish.  Today we try not to sink into the abyss by gingerly letting our feet and our tears fall on the breadth of God's sorrow at the way humanity dispatches our brothers and sisters without regret.  Today we hope against hope that such a God may one day deliver us.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hosea's Story Hammers Home the Main Idea

The prophet Hosea's story is filled with tragedy, betrayal, steadfast love, and hope.  It is a story readers find themselves caught up in.  Foreshadowing Jesus' parable of the lost sheep, Hosea goes to unexpected lengths to find and recover his wife.  He demonstrates a love deep and wide enough to keep seeking and drawing her back even with repeated unfaithfulness.  It is a story we could retell about a husband or a wife in our day, but the social stigma assigned to sex workers in Gomer's time and in our time entrenches this particular set of circumstances with moral and emotional power.  Readers seeking to know God find ourselves opened to a kind of wonderment about whether our God's love might pursue us as far into degradation as we might go.  Whether we paint it as personal immorality or becoming caught in the deadly structures of evil in the world, Gomer's path into the abyss strikes the reader as an extreme devolution of a life.

It is also a story that gets too uncomfortable for the straightlaced and proper church people.  What kind of fool takes a prostitute for his wife?  Who would expect a prostitute to become a life partner and a mother?  We don't know what demons pursue Gomer into self-destructive behavior.  We don't know if there is a hidden history of abuse in her family of origin.  We don't know if her "friends" conspired to get her alone and vulnerable, then rape her, destroying her trust in human relationships.  We don't know if her desire for excitement and risk kept her from settling into habits of a good life and created a downward spiral and cycle she could not seem to escape.  And "respectable" people may not want to know those things.  They are satisfied to know what she is:  a "whore," which they believe is what she will always be.  They don't really like to think about this story because it implies that people who made such terrible choices, choices they never made, might be as valuable to God as respectable people are.  It implies God might be a fool like Hosea.  It implies that some fool God or preacher might expect them to be in the same church with someone like Gomer.

This powerful story, punctuated by the allegorical naming of the children, dominates the opening chapters of Hosea's prophecy.  This narration of a family's struggles, this brief narrative, stands in as an embodied sign of the grand narrative of God's calling to Israel, and through Israel to all creation.  It speaks of a certain circumstance within that grand narrative.  It tells of a certain plot turning within the life of God.  That particular moment in the grand narrative addresses a particular situation in the history of Israel.

Thus intermixed with the narrative of Hosea, Gomer, and their children are clues to the particular crisis of God's people.  The first such clue appears in the opening statement.  It addresses when Hosea prophesied.  It was during the reign of Jereboam II.  The verses which follow, naming the firstborn son Jezreel, expand on this problem.  Jereboam II, of the dynasty of Jehu, is from a bloody, violent dynasty, and what went around with Jehu will now come around with Jehu's descendents.   Just as Jehu gained power through double regicide in Jezreel, Jezreel will be the sign of his dynasty's downfall.

Jehu committed regicide against the son of Ahab and Jezebel, then led a revolt that included assassination of all the living relatives of Ahab's Omride clan.  Jezebel was killed by her courtiers.  Jehu showed signs of trying to bring Israel back to God's purposes, but neither he nor his descendents eliminated the syncretistic worship of the Northern Kingdom.  Moreover, having also killed the king of Judah and severed the cooperative relationship with the Southern Kingdom, Jehu forged an alliance with Assyria, offering tribute, as a way to play the balance of power game against Syria and Judah.  The reigning dynasty was built on violence, ambition for royal power, and strategic military alliances.  It was far from the kind of social existence God intended for humanity.  Israel was no emblem of Yahweh.

In the continuation of Jehu's dynasty, Jereboam II's reign was long and prosperous, under the protection of Assyria.  His father, Jehoash, invaded Jerusalem and stole the Temple vessels and palace treasures, carrying them to Samaria, not exactly a sign of respect for the heritage of God's people.  Jereboam II's Assyrian protection from his neighbors to the north (Syria) and south (Judah) allowed the economy to prosper through trade.  This obsession with luxurious goods of trade shows up in 2:5, where the association with the Assyrian empire becomes tied to ready supplies of wool and flax, oil and wine.  Since Israel also exported olive oil and wine, the demand for imported oils and wines must have been focused among the wealthy looking for exotic and premium goods.  Further down in the same chapter, God reminds Israel that it is divine provision that gives them grain, oil, and wine.  The coming judgment will take away the imported flax and wool, signs of how they have become so enamored with the ways, the power, and the gods of the Assyrians.  Bedecked with gold and silver, they pursued the Assyrian imperial blessing, and turned away from God and their own people.

In this context of self-satisfied prosperity, of believing it is Assyria who blesses them, Hosea names his other two children.  A daughter receives the name "No Pity," and a son receives the name "Not My People."  These words deny any love remains.  These names break the covenant.  As Hosea's story continues, Gomer who has gone away becomes a sign of the eventual dispersement of the people into the nations, the extended and diasporic exile of the Northern Kingdom.  From this disappearance, this utter dissolution, God will come after Israel, as Hosea went to find Gomer who was lost to him and their children.  And Hosea promises that the children's names will change:  the daughter will be called "Pitied" and the son, "My People," even "Children of the Living God."

This prophetic family's story breaks open a view of what is happening in Israel in a certain moment in time.  This dynasty, reaching its greatest wealth under Jereboam II, is also reaching its greatest unfaithfulness to God.  They may be blind to how they have sought after other gods, but Hosea is driving home the main idea through this story.  A few of the specifics get hinted at in the opening chapters.  As the prophetic oracle continues, Hosea will make it plain where and why Israel has gone wrong and become unfaithful.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Hosea's Troubling Oracle

Last Sunday my mom said she had heard a good introductory Sunday school lesson at the beginning of a unit on the Prophet Hosea.  Then she asked, "What do you have to say about Hosea?"  This is, of course, an occupational hazard for theology professors.  Most people avoid conversation with me once they find out I teach theology and ethics to ministers, based perhaps on their presuppositions of what I must think about God and the world.  But others want me to weigh in on whatever recent idea or question they have had about any type of religious or moral question.

Sometimes this can be uncomfortable or tedious, but with Mom it's just a good chance to spin out things I have been thinking through.  In this case, I could only answer, "It's been a long time since I read Hosea."  But of course, a Mom's question deserves a better answer than that.  So a few hours later I opened up my Olive Tree Bible Reader and started working on Hosea.

Not so long ago, I started reading the Prophet Isaiah with the point of view that I would "see what I can see."  What quickly struck me was the way that my deeper journey into discipleship had given me a different sort of eyes than I once had as a Bible reader.  In this blog, I wrote a series of pieces about the singleminded emphasis of Isaiah on the economic injustices of Judah, perpetrated by the rulers and the wealthy elites.

Since that time I have come to realize that teaching certain strategies for reading can help people move from the individualistic and inward focus so often taught in US churches.  So I knew from the beginning that I would be looking for signs of social injustices, economic corruption, and ruling class oppression.  Unlike Isaiah, however, Hosea did not quickly turn to these specific characteristics of what had gone wrong in Israel.

The well-known story of Hosea has many parallels in Isaiah's prophecy, including the use of symbolic names for the prophet's children.  But Hosea brings the analogy of marital unfaithfulness to the front and center.  Israel is portrayed as the unfaithful wife, the wife who becomes a prostitute.  The analogy then compares judgment to a husband's disappointment, anger, lashing out, and abandonment of his wife.

Here in Hosea, the first of the Book of Twelve and one of the earliest literary or classical prophets, introduces a form of argument that becomes increasingly troubling as later prophets innovate and expand the analogy.  These are the "texts of terror," in which harsh and brutal treatment of women becomes a primary way of describing God's judgment.  There is no easy way around this problem.  It offers apparent divine tolerance for acts of battery, exposure, and rape.  It reiterates a violent patriarchal order as an accurate portrayal of the pattern of divine justice.

I will not try to apologize for the text.  There are many things that can be said about the historical context of writer and reader, and they may offer some explanation without providing an excuse.  Violence against women was and is wrong.  The overwhelming arc of scripture, reaching its apex in Jesus, cannot and does not condone it.  Yet when we read these prophets, the seemingly justified violence toward a weaker woman by a powerful man continues to operate as the quintessential and appropriate description of punishment for unfaithfulness.

Having said this, you will perhaps rejoice with me that finally in 4:14 Hosea at least lets the tables be turned briefly.  He says that punishing the women who have become prostitutes is not right, since it is the men who have sought prostitutes that are the cause of the unfaithfulness.  They have put in place the system which creates and encourages adultery, prostitution, and unfaithfulness.  It is they who are to blame and deserve to be punished.  It is not a complete turnaround, nor is it a "balance" for the other texts.  But at least it functions as a kind of subversive voice amid the terror.

Here also, is an important textual clue toward the larger issue of what has gone wrong in Israel.  There have been many clues up to this point, but it is really here and in chapter 5 that the reader can begin to put the puzzle together.  Hosea has focused on Israel's sin in general terms as "unfaithfulness" and "playing the whore."  Some clues in the early chapters help show that this entails idolatry and imperial alliances.  But finally Hosea is getting down to specifics of how the prophets, priests, rulers, and powerful have created a system that defies the God who took a wandering band of nomads and made them a nation.  These things don't happen out of thin air.  Powerful people make them happen.  That is where the fault lies as Hosea continues making his case. 

I'll return to the opening chapters to highlight the emerging argument in future posts.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Advent Aspect

When I was growing up, I did not know about Advent.  It had been swept away centuries before in the iconoclastic fury of the late reformation, bundled together with an inchoate bundle of artifacts and traditions under the category "Popery."  Any so-called Protestant still willing to hold on to such things fell into the class of "false churches," most notably because they continued the practice of infant baptism.

As a seminarian in my younger twenties, Advent came as a breath of fresh air.  It was a way of getting ready for Christmas that departed from the cultural liturgy of Santa praise, affluenzic consumption, and trumped up cheeriness.  It gave us more ways to be drawn back to the scriptures and the stories.  We learned that it was a time of waiting, a pre-celebratory season, a time to remember the difference between certitude and hope.  There were centuries in which tropes of Messianic promise took form in polyphonic harmony and dissonance (thanks Barry Harvey for this language).  The bluesmen and blueswomen that were prophets played and replayed these riffs as improvisational jazz (Jon Michael Spencer, Cornel West, and many others here).  It was music and language for meditation and imagination of God's presence and plan.

During the thirty or so years since that time, many Advents have come and gone.  In the intensity of graduate school, new jobs, and grading papers, the shine wore off for me and I just wanted to get the season over with.  Moments of interruption, when the Spirit would break into the monotony and stress would sometimes remind me what a gift the season of Advent could be.  Of course, other parents will remember with me, that in those years when Everly was pregnant with our three children, Advent took on a certain aspect, a recognition of the struggle of Mary who had fled her hometown embarrassed yet hoping for the word of Gabriel to be fulfilled.  And in the subsequent years when our three little infant children had their first Christmas, the wonderment of an infant child full of promise and blessing brought another aspect to Advent.

In this fifty-fourth Advent of my time in this world, there is a new aspect.  We have been doing lots of waiting this year.  We wait for the report on medical imaging scans.  We wait for the drugs to trickle into Everly's bloodstream.  We wait for the symptoms to start after each treatment.  We wait for the symptoms to subside again.  We wait to hear what the next step will be.  And we wait for a possible respite from this harsh mercy known as chemotherapy.  Shadows lurk in our going out and coming in.

Everly's work as an educator, a leader, and a world-changer has been intense, with long hours.  Now she waits to feel good enough to put in a couple of hours of activity during the day.  She waits for doctors and pharmacies to return her calls.  She waits for me to have the focus and drive to be her partner in all she is facing.  Whatever the future holds, she waits with confidence that she can share it with her loved ones.  Her siblings, her parents, our children, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law--we all stay close, treasuring the gift she is for each one of us.

Some of the triumphal theology of Americanism has eroded:  good riddance.  The idea that everything will always be the same as it has been sank into the sea.  It makes a little more existential sense why someone would ask, "How can we sing the songs of Zion now that all this has happened?"

So it is a good time to start anew in the Broadway household.  It is a good time to remember the stories of others who longed for redemption's song.  And it is a good time to remember that after waiting, the Word became flesh and moved in next door.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

United States of Mammon

In an election cycle when Ayn Rand's philosophy became fashionably chic, it's time to take a long, hard look at the structures and systems of politics.  In a season when billionaires organize foundations, institutes, think-tanks, and SuperPacs around remaking society to be more profitable to their mercantile interests, it's time to catch our breath and think about how we believe we should conduct political campaigns and elections.

And in either case, it will not take long to find the elephant in the room, the swollen sore thumb on the hand, the gaping sinkhole in the city square.  It's called Citizens United.  It's a decision handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States, striking down provisions of the McCain-Feingold legislation that aimed to regulate campaign finance.

Anyone concerned about the plutocratic momentum of US politics realized right away how awful this decision would be for politics.  On the other hand, it could also be called the "subsidies for professional political campaign workers" decision, in that it opened the floodgates of money for anyone who could successfully claim to be a political hack.

As is often the case, some of the most insightful reporting and commentary on current social topics finds its way into the radio program This American Life.  One outstanding episode looks at the role money plays in elections and politics, specifically addressing Citizens United: "Take the Money and Run for Office."  Momentum has been building over the past year to draft a constitutional amendment that would reverse the devastating legal doctrine passed down in Citizens United.

I first started hearing about organized efforts to amend the constitution on a podcast from Planet Money, a blog on the economy over at NPR, which does lots of reporting in cooperation with Morning Addition, All Things Considered, and This American Life.  The episode was titled "A Former Lobbyist Tells All," and it is an interview with Jimmy Williams, former lobbyist for the National Association of Realtors, describing aspects of the money rush for elective office.  Williams is now dedicated to reversing Citizens United through passage of a constitutional amendment.  You can listen to many other Planet Money episodes on money in politics at their site.

Williams's campaign has coalesced with others to form United Republic, with its campaign called Get Money Out!  He tells of many others working on this effort.  Numerous Senators and Representatives have put forth bills to amend the constitution.  There are other coalitions of groups working on this project, such as Amend 2012 (affiliated with Common Cause), Free Speech for People (led by several new media type organizers), and Move to Amend (a broad coalition of the progressive left).

For those of you who can remember your civics classes, you will recall that one way to amend the US Constitution is for three-quarters of the states to demand it.  So far eleven states have taken official action.  California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maryland, New Mexico, and Massachusetts have adopted legislation or written letters of petition to Congress calling for a constitutional amendment.  On Tuesday, Colorado and Montana voters overwhelmingly approved ballot initiatives calling for constitutional amendments.

I've talked generally about what is at stake here, focusing more on the problem and the current organizing work that is going on.  I don't want to give a technical treatise in legalese, but let me hit what I see as the key issues.  First, the doctrine that a corporation is a person has been stretched to idiotic proportions as the courts are applying the constitutionally defined rights of citizens to corporations.  The distinction between a corporation and a human being in relation to the constitution must be clarified.  Second, the doctrine that money is speech has also been allowed to expand beyond logic and steamroll the egalitarian notion that each person should have a voice in public discourse.  Campaign finance limits are a way of letting all citizens, regardless of their wealth, have a proportional measure of freedom to speak out.  Unlimited spending means some have the capacity to drown out the rest.  It takes us back to an old line from Charles Reade (usually misattributed to Dickens): "Well, every one for himself, and Providence for us all--as the elephant said when he danced among the chickens."

To close out the post, let me offer a letter to the editor I wrote in response to a call for action from Free Speech for People.

To the Editors:

Election day has passed, and for many of us it is a relief.  The money spent on electioneering and advertising set new records at all levels of office.  Amounts that would have been inconceivable a few years ago have poured into the election committees, PACs, and SuperPACs.  The massive infusion of dollars from a few wealthy people was made possible by the Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United.  That decision jumbled a few principles of US Constitutional Law and came up with a ludicrous and dangerous conclusion:  if corporations are persons, and if money is speech, and if persons have freedom of speech, and if corporations have lots of money, then corporations and anyone else with money should be free to spend and say as much as they want, true or not, to influence an election.

The decision swept away decades of legal tradition which distinguished between the personhood of human beings and the personhood of corporations in important ways.  It swept away decades of legal tradition which aimed to protect the one person-one vote principle of equality, not only in the voting booth, but also in the use of money to influence an election.  The result of Citizens United on subsequent elections has been to favor plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) rather than democracy (rule by the people).  The battle for truly democratic rather than plutocratic elections is one that bipartisan efforts of John McCain (Rep) and Russ Feingold (Dem) had fought for many years, only to see their hard word overthrown.  94% of elections are won by the candidate who spends the most money.  That's not an election, that's an auction. 

For those of us who prize democracy and long to see it flourish, the best sign of hope on election day came from propositions passed in two Western states.  In Colorado and Montana, voters overwhelmingly approved, with more than 70% of their votes, to call for an amendment to the US Constitution that overturns Citizens United, that knows the difference between a human being with rights and a corporation, and that authorizes governing bodies from federal and state levels to protect equality in election contributions.  These two initiatives join the nine previous states which have passed laws calling for this kind of constitutional amendment.

Now that so much money has been spent to influence the election, we can be sure that the people who wrote the checks will be looking for ways they can cash in on their investments, whether their candidates won or lost this time.  The rest of us need to be busy working for the end of this debacle known as Citizens United.  Thirteen bills for constitutional amendments are already introduced in Congress.  We need to act to save our voices in democracy now.

Dr. Mikael Broadway

Ready to Start Posting Again

Back in April I let you know that this blog would be on hiatus for a while.  Everly, my wife, has been dealing with cancer since the end of March, and the ensuing months have been busy with chemotherapy and readjusting our lives to a different future than we had expected.

As of now, we have hope that the chemotherapy is effective in slowing and even reversing the growth of tumors.  We are not anywhere near seeing the cancer disappear, but she has improved dramatically since that time.  I actually have been doing some blogging of a sort, but at a different site.  There is a great non-profit site called Caring Bridge, designed and offered to people dealing with cancer and other long-term, debilitating diseases.  It gives a central spot for information and communication with family and friends.  Some of you may have been reading my posts there.  If you are interested, here is a link.  I've done most of the journal updates, with a few by Everly herself.  The opportunity to write about our experiences as well as to receive responses from others has been a blessing.  I will continue to post there.

I have also had an occasional urge to get back to this blog.  One of the most powerful moments came when the South African platinum miners went on strike.  The utter disregard of the mining management toward the needs and interests of the miners struck me deeply.  So maybe one of these days I'll pick up that topic again.

As the election season intensified in the fall, I also thought about writing on topics of relevance.  But again, the cares and concerns of every day kept me from taking the time.  I am so blessed to be able to spend my days with Everly in a way we never could before.  On leave from her executive responsibilities, we are able to share meals, run errands, and do day-to-day things that are nice to do together.  I have not been willing to trade those in for blogging.

And I'm not trading them in now, either.  I just have finally seized the opportunity to sit and write on a subject more relevant to this blog than to the Caring Bridge Journal.  So I look forward to picking up this vocation again, although I cannot be sure how often it may be.  Thanks for your support, your patience, and for your interest in my writing.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sorry about the hiatus

I'm a bit behind in posting on this blog.  Partly, it is the distractions of work, partly lack of discipline.

For the last month, however, I have been completely inundated by a crisis.  My wonderful wife of almost 32 years, Everly, has been diagnosed with extensive malignant tumors in her liver and backbone.  After developing severe pain in her abdomen while traveling for work, the emergency room doctors found lesions in her liver.  Over a period of a week and a half it unfolded that she had cancer that would be very hard to treat.

Any of you would understand how this has overwhelmed us.  Moreover, she has spent most of the last two weeks in the hospital, fighting a range of symptoms partly related to chemotherapy and partly not. 

Certainly such a time as this has driven me deeply into my theological imagination and into my calling as a disciple, whose calling includes this covenant with Everly.  Writing has been helpful to me, and most of what I am writing has to do with updates for the myriad friends of Everly and our families.  If you are interested, you can read these at CaringBridge.

I hope to get back to this important work at "earth as it is in heaven" soon.  In the meantime, I appreciate your interest in my thoughts shown over the years.  If you are willing, I also appreciate your prayers.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Reviewing the Foreclosure Fraud Settlement

When the news broke about the settlement with the large mortgage servicing banks, led by the National Association of Attorneys General in cooperation with about a dozen federal agencies, I was happy and hopeful that the long months of work to get this done had come to a fruition about which I could be proud.  I knew it was possible, however, that the banks, partly through dragging their feet and partly through lobbying efforts, had gotten their way and avoided penalties for their despicable role in creating the housing bubble and unconscionably pushing foreclosures through without documentation or serious efforts to modify mortgages.

Probably both situations are partly true.  The reviews of the settlement by colleagues I have worked with in this effort have not been very favorable.  Today I will look at the criticisms from Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in light of the goals I previously highlighted in a July 2011 posting.  There I wrote the following.
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 or 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.
Baker's criticisms, which he calls the "big three" among many others that can be made, address a number of the points above.

He says first that it is not clear which loan modifications, principal reductions, and short sales will count toward the $17 billion amount the banks agreed to.  Will cases already completed or in progress count?  If so, then what does the dollar number mean about what banks will be expected to do now that the settlement has been agreed.  This raises the question whether there is "broad availability" of solutions, especially principal reductions, for homeowners.  If they can count what they have already done, and this pitifully small number has been set aside for the banks' total requirement, then most families facing foreclosure will not find any help in this settlement.

Second, Baker says, the banks may count loans they "service," not only loans they own.  So any principal write-downs or short sales in cases of serviced mortgages will not come out of the banks' own money.  They will be taking the money from owners of mortgage-backed securities or other purchasers of mortgages.  Obviously, it will be in their interest to use this legal caveat to avoid charging themselves any financial cost for their role in this crisis affecting so many homeowners.  In that sense, the agreement does not penalize the banks.  It allows them to use court authority to penalize investors.

Baker's third criticism addresses the last four of my points in the list above.  He says that thus far there is little evidence that the abuses that have led to and perpetuated this crisis have stopped.  He cites a case in San Francisco County, CA, in which an audit in the past month revealed a steady pattern of continued incomplete, falsified, and otherwise illegal documentation in foreclosure filings.  Fully 84% of the hundreds of filings had at least one violation of the law.  This matter of changing the way things are done is why North Carolina United Power continues its organizing strategy to audit county records to look for cases of foreclosure fraud.  Citizens, and public officials who will rise to their calling as public servants, must continue to gather data and press the case for changing the way of doing business when it comes to banking, mortgage, and foreclosure.

Defending Our Homes and Communities from NC UnitedPower on Vimeo.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on Hermeneutics

I've been in conversation with colleagues at Shaw, with students, and with old and new friends from other schools in recent days about hermeneutics and what matters to our faculty at Shaw University Divinity School.  Now let me say right away that we don't all agree at Shaw.  In fact, we could have some serious disagreements if we tried to nail down a united approach to biblical interpretation.  I reckon that would be true of most theological faculties.  Yet during recent conversations we have been to a great extent on the same page.

Having conversations about the approach to teaching New Testament that we believe is important for our Divinity School, one of the central things we agree upon is that our approach to theological education is rooted and grounded in the acknowledgement of our intentional social location:  we are teaching ministers in the context of the black church.  Perhaps some of you now are thinking, "Tell me something I didn't know."  You are right that it is obvious to anyone who takes a moment to learn about SUDS that our context is the black church.  Ninety-nine per cent of our students are African American, and they are almost all part of historical African American congregations and denominations.  Moreover, nearly all of our faculty are part of African American congregations, where some are pastors and most are ministers.  You may think I am just stating the obvious.

I'm not.

There is more to what I am saying than an observation about whom we associate with.  To say that we teach ministers in the context of the black church is not merely a statement about membership and skin color.  It is not merely a statement about "style," either.  It speaks up about vision, what we see and how we conceptualize.  I am on the verge of opening the floodgates here, but I will try to keep this concise.

I have previously mentioned the term "normative gaze."  This term presents the claim that dominant groups or elites function as the eyes of society.  The facts as they see them, the theories of social existence they hold, the interpretations of texts they favor--all of these become the normative way of seeing things.  Thus, as they gaze out upon the world, their eyes see normatively.  Seeing normatively, they thereby see things as they are.  These groups, having enculturated their majorities or their dominant communities, their ruling classes, and in the modern world, especially, their racial and ethnic majorities, can make claim to recognizing "the plain sense" of Scripture, the "literal" reading.

The normative gaze functions as a kind of blindness, or at least as blinders, to another set of data.  That is the data of minority cultures' counter-readings, counter-histories, and counter-narratives.  The normative gaze may look upon "diversity" and "multiculturalism" as ornamentation upon the normative vision.  It may see minority variations as fascinating boutiques, cultural sightseeing, but not as systemic challenges to the norm.  Of course, modern white supremacy has often categorized minority variations as steps along the way toward whiteness, as immature forms of knowledge, or even digressions from the normative path.  All such characterizations make sure not to question the supremacy of the normative gaze.  Thus, we can call this a kind of blindness.

Our faculty have converged on the conviction that the way of teaching ministers at majority institutions is not universal, general, or normative, but it is oriented toward the white church.  To even say "white church" creates some discomfort, some uneasiness.  It raises defensiveness among some faculty who have understood their approach to theological education to be without the need of an adjective, a modifier, a qualification.  They do not see what they are doing as white biblical interpretation.  I don't know if all my Shaw colleagues would agree with me in this precise statement, but I believe that is what is happening at most seminaries and divinity schools.

Saying that schools are teaching white biblical interpretation is not the same thing as saying those schools work for the Devil or that those professors are on the road to Hell.  I'm not saying that.  I am saying that the tradition of biblical interpretation which grows out of modern European and American scholarship and which operates within a self-referential community of academics and clergy is a narrow and parochial view of the text.  Of course, academics have been eager to call parochial such scholarly productions as black theology, African American biblical interpretation, womanist biblical scholarship, Latin American liberation hermeneutics.  Such work even claims for itself adjective-laden, modified, qualified labels.  I am merely saying that the unlabeled approaches are equally parochial and require modifiers and qualifications.

A second step in this conversation is that we believe that every approach to scholarship must seek out its own critics for the sake of conversation and removal of blinders.  North American Bible readers need to read what African and Latin American Bible readers are saying about the text.  Twentieth-century Bible readers need to read what fourth-century and thirteenth-century and sixteenth-century Bible readers were saying about the texts.  If we admit that much of our reading is captive to our cultural backgrounds, then a critical part of reading critically is to seek out ways that those who love God, serve Christ, and live in the Spirit have understood the Bible in different times and places.  Using various skills, methods, and techniques of interpretation are also valuable, as can be reading contemporary exegetical and expository interpretations of the Bible.  But alone, no technique, skill, or method can do as much as conversing across geographical and cultural boundaries, across centuries and continents.

So if you are wondering how we think about hermeneutics at Shaw, I am pretty confident these are some points on which we agree.  If my colleagues tell me otherwise, I'll let you know.  You know how these academic conversations go.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Long, Drawn Out Fight Against Foreclosure Fraud

In December 2010, I was part of a national gathering of citizens' groups who met with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller in Des Moines.  We announced and discussed with him our agenda to push for a just and broad-ranging settlement between the fifty states' Attorneys General, various key federal agencies, and the large banks who had committed fraud in their dealings with homeowners on mortgages and foreclosures.  Miller was the lead AG in the negotiations, and he was talking tough at our gathering.  At that time, we were hopeful for a settlement in the next six months.

During the ensuing months, NC leaders met twice with NC Attorney General and his staff to discuss progress and emphasize the need for justice for homeowners.  We continued to hope there would be a resolution in the near future.

That six months passed.  Then in July 2011, I joined another group of leaders in Chicago at the meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, where outgoing president of the group, NC AG Roy Cooper, presided.  We had conversations with various AGs and their staff, capping off our visit with a face-to-face meeting with four of the state AGs:  Cooper of NC, Miller of Iowa, Lisa Madigan of Illinois, and George Jepsen of Connecticut.  We came away from the meeting encouraged that our allies were continuing to fight, but discouraged that the final agreement remained elusive.  Hopes for a large fine to create a fund to assist homeowners were diminishing, with the figure $20 billion circulating widely (compared to the $700 billion bailout received by the banks).

Some state AGs threatened to pull out of the negotiations, frustrated over the compromises being forced by other state AGs, who were taking sides with the banks.  These compromises would gut their efforts for justice and leave citizens, municipalities, pension funds, and homeowners high and dry with no recourse.  Soon the California and New York AGs did withdraw from the negotiations.  Miller's reports to the public seemed to predict limited settlements that would let the banks off the hook.  The delays favored the banks, who continued to make large profits, pay out large bonuses, and foreclose on the little people, homeowners and the unemployed, who have no cash reserves to endure a prolonged battle.  News in the fall and winter showed little progress.

The Occupy Wall Street movement and its many sibling Occupy movements raised hopes.  Their agenda, as a mass movement, was less focused than our organizing had been.  However, they had similar concerns about big banks, the failed bailouts, people losing their homes, and an economy that serves only the elite 1%.  "We are the 99%" is a powerful cry of defiance.  I suspect that this movement played a part in building pressure on the state AGs to stand more firmly with the people suffering rather than with the banks stonewalling.

In part because of some organizing around foreclosure fraud in January, President Obama responded in the State of the Union Address that he had directed AG Holder to intensify his efforts on the foreclosure fraud issue, creating an office focused on bringing these negotiations to completion.  He then announced revisions in the HAMP program which would make unspent funds available to a larger range of homeowners.  He further changed the existing programs to bring Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac mortgages into eligibility for assistance.  So the end of January offered portents that change might be coming.

So I rejoiced to read the news this week that there are signs of progress toward a better settlement than had previously been intimated.  The fine paid by the banks will likely be larger than expected, even if still only around $25 billion.  The question of whether banks will be immune to further lawsuits seems to be shifting toward allowing homeowners, mortgage-based security buyers, and other interested parties the right to sue for damages.  This means that city, state, and private pension funds who were enticed into purchasing investments that were hiding toxic assets will have recourse to recover losses.  This could mean good news for so many people whose retirement savings were set back dramatically by the recent crash.

Keep watching for news that this drawn-out battle will end soon.  It's about time for justice.

Nathanael: A Person for Such a Time as This, Part 2

Continued from previous post

     Of course, Judas finally lost his way.  He may have become disillusioned with Jesus, impatient with Jesus’ unwillingness to take up violence against the oppressors.  He may have simply lost his vision and started wanting some riches.  Whatever it was, he turned against the best friend he ever had.  He made a terrible choice, and he regretted it as a terrible mistake.  He could not take back what he had done, and his co-conspirators laughed in his face and mocked him.  It was too much for him, and he took his own life.  Jesus saw the good in Judas, but Judas lost sight of the good in himself.
     I need to stop and make an important point about this story.  Some Christians believe that when a person takes his or her own life, it is an unforgivable sin.  The first important thing I must say is that we have no justification to try to put limits on the forgiveness and grace of God.  God is able to forgive without our permission, without our understanding, without our agreement, without our acknowledgement.  God’s grace is immeasurable, and it is greater than all our sin.  Destroying a human life is a grave act, and it is not one to be taken lightly.  God has never take our sin lightly.  God came in Jesus Christ to face sin down, head on, with all seriousness and gravity.  Consequently, Jesus died on a cross because of the murderous ways of humanity.  Yet from that cross, he cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 
     One reason that some Christians believe that there is no forgiveness for an act like Judas’s is that they have accepted a mechanical understanding of our relationship with God.  We know that we ought to confess our sins to God and ask for forgiveness.  Many Bible teachers who have helped me learn to serve God have spoken of the promise in 1 John 1:9 as the “Christian’s bar of soap.”  “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Yes, it is true that we ought to confess our sins.  But it is not true that God is keeping a checklist and making sure that we stop to name everything we did and ask forgiveness individually for each item.  God is not operating a sin accounting firm, trying to catch us and nab us for forgetting to confess.  If that kind of mechanical operation were required, we would be caught up in another form of works-righteousness:  it’s like believing God will only save you if you will always name every sin and ask for forgiveness for each one.  It is a way of saying that salvation is just an input-output machine.  Put in the confession.  Take out the forgiveness. 
     So even if a person dies before she or he has a chance to ask for forgiveness, God is not sitting at a desk making sure that every box has been checked off.  God has known us and loved us even before we were born into this world, and God has not stopped loving us even until now.  What can separate us from the love of God?  When we have faithfully sought after God in this life, God stands faithfully with us through our best and worst times, welcoming us into our eternal rest.  God is free to forgive us, even when we have not lived up to our side of the bargain.  Though we are faithless, God will remain faithful, for he cannot deny himself.
     Another disciple, Thomas, remains mostly unknown until after the resurrection.  We know him as doubting Thomas, because he found it hard to accept the testimony of others that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Frankly, I can see his point.  But what we have called doubting could also be called square dealing.  Thomas was not one to be impressed with fantastic theories, wild imagination, or fancy words.  If he were from the United States, he would have lived in Missouri.  Thomas would say, “Show me,” when the story sounded too fishy.  When someone’s explanation did not seem to add up, he would ask him or her to go over the story again.  Thomas asked people to “put up, or shut up.”  He wanted a practical, workable, realistic plan.  He did not want to be counting on something to appear out of thin air. 
     Jesus needs people who are not satisfied with endless talking and imagining what can be.  Some people need to bring folks like those back down to earth to start laying the paving stones toward progress.  Jesus needs people to keep it real, to be a down brother or sister who knows what’s jive and what’s real.  Jesus called Thomas to help keep his ministry team on the ground and dealing with reality.
     Simon the Canaanean was probably a Zealot.  That means he was committed to the overthrow of the Roman Empire and the reestablishment of a Jewish state in their homeland.  Jesus knew that Simon loved his people and hated to see them treated so badly.  He saw in Simon someone who could analyze the political and social world and recognize how power functioned and who was pulling the strings.  Jesus called him to follow because that kind of insight is needed if God’s people are going to live up to their mission to change the world.  Certainly Simon’s revolutionary ways needed to be tempered by the meek and nonviolent ways of Jesus.  But taking up the ways of nonviolence is not the same as just letting the oppressors do whatever they want.
     Jesus wants leaders who can see the political and economic injustices of the world and guide the church to take strategic action.  Some Christians who have this kind of insight may misuse it to manipulate power in the church.  Others may think the church has no use for their abilities.  But God wants all of our talents to be ordered toward the work of doing the will of God here on earth as it is in heaven.  When churches simply ignore the use and abuse of power in the community, they have truncated, or cut short, the gospel.  God is concerned about every part of our lives and every person in the community.  Using the wisdom God has given us about social strategies for change is what God has called us to do in the gospel.  That is good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed.
     Thaddaeus may be the one we know least about.  His name probably meant strong-hearted.  He may have been, like Simon, a Zealot.  But whether or not he was part of that movement, Jesus needs people who have strong hearts, courage to act, and love that does not fade under pressure.
     There was another James in the list, and it tells us his dad’s name was Alphaeus.  We also know very little about him.  Some think he might have been a cousin of Jesus.  Maybe because his dad’s name is given, it means he was from a famous family.  In either of these cases, it seems that a key aspect of his calling was his connections to people.  When Jesus calls us, he calls us in the midst of our relationships.  He expects us to be a lifeline to those around us.  As friends of Jesus, we become part of a chain, the so-called six degrees of separation, by which we link one another to Jesus through our witness, our service, and our caring relationships.
     That brings us finally back to Nathanael.  What I find particularly compelling in this story today is what Jesus said about the man.  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”  Jesus calls Nathanael an honest man.  Nathanael tells the truth.  He says what he thinks and not what he thinks Jesus wants to hear.  Jesus admires this characteristic in a world where flattery and fluffy talk are the rule of the day.  When everyone is thinking it and no one wants to say it, we need a Nathanael to break the ice.  When the doublespeak has fogged our vision, someone needs to speak up and tell what is wrong.
     Jesus calls people like Nathanael who will be willing to take the heat and tell the truth anyway.  It’s not the same thing as saying everything that is on our minds.  That might turn out to be cruelty, rudeness, and half-truths.  But when people are beating around the bush, the church needs someone who will make things plain.  When the competing stories leave everything fuzzy, someone needs to lead the way toward a clear picture of things.  When everyone is afraid, someone has to name the problem.
     Jesus saw Nathanael as the person for such a time as this.  Jesus’ elder cousin and mentor, John, was being discredited by powerful people.  The fledgling movement was under attack.  Political intrigue between powerful Roman, Herodian, and Jewish leaders seemed to shift the landscape everyday.  Nathanael was ready to say what needs to be said.  Jesus could help him find the truth that everyone needs to hear.
     On this weekend we remember a man who might have been any ordinary man.  Martin Luther King, Jr., was a preacher’s son who was blessed to get an excellent education.  He was ready to fit into his role as an urban pastor, doing the expected duties and nothing spectacular, but Jesus had a task for him.  While he did not fully know what gifts and talents he had, Jesus needed a Nathanael to tell the truth.  Jesus needed a Simon to see the political landscape and think strategically.  Jesus needed a Peter to step out boldly when everyone else was timid.  Jesus needed a Son of Thunder to blast forth the trumpet of justice.  Jesus needed an Andrew sold out to God, longing to know and love God better in all dimensions of life.  Jesus needed a James who would use his connections to build a movement and bring more and more people into the vision of freedom only Jesus could offer. 
     And in our day Jesus needs a Nathanael who will stand up to the bankers and to say God expects them to be stewards of the people’s money, not gamble it away and steal it bit by bit.  God needs a Nathanael in whom there is no deceit to remind the public officials whom they serve and whom they need to protect.  God needs a Nathanael to tell our neighbors and friends that Jesus came to give us a life in which loving God and loving one another shape the parameters of our existence.
     Jesus is calling us today to be a person for such a time as this.  Whatever our gifts, whatever our abilities, whatever our talents, whatever our skills—Jesus has sized them up.  Jesus has a place for them.  Jesus has a place for you.  Jesus has a place for me.  Jesus is calling us to walk in his way.  Jesus is calling us for such a time as this.
     If you have never answered the call to follow Jesus, you need to know that he has looked you over, sized you up, and said, “Follow me.”  Jesus can take whatever mess you have made of your life and put you on the right way, the way to life, the way to a future and a hope.  God is ready and able to forgive whatever you may have done. 
     You may have been sitting at home, or sitting in church, for some time, thinking you have nothing Jesus could want.  You may have become discouraged about your life and your usefulness to God.  I’m here today to say that God has not made any junk.  God has not populated this world with useless people.  God has a plan for your life.  God has a job for you to do.  If you are ready to take up the gospel call and stop sitting on your hands, then Jesus will make it plain what you need to do.  Don’t let yourself become deadwood in the building God is building.
     Jesus is telling us to “Come join in.”  Follow Jesus on the way to life.  There is a job for you to do, a place for you to stand, a reason for you to live.
   

Nathanael: A Person for Such a Time as This, Part 1

First preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC, January 15, 2012

John 1: 43-51

     What sort of time is this?  It is a time of economic crisis affecting families.  Families struggle to maintain their homes, to keep or find jobs, and may have to delay or set aside their educational goals.  It is a time of economic crisis for institutions.  Institutions such as churches and universities, public schools and medical facilities, struggle to keep their programs running at minimal funding and staffing, hoping for a change that will bring donations, remuneration, government funding, faculty, employees, student enrollment, and service workers back to a more reasonable level.  It is a time of economic crisis in the housing industry.  Housing values continue to drop, putting homeowners under water.  People wanting to sell a home receive offers far below their expectations, and people wanting to buy search far and wide trying to get a loan.  Many neighborhoods have as many empty, foreclosed homes as there are occupied homes.  It is a time of economic crisis for jobs.  With so many jobs shut down and taken overseas, the employment base has crumbled.  Jobs dependent on high levels of consumption have disappeared along with the easy credit of the housing boom and bubble.  All the paper wealth five years ago has turned into unemployment and foreclosure for workers.
     What sort of time is this?  It is a time of war.  War drags on almost endlessly in the strategic battle to control oil and gas reserves.  Wars are threatened or break out over trade as countries try to maneuver for advantage over one another.  Wars continue in Africa over cattle or control of precious gem mining.  Wars erupt when popular movements demand change in dictatorial regimes across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  Leaders foment wars in the name of revenge.  Bigots go to war because they nurse hatred toward their neighbors.
     What sort of time is this?  It is a time of political disarray.  Four who hope to run for president accuse one another of the basest of motives and most despicable acts.  Congressional leaders stand in the way of just and humane policies for the sake of defeating their opponents.  Political speeches target scapegoats as the cause of all social problems, all the while ignoring the obvious roads to progress.  Corporate money plays an ever-bigger role in political decisions, and the politicians seem happy to keep it that way.  And as the political wheels keep turning round and round, the public sentiment increasingly disapproves of everyone in government and politics.
     What sort of time is this?  It is a time of change and unexpected arrangements.  I can be a full-time professor at Shaw in North Carolina and a resident of Texas, spending one-third of my time in North Carolina, teaching both face-to-face and through the technological advances of the internet.  It is a strange time, a time of change, a time of challenge, a time of struggle, and a time for people to rise up and hear the call of God.
     Today’s Gospel reading tells a familiar story about the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry.  Two of the four gospels introduce Jesus to us through stories of his birth, infancy, and early childhood.  All of the Gospels tell us about his cousin John, the forerunner, who begins the work by stirring the hearts of people throughout Israel.  Then just as we are getting acquainted with the grown man, Jesus, he begins to call together a team of followers.  The stories are brief.  These thousands of years later, we only know the sketchiest of details about most of the early followers of Jesus.  Even among some of the best known, the twelve we often call “the disciples,” our knowledge is limited. 
     Perhaps in the first century, when these literary works were being composed, many more stories and details about these followers of Jesus were circulating.  At least in Galilee, families and church elders had told stories about Jesus and the people around him, stories that did not all get transcribed into the record of Jesus’ life and times that the Gospel writers finally recorded.  Thus, what we are left with are a few fragments of a greater story, a story whose fullness would be too great for all the paper and ink that we could gather.
     Yet we need not be despairing about the fragments that come down to us in the Gospels.  They are not mere random scraps patched together.  They are stories chosen with a purpose.  They convey central truths about the presence of God in this world as revealed in the divine and human one, Jesus Christ.  Therefore, with this premise that what we can read in the Gospels is rich with significance, there should be much for us to glean by examining stories about the ones whom Jesus invited to join in his work.  We can still learn from the ones who left behind their work and homes and families to take up the great adventure of announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, when God will reign in love and justice in this world.
     At this point in the Christian year, after Advent and Christmas, after celebrating Epiphany, we enter the season in which the Lectionary offers us stories from Jesus’ months and years of preaching, teaching, healing, confronting, and ministering, the fruition of the life to which he was called and for which he was born.  Here on this second Sunday of the season, we read about an episode during which he was gathering others to work alongside him.  Nathanael, who is likely also known as Bartholomew in the other Gospels, is one of the twelve.  Some others are better known to us:  Simon Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Judas Iscariot, Thomas, Matthew, Andrew, and Philip.  Others may be less well known—another James, Thaddaeus (who may also have been called Jude), and another Simon. 
     Reading this story of Nathanael elicited questions in my mind.  What was significant about this story that made it important enough to write down in John’s Gospel?  Who are these people, and why did the Gospel writers remember them?  Why does knowing about these people help us to know and love God better? I propose that there are good reasons to look at the stories of Jesus’ calling of the disciples.  Above all, we can learn about the way Jesus is still calling people today.  Jesus did not come into the world to be a recluse or a solitary old codger.  He came into the world as an outpouring of the love of God for humanity.  He came to draw people to God, to attract people to a way of life, to bring people together who had divided themselves from one another.  He came to enjoy God and enjoy his fellow human beings.  Jesus is still calling you and me to let God’s love flood our lives.  He is still offering a better way for us to live.  He is calling us to stop building walls that divide us.  He is inviting us to a feast, to relish the wonder of this marvelous world where God has placed us.  Yes, the stories of the disciples help us understand that Jesus steps out into our world and says, “Come with me.” 
     We can see evidence of those very things in the story of Nathanael.  Off by himself, perhaps a bit too sure of himself, or should I say a bit to full of himself, even a bit too self-satisfied, Jesus calls Nathanael to join in his mission.  So Nathanael leaves his comfy little shade tree to take on the challenges of Jesus’ way.  He lets Jesus break the yoke of self-satisfaction and enters the yoke Jesus offers, a yoke in which Jesus is bearing the greater burden.  Nathanael becomes overwhelmed by the power and wisdom of this man he previously underestimated.  In the brief story of Nathanael, there are many things we can learn.  Among those things, one may be that we can learn why Jesus called this particular person to become his partner in ministry.  I will come back to this story of Nathanael.  But first, let’s take a look at the other eleven whom Jesus called.
     Maybe, in fact, we can discern something similar about the other disciples as well, if we give some freedom to the sacred imagination.  Why did Jesus choose these people? 
     John’s Gospel suggests that the very first of the twelve to begin following Jesus may have been Andrew and Philip.  It tells us that these two had been following John the Baptist, listening to him preach, even assisting in his work.  When John introduced Jesus to the crowds, they determined to follow him to see what sort of person he was.  Andrew and Philip were devoted to God.  They had already, even before meeting Jesus, focused their lives around becoming close to God and serving people who were seeking after God.  They were not merely satisfied to meet the legal requirements of religion.  They were out in the countryside, helping set up the camp meetings, listening, praying, and doing what John asked them to do.  So when they inquired after Jesus, he told them to come along.  They spent the whole day together, and Jesus saw what kind of people they were.  Jesus called Andrew and Philip because he could see in them an unquenchable thirst for God.
     Do you thirst for God?  Do you long to be in a right relationship with the one who made heaven and earth and placed you in the midst of it?  Longing for God’s presence and love is in the very nature of who we are, and nurturing that longing helps us to get on the path toward its fulfillment.  Jesus looks upon our longings and seeks to redirect them in the right path, a path that will lead us to know and love God better.  Count it a gift if you already find in yourself a deep thirst for God.  Like Andrew and Philip, Jesus will honor your longings and draw you near.
     Andrew’s brother was Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter.  Peter was not exactly like his brother.  He was busy with the family business.  Maybe he thought Andrew was not being practical enough.  Yet he must have been raised by his parents to understand that nothing else can replace having a right relationship with God.  After spending the day with Jesus, Andrew went home to find his brother, and he brought him to Jesus.  Based on the many stories of Simon Peter in the Gospels and Acts, we have a better picture of him than of any other member of the twelve.  Peter was strong and solid, and not merely in bodily strength.  Jesus called him a rock.  For the most part, the stories of Peter show his courage and exuberance.  These qualities are what Jesus saw in Simon Peter, and they show us why Jesus called him to join up. 
     The reasons for calling James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were probably similar to the reason for calling Peter.  They picked up the nickname “Sons of Thunder.”  They were bold, outspoken, perhaps excitable and boisterous.  Thunder is loud, and it can shake the buildings we are in.  The stories tell us that on the day Jesus called them, James and John were at the seashore working hard.  He must have observed their work ethic and perhaps their lively and boisterous conversations.  Maybe on another occasion he had seen their tempers explode into shouting.  Such passion misdirected can lead to harmful actions and violence, but if powerful passions are turned toward love and justice they can bear fruit for good.  Jesus saw in these powerful fishermen a potential for bold preaching and hard work to change the world around them.
     What makes you become passionate?  Do you sometimes feel a welling of emotion, of anger or resentment, and wonder if you can keep control?  God made us to be emotional beings, and covering up our emotional side, trying to hide our passions, is not what God wants for us.  Rather, God wants us to learn to aim our emotions toward the right objects.  Love our neighbors, not our money.  Hate injustice, not people.  Be angry and sin not.  Do not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth.  God has made us passionate beings that we may pursue what is good for us and our neighbors.  Thus, our loves have a direction.  They should all move in the direction of loving God with our entire heart, mind, and strength.  Jesus saw the potential for such powerful love in the brothers, James and John.  He still calls people who can turn their passion toward doing good for others.
     When Jesus was getting to know people around the towns of Galilee, he sometimes fell in with a disreputable crown.  That is how he found himself having a party with a group of tax collectors and other shady fellows.  He came to know one of them named Matthew, probably also called Levi.  Matthew enjoyed having the gang over for a good time.  He also was a shrewd businessman.  Jesus saw him in the city gates taking care of business when it was time for work.  He saw how Matthew had turned his talents toward getting rich and having a good time with his riches.  What if his active mind could be busy with the Lord’s work?  What if his insight into what makes people tick could be channeled into ministry?
     It’s so common in our lives that we find what we are good at doing, but then we keep it to ourselves.  By that I mean that we figure out how to do our thing for me, myself, and I.  We use our talents to boost ourselves, and the friends we make become just so many stepping stones to getting our own little kingdom.  But Jesus sees our skills and talents as ways to bless the people that come our way.  He sees the energy and effort of Matthew repurposed for the good.  He sees a way that every one of us can do what we are best at in service of God.
     Judas Iscariot must have been a man with a purpose.  He had a strong focus on what he wanted to accomplish.  Some think he may have been part of a revolutionary cell who attached himself to Jesus as the most promising leader of the day.  Others see him as more self-serving.  We read about him in hindsight.  The Gospel writers introduce him as the one who betrayed Jesus.  But when Jesus called the disciples, that betrayal was far in the future.  I have no doubt Jesus could anticipate that someone close to him might not remain loyal, but I don’t believe Jesus went out looking for a traitor to join his team.  Jesus attracted and invited followers who would devote themselves to building up God’s reign on earth.  Judas Iscariot showed promise in his hard-nosed dedication to keep things moving toward the goal.  He may have struggled with patience, wanting Jesus to get on with the revolution and not dilly-dally with things that Judas saw as frivolous.  But that is not necessarily a bad quality; it just needs refinement.
     Jesus needs some people who are impatient about the injustices of this world.  Jesus needs some people who don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over when it has not worked the first ten times we tried it.  Jesus needs some people who don’t want to burn daylight when they could be making a difference.  Jesus may call you to use that inner drive, that longing for change, that love of getting things accomplished, and to direct it toward the work of the Kingdom of God.


Continued in next post

Monday, February 06, 2012

Waiting for Life to Happen

Back in November, this essay appeared as a guest post on Stan Dotson's blog, Daily Passages.

Daily Passages:  Prophetic Passage for Nov. 10
Guest writer Mike Broadway

Fellow Passengers:  This week’s Prophetic Passage (Isaiah 55:6-13) transports us to that inward place where we find ourselves twiddling our thumbs, spinning our wheels, waiting for life to happen.  The inward place may correspond with any number of outward places:  a doctor’s office waiting room, a line at the department of motor vehicles driver’s license office, a room full of people trying out for a part in a show, a bed in the dark after drinking too much caffeine.  Sometimes the place where we are waiting for life to happen is more like being trapped:  a job from hell, a jail cell, a mountain of debt, a deafening silence between spouses.

Isaiah was writing to the people of Judah in exile, far from home in Babylon.  As a displaced minority, most of them probably lived in substandard housing on marginal land.  The first generation remembered better times back home, and the new generation had heard the stories and built up the resentment that goes with being an outsider in the only home you have ever known.  It would not have been hard for these people to find themselves in that inward place of waiting for life to happen.  When will we go back home?  When will we get our piece of the pie?  Maybe after a little longer, things will start to go right.

At the very beginning of their sojourn in Babylon, Jeremiah had warned them about this kind of thinking.  He told his people in Babylon to settle down, build houses, have families, and make the most of life wherever they were.  As the bestselling title from Jon Kabat-Zinn cribs from ancient wisdom, WhereverYou Go, There You Are.  Now decades later, Isaiah speaks again into this pain in which people wait for life to happen while life is passing them by.

Anyone whose livelihood depends on the land might know this place of waiting during severe drought conditions.  The prophet describes the water cycle and the productivity of the farm to remind the people that much is happening when they may not be able to see it with their eyes.  Water disappears into the soil to do its work.  It evaporates invisibly and makes its way toward cooler altitudes to form clouds.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  More is going on than the drudgery of the daily routine.  When our eyes are fixed on the television or computer screen, a whole world of life is going on outside that tunnel of vision.  While I wait to get a new driver’s license, so many other people are getting theirs.  My moment of seeming stagnation means I am ignoring a universe of frenetic activity.  In my moment of isolation, God is present and loving in infinite worlds and ways.  Am I really destined to miss out on all that while I’m in a stuck place?

What the prophet wants his friends to remember is that their time is limited.  They do not have an endless number of mornings.  If they can’t change everything about their situation, they can at least try to find what God is doing in the middle of their little patch of the world.  Isaiah is convinced that when they start looking they will find with William Blake, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . . . There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”  They will find that at root, it’s all grace.  It is grace on grace on grace.  Grace all the way down.  When we’re waiting for life to happen, grace happens.  Settle into it.  Wallow around in it.  Breathe it in deep.  Go ahead on.

How about you?  Where does this prophetic passage take you on your journey?

Getting Back to the Task, and a Word About Elijah

I guess it looks like I'm not really trying to be a blogger.  It's about time I got back on the task.

As for my most recent post about Elijah, I accept the comments saying I'm overstating my case.  If I have implied some limits on the grace available to Elijah or the rest of us, I should not have done that.  God's grace, freely given, is a boundless wellspring.  My point is that in my previous readings of this story, I have assumed a narration sympathetic to Elijah.  However, as I reconsidered the text, I was inclined to reject that previous reading.  The story lacks praise for Elijah's actions.  If that is wrong, show me where I should read the narration as claiming his acts are praiseworthy.
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