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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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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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