If you haven’t been following the Occupy Wall Street protests and the affiliated “We Are the 99 Percent” blog, you should. Because I’m not sure there’s a more chilling example of what happens when Christians fail to imbue their culture and their government with the spirit and mission of Christ.
It’s Summit here on campus, which means three days of lectures and classes about pretty much any Bible-related topic you can imagine. The organizers have done a better job recently – certainly better than when I was an undergrad – of making the event more interesting to students and younger attendees, and as a result some real superstars of Christianity (oxymoron?) have been on stage, or soon will be. People like Shane Claiborne last year and Rachel Held Evans and alumnus Max Lucado this year.
Yesterday, however, it was Barron Jones’ turn. Jones
preaches is a former minister (see correction in the comments) at Laurel Street Church of Christ in San Antonio, and he had some thought-provoking comments on the nature of the church and its involvement with politics.
“The church has formed an unholy and ungodly alliance with Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We are the fools who go along for the ride.”
For those on the right, he launched a volley of inflammatory comments:
“Some of you white people are afraid the president is a black man,” he said. “And you say, ‘Oh no, I just don’t like his politics.’ Please. That’s like saying, ‘I have two black friends, so there’s no way I can be racist. I’ve been to a black church once.'”
“The dead babies are dead, and unfortunately it’s legal to kill them in this country, but the dead babies are gone. What are you going to do for the live ones? … I see a lot more excitement in our churches for hiring preachers and paving parking lots than feeding orphans. What if the church shut up about abortion and every Christian family adopted a foster child in the name of Jesus Christ?”
Continuing through our dual readings of Crazy Love and Evolving in Monkey Town, my wife and I have been struck by how often Francis Chan and Rachel Held Evans are traveling down parallel pathways, tackling the same themes at the same time, but each looking at them from a different vantage point.
Chan uses his podium to express certainty, Evans to (thus far) express doubt, yet they agree on the conclusion: To love Jesus and truly practice Christianity means caring for the people he cared for – the poor, the needy, the neglected, the outcast.
But one significant disagreement is on the subject of hell. Chan does a lot in the early chapters of Crazy Love to cement the evangelical obsession with in-or-out, saved-or-unsaved, while Evans in the middle chapters of her book is breaking down those beliefs (out in front of Rob Bell, by the way), pointing out the Bible’s surprising ambiguity about what happens after we die.
Last night, the chapters we read from their books each featured a lengthy passage from Isaiah. Evans chose Isaiah 55 to illustrate the incomprehensible heights of God’s mercy, while Chan goes with Isaiah 58 to drive home the importance of responding to God’s love by passing it along to the least of these.
It strikes me that within three chapters, Isaiah essentially captures everything we should need to know about God: Continue reading Messages from Isaiah
Let me explain.
I visited our old church yesterday. We have some fond memories there, in part because we still have some great friends who attend, in part because I’m not sure where we’d be today without the family we developed there. We moved just two weeks after our younger daughter was born in late 2009, but we returned a week later to have her dedicated there, and I told the congregation we named her Grace because we had learned so much about that precious gift through our time fellowshipping with that incredible community.
But it’s an unusual congregation. In many ways, it’s like how I grew up, with no single preacher and a worship service without any published order that frequently changes depending on how the Spirit moves that day. But there was also a praise band (I grew up with a cappella worship), and once in a while someone would prophecy or speak in tongues (definitely not allowed where I grew up), but probably not often enough to please most people who really believe in that sort of thing.
The leader of the local Republican Party attended, and sometimes he would blend his day job with his faith from the pulpit to a degree with which I wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t terribly often, so I endured. That congregation ministered to us in a dark place, and through its members, God showed us what grace was, and how, whether we knew it or not, he was going to use his grace to transform our lives.
So I was excited to return yesterday, and it was with considerable dismay that I heard the pastor say he was going to devote “however long it takes” to some testimony time from a team that had gone on a missions trip to New Orleans (no problem there) and spent the day at The Response in Houston on their way back.
But, as usual, God had some things to say to me and, not surprisingly, they mostly dealt with judgment.
Principally, just because we believe something is out of line with our convictions does not mean God doesn’t have great things planned for it.
Now, I have some friends who have been saying the same thing to me for a few days, but I mostly dismissed their arguments as tantamount to the ends justifying the means. And I’m not ready to totally concede that argument.
But listening to the testimony of people whose faith I would readily describe as stronger than mine, people who said they heard God speak clearly that he wanted them to take a team to Houston and participate in Gov. Rick Perry’s prayer event … well, how do I respond to that?
I can dismiss them as liars or deceived, or I can recognize that God is using an event with shady origins to do great things anyway. In other words, God is taking an imperfect instrument of humanity and using it anyway. Kind of like he does with me.
In my previous post, I noted the prophets seem to be primarily concerned with justice, particularly how its administered toward the poor. On top of that, God says more than once through different authors writing no fewer than 100 years apart that he doesn’t care what we can do for him; he cares what we do for others.
This point strikes me as particularly salient given what’s happening in Texas right now. Gov. Rick Perry, who seems likely to join the 2012 presidential race, has organized a massive prayer vigil in Houston for Aug. 6. In announcing the event, which is called “The Response,” he wrote the following for the event’s website:
Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.
Some problems are beyond our power to solve, and according to the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, this historic hour demands a historic response.
There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.
Meanwhile, comes a report from The Dallas Morning News that the state, despite experiencing record-high levels of extremely dangerous heat, is withholding money usually allocated to help the poor and elderly pay their electric bills.
The Dallas Morning News reported Saturday the state has collected $130 million this fiscal year to help financially strapped Texas residents pay for the cost of electricity used for cooling, but has provided only $28 million so far to those who need it.
The reason: State lawmakers have locked away the money to deal with the budget shortfall. The state is now spending only half as much as it did to help the poor and elderly get through the summer a decade ago.
Texas has a rainy-day fund, one that could significantly alleviate the state’s major budget shortfall for the 2012-13 fiscal years, but Perry refused to tap into it. And since he has veto power, the Texas Legislature made up for the $12 billion shortfall it faced in those years by slashing education and items that help the poor, such as the above-cited assistance for electric bills.
So, given the verses cited in my last post, it seems Perry’s priorities are not really in line with what the prophets indicate are God’s priorities. He’s focused on giving up thank offerings to Jesus when God is really interested in how Perry is helping the least of his people. Which is ironic because Perry himself cites the prophets as justification for the event.
But this brings up a larger issue: When Christians enter politics, to what extent should they mingle the perceived demands of their faith with their constitutional duties?
Every morning — well, the ones when I wake up on time — I read a chapter or two in the Bible and read the study guide notes at the bottom of the page (because why have an NIV Life Application Study Bible if you’re not going to read the notes, right?). It’s nothing fancy, but it works for this stage of my life, when I feel like I’m rediscovering the Bible and what it means for me on a day-to-day basis.
I didn’t really pick the prophets. Maybe they picked me.
An acquaintance of mine in a men’s group said he recommended to people just starting to read the Bible for the first time to start with Jeremiah. I thought it was an odd choice, but as I was trying to restart a scripture-reading habit, I figured I’d give that a go. Having read through Jeremiah … I still think it’s an odd choice; I wouldn’t recommend it to someone just starting out. But for my life, where I was at the time — and where I still am a lot of the time — starting there and just continuing on actually worked.
From Jeremiah, I moved through Lamentations, then Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah and Jonah. I’ve just finished Micah. In a way, the minor prophets reward you because they’re short, and you can work through one in a week — or, in Jonah and Obadiah’s case, a day. But they’re not easy books to read.
For one, there is a lot of anger. God spends most of these books instructing his prophets to condemn the nations of Israel and Judah using every manner of colorful metaphor, analogy and description, some subtle, some not. In Ezekiel and Hosea, God minces no words by describing the countries as prostitute sisters in quite a bit of detail (Apparently, God didn’t get the memo that “G” and “PG” are the only appropriate ratings for Christians because that’s definitely some “PG-13”- to “R”-level stuff.)
In his wonderful blog, one of Dr. Richard Beck’s frequent exhortations is to capture “the imagination of the prophets.” For Beck and his belief in universal reconciliation, this means understanding that judgment is not a permanent state, that the prophets always follow despair with hope.
I certainly don’t disagree with that analysis, but for me, I’m finding that the language of the prophets is a window into the very heart of God. These are God’s words to the people he chose, pleading with them to come back to him, warning them desperately of the consequences of living apart from his protection, willing to accept them no matter what they’ve done, eager to “repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.”
And as a record of God’s efforts to communicate directly to his people, it seems the prophets are especially instructive for us. After all, we too are his people. And I keep seeing a thread revealed throughout these books, written over a span of hundreds of years. See if it becomes clear to you, too:
“Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. … Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it. They do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?” declares the Lord. “Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?” Jeremiah 6:26, 28-29
“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” Jeremiah 9:23-24
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from al your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:25-26
I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. Hosea 2:19-20
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me grain offerings and burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the noise of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:21-24
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with 10,000 rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:6-8
God is a God who loves to dispense mercy and forgiveness. Not because he has to or feels obligated by some covenant he set up thousands of years ago. But because he wants to. Because what he wants most of all is for us — for me — to be with him. I love the imagery God employs through his spokesmen: a heart of stone replaced by a heart of flesh, a holy betrothal, the aforementioned repayment of destroyed property. We are broken people, and God has an eternal supply of glue and paint.
Believe it or not, it’s taken me quite a long time for me to learn that. It’s so easy to project onto God our own failings of character, our own imperfect ideas of love, forgiveness and justice. It’s so easy to make being a Christian about what we think we can do and forget it’s about what he’s already done and what he’s asking us to do in return.
Because, yes, it seems clear that God definitely has some expectations for his children, just as I have expectations for my daughters and any good but imperfect parent has expectations for their parent (“How much more will your Father … ?”). And what are those expectations?
They are summed up so well in Micah 6:8, but I fear that verse has become something of a cliche, probably around the time it became part of a Steven Curtis Chapman song. The context is so much more meaningful to me, especially when viewed in light of the other prophets and what they have to say on the same subject.
Amos and Micah both ultimately say: God cares nothing for my prayers, my songs, my churchgoing, my sacrifices — none of it — if I cannot practice justice, mercy and humility in my daily walk with others. And the indictments God levels against his people in Ezekiel and Jeremiah indicate that these qualities manifest themselves chiefly in how I treat those less fortunate than I am. In how we as Christians treat those less fortunate than us. The mercy I’ve received means nothing if I cannot pass it on to others who need a glimpse of it so desperately.
You’ve probably noted the title of this post, and perhaps you can sense where this ultimately is going, but we’ll get to that later. For now, I’d rather focus on the language of the prophets — the beautiful, timeless language of mercy.