Wonder & Amazement

28 08 2009

prophetic-imaginationIn the sixth chapter of The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann juxtaposes several verses from the Gospels (a sample shown below, with a few more added in, for lagniappe):

“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching.” (Mt. 7:28)
“The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (Mk. 1:22)
“The disciples were amazed at his words” (Mk. 10:24a)
“When [the Pharisees] heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” (Mt. 22:22)
“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” (Lk. 4:22a)
“But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.” (Mk. 15:5)
“The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!'” (Mt. 8:27)
“Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.” (Lk. 9:42b-43a)
“People were overwhelmed with amazement. ‘He has done everything well,’ they said. ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.'” (Mk. 7:37)
“So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.”
“Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.'” (Lk. 5:26)

Here’s something cool: The word “amazed” appears 46 times in the Bible (NIV version). 36 of those times occur in the Gospels, with an additional 7 occurring in the Book of Acts.

And here are the patterns that I’m noticing, from Brueggemann’s list and my own concordance search:
1. Jesus amazed everyone: disciples, crowds, family, friends, Pharisees, and Romans. People responded in different ways to their amazement (some praised God; others plotted to kill him), but everyone was amazed.

2. Jesus amazed people with his teachings. Brueggemann wrote, “His teachings evoked radical energy, for they announced as sure and certain what had been denied by careful conspiracy.”

3. Jesus amazed people with his actions: healing, calming storms, raising the dead to life, ignoring traditional customs, eating with the unclean. His ministry was extraordinarily surprising; he did not pander to the ruling elite, nor did he hobnob with the religious leaders. Instead, he reached out to the poor, the broken-hearted, the sick, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers. To the people who had never had reason to hope, he gave them a new future.

Here’s what Brueggemann has to say:

“His ministry evoked a passion and an energy that had disappeared in the old helplessness. Both his adherents and his enemies sensed the same thing: An unmanaged newness was coming, and it created a future quite different from the one that royal domination intended to permit.”

In true prophetic form, Jesus’ ministry on earth paved the way for the coming newness (brought about by his death and resurrection) by preparing people for that newness. Before opening the way for new life, he first had to equip his people with the imagination to believe in that possibility. He had to create room for wonder and amazement.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
– Isaiah 43:19

Justice and Pie

28 08 2009

“These are a few of my favorite things…”
– The Sound of Music

“I just figured, if I was going to change the world, I’d do it with cookies.”
– Stranger than Fiction

Check out the Justice Pie Project, an initiative put together by a family in Barrio, Ontario.  They have spent the summer compiling pie recipes and statistics on slavery and trafficking.  And last week, they had a celebration of Justice Pie Day.  In spite of a power outage, they baked 18 pies, raised $300 for the International Justice Mission, and educated their neighbors about slavery.  And along the way they enjoyed fellowship, community, games, and a potluck dinner.

a strawberry rhubarb pie baked for the Justice Pie Project

a strawberry rhubarb pie baked for the Justice Pie Project

What an inspiring (and delicious) example of what the church can be!

Star Wars and the Prophetic Imagination

27 08 2009

yoda_biggerSpike TV has been running a series of all the Star Wars movies this week. Although I am fairly familiar with the original three episodes, having watched them every year on youth choir tours, I never had seen the newer films. So, I was rather (and idiotically) enthralled (“No, Anakin!! Don’t go to the Dark Side!!”)

I guess I have had Brueggemann on the brain, but last night’s episode (The Revenge of the Sith) seemed to be a great science-fiction exploration of imperial consciousness vs. alternative consciousness.  Here’s why (and in this analogy, I will consciously try not to equate “the force” with God):

Anakin’s decision to explore the “Dark Side” originally stems from his desire to keep his wife alive, after he has visions of her dying during childbirth.  Wise Master Yoda’s advice is as follows: “Death is a natual part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not, miss them do not … Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

The chancellor, on the other hand, tells him a story about defeating death and attaining immortality.  This is the more attractive option to Anakin, so he embarks on that path and embraces the Dark Side.

vaderLater in the movie, the Chancellor tricks the Senate into believing the Jedi have gone rogue.  In order to protect the universe, he declares that “the Republic is now the Empire!!”  (I don’t think that’s the exact quote, but it’s something like that).  The new emperor”rescues” Anakin — now renamed Darth Vader — from a horrible lava burn and recreates his body as the robot with the heavy-breathing mask that we all know so well.

It’s just a shell.  Anakin’s body was badly burned and he was on the brink of death.  But the Empire-consciousness cannot accept the idea of death.  It trades in the richness and beauty of life for a cheap, robotic immortality.  An immortality that can be controlled.  A status quo.  A seeming permanence.  A squelching of hope.  A silencing of song.

And in this story, too, hope comes from prophecy — specifically, the prophecy about a certain Skywalker Jedi who is destined to redeem the universe.

But that’s a whole other episode, for some other day.

I am a Modern-Day Abolitionist…

27 08 2009

Or at least, I’m trying to be. Here’s how I got started:

During my first semester of college, I took a life-changing and perspective-transforming class called “Political Science 47H: Ethics, Morality, Individual, Liberty, and the Law.” The class had the best reading list of any I’ve ever taken: Mountains Beyond Mountains, Blink, Life on the Color Line, Hiroshima, and Disposable People. The last book — Disposable People by Kevin Bales — combines facts and statistics with moving stories to paint a picture of modern-day slavery across the globe.

Up until that point, I — like most people, I imagine — thought of slavery as something in the past: a great injustice but one which had disappeared more than a century ago. But reading the book, I thought: “This must end. What can I do?”

The first step, as any anti-slavery site will tell you, is to educate yourself. Read the facts. Learn the statistics. For this issue especially, which all too often exists as an ugly truth hidden behind everyday life, knowledge really is power.

The next step, for me, came when we moved to Atlanta last month. Unfortunately, slavery is not something that happens “over there.” It’s here. It’s a horrendous problem — and it’s all around us. According to Street GRACE, between 200 and 300 young girls are trafficked each month in Georgia alone. The average age of child sexual exploitation appears to be 14, but girls as young as 10 and 11 have been exploited.

So what to do with these facts? I’ve been educating myself, making inquiries about how I can volunteer, and will keep you posted with any opportunities that arise. For starters, here is a brief compilation of resources that I have discovered thus far (I’ll try to add more as I hear of them):

Resources, Facts, Articles, Documentaries:
Disposable People by Kevin Bales
Stolen Childhoods
Hidden in Plain View: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Girls in Atlanta
Not for Sale
Slavery Map
Safe House: an article from Creative Loafing
National Human Trafficking Resource Center
At the End of Slavery

Organizations (Atlanta):
Innocence Atlanta
Juvenile Justice Fund
Street GRACE
Wellspring Living
Circle of Friends

Organizations (National/International):
Free the Slaves
Anti-Slavery International
International Justice Mission
Not for Sale Campaign
Free 2 Work
Shared Hope International
Stop the Traffik
Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking
Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking: Los Angeles
Children of the Night

Do you twitter?
Innocence Atlanta
Not For Sale
International Justice Mission

What about Facebook?
Street GRACE
Innocence Atlanta
PAST Atlanta
International Justice Mission

The Lunatic Gospel: Genesis 15-16

25 08 2009

Click here to read the full text of Genesis 15-16.

God cares about Hagar…right?

I wrestled with this question while reading today’s passage.  Here’s why:

– God (or more accurately, the angel of the LORD) talked to Hagar, even though women didn’t have equal status in those days.
– God found Hagar when she was wandering and lost in the desert.
– God called Hagar by name at a time when Sarai merely referred to her as “my servant.”
– God listened to Hagar when she was being mistreated.
– God blessed Hagar, using words reminiscent of his promise to Abram: “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” (v.10)

So far, so good. Right?

But then, he goes on to say this of Hagar’s son:
“He will be a wild donkey of a man
His hand will be against everyone
And everyone’s hand against him,
And he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”

What kind of blessing is this, exactly? Or is it even a blessing at all? A half-blessing, perhaps? A curse? A prophecy?

Is God trying to get back at Sarai and Abram for their lack of faith? If so, why punish Hagar? If God really is going to use Abram to bless all the nations, wouldn’t it seem logical to start with Hagar the Egyptian?

Interestingly, though, Hagar doesn’t protest or even plead with God. She doesn’t seem to care if God has blessed her or cursed her. She merely proclaims that God is the Living One who has seen her.

The Bible doesn’t make note of any inflections in Hagar’s voice as she names God. I picture her saying “the God who sees me,” with breathless awe, as though she has been unspeakably moved by this encounter. But I suppose it’s equally possible that she said those words with dejected resignation–as if to say, “God sees me & I guess there’s nothing I can do about it.”

God sees the good, the bad, the past, the present, the future. Before him, no things are hidden. In our relationship with him, we can be vulnerable, we can be raw, we can be real.

Hagar obeyed God, returning home to her cruel mistress. Here again, we see that worshipping God is intrinsically tied up in faith and obedience. She believed that the Lord was “The God Who Sees Me,” and she obeyed the one command he gave her.

She knew what lay ahead for her family: mistreatement, misery, hostility. But the even greater truth was that God had seen her, and would continue to see her. He had called her by name and responded to her. He had even named the unborn child in her womb!

As much as I would like to become indignant at God for Hagar’s sake, I must remember that she saw the very presence of God and accepted what He had given her. Somehow, I must do the same.

(originally posted 12/22/09 at http://thelunaticgospel.blogspot.com)

Prophetic Imagination and the Lord’s Prayer

23 08 2009

(Just in case you’ve lost track along the way — I almost did 🙂 — I’m in the midst of reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and am blogging my thoughts, one chapter at a time.  This entry is inspired by chapter 5: “Criticism and Pathos in Jesus of Nazareth.”  Click for more food for thought about chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, or chapter 4)

Brueggemann opens his chapter about Jesus of Nazareth with a disclaimer: “Clearly Jesus cannot be understood simply as a prophet, for that designation, like every other, is inadequate for the historical reality of Jesus.  Nevertheless, among his other functions it is clear that Jesus functioned as a prophet.”  Brueggemann’s study give us the tools and language to understand that particular function of his ministry, and I have a feeling I’ll be referring to this book in my Bible studies for years to come.  Obviously, Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven are a huge part of that prophetic ministry, and his ushering in the kingdom can be seen a radical criticism of the status quo.

One thing that stuck out to me was the radical prayer that Jesus offers his disciples in Matthew 6.  On the surface, it may not seem immediately radical to us, especially for those of us who grew up in liturgical traditions and prayed this prayer every single week.  But some of the phrases stuck out to me for their rhetorical power in building up that alternative consciousness, which God has been establishing from the beginning:

Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.

Prophetic messages are empty if they are removed from God.  For prophets who proclaim social justice or religious freedom, it is essential to know the reason for that social justice and freedom and compassion.  And within the Judaic context, the prophet had a whole rich history of religion — the religion of a people in covenant relationship with their God — to use in his message.

Part of the prophetic message is about setting God apart from the gods of other religions.  Moses’ message declared that our  God — YHWH — is free to love and reach out and show compassion to the broken-hearted and oppressed (as opposed to the stagnant gods of Egypt, who served Pharaoh).  Second Isaiah’s message declared that God called the weary-hearted people near to him to carry them and save them.

Jesus’ ministry attested to both of these prophetic messages.  And in this prayer he sets this God apart, as hallowed in heaven.  This God is greater than any other god we could ever dream up.

Your kingdom come
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

Brueggemann makes the great point that the kingdom of God was radical for everyone, in one way or another.  In true prophetic form, Jesus’ kingdom message offered both mercy and criticism simultaneously.  For example … his ministry to the poor radically challenged the status quo of economic justice, and directly criticized those who profited from others’ poverty.  His ministry to the oppressed also implied that their was another class of people, the oppressors, who would be threatened by his message.  And so on.

So what did this kingdom look like on earth?  Jesus gave us some idea by the way in which he lived out his life, crossing social boundaries with his radical love and compassion.  He broke the Sabbath law, he ate with sinners, he touched the outcasts and the lepers, he crossed gender boundaries in allowing women to join his ministry, he criticized the temple.  Nothing was “safe.”  This kingdom on earth instituted a new social order and thus affected every aspect of life.  And today, we can learn both from the hope and the criticism, as we embody this kingdom-living in our own lives.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Earlier, Brueggemann established that the image of bread was used by Isaiah to symbolize the sustenance offered by God.  Jesus takes the image of bread several steps further: first he recalls Isaiah’s words as he declares that he is the bread of life, and later he breaks bread at the Last Supper to symbolize his own death.   In the first instance, he establishes himself as the daily bread referenced in the prayer; he is all we need for sustenance.  In the second instance, he shows how the process works — through his death and resurrection.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Stay with me here — this is the coolest part of the prayer.  Jesus’ ministry certainly demonstrated radical forgiveness, and we should never underestimate the power of forgiveness.  It has the potential to dismantle societies (in a good way — in a modern context, I’m thinking of initiatives like As We Forgive and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in various countries).  And notice the past tense of the second phrase — “as we have [already] forgiven.”  As Jesus instructed us during his Sermon on the Mount, we are expected to make our amends and be reconciled to our neighbors before we come to God in prayer or worship.

But it’s not just about forgiving sins — although that’s important.  The most literal translations use the word “debts.”  As in money.  As in, this prayer has radical social, political, and economic implications.  We often interpret Jesus’ debt-forgiveness parablesmetaphorically, forgetting how literally he speaks about money elsewhere in the gospels.   And in fact, the concept of debt forgiveness, among other things, had deep roots in Levitical law.  Leviticus 25 talks about a year of Jubilee, which proclaimed economic freedom for the poor of Israel, to be celebrated every 50 years.  This is the economic order as ordained by God.

So what a promise and blessing that must be for all of us, to know that we are living in the year of the Lord’s favor, as proclaimed by that radical prophet, Jesus of Nazareth!!

By Your Grace

22 08 2009

A song I’ve been playing around with for a while. It has no tune yet (I think because it’s so wordy), but I’m working on that. Just wanted to share:

You know what we desire before we kneel to pray
We cannot add to what you are by anything we say
Everything we give, Lord, we first received from You
So I wonder what our offerings are for…

Still we come to Your altar, bringing what You require
That through our worship, we might know You more.

By Your grace, You accept our offering of praise
You accept our lives as a humble sacrifice
You give us reason to be holy, and then You make the way
In all these things, O Lord, we thank You for Your grace.

We pray that You’ll be with us, though You’re already here
We fail to see Your glory whenever You appear
In Your steadfast love, Lord, forgive us when we falter
We long to know Your truth and be renewed.

So we come to Your altar, with our hands held high
Imperfect though we are, we worship You.

By Your grace, You accept our offering of praise
You accept our lives as a humble sacrifice
You give us reason to be holy, and then You make the way
In all these things, O Lord, we thank You for Your grace.

Finding a Church, Part 3: Sometimes all it takes…

22 08 2009

I spent the majority of   Thursday in the stock room of the store, hanging and sizing T-shirts, sweatshirts, and athletic shorts.  While I was back there, deliveries arrived from various companies, and the representative would often come inside and chat with the managers for a few minutes before heading back onto their delivery route again.

One, a middle-aged paper saleslady, lingered a little longer than most.  From the clothing racks, I could hear her discussing everything from healthcare reform to her church’s mission trips to Africa.  When I approached, she was discussing the book Unchristian, and I piped in and told her I had enjoyed that book last year.

She turned her attention to me, and upon finding out that I was new to town, added, “I don’t know if you have found a church home yet, but my husband and I have been going to XYZ Church for the past 5 years, and we really like it.”  She proceeded to tell me all about her church’s different ministries and why it felt like home to her.  I thanked her and told her that we might check it out sometime.

See that?  See how easy that was?  I tend to get nervous about inviting people to church, for fear of offending them or intruding upon their already-established spirituality.  But being the newcomer to town, I appreciated her invitation so much!  And even if I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have been offended.

Of course it’s not appropriate to walk around and harass random strangers into going to church with you.  But this invitation was natural.  I think, more often than not, we are in danger of missing obvious opportunities to represent God in the world than we are of being too aggressive.

The paper saleslady’s church is a well-known megachurch in the area, and I’m not entirely sure that we would find our home in a place so large.  But even in megachurches (and perhaps, especially in megachurches) a personal invitation can go an awfully long way.  I told her we might check it out, and you know what?  We just might.

Godvertiser’s post from a few weeks ago talks about first-time visitors and how we as a church can do better about extending hospitality to visitors.  One key thought from this article: “Another critical point to understand is that all this is not a mandate for the pastor or staff alone.  It must be lived out by everyone who attends your church regularly.  Just as everyone knows where the bathrooms are, they need to understand how to greet visitors and enfold the one-time visitors to your church.”

The work of evangelizing and inviting and welcoming is a duty for all of us.  Both inside and outside of church, we need to do a better job of looking out for people’s spiritual needs, jumping on opportunities, helping those who look a little lost, speaking well and explaining our churches to visitors.

Because sometimes, all it takes is something small.

Prophetic Imagination and the Music-Makers

22 08 2009

I have long loved William Edgar O’Shaughnessy’s  poem “We are the Music Makers,” but reading The Prophetic Imagination has brought its words to life in a wonderfully new way.   Here is the poem:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

prophetic-imaginationIn particular, sitting outside in the middle of downtown Atlanta on my lunch break, I found myself quoting the line “With wonderful deathless ditties/We built up the world’s great cities.”  Truly, with the skyscrapers of the city line, the overwhelming busy-ness and traffic, the people walking by with their laptops and cell phones, it seems that this culture and civilization as we know it will be here forever.  And maybe that means that I have bought into the lies of the empire.  All of it — the skyscrapers, the traffic, the schedules, the technology — is manmade, temporal, and subject to God’s much longer continuum of time.

By ourselves, we have built up these cities.  And in their glory days, in our golden eras, we trust in ourselves and in what we have created.  So when all of these systems and civilizations fall (as they eventually must), we are out of the habit of trusting God, and we cannot even trust God to give us a new beginning.  And despair sets in, a deep despair that is far away from the comfort of God.

There is a sterotype that people turn to God only in times of trouble, when they need something from him.  But Brueggemann goes even further, and makes the claim that those who have not trusted God before cannot all of the sudden change that orientation.

Yes, maybe we do start praying more when someone is in the hospital, when we’re contemplating a big decision, or when we hit rock bottom.  But, in those prayers, are we really and truly trusting that something will happen?  Do we believe that God is working among us, changing us, offering us a new beginning?  In short, do we allow ourselves the freedom to hope?

If we have spent our whole lives blocking out God, trusting in ourselves, and denying his presence, we may not even have the potential to imagine anything truly different.  We don’t know where to start.

And that is where prophetic ministry comes in: the prophetic ministry of energizing, of amazement, and of hope.

This is not just about the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs who speak to entire civilizations at one time (although those are necessary, too).  This can also be a prophetic imagination that can penetrate every crevice in every heart.  It may well be the call of “everyday Christians” to speak words of hope into places of despair.   To our family, friends, and neighbors who are grieving or suffering, we can use our words and actions to proclaim hope and the possibility of new life.

And Brueggemann offers this caution to those engaged in the prophetic ministry:

“Hope requires a very careful symbolization.  It must not be expressed too fully in the present tense because hope one can touch and handle is not likely to retain its promissory call to a new future.  Hope expressed only in the present tense will no doubt be co-opted by the managers of this age.”

Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathersSingingBird
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

(singing bird image taken from http://nativeenglishteacher.blogspot.com/)

The Lunatic Gospel: Genesis 13-14

21 08 2009

Click here to read the full text of Genesis 13 and 14.

From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD.
– Genesis 13:3-4

So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD.
– Genesis 13:18

What is it with this guy?? Everywhere he goes, he stops and builds an altar to the Lord–and he doesn’t just leave them there, he comes back and revisits them. So, presumably, you could follow in his footsteps through this trail of altars. Which leads me to wonder: what kind of trail are we leaving? Bread crumbs? Footprints? Or … altars? Is worship our first impulse at every step of our spiritual journey?

Enough with the rhetorical questions. What really interests me about this passage is what Abram does once he gets to the altar: he “calls upon the name of the Lord.” He did it in the last chapter, too. (In fact, we are told in Genesis 4, that Adam’s children’s generation was the first to do so!) We’re back to this whole concept of names–only this time, it’s God’s name that is in question.

And, according to the scholarly view, Abram doesn’t even know God’s name (YHWH) yet! That doesn’t happen until chapter 15!

Over the past few years, I’ve wrestled a lot with the idea of a chosen people. It just doesn’t seem fair. If God originally intended to extend salvation to everyone (as we believe happened with Christianity), why didn’t he just do it to begin with? And why does Jesus say that salvation comes from the Jews? Why would Jesus endorse Jewish legalism, when it seems to be contrary to everything else he says?

But Abram is praised for his faith. His salvation does not come from his obedience–not really. He obeys because he is faithful. He brings salvation to his nation through his own faith. And the generations that follow are given a legal code which sets them apart. They obey the laws, and they go through the motions of worship, because they believe in this strange, omnipotent God.  The idea of “salvation by faith” is at the core of Judaism, too, it appears. It is a supreme leap of faith to allow yourself to be set apart as a nation.

I also have, at times, found myself questioning the fairness of Jesus’ coming so late in the Bible. What about all the faithful people in the Old Testament who came before Jesus? Were they “saved”?  I don’t have the answer, nor will I ever claim to, but I offer up this verse as food for thought:

“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
– Joel 2:32a

(originally posted 9/1/08 at http://thelunaticgospel.blogspot.com)