Sunday, April 21, 2013


    I have waited to write about Boston and the bombing at the end of the Marathon.  I didn't want to react too quickly and especially wanted the perpetrators to be identified and caught.  I did have an immediate reaction(s) of course, and one was to the declaration made by some folks as to the innocence of those who were killed or maimed by the bombs.
    I certainly agree that the people who were killed or injured were innocent in the sense that they had no prior offensive relationship to the bombers.  They were not attacked because they had done some wrong to these two brothers, in fact if anything the circumstances seem to suggest otherwise.  America had welcomed them, Boston had made a place for them, they were given opportunity by the collective community and the crowd at the finish line was representative of that welcoming and embracing community.
    There seemed to be such an outrage and shock that this event, (this very democratic and individualistic athletic contest where people run as individuals, some with friends, some with family, some with ad hoc groups but not so much as commercial teams) was targeted.  Yes, there are national representatives, there are some professionals who make a living running, but the marathon is overwhelmingly made up of individuals are who running more against themselves and the clock than against other runners.  These are the healthy people, those who are running to overcome age, weight, disease, a sedentary life, a life without challenge.  Their triumph is to finish, their joy is to be alive.
    But are they innocent?  I think one good thing that could come from this horrible incident is that maybe the bombs would blow away the illusion of detachment. I took the statement in some part as a declaration that these people are not involved in our international fight, that somehow these folks deserve a pass from the conflict that has been visited upon us.  It led me to think of the many folks up in Ivy League land who enjoy the blessing of this land of plenty and opportunity, enjoy the benefits of liberty such as running in a race whenever they want to do so,   and somehow don't participate in the fight to preserve those liberties.
     Let me be fair, it is not just folks in New England, or those who go to Harvard, M.I.T. or Yale, but the vast majority of middle class and upper middle class folks who do not serve in the military or risk their lives in battle to preserve what they so easily enjoy.  The statistical reality is that very few families have borne the burden of the war we will continue to fight, and our government has attempted to shield those who pay taxes from the monetary cost of that war by its continued borrowing.
    I am in no way implying that the folks who were attacked deserved to be attacked, what was done to them was despicable and evil.  As an American I do not for one moment believe we deserve the hatred or the vicious attacks brought against us by radical Islamists or by any other group that fosters hatred for us as a nation and society.  What I am implying is that none of us can stand apart and act as if it is not "us" who are being attacked.  We are attacked precisely because it is "us," we the people of these United States, and what we represent.  The folks who have enjoyed such a pleasant life of personal enrichment, fulfillment, and even entertainment are now forced to sacrifice life and limb in horrific ways though they think they never signed up to do it.  While the "pursuit of happiness" seems sometimes to lead to self-centeredness it cannot be maintained without the sacrifice of many.
    I imagine some would want to compare the victims in Boston to the innocents who die from drone attacks but I would have to differ from that view.  Although I totally agree that targeted killing of declared enemies needs much more accountability and careful congressional oversight it is nevertheless "targeted" killing.  It is not the carpet bombing of Viet Nam days, it is the most precise kind of strike we can make absent a bullet to the head of those who are engaged in war against this nation.  Do innocents die, do children and family members get killed?  Yes, just as they always have in war and this is why all war is horrible and disgusting.  This war was not begun by us but we certainly fight it different than the enemy does, though not without some hypocrisy for which we as a nation must be vigilant to reject.  I speak of torture especially.  This is one reason we do not purposely attack the funerals of those we kill in drone attacks, although sometimes a thousand men are ranting "death to America" at such events.  In every war bad decisions are made, and some would have to be considered war crimes, but in this war we do not purposefully plant bombs in civilian crowds nor have we purposefully bombed civilians.
    One of the important legacies leaders in democracies should leave their people is that we are different in our values from those who are totalitarian, despotic, and homicidal in their hatred of us.  Those values are not just in what we say we stand for but also in how we make war, or try not to make war.  Another legacy democratic leaders should leave to all members of that democracy is the challenge that democracies only stand as we participate and pay for it, not only in its fruits but in its responsibilities.  If our best educated, healthiest, and most economically mobile continue to stand aloof from national service and sacrifice, while they enjoy a materialistic lifestyle provided to them by those who bear the burden, then paying the butcher's bill for simply living or being in this country may come due more often.
    My point is that we are not innocent of being Americans, not innocent of living in a land full of freedoms.  We are the target of the envious, the bitter, the covetous.  Though these brothers were welcome to enjoy all that the rest of us do there was inside them something that did not want that opportunity except on their own terms.  What set these two brothers off is yet to be made clear but certainly we should have learned by now that there are many like them who would do the same to us if they could.  Because of that our society needs constant vigilance and guardians, and it is time that those who participated in that sacrificial service came from a greater cross section of our nation.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


 In my city we have a certain zip code that has made an amazing transformation.  It has gone from one of the most dangerous places in our city to what I have heard is the fastest gentrifying zip code in our nation.  When I was a pastor in that neighborhood the intersection of where we met for church was the number one address for murders.  Today there is sculpture, art work, coffee shops, restaurants, start up companies, new and remodeled housing scattered all over the place.  Hipsters abound.
  Not only has the neighborhood been transformed but a bunch of churches are vying for space to plant or start new churches.  I am not sure if there will be space for them all, or if they will all survive but somehow, somewhere, the decision has been made that this is the place to plant a new church and they all seem to be seeking to enroll the same demographic.  I admit that Hipsters need good churches too.
    My experience with the neighborhood began around 1970 when a Presbyterian Elder who had a small factory/shop on one of the side streets told me of his burden to reach the people that he saw everyday wander close to his business.  Many were some variety of alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, male transvestite prostitutes, and the children abandoned by their fathers.  There were some stable families, there were some churches, but most of the churches were made up of commuters who drove in and drove out, and the stable families weren't seen very much.
   This Elder took an interest in me as I told him of my desire to minister in that very kind of neighborhood.  Eventually this was where our church would meet from 1972 until 1985.  The churches that were present when we worshipped there began to move out, and hardly any made any effort to reach the inner city, urban poor that dominated the community.  When our congregation outgrew the facility we were in and moved to another neighborhood we not only left ministries in place and continued to minister there for years, but started ministry in other impoverished neighborhoods. 
    For our city this zip code represents success, it represents progress, and it breathes of money.  I really like urban culture, appreciate art, appreciate innovation, and love hip architecture.  For many reasons I am glad the neighborhood doesn't look the same.  At the same time I recognize failure and a Christian culture of non-missionary church planting when I see it.
   The failure is in facing reality.  The reality is that displacement is not transformation.  Removal is not renewal, and ethnic cleansing via market forces and city planning doesn't mean we have changed anybody's life.  Last week in church I saw a man who was there with his wife and a couple of children, and he had grown up and lived in the neighborhood of which I speak when our church was there.  He escaped being another statistic and is now in the Body of Christ.  His old neighborhood is gone but we reached him there, and he was saved there, and he is a different man because of it.  There are others who came to Christ, others who now serve God, and they needed a church that would pursue them and love them, and serve them, rather than simply gather them so they could support the church.
    I remember seeking to organize that neighborhood so they could get some community development money from the government.  Their streets were busted up, the sidewalks crumbling, the once beautiful stone walls holding up the yards were falling down.  They succeeded, the money was obtained, the breach in the walls was repaired and the streets were restored.  Today the streets still look good, but the people whose lives needed restorative grace just live somewhere else.
    Our contemporary churches of the thirty something generation seem to enjoy urban ambiance.  They seem to want to engage the culture, use its music, use its art, and even create some of their own.  What they seem to be lacking is a missionary sense of sacrifice of going and ministering among a people who don't seem to have a lot of tangible art and culture to offer.  We can all celebrate how the Blues came out of misery, we can take intellectual stimulation from the naked and raw poetry of rap music and original hip hop, but the hard reality is that the stories of the Blues and rap come from an abused and abusing, suffering, addicted, illiterate, immoral, ignorant, violent, broke, and abandoned by legitimate centers of power population.
   This is not to stomp on the people at the bottom, for they are indeed people, and because of that the image of God is in them.  They have dignity and there is beauty, and courage, and endurance, and stories of amazing triumph over trouble, and friendship and faithfulness.  Yet, if the truth be told and I am trying to tell it, the Church doesn't go there.  My experience tells me that there are testimonies waiting to be consummated among these very people.  They will be told one day, by someone who met an invader to their block, someone who was loved by a stranger, someone who was told a message they didn't at first ask to hear.  My experience tells me that there will be a few missionary type church planters, Black, White, Latino, Asian, willing to risk their comfort, their security, the unknowns for their children.  Church planters who aren't after the fast and thrilling rise of numbers or money to somehow prove to his peers God has blessed him.  I have learned not to label something conspiracy nor blessing just because it seems to look like one.
    It is okay with me if neighborhoods look good but I think it is better if the poor get saved, become blessed by education and resources, take control of their own communities, and transform their neighborhoods into beautiful places.  Beauty reminds us of God so I'm in favor of that.  I know that there will always be godly grandmothers, some refusing to leave faithful dads, and loving mothers who either find Jesus and/or know Jesus, and will transmit the Gospel to their own poor children.  This will happen for some.  It is not sufficient for amount of people who die without hearing or seeing the Gospel, it is not fast enough for those living in the oppression of poverty.  They need the Church militant, invasive, missionary, sacrificing, serving, loving, and life laying down committed to the communities of the poor.  Missionaries who not only love the people but love the culture and heritage too, and bring the Gospel to enrich and transform it.  Then the repaired walls and streets will be indicative of substantive change, and not just a change of demographics.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Proclaim The Power of God!

Psalm 68:34 tells us to tell it, to proclaim the power of God.  Paul prays, I think for us as well as the Ephesians, that our hearts may be enlightened in order that we may know...the hope and riches of our inheritance...and, "his incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ, when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand above all rule and authority, power, and dominion and every title that can be given..." (Eph. 1:19-21) NIV
    When we have those moments where we finally realize that something we have prayed for has been granted, that is the power of God.  When we realize that what could have been a fatal illness, wasn't, that what could have been a horrific accident wasn't, that we have children who lived, that we have a job, that we are surviving somehow without one, all of these things are evidences of the power of God.  "Escapes from death come from the Lord," the Psalmist tells us.  Some of those escapes we know about, some we will discover when we get to heaven, how the Lord spared us and we didn't even know.
    King David seemed to be a man who lived in the most immediate awareness of the power of God, the prophets did, and the Apostles.  We seem to be in a moment of Christian culture where the narrative we seek is one of constant, consistent, forgiving, grace giving love.  The power narrative seems to be associated with hell, fire, and brimstone.  Power seems a negative thing if we envision a God of judgment, retribution, punishment, and intolerance.  Imagine that, an intolerant God?
    Such a selective Gospel is short sighted, ultimately anemic and weak.  Grace is nothing if not the power of mercy unleashed on those who had no power to change themselves.
Without the power of God there is no hope for there can be no rational basis for it.  How can we be delivered from sin, the Devil, and death without the power of God?
    "Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
      who daily bears our burdens.
     Our God is a God who saves;
       from the Sovereign Lord comes
           escape from death." (Psalm 68:19-20) NIV
   The concept of the power of God is troubling, since if he has all power, is Almighty, is omnipotent, then why doesn't he use it like we think he should, when we think he should?  None of us seem to mind the power of God to deliver us, to heal us, to forgive us, to provide for us.  We mind it, that is we disapprove of it, when he seems stingy with it, or uses it in what we think is an immoral fashion such as killing people we think are innocent, destroying trailer parks, washing away villages, possibly unleashing the dogs of war.
    We don't always connect the dots wherein the judgment of God is revealed against evil, and evil men, by allowing them to be consumed with their own sins, giving them up to wickedness, and essentially allowing humans to be as bad as they want to be.  We don't realize when judgment is already come, we caricature the placarded fanatic who in the face of Godzilla stomping on Japan cries out for people to repent.  I imagine a movie where he meets souls on the way to judgment saying, "I told you so." We create segmented theologies where God is powerful for good things, but "my god would never do that" is our refrain when events go south.  Well, maybe your god would never do that because your god really has no power, he either has all of it or he isn't God.
     "Surely god will crush the heads of his enemies,
   the hairy crowns of those who go on in their sins."  (Psalm 68:21)
We are told to proclaim the power of God, and in that truth and reality is all our hope.  The Gospel is not simply a work of His love but an exercise of his power.  It is the hope of the poor,
   "Sing to God, sing praises to his name,
  extol him who rides on the
his name is the Lord-
    and rejoice before him.
A father to the fatherless, a defender
        of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
    he leads forth the prisoners with
but the rebellious live in a sun-
     scorched land."   (Psalm 68: 4-6) NIV
   What is lacking in not God's power but our faith, and that is why Paul prays for believers to be "enlightened."  When it is dark light is what we need, and faith gives us light to see beyond our temporal and circumstantial darkness.  If God is powerful why does it seem Evil moves so powerfully ahead, why is my life a mess, why are my prayers unanswered?  In the face of God's power we come to this conclusion about ourselves; we are not as powerful as He.  We are not omnipotent, and neither are we omniscient.  In short, we are to proclaim something by faith about which we only know a part.  We don't know all the "whys" and "why not-s."  Certainly not now in this life will we ever know all the whys and wherefores, but we know Whom, and we must not shrink from believing in His mighty power for if we do all is lost.  It would have been lost for David against Goliath, lost for David against Saul, lost for Daniel against the lions, lost for the three Hebrew boys in the furnace.  "Our God is able to deliver us, but even if he doesn't we will not bow down," they said.  I think they could say that since they lived in the awareness of his power and his faithfulness to use it in their behalf.  So, I proclaim it to you, and may our God give us power not to forget it in the day of trouble.