In the final analysis, it’s an easy thing to say that we depend on God to secure our lives, to establish justice. It’s an entirely different matter to live as if it were true—as if we’re called to be the expression of God’s justice to a world that would just as soon go back to bed and forget the whole mess. Faithfulness requires that we keep knocking on that particular door—even if it looks as if nobody’s home.
When faced with the temptation of dismissing people because they’re different, when persuaded to push the Samaritan lepers of our society into ghettos meant only to protect us from their condemning presence, when convinced that the only way to silence that which threatens our cherished beliefs is by nailing it to a cross, Jesus comes into our midst, sits down at the table . . . spread before us with vivid reminders of his own brokenness, his own 'otherness,' and says, 'no.'
By Derek Penwell
I had a baseball game that day, beginning and ending my career as a catcher for Dog ‘n Suds at the tender age of nine. I was nearsighted and my glasses didn’t fit beneath the mask. Every time I turned my head, the mask moved slightly, as did my black nerd glasses, which made every pitch a funhouse adventure.
After I got home, following yet another losing game, and parked my orange Huffy with the black and orange striped banana seat, my mom met me outside and said, “There’s been an accident.”
Not knowing quite what to say, I said, “Who?”
“Jamie,” she said. “He and Michael were playing with lighter fluid out in the woods, and Jamie was burned badly.”
I remember wondering how it might be possible to be burned “goodly.” But all I said was, “What happened?”
“I don’t know, honey. His mom just called. I think he’d like to see you.”
Jamie was a fairly good, if suggestible kid, who lived across the street from me. We were the same age, but we were in different third grade classes, and didn’t hang out much together at school. At home, though, we roamed the neighborhood, built ramps to jump our bikes, played sandlot baseball and kick the can, and traded baseball cards.
Michael, who was a year older than we were, lived two doors down from me. And though my parents never said so explicitly, I got the impression that they thought Michael was a “bad kid.” He always seemed to be in trouble, picking fights and swearing at adults. Last I heard he was serving time for attempted murder.
On the way over to see Jamie, I kept thinking about the bodily implications of being burned. I’d played with matches myself before, so I knew that fire hurt in an intense and special way. And the thought of someone close to me experiencing such pain not on a tip-of-the-finger scale, but on a life-altering scale seemed incomprehensible to me.
When I saw him, his leg was bandaged all the way up to his hip. He was whimpering. I didn’t know what to say. Nothing seemed right. But his look said that he wanted something from me, some word, some bit of human contact from someone who didn’t yet shave and who still wasn’t allowed to swear in public. So, I said all I could think to say: “I’m sorry, Jamie.”
Now, this wasn’t a movie, so my three words didn’t “buoy his flagging spirits,” they didn’t “give him the strength to go on” and “face an uncertain future.” He said, “Thanks.” And that was probably it for him.
But I got to thinking about those three words: “I’m sorry, Jamie.” What does that even mean for a nine year-old to say “I’m sorry” in the face of tragedy? Of course, I know what it means if you’re nine and you throw a rock through the neighbor’s picture window. Then, “I’m sorry” means, “I take responsibility. I shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t meant to hurt you.”
What does it mean, though, when your nine year-old neighbor nearly burns his leg off, and you (another nine year-old) say, “I’m sorry?”
Well, for one thing, it could simply mean, “I’m sorry you’re hurting. I wish you weren’t.”
It could mean, “I’m sorry I have to stand here in front of you and your parents, witnessing pain that I can’t even begin to imagine, much less relieve.”
It could simply mean, “I’m sorry I don’t know what else to say, and this awkward silence is making me uncomfortable.”
I’m not sure what it meant for me to say to my pitiful nine year-old neighbor, “I’m sorry, Jamie.” I suspect my intentions were some uncomfortable mélange of all of those things. Given the same situation, and after forty years of growing up, I’m not sure I’d say anything different if I had it to do over again.
What does it mean, then, for anyone, in the face of great suffering, to say “I’m sorry?”
I suppose it might mean all those things:
- I’m sorry you’re hurting. I wish you weren’t.
- I’m sorry I have to stand here in front of you, witnessing pain that I can’t even begin to imagine, much less relieve.
- I’m sorry I don’t know what else to say, and this awkward silence is making me uncomfortable.
But it occurs to me after accumulating a little experience that such an expression of sorrow speaks to something more, something much deeper than just the current situation of which I’m now a witness. As a man now, it seems to me that “I’m sorry” goes to the very heart of what it means to be human in a world threatening to come undone.
- I think such sorrow conveys the pointed sense we seem to share that something is not right.
- Perhaps it suggests sorrow for a world in which the pain I observe is a pain I’m all too often powerless to relieve.
- Or perhaps it is a prayer to God, a shaking of the fist against the predations of the night, a seeking of answers with Job about why it is that little boys who make dumb little-boy-decisions are required to pay the debt they incur with their own pound of flesh, a chance to ask why it is we shouldn’t expect something better from the one who made us and who, in other ways, seems to love us and desire so much better for us.
I won’t pretend I know what lies at the heart of the inarticulateness that seems to plague us all when we stand in the presence of suffering. My hope is that the great dis-ease our mumbled words express lodges itself in the heart of God, who, beneath it all, I think we’re really seeking in such times.
What I do know, though, is that “I’m sorry, Jamie” means very much the same thing, whether it comes from the mouth of a child with infield dirt still on his hands or from the mouth of a man who’s already seen more pain in the world than he thought either necessary or possible.
Keep working. Keep plugging away. Keep expecting that—whatever the appearances to the contrary suggest—I’m fashioning a people there. I launch ships in the desert. I harvest crops in the wilderness. I ride the lame horse and shoot the crooked bow. I’ve even been known to make the dead dance. You may not see it clearly right now. It’s easy to see empty pews and think I’ve bugged out. But I haven’t. Don’t worry. I’ve got big plans for you.
If the world is ever to take Jesus seriously, in other words, it has to quit seeing those of us who are his followers as fence-builders, as constructers of barriers, as those more willing to exclude than include. To the extent that Christians have continued the divisions—male/female, black/white, straight/gay, fundamentalist/progressive, Catholic/Protestant—we’ve alerted the world that it need not take us seriously. We’re just like everybody else, willing to declare war on whomever and whatever we can’t figure out how to fit in the tent.
In these parables Jesus wants to know: Who are we making angry because we love the wrong people?
And this is an especially important question to ask on the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Because somewhere over the past fifteen years an awful lot of our neighbors have gotten the message that it’s okay to be afraid of Muslims, that it’s okay to hate people they don’t even know—just because those people happen to go to a mosque to worship God, or because they happen to be refugees, trying to escape horror and death in their home countries.
By Derek Penwell
Bookstores and Our Relationship to “Bigness”
As a kid growing up, almost all of the bookstores I knew about were found in malls—B. Dalton and Walden Books. You could expect to find one (sometimes two if the mall were big enough) in almost every mall. These bookstores didn’t carry an extensive inventory—mostly best sellers, coffee table books, children’s books, magazines, and so on. The experience was about buying—browse if you must, but find what you want, buy it, then get back to the rest of your business at the mall. They had no chairs, no coffee. It was a place to stop in and take a break from doing something else. The strategy wasn’t about great selection; it was about ubiquity: “We’re everywhere, and if we don’t have it, we can order it.”
As the 1990s unfolded, however, the ubiquity of mall bookstores began to decline. People’s relationship to books and the stores that sold them began to change with the increasing popularity of a couple of new chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, and their imitators. These stores carried much more substantial inventory, and they appealed to people’s book buying experience. These new bookstores made an attempt to appear like a cross between a retail library and a coffee shop—come in, browse, relax, read a little, and have a latte. They provided comfortable chairs that they actually seemed to want you to sit down in, new and interesting music softly played, grad students with tattoos and multiple piercings, and a crap ton of books that allowed you to discover new authors and subjects you didn’t know about. The strategy was about great selection and an inviting experience—”We’ve got stuff you didn’t even know you wanted, which you get to explore at your leisure.”
But as the Internet realized popularity, a new kind of book buying experience emerged—online shopping, led principally by Amazon. Amazon and the other online bookstores boasted a nearly exhaustive inventory that could be accessed from the comfort of your own living room. What they gave up in ambience, they made up for in convenience. Not only could you order books and have them shipped straight to your door, you could order just about anything else—from TVs to hernia belts. The strategy centered on almost unlimited selection available with unbelievable convenience—”We’ve got just about everything, and you don’t even have to put down your Mountain Dew to get it.”
Things really started to change, however, with the advent of e-books. Amazon introduced digital books that gave people the convenience of online ordering coupled with instant online delivery. There was almost no waiting at all. You could have a new book in seconds, no matter where you were.
Still, after the big chain bookstores almost crushed them, and after Amazon and e-books almost crushed the big chain bookstores, some local independent bookstores have managed not only to survive, but to thrive. How do they do it?
Here’s where a really good writer might offer the winning strategy, distilled to its essence: The thing that makes some small independent bookstores succeed in the land of the giants is __________.
But if there is a strategy, distilled to its essence, I don’t know what it is. Of course, I have some ideas—an emphasis on niche marketing, an appeal to customer service, a local community atmosphere. I imagine all those things, and probably some others, have contributed to the success of certain small independent bookstores.
What I want to focus on is the broader reality of bigness. For years the roadmap to success appeared to wend its way through Mega-ville. Go big or go home, right? Walmart. Microsoft. McDonalds. Google. The New York Yankees. Hollywood blockbusters. Page views. Empire.
In fact, so closely did success seem to correlate with bigness that—at least informally, if not explicitly—that’s gradually how success came to be defined. Biggest is best.
When Big Became Small
But the narrative of bigness has bumped up against some difficult realities. For one thing, a market that is increasingly fragmented by the vagaries of demographic diversity—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender expression … not to mention, the perennial issue of the range of individual taste—is difficult to dominate in a general way. When a culture is largely homogenous, generating broad appeal is much easier—you only need to get a couple of things right to saturate the market. When the market is fragmented, however, broad appeals are almost impossible, since whatever you offer will almost certainly exclude wide swaths of the population.
For another thing, with the increasing presence of the Internet, and it’s almost endless platforms for publishing and marketing, the signal to noise ratio is as high as it’s ever been. So, while it’s easier now than ever to get your message out, your message is one among millions. Being heard is both easier and more difficult, in that your message is easier to broadcast to a potential audience, but because there are so many voices, it can be more difficult to have your message actually heard. Time was you could craft a message, publicize it through traditional media, and have a reasonable chance of having it being heard by your intended audience. If you were quick enough, properly resourced, and sufficiently smart, you might run the table. Boom! Big. Nowadays, however, mass appeals untailored to highly specific audiences have difficulty making connections.
No question but that bigness still exists. And where it does, it’s really big … huge, in fact. (Think Apple, Walmart, Google, Comcast, Verizon, United Airlines). But it’s becoming rarer and rarer.
Small and local are also thriving (Think Farmers Markets, CSAs, Record Stores, Community Ministries). What we have less and less of is moderately big (Think Montgomery Ward, Circuit City, Newsweek, Borders, My Space). A large swath in the middle—including much that would traditionally have been called large—finds itself being squeezed on both ends.
So, maybe we need to rethink the endgame. Maybe our understanding of success needs recalibration.
- What if scrambling to be a monopoly is a waste of time?
- What if “mega” scares off more people than it attracts?
- What if, as Seth Godin has suggested, small is the new big?
I want to suggest that these are questions denominations and congregations should be considering just now.
Following Jesus costs a great deal more than we’re able to afford on our own. There are crosses with our names on them, just waiting for us.
Your cross might be made from the wood of ministering to the homeless. It might be carved from the ancient timber of speaking out against rape culture. It might be from the lonely stand of trees that make up caring for those with physical disabilities or mental illness. It might be from the lumber of #BlackLivesMatter, or feeding the hungry, or advocating for forgotten children, or caring for God’s creation, or welcoming the refugee, or standing up against the injustices that confront LGBTQ people, or sheltering the immigrant.
But don’t be mistaken, if you follow Jesus there’s a cross for you.
Where is the Lord?
According to Jeremiah, that’s the question God wants us to ask.
God isn’t afraid of our doubts and fears. God doesn’t shrink before our questions, doesn’t run from our anxieties.
God would rather have us ask tough questions about where God is than to have us throw up our hands in despair.
Christians can’t just believe stuff. People want an answer to the question: What kind of God they got up inside that church?
They want to know what turns on these much-discussed beliefs, what difference these beliefs make in our lives. Do they help us heal the sick, care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked or receive the outcast? Do they help us stand up for the persecuted and the oppressed, welcome the refugee, or protect the vulnerable? Or do these beliefs merely represent a golden barrier that offers protection against blame—a way to be right?
In short, people who’ve lost interest in Christianity might just like to see Christians for whom believing 'this stuff' is merely the first step to actually living it out.
So, the safe thing to do is live as if God exists because the reward of doing anything else isn’t so great as to justify the risk of being wrong on this question. Pascal would have all of us smart people who are really thinking about things make the safe bet and live faithful lives just in case God exists.
It’s so rational and so…unsatisfying. Isn’t it? Trying to be faithful to the edicts of a higher power that just might exist seems so middling, so empty, so impotent, so…safe. It seems like advice a financial planner might give you. This is what the kids call “weak sauce”.
I don’t want that kind of faith. I want the kind of faith that turns away swords, conquers enemies. I want to part seas! Heck, in my line of work, I would settle for some of the more modest accomplishments of our Israelite heroes: obtaining promises and administering justice. Injustice is everywhere. Cruelty and pain abound and I want a resilient, courageous faith. But, I don’t often feel faithful at all, much less full of the faith of our Israelite heroes.
It’s so easy to think that the more we have the more prepared we are; only to find out that we maybe we’re preparing for the wrong thing.
It’s so easy to fool ourselves into thinking the higher the walls we build, the safer we’ll be; only to be shown that no walls are high enough to keep out the stuff that haunts our dreams, that our safety is not ours to ensure.
It’s so easy to believe that the future we’re waiting for is one we could—through thoughtful planning and safe investments—meet on our own terms; only to find out that the future breaks in on us like the owner of the house returning from a wedding banquet—pushy, demanding.
God has a compelling relationship to us, God’s people. Always there. Constant, persistent, insistent. We need a God who stays. We need a God who invades our lives with presence. We are the ones who move away, who put up barriers, who assign God to safe places in our lives and in our thinking. There is the old line, “if you think you can’t find God, who moved?
Imagine a world where God’s presence invaded every space. Imagine following that presence through the door to healing: healing of broken relationships; relieving painful and infuriating injustice, healing of ugly dialogue--offering peace and wholeness in its place. Because that is what the presence of God--the Spirit-Energy--can do.
But Jesus says that in the reign of God, following him toward Jerusalem, we don’t get that kind of assurance. All us type A’s are going to have our worlds turned upside down, because we’re on an adventure—not a tour group.
In a world where too many go to bed hungry at night, where too many wake up to uncertainty about whether their children will make it home safely from school, where too many look for a friendly face among those who claim to follow Jesus but find no one . . . it’s going to be especially tough to make the sorts of things that typically go on a spreadsheet the measure of our success.
Amos is here to tell us that God’s not happy—not only with the systems of power that use people’s labor, abuse their hope, crush their dreams, steal their children and then ignore the lives that are lost, but also with a world in which people go to church every Sunday and sing about loving Jesus, but then stand idly by and say nothing.
A prayer by Claire Bridges on June 10, 2016
LORD, we come today with heavy hearts, weary from news of senseless violence with feelings of hopelessness, anger, fear, guilt, and confusion. Let us pray for the lives lost this week. Let us send out light & love for Alton Sterling & Philando Castille. For the Dallas Police Officers: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, & Lorne Ahrens. We send out light & love. Let us be LIGHTS. Let us be LOVE. Let us spread that light & love wherever we go--to the ends of the earth. Finishing today with words by Yogi Kino MacGregor:
No matter how complex life gets there is always the earth below and the sky above, the thread of your breathtaking tethers you to the spirit, the simplicity of wonder, grace, & faith, the promise of love's ultimate triumph over even the darkest valleys.
Rev. Candi Cubbage is back in the pulpit. Y'all listen up.
This is war, Folks. Am I scaring you? If you came to church this morning to forget about what is happening outside in the street, you’ll be disappointed. This is war, and what is the cause? I’ll sum it up for you in one word. The cause is SIN.
By Derek Penwell
I used to have a recurring nightmare about presenting a paper at a conference. In the dream I would conclude my presentation in front of my colleagues, and then I would do the requisite "Question and Answer."
Invariably, a bespectacled man in a camel hair sport coat and blue jeans would stand up and ask, "So what?"
Panicked, I would stammer, "What do you mean, 'So what?'"
"Well, I guess what you say is sort of interesting, but what turns on it? Why should I think your work is important? In other words, I hear what you're saying, but the first thing I think is, 'So what?'"
The fastest growing religious designation in America over the past five years, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is "None." While atheism and agnosticism have risen slightly over that time, the biggest increase is among those who, when asked about institutional religion, respond, "Meh."
It strikes me that much of what drives this unenthusiastic response to religion, at least in the case of Christianity, centers on the apparent (at least to observers) unwillingness of Christians to live like Jesus. The "Nones" have heard endlessly about Christianity and how everybody would be better off if the world would just believe the stuff Christians believe:
They've gotten the message, for instance, that being Christian means you believe being gay is a sin -- and not just any sin, but sin in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad way. The express-lane-to-Hell kind of sin. Then they read the Gospels about a Jesus who reserves his most stinging indictments not for the folks everybody else has already given up on, but for the stalwarts at the top of the religious and political food chain, the ones who join Rotary, drive Buicks and wear sensible shoes.
They hear the smugness of Christian reproaches against a society that would presume to remove God from public schools (because, you know, God is used to getting kicked around by effete liberals). But we shouldn't be surprised how the "Nones" fail to square the fairly straightforwardly pacifist Jesus of the Gospels with the Libertarian Jesus of some Christians, a Jesus who apparently doesn't have a problem with the idea that school safety can be secured with "God and a loaded gun."
Christians claim to believe in a Jesus, who spent a great deal of time reaching out to, speaking out for, advocating on behalf of "the least of these"; but then some segments of Christianity align themselves with a brand of politics that seems interested in advancing only the interests of the wealthiest among us -- at theexpense of the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the outcast -- which is to say, at the expense of the least of these. What are outsiders to think?
So, here's the thing: Christians can't just believe stuff. People want an answer to the question: "So what?" They want to know what turns on these much-discussed beliefs, what difference these beliefs make in our lives. Do they help us care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked or welcome the outcast? Or do these beliefs merely represent a golden barrier that offer protection against blame?
In short, people who've lost interest in Christianity might just like to see Christians for whom believing "this stuff" is merely the first step to actually living it out.
And just so we're clear: The call not just to believe in Jesus, but to live like Jesus can't be merely another ploy to attract converts, to roust the "Nones" and get them to think Christianity is "neat"; it has to be a call to do the right thing. People who follow Jesus care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the outcast, because that's what Jesus said to do, and they don't know any other way to be. So, if doing the right thing is only an ecclesiastical marketing strategy, people will be justified in continuing to ask, "So what?"
Think about this for a minute, though: What if part of the reason the "Nones" are so underwhelmed by organized religion isn't because they don't find Jesus interesting, but because it appears to them that Christians don't find him sufficiently interesting enough to take seriously?
That's what ought to give Christians nightmares.
Here’s the thing: All the bumper stickers laid end to end, all the electric guitars and synthesizers stacked to the sky, all the studied beauty of grinning ministers in the world can’t make Jesus cool. Jesus isn’t cool—he’s the embodiment of the God's desires for humanity; the church’s job isn’t to sell him—it’s to live like him.
The gospel is pretty clear: Some will respond; some won’t. And that's the difficult part—being sent like lambs into the midst of wolves makes us vulnerable, it reveals the fact that we're not in charge. It demonstrates that the only control we have is whether or not we're going to live like Jesus said to live.
We made it back from Mexico! And oh what a trip it was. As is tradition, we all give a bit of a reflection about our experiences from a prompt:
What did you give, and what were you given?
We had some really special responses.
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