Divine-A-Might Comes In Small Packages (for a reason)

Have you ever noticed that God uses small people to do BIG things?  Broken people to FIX things?  Dead people to be ALIVE?

Sometimes I think the Christians of Lubbock don’t know this.  In fact, really the Christians of America in general, I think, don’t really appreciate this.  And maybe in this respect we are a lot like the church in Corinth.  Look at what St. Paul tells them:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

(I Cor. 1:26-31)

Yeah!

God chooses the fools, the weak, the poor, and the small so that when he whips tail, he gets the glory for it!  No, really, think about some of the famous stories you know from the Bible.  (You don’t have to be a scholar to know this stuff!)  Think about David, the little shepherd boy killing Goliath the Giant.  This one is probably the most famous of all the stories of this kind, and it’s told in such a way as to really emphasize the point!  This massive warrior comes out and taunts God’s people on the battle field day after day, but God, working behind the scenes – back in the shepherd’s fold –  has a secret weapon: David, the little guy who ain’t even big enough to wear the armor!

But the Bible is actually chock-full of these kinds of tales.  Joseph, the one who dreams of greatness, gets sold into slavery by his older brothers to the Egyptians, and they tell their daddy that he is dead and gone.  And what happens?  Things get worse!  That’s what happens.  Joe goes from slavery to prison, and it looks like all is lost as he is even forgotten there by his friends.  I am sure even he gave up on his own dreams before God raised him up second only to the king.  And then wouldn’t you know it, he saved the whole world from starvation, AND his dreams came true when his brothers came and bowed down to him!

Think too of Gideon.  The thing about his story that is so remarkable is how that he started off a coward, but even after he was convinced by God to raise and army and fight, God made him whittle down the size of it to just 300 men.

And can you see why?  It’s a mistake to think that David was just that great a warrior or that Joseph was just that lucky or that Gideon was just that ironic.  If you read these stories and the dozens upon dozens of others like them in the Bible and think like that, then you are missing the picture.  Look again at how St. Paul, who I am sure preached these stories to the church in Corinth before so that by the time he writes them he can allude to the lesson it was all meant to reveal: Divine-A-Might comes in small packages so that God can have the glory when his mysterious work explodes in your imagination finally!

Did you ever see the “What’s Your Excuse?” poster in the Christian bookstore?  You know, the one that says:

Jacob was a cheater;

Peter had a temper;

David had an affair;

Noah got drunk;

Jonah ran from God;

Paul was a murderer;

Thomas was a doubter;

Elijah was moody;

Moses stuttered;

Zaccheus was short;

Abraham was old

and Lazarus was dead.

Now, what’s YOUR excuse?

Great message, don’t you think?

Do you remember Shiphrah and Puah?  Probably not, but go check out their story in Exodus 1.  When Israel faced a genocidal king, these midwives were the tip of the spear of heaven’s special ops!

Really!  Midwives helping mammas give birth!  Heaven’s Special Forces!  You read it right.

Here’s the thing: Those who partake in God’s greatness are always the long shot, and generally just as surprised by their successes, their victories, their resurrections as the watching world.  And Paul wants his proud church in Corinth to know this standard feature of God’s great acts in the world so that they get on board.  They need not think too much of themselves, but rather be humble and watch for God to work wonders in their midst that will shock them and all who see them once they are humbled.

I think my church needs this word today.  And I think my friends in low places out on the streets need it too.

Yeah, my friends in high places may be missing out on God’s movement in our town because they boast in themselves, and my friends on the streets may be missing out because they have become convinced that the proud church has Jesus all bagged up and there ain’t no way God would ever use them.

I have a church that raises millions of dollars for all kinds of good causes, but how do they do it?  Well, there are the weekly contributions of course.  They host fundraisers for everything too!  You know, bring in the special guest speaker, sell tickets and have a banquet….  And with a handful of doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, and pharmacists making the contributions, you can see how it is that we afford such a large plot of land over on the “nice” side of town, how we afford such a large sanctuary with a fifty foot steeple and stained glass to match!  It has a fine banquet hall and kitchen, plush offices, perfect climate control, and matching drapes.  I should mention the manicured lawns, and the prayer garden too.  There is hardly a detail missed!  You would think with this kind of greatness, the whole world would be saved for Jesus by now!

And I don’t begrudge well-to-do Christians creating beautiful buildings in beautiful places in which to honor God.  Really I don’t.  (Though I wonder why they don’t build them in the poor part of town, host the poor in them purposely – compelling them in to the party of God.)

But I definitely want both my church and my street friends to know, to really contemplate and meditate on the fact that Divine-A-Might comes in small packages!  It is no mistake that Jesus is born to a homeless couple that place God’s anointed King of kings and Lord of lords in a manger to sleep and invite foreigners to be his couriers and lowly shepherds to be his attendants at his birth.  It is no mistake that this homeless prophet takes his crown on a Roman cross amid the jeers and scorn of all the powerbrokers who cannot see and hear what God is doing right under their noses.  All of this happens so that God will be glorified in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection!

And so if I were looking for God to do a new thing in Lubbock, I wouldn’t be too quick to seek for it in the million dollar sanctuary.  And in fact, the light turnout at the football stadium last spring when all the churches of Lubbock pulled together shows what I am talking about.  Despite all the planning, preparing, and promoting for the BIG EVENT, it just whimpered at half capacity – maybe because a few pastors, rather than God, would look really cool if they had managed it.  But I don’t know that; its just a guess.

On the other hand, if I were looking for God’s BIG THING, I would get as close to some lowly homeless people as I could.  I would expect that God is moving and shaking way down below the radar, back behind the scenes, amid people we would not expect – who wouldn’t expect it themselves!  And I would seek him there in their midst because those poor souls will be so stunned when it happens that they won’t know how to take the credit, and the Divine-A-Might will explode for God’s glory, not ours!

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The Update You Have Been Waiting For

Agent Z is at it again!

I Am Agent Z

My mindset as of late, every time I’m presented with extra food, is to find someone who needs food. It seems like the natural thing to do now. While I’ve been in ABQ, our youth group and other church groups have often ended up with extra food; burgers, cookies, bags of chips. So, naturally, I ask if I can take some and find someone who needs some food. I have not been told ‘no’ yet.

This is how I met Brandon and Tyler. Each of these men received a bag of burgers that were left over from the youth ministry function one night. I saw Brandon once since then, walking away from the church, but since then both him and Tyler have disappeared. However, I have met some new friends from the street.

Armed with small bags of cookies left over from another youth function, I took to the streets…

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Cruciformed

For those of you who have not read N.T. Wright’s massive book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, let me just say that this exhaustive (and exhausting) theological exploration of Paul’s world, faith, writings and ministry by such a deeply revered, beloved, and prolific scholar does not start with Romans like perhaps you would expect, and not even with Galatians, but rather with Philemon.  Yes.  Philemon.  And what Wright establishes there in that short letter from St. Paul which opens the way to all the rest of his extensive theological reflection is the loving, self-sacrificial position Paul puts himself in between Philemon and Onesimus (Philemon’s runaway slave) as he attempts to bring reconciliation to both men in a very public way.  (He makes Onesimus carry the letter to the church in Colossae to be read publically in front of the whole assembly and tells everyone in earshot that any debt or damages Onesimus owes to Philemon, Paul will pay in his place – all the while reminding Philemon of a debt he owes to Paul!)

And the point Wright draws from all this?

Paul has managed to take these two brothers, one in each hand (metaphorically) outstretched in the position of Jesus Christ hanging on a cross paying for our sins, and there Paul finds the power of God for reconciling them to each other, to Jesus, and to the church.

In recent months, my actions and words – even my beliefs and motives – have been called into question (to put it mildly) both privately and publically, in writing and face-to-face, and I have been characterized as “unloving”.  In fact, I face multiple accusations, and all of them stem from my confrontations, (not with the poor, but) with the rich and powerful among the ranks of the church.

In response, I offered rebuttals and refutations.  I counteracted the accusations with further confrontation.  I have not yielded so much as an inch.  I see no need to do so.  On the contrary, I sense my confrontation is way too lax!  I should come on far stronger!  I should get right up in your hostile face and not let off until you take a swing!  I believe that is how Jesus does it; I just don’t have his nerve.

But that all seems distasteful, and I sense there is some genuine worry that Jesus does not, in fact, confront the powers and principalities on center stage, but instead quietly mops up their messes in the wings.  He does both, actually, but the action on center stage is no accident or afterthought; he is driving there from the start.  He picks a fight with his actions in the temple, but then wins it, ironically, at the cross.

The cross.

This is where, with outstretch hands, Jesus takes the love of God in one hand and the pain of the world in the other and holds them together where God does his mysterious thing and brings about reconciliation.

But it’s not N.T. Wright that I need to really talk about today.  Let me say, by way of caveat here near the start, that I may or may not have done (or be doing) a good job of following Jesus the way Paul does with Philemon and Onesimus, but that picture is never far from my mind.  And as I now give a more thorough account of my actions and motives than you find in refutations, rebuttals, and counter-confrontations, I will instead appeal to one of your own poets: C. Leonard Allen.

(For those readers here who either are not involved or not familiar with Churches of Christ, I invite you to join the discussion, but keep in mind I am directly talking to those in-house actually, and so quoting from Allen will have far more direct impact for those insiders than for those overhearing the conversation.  You are welcome, but please bear with me as I talk in the local dialect and accent.)

Leonard Allen is one of the most intellectually gifted writers from the ranks of the Churches of Christ.  He is a deeply spiritual man, and I was blessed, once upon a time, to be one of the sheep in his flock when he was a pastor for the Abilene Mission Church shortly before that congregation split up.  Our denomination may be a small pond, but he is a large fish in it!  When Paul quotes Athenian poets to get a moment of respect for his own case, I do the same by quoting Allen.

“Cruciform” is a term Allen introduced to the Churches of Christ back in 1990 with his book The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross-Shaped People in a Secular World.

In that book, Allen deals with issues very specific to Churches of Christ, but the larger point of the book is pertinent to any church that worships Jesus.  The centrality of the cross is indispensable, but for various reasons (and Allen explores reasons he sees as pertinent to Churches of Christ in particular), the church has lost its focus on the cross, and even more has ceased to have the shape God wants us to take in the world in order to bring about and be his means of reconciliation of all things.  Basically, Allen is saying that the cross is so centrally important that we lose our reason to be without it taking center stage, AND we cease to bear the image of God for the world and being shaped by it when we let go of it at our center.

I recently asked on one of my posts, “What does taking up a cross and following Jesus have to do with being a church and shepherding his flock???  For that matter, what does it have to do with anything?” The context of that question had to do with outreach ministry.  What does the cross have to do with helping the poor, the homeless, the needy?  And this recent post was only the latest in a long string of reactions and responses to the “Seeking Shalom” class put out by the Lupton Center and the book When Helping Hurts authored by Corbett and Fikkert who also contribute to the “Seeking Shalom” class.  Leonard Allen surveys five generations of history in the Churches of Christ and plots the ever-shrinking significance our church has placed on the centrality of the cross in our identity and mission, and points out how it finds less and less significant mention over time in sermons, articles, and books.  Likewise, I, having been exposed to Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert, find little or no significant mention of the cross of Christ in the studies they produce.

“Seeking Shalom” sounds good on the surface of things.  Shalom.  Who doesn’t want that?  The word means “peace” but not merely the absence of conflict, rather the very robust presence of harmony – of all the parts of creation being in tune with all the other parts AND with the whole!  No wonder Corbett and Fikkert can sound so biblical when they claim poverty alleviation is “… the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation”.  In fact, the slogan from “Seeking Shalom” says to “stop meeting needs; start seeking shalom”.  It may beg other questions, but already we can see the effort at what seems to be the same kind of world-wide harmony and reconciliation St. Paul and actually the whole Bible dares us to dream about and attempt to implement.  What could be wrong with that?

Well, it lacks any consideration of the cross of Christ!  And let’s face it; a cross-less peace is just NOT God’s shalom.  If it was, then why did Christ die?  If not for shalom, if not for a right relationship with God, with self, with others and with all of creation, then why die?  As St. Paul says it, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20).  It is through the blood of his cross that we have the shalom we say we are seeking.  It is so important to make the cross central to our ministry that, to quote your own poet, C. Leonard Allen, “The cross… provides the lens which focuses the distinctively Christian view of things.  It provides the dominant vision of what life in Christ should be like.”

Allen then sets out this case:

“Through the lens of the cross, we can say, this dominant vision of reality becomes cruciform or cross-shaped.  Consider three ways the cross does this.  First, through the cross we see the heart of God revealed most clearly.  Second, only through the cross can we see the true nature of human sin and the depths of divine grace.  And third, the cross provides the model for God’s new social order, the messianic community.”

Let me be clear about something at this point: I am fully aware that Allen’s book is not written about outreach ministry.  The Cruciform Church was not written as some kind of manual for serving the poor, the homeless, and the needy.  Allen makes a few remarks here and there that catch issues related to that from time to time, but always as a glancing blow, never a direct address of the subject.  But Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert have attempted to appeal to biblical shalom as a theological grounding for their approach to outreach, but they have produced an ideal of a cross-less shalom, and Allen’s work challenges that notion almost head on – except that he is dealing specifically with Churches of Christ and issues particular to that denomination.  Never mind, for our present purposes, that Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert offer multiple lessons regarding care for the poor that don’t even cite a single passage of Scripture, and that these lessons pervade their work at several critical points, the theological premise they start with lacks the very central and vital point Allen claims is indispensable!  They offer a vision that is decidedly NOT cruciform, and thus it has come untethered to God’s mission for his shalom.

Let’s listen to Allen talk about these points briefly and see if his remarks have bearing…

Point 1: The cross reveals the heart of God most clearly, thereby putting all our human conceptions of God to the test.

This point has a lot to say about the image of God.  What is God like?  How does he relate to his world in trouble?  Does he put together an “asset-based community development” approach to helping people in need?  Does he look for the good inherent in the lives of sinners and a fallen world and build on that?  Or does he send his son to suffer and die in their place?  In dying on that cross, does Jesus portray the image of the suffering love of God that will pay any cost to reconcile with his beloved creation?  Which approach reveals God to us?  Isn’t it the latter?  And doesn’t that reveal God’s hand at work in the world rather than our own?  And isn’t a cross a truly ironic approach?

Here’s Allen: “The cross thereby challenges and breathtakingly alters our human conceptions of what God must be like.  We think of God as high and lifted up, enclosed in glory; the cross reveals God as stooping and lowly, enduring shame.  We think of God as omnipotent, invulnerable, and unaffected; the cross reveals God as making himself vulnerable because of love, exposing himself to all the world as one who appears weak and powerless.  We think of God working his will through sheer almightiness; the cross shows us that God has chosen to work his will through the power of suffering love.”

Hmmm… the power of suffering love is an idea Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert seem to have ignored – even avoided.  They want us to help the poor, alright, but they want us to avoid pain – unless by pain we mean to teach the poor delayed gratification, which might be characterized as a pain produced by discipline.  To be fair, I don’t recall them ever making such a case, but perhaps it is implied.  But even the title of Corbett and Fikkert’s book explicitly sets out to dodge suffering, and there is no indication that the poor should (or might) benefit from our suffering on their behalf.  Yet this is exactly what Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive the debt!  If you forgive a debt, that means you are paying it off yourself on behalf of the indebted one who is burdened by it.  This is precisely what St. Paul offers to do for the runaway slave, Onesimus!  Yet, that would involve suffering, sharing in suffering, and thus the help would hurt!  Despite this power of suffering love, Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert present a cross-less shalom that just is not God’s shalom.

In the interest of brevity (believe it or not, I am condensing here), Let’s move on with Allen.

Point 2:  The cross reveals to us the true nature of human sin and the depth of divine grace.

Of the three points quoted here supporting Allen’s thesis, this one is the weakest, I think, insofar as it also addresses my topic.  But there is enough connection to at least raise some questions, I think, and so we will look at it closely, even if briefly.

Here’s Allen: “We do not truly see our sin until we see something of what our sin cost God.  We cannot know the extent of our estrangement from God until we see something of the distance God had to travel to reach us.  We do not confess our sin, then turn to the cross.  Rather we see Jesus lifted up on the cross and find ourselves moved to confess sin.”

Allen continues: “The cross therefore is deeply wounding, for it exposes us for what we really are.  The cross passes judgment on the prideful human self, for it is that self which presents the greatest obstacle to God’s work.  The prideful self tends to regard itself as self-sufficient….”

If the cross reveals our sin and challenges our pride and self-sufficiency as part of the larger shalom project God is engaged in, then is it unreasonable to apply these insights to our outreach and care for the poor, the homeless, and the needy?  And if that is the case, how does the cross and a cross-shaped shalom sit with “asset-based community development”?

It would seem to me that one of the goals we have with the poor, the homeless, and the needy, one that is not (in the final analysis) significantly different than what we offer to anyone, is for the poor, the homeless, and the needy to take stock of themselves and their situation quite soberly in the light of God’s love (something I think Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert would agree with as far as it is thus stated).  But do we want them to become self-sufficient?  Really?

Well, in a Luptonian/Corbettian/Fikkertian shalom, the answer is YES.  But in a cross-shaped shalom, the answer is NO.  But I have already spent more time with point 2 than I should.  I think you can see the implications, but actually the other two points carry the real weight, so let’s move on with Allen again.

Point 3: The way of the cross provides the model for God’s new social order, the messianic community.

A new social order?  Despite all the talk of relationship with God, with self, and with creation, I suggest that the relationship with others is the real agenda for Corbett and Fikkert (and Lupton), an agenda to free ourselves, finally, of the burden of THEM.  We Christians feel a sense of responsibility for the poor, alright.  Even a glance in your Bible will slap the idea right into your selfish mind.  But with the fancy footwork Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert provide, you can blame your one-another-burden-bearing Christianity for causing poverty and for keeping people trapped in it, and you can promote personal responsibility as the way of salvation in its place as you “stop meeting needs” and “start seeking shalom”.  Honestly, these guys offer a thinly veiled, shallowly baptized version of “Get a job, Hippie”, or “Must make bricks”, or my personal favorite – a baptized neo-Nazi version of “Work will make you free!”

But Allen ain’t havin’ it.

Here’s Allen: “…Jesus summoned people into … an alternative social order”.  “Entering the Kingdom means nothing less than participating in an alternative order, one that stands in sharp and disturbing contrast to the dominant ways of thinking and acting.”  “In this community one learns to love freely and indiscriminately – a reflection of the way God loves. ‘But you must love your enemies, and do good and lend without expecting return… you will be sons of the Most High, because he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish’.”  “In this new community people release their grip upon possessions and share freely with those in need…  Here we learn to care for the people society has rejected, to receive the handicapped, the retarded, the poor, the prisoners – all of those whom Jesus called ‘the least of these'”.  “This new community, in short, follows the way that Jesus went – the way that led to the cross.”

At nearly the end of this section of his book, Allen pens this convicting thought: “The cross thus puts our churches to the test.  It exposes our smug elitism, our affluent isolation.”

Do I really need to explicate these points?  Are they not almost tailor-made for addressing outreach ministry and refuting Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert?  Jesus summons us to “stand in sharp and disturbing contrast to the dominant ways of thinking and acting”.  And that is definitely NOT the “Seeking Shalom” program with it’s cross-less agenda!  No.  That class would have us help, alright, but help the poor to become part of the dominant ways of thinking and acting!  Of relabeling pride as “dignity” and then aiming the poor at self-sufficiency.

The remarks I quote here all come from Chapter 5, “The Church Under The Cross”.  I lift all the quotations from pages 145 – 151 in the second edition, in case you want to look for them and see if I do him justice with the larger context.

I fully recognize that by employing Allen’s work in the way I do, it stretches his remarks a bit to cover issues of outreach ministry in a way he never intended.  But I explained above that when Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert build a theological basis for seeking shalom upon which to then advance their instructions (much of which takes no basis in the Bible at all, I might add), then Allen’s work in firmly placing the cross back into the picture of shalom as necessary for it to be realized shows Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert’s omission of it to be a fatal flaw right out of the gate.  But of course, that only matters if you value C. Leonard Allen’s view on things.

One feature I find interesting about Allen’s book is how broad a base of evidence he puts together to make his case for Churches of Christ.  He could have, it would seem – especially to those of us insiders – gone straight to Scripture and pointed it out to us, and that would be enough to settle it all.  However, he takes great care and goes to elaborate measures to confront the Restoration Movement heritage as this issue developed over the course of many generations, and the case he makes becomes rather cumbersome really.  I mean when he has sections of chapters called “Exploring A Strange World” and “Enlarging Our Canon” where he explores metaphors, idioms, cross cultural dynamics and literally dozens of other features to make his point, he is not only being pervasive, he is working hard to show the relevance.  Thus I find my own use of Allen to address Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert (among others), though it feels like a stretch, is no farther a stretch than your own poet makes when he develops this material for his purposes

But really, let’s get down to the real thrust here.  I took you on this tour of C. Leonard Allen’s book, not so much so I could employ a few quotations here and there to refute some of the major points from people with whom I disagree.  No.  My real point is the fact that Allen uses the term “cruciform” to describe the shape we are supposed to be formed into as we serve Jesus.  And I happen to really like that term.  I happen to dwell on it frequently and purposefully.  And while my use of some quotations here has helped to refute Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert, and certainly has shown their lack of acknowledgment and even respect for the work Jesus has done and is doing and calls us to as well, I also want to demonstrate how being cruciformed affects me and my ministry AND also as a bit of a defense against some of the accusations that I am unloving or have impure motives.

Let me be clear on this point, though.  I am NOT claiming I live by even my own ideals appropriately.  That would be a second debate (possibly).  If you find me doing a terrible job of reflecting a cruciformed life, that will be up for debate, however, I have yet to find anyone using the term (or anything like the concept) as a standard for living and for mission. So now I want to give an account of what I believe to be the right way forward, of what I strive for in my life and work.  It is, to borrow a term, cruciform.

At this point I plan to depart from heavy dependence on N.T. Wright and C. Leonard Allen, and instead offer my own thoughts, though I freely admit I came to them largely with the help of both of these teachers.  I hope you can see how I build on their offerings.  Specifically, and most importantly, Wright imaginatively shows us how prophetically St. Paul applies the cross of Christ to his mission/ministry for the church in Colossae, and specifically in reconciling the slave from that church to his master in that church.  As far as Allen is concerned, I specifically want to use the term he gives for that, and to rely on his extensive account for how cruciformity is missing in the theology and praxis of the church today.  And from the basis supported by these observations, I want to share my own thoughts going forward.

Fat Beggars School of Prophets takes this as it’s mission statement: Go to the place of shame, pain, and despair, and bear the image of God there.  The statement is modeled on remarks offered by N.T. Wright, but even that is modeled on the (what should be the overwhelming) observation that Jesus’ whole mission points to and drives to his work at Golgotha.  He reveals a cruciform God there who demonstrates his love in suffering the estrangement of his wayward, beloved creation.

We can, and should, explore the meaning and power of the resurrection, but it is primarily a validation of the cruciform shape Jesus prophetically takes when he bears the image of God most powerfully at the place of shame, pain, and despair in his community, and all the wonderful explorations of it are beyond the scope of my purpose here today.  I merely acknowledge how important and related a study that is, but I will not go farther into it at this time.

Cruciformed image bearing.  (Suffering)

The cross of Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s suffering love.  This is God’s ultimate answer to all the world’s problems.  You name the problem, and this is God’s answer.  It’s not readily seen as such on the surface in every case, but follow the trail of love and you will find it is the answer even if deep below the surface.  There is nothing made in all of creation that does not answer to the Creator, and he put humans at the center of it all to bear his image, and thus the creation will harmonize when it sees him in us!  This – THIS – this is SHALOM!

Got cancer eating away at your vital organs?  The image of God bore on a Roman cross just outside Jerusalem roughly 2000 years ago is the answer.  Yes, but how?  Seem strange?  Sure, but look into it.  When cancer, that power that robs the world of precious human life, comes to see the Creator God of shalom fully displayed in his image-bearing human creature, then cancer learns it’s place!  When cancer sees God suffering after cancer invades your body, cancer takes note of this God’s love for you and finds its proper place in creation and ceases to be a threat to the peace of God that surpasses understanding.

Hmmm…  Cancer learns it’s place in shalom?  That is a strange idea.  They didn’t teach that in Sunday school when I was a kid.

No.  They didn’t.  And I have some important ideas about why they didn’t, but like Leonard Allen’s work, it would take me a few chapters to demonstrate it and a few more to show its relationship to our subject.  Important though they are, the reasons the church hasn’t taught this stuff to us will have to keep for now.  So in the meantime, NO, they didn’t teach this, and that means we missed something important along the way.  And it demonstrates a phenomenon of modern Christianity, especially as expressed in the consumerist West, where pastors and preachers attempt to “make Christ relevant” for your life today largely through the elimination of suffering and certainly the centrality of suffering in God’s love for the world.

How did we get to a point in world history where pastors and preachers would feel the need to connect those dots in such a manner?  This is God’s world of his creation.  How can there ever be a single moment where any particle of it does not see him as relevant?  Despite our shortsightedness and tendency to lose focus on God’s agenda, we know this down in our bones, and we must rely on faith that God is faithful to his mission.  Only a sinful heart, blinded by pride and sin fails to see this connection.  But we have a culture full of this blindness, and we have a church that has lost its cruciform shape, that has lost its value for the cross, seeking ways to be relevant despite her mission from God.  Thus the church sees a problem in the world that needs “fixing”, and we seek relevant and “effective” ways of addressing the problem that never gives the cross of Christ a second thought – in fact, not even the first.

Suffering is a measure of love.  A mother suffers the birth of her children.  Both parents together bear the burden of feeding, sheltering, clothing, protecting, and disciplining the children even when the return on investment manifests only in cries in the night and dirty diapers.  And of course we call this LOVE, and it bonds the children to the parents for life.  And we do all manner of things to mitigate the suffering involved in the process, but we also accept that it is part of life, and actually, it is a measure of love.  No one loves you like your mother.  No one.  Ever.  Except maybe your father, but even that is not likely.  The suffering a mother endures and is willing to endure for her children is a bedrock foundation of human culture.  It is practically an immutable phenomenon.

Here I am going outside the Bible now to make a point about the relevance of God’s suffering love to his creation for a church that has lost touch with its relevance to the world.  Hmmm… Ironic, don’t you think?  (Actually, I can piece something of this notion together with Bible references, but the point still holds.)  The suffering love of God put on display on a Roman cross is the most central and powerful moment of our faith – even of all of world history (we would say, rightly) – but the moment we talk about outreach to the homeless, it isn’t even an afterthought.

Seriously.  Go read When Helping Hurts; take the “Seeking Shalom” class; show me where Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert make any meaningful application of the cross to their study – in fact show me where it comes up for any mention whatsoever.

I don’t have time to wait for you.

These guys are taking the church by storm making sure the church learns not to suffer the poor in our midst.  The poor, they think, need to learn self-sufficiency, and we have a duty to teach it to them.  It has all the marks of a superiority complex, if you really think about it, and nothing of a cruciform, suffering love.  The peace it mislabels as “shalom” is actually a parody, parading as God’s love, but really alleviating your conscience when the suffering love of God poured out through his church seems ineffective at fixing the problem.  And this moves entirely away from the central focus of our faith!  It moves entirely away from God’s answer to all the world’s problems!  Thus it doesn’t actually seek shalom at all, but falls into the same pit as all worldly wisdom that seeks a utopia without suffering and thus without love.

So what does a cruciform outreach look like?

It looks like outstretched arms of a body daring to grasp the pain of one world in one hand and the pain of another world in the other hand as these two worlds war with one another and ravage each other and the outstretched body between them at the same time.  You know, like Jesus on a cross holding heaven in one hand and our fallen world in the other, like St. Paul creatively and imaginatively holding Philemon with one hand and Onesimus with the other.  I hate to say something here that seems so obvious at this point and so simple that the saying of it might make you look stupid for not seeing it before, but… It probably looks like a church with wealth and means holding the hand of the poor in one hand and the hand of the bank in the other… of a church telling the bank, if the poor owes you anything, we will pay it in their place.  Accept them back at the table of fellowship on our account, and remember, you (the bank) owe us (the body of Christ) for the Judeo-Christian world order in which you conduct your business with any sense of trust that clients will be honorable and trustworthy!

I expect there will be room to debate lots of specifics and particulars within this overall cruciform program, and so my offerings at this point are largely on the order of suggestion, but there can be little doubt that the direction a cruciform mission takes is practically a one-hundred and eighty degree turn (a repentance) from the Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert direction.  Rather than avoiding meeting the needs for people, we will seek a way of meeting them, of suffering their needs for them, as a means of sharing God’s love with them.  Like Jesus says in Luke 6:30, we will “give to all who ask” at least, and very possibly will consider selling everything we own and giving it to the church, like we find in Acts 2 and 4 and maybe even giving it to the poor as a means of inheriting life in the Age to Come like we see in Mark 10 – a matter of shalom, not to mention the very goal of the church which is relevant to a world feverishly attempting to build a utopia that cannot work based on other grounds.

Questions arise, then.  What are we doing with this property we communally own such as a church building?  A building going empty night after night.  What would suffering love look like given this kind of resource if we refused to grasp at it and instead humbled ourselves?  What about all those empty guest rooms in our fine Christian homes?  How might we suffer the poor to love them with these resources?  How might we bear the image of God if he blesses us with this kind of wealth?

Cruciformed image bearing.  (Confrontation)

There is another feature of this suffering love that I have not explicated yet, and in fact it goes almost universally unnoticed by church people who, it seems, so eagerly seek to blend with the “dominant” culture and so readily embrace all it’s fads, trends, and conventions in the church – whether politically conservative or liberal, whether contemporary, fashionable, and vogue or antiquated, old-fashioned, and reminiscent of glory days from yesteryear.  This other feature has to do with confrontation.  Suffering love confronts a world of God’s making, which he made in peace and harmony but which flirts with chaos and disaster despite it’s intended purpose.  And the thing is: Suffering love isn’t always “nice”; and it may or may not involve warm fuzzy feelings at any given moment.

Yes, the same Jesus who says “Blessed are the meek” and “the peacemakers” enters the temple in Jerusalem and flips tables picking a fight and goes on to argue with religious leaders there even preaching parables they recognize as being against them, yet they fear the mob following him, so they put up with him until they find a way to catch him with no mob around.  Yes, the same Apostle Paul who outlines the fruit of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” calls the very people he instructs about this “stupid Galatians” just a few passages before that.  He also outlines how he confronted the Apostle Peter, opposing him to his face, and tells us about this within the same letter too.  How is it that if I flip tables, call people hypocrites, snakes and dogs or stupid that I am considered unloving, but if Jesus or St. Paul does this, they are not?

The fact of the matter is that we believe Jesus to be love incarnate!  No one, not even Job, embodies love, patience, and longsuffering more that Jesus, and St. Paul surely comes as close to Jesus as any mortal in all of human history!  Never mind me, for the moment, how can we account for this disparity of character in them?

Jesus, being the Master of all, surely demonstrates perfect piety even where I try and fail, but there seems to be an inconsistency here on the surface of things that we need to account for somehow.  He does demonstrate both patience and impatience, at least on the surface, while calling us to be like him and to be patient.  We must sort this out.  Ignoring it is not the answer.

St. Paul tells the Philippians that Jesus did not grasp his deity, but actually humbled himself instead.  This humble man, bearing God’s image, goes into the temple and flips tables.  He was already causing a stir with his ministry long before that.  He forgave sins and healed on the Sabbath.  His friends picked heads of grain on the Sabbath, and all of that roused consternation.  None of it was accidental.  It was all purposeful and meaningful and confrontational.  But then he enters the temple and really cuts loose.  All the confrontations before were relatively tolerated, but this one will instigate arrest, trial, and execution, and all of that lets us know he was headed here all along.

The authorities are not running around crucifying people for being “nice”!  If Jesus’ whole program were simply to out-nice the nice, some people might have found him to be unpleasant, but you could hardly rouse a group of religious leaders to put someone on trial and convict them for that.  No. Jesus picked on their precious symbols very publically and roused deep hostility that got him killed.  And he did it by not grasping his deity, but humbling himself.

It turns out confrontation can be made in various shapes, but they are not necessarily discernably different at some levels.  If you recall the words of Leonard Allen quoted above: “The cross thereby challenges and breathtakingly alters our human conceptions of what God must be like.  We think of God as high and lifted up, enclosed in glory; the cross reveals God as stooping and lowly, enduring shame.  We think of God as omnipotent, invulnerable, and unaffected; the cross reveals God as making himself vulnerable because of love, exposing himself to all the world as one who appears weak and powerless.  We think of God working his will through sheer almightiness; the cross shows us that God has chosen to work his will through the power of suffering love.”  Yes, we have all the information we need, but we couch it in the wrong categories to serve lesser agendas.

Let me ask this: If the omnipotent, omniscient God of creation wanted to reveal his long-suffering heart to his creation that rebels against him, how would he do it?  Would he come marching in and destroy it all and teach it a lesson?  Or would he present himself as one not grasping his omnipotence and omniscience, yet making the provocation to revere him as such, then allowing his creatures to destroy him so that they can then see, really see, their true relationship with him for what they have made it to be???  And upon seeing it for what it really is, does that not bring conviction – at least potentially – conviction that strips away all pretense where the love, the true love, can finally be shared in all its healing glory???

And true enough, some people will hold this love in contempt EVEN THEN, but not all.  And for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear, will they not see and hear what the others look at but do not understand?

I think I might have read this stuff somewhere.

We tend to think of confrontation being that which the powerful does to others – usually after discerning the others weakness so that the powerful can then lord it over the others.  But what if there is this truly divine confrontation that relinquishes power over others, yet makes the confrontation as if, and then bears the suffering that is now provoked?

And Jesus’ career shows us that there are differing intensities for this kind of confrontation.  Healing on the Sabbath confronts and provokes alright, but not like flipping tables in the temple!  And sure enough, St. Paul confronts the powerful Philemon demonstrating, even among Christians, that he is willing to suffer the punishment Onesimus deserves, and yet reminds Philemon, even in the midst of the confrontation, that Philemon owes Paul his very life.  Thus they are all drawn into the fellowship of suffering love.

When I read the Gospels, and most of the letters too, I find confrontation on page after page.  The Gospel of Jesus confronts me!  It confronts the whole world!  And sometimes the language of confrontation is very sharp, very shrill, and even inflicts pain – though not mortal wounds, and it appears to me that it is always vindicated by at least a willingness to suffer in love for the beloved confronted.  Sometimes the willingness is put to the test with actual suffering too – meaning bluffing will not do.

How is this not our calling?

And yet it is completely ignored, even avoided really, by Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert and the church at large today.

This stuff is not all esoteric, academic, spiritual, and other-worldly without bearing on our life in God’s creation.  No. Not at all.  And I say this because I find that frequently we preach a good sermon along these lines but don’t recognize it in the flesh when we see it, or are confronted by it.  I mean, where I go to church we get some tremendous preaching quite frequently, and our love for the poor, our inclusion of the poor, is frequently stressed in very emphatic terms that excite me to no end!  But then we hold a Bible class where we teach how not to get too involved, how not to get vulnerable with, how not to “hurt” or get hurt by the poor.  And I look around at us and the church culture we have created, and I see an assembly of 95% white, middle-class people meeting together in the “white-flight” district to make academic discussion of our love for the poor without actually including them in either the worship or the conversation.  I see us inventing ways to help the poor by buying a latte across town from them, and leaving their care to the hands of the professionals who make it all sound and look better than it is for the TV news, all the while with no mention of the cross..

Thus, I confront the charade.  And I don’t apologize for it.  If your feelings got hurt, that is a good thing.

And it is clear to me that I will not be hired to serve on your staff.  This may not be the cross I bear, but it is clear to me that I am sanctioned negatively for the confrontation alright, but it may not be clear to you that I pray for this church every day fervently – and at this church’s request too!  I seek a hearing with a stonewall of hardheartedness, and I will not hide the fact that I suffer it, and have for years.

I could have thrown in the towel, taken my marbles and gone home.  I could have done that many times over.  But there is a strange phenomenon at work here.  We are locked in it together.  And I must bear your punishments, and you must bear my confrontation until we either give up on God or surrender to him.  And barring that, we are stuck with each other through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

To be honest, I was watching CNN one day back in 2014 when a cell phone video captured the shaky, grainy image of a Christian man that ISIS crucified in (I think it was) Aleppo.  (I pray for Aleppo now every day because of that.)  And it chilled me to the bone.  Within an hour, the “liberal news media” had sanitized the images to exclude what I saw there.  But I cannot forget it.  Crucifixion is a real part of this world, and it scares me to see it.  Yet I do see it.  Like the Galatians, Paul has publically portrayed Christ crucified before my eyes, and I visit that image at Eucharist every chance I get.  But seeing a version of it on CNN brought it home to roost in ways I had not yet experienced.  And I am shaken by it even now years later.  I don’t know if I can stand with Jesus and not deny him three times before the rooster crows.  I have not been so tested.

But I devote myself to him every day hoping that I am worthy to die with him all the same.

I wonder… If the church I attend were to actually lose real members from the church roll, not spiritually, but physically, due to real crucifixion in the streets of Lubbock, would we still treat the poor the way we do?  Would we treat each other the way we do?  Would we be “seeker friendly” and buy-a-latte-for-the-poor oriented if we were REALLY cruciformed?

I think not.

If we even merely devote ourselves to cruciformity, and much more actually face crucifixion, I think we will have repented and the evidence of it would be entirely different than any “effectiveness” Lupton, Corbett, or Fikkert have to offer.  And I think the shalom we would seek would be ALL ABOUT MEETING PEOPLE’S NEEDS.

By way of answering for myself, I view my work as holding the hand of the church in one hand and the hand of the homeless in the other.  Sometimes, though relatively rarely, I confront the poor.  It turns out even the poor are full of pride a lot of the time.  But actually just using the name “Fat Beggars” throws down the challenge for them to humble themselves and embrace that humiliating name, and so, at that level, I am confronting them all the time.  As for the church, I did not confront the congregation where I am a member until and at the “Seeking Shalom” class where all the Lupton/Corbett/Fikkert nonsense was being promoted.  I confronted this teaching, and I did it head on.  I believe it to be the honorable and respectable way to confront it.

One of the things I find so difficult about it is how little regard my confrontation found.  At first there was an almost urgent ploy to downplay my confrontation.  Surely I didn’t really mean it when I challenged the curriculum!  And after all, as the teacher himself said repeatedly, “We agree on like 95% of this stuff.  I am saying what you are saying….”  But this simply is not the case, and I ratcheted up my intensity until it became clear that I am not playing nice; I am confronting a very bad teaching that is unacceptable and completely out of step with Jesus.  “Get behind me Satan!”

Yet my confrontation at no point suggested that I think my church is not worthwhile or that I would simply call down judgement on these people and be happy to watch them face God’s wrath.  I did not get mad and gather up my marbles and leave.  No.  I have stayed there confronting, expecting to be taken seriously.  And if I am wrong, and my position can be shown to be wrong (please use a Bible for this, your personal feelings and opinion do not carry the weight and authority of God’s Word), then I will repent.  I am not infallible, and I never claimed to be.

And so, in the meantime, I stand here holding my church in one hand (confronting yes, but also pleading admittance for the poor) and holding on to the hand of the poor with the other, and my arms are outstretched as I do it.  I imitate Paul who imitates Jesus, and I hope that my life and work are cruciformed.  And I trust that we are locked in with each other until we either give up on God or surrender to him.  And I hope that I am worthy enough to suffer and thus bear the image of God at this place of shame, pain, and despair in my community.

Fat Beggars Nation-wide (Family Vibe)

As I was deep into morning prayers today, I realized that I have kids taking outreach ministry all across the western United States this week.  Agent Z is facilitating a Luke-14 party with his host church in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Secret Agent Kid Sister is on a mission trip to the streets of Los Angeles, California!  I am pleased to be part of this group of God’s people finding his favor taking it to the streets among the poor and needy across half the nation.  I would not have dreamed it.

Hmmm…

Are You A Wolf In Shepherd’s Clothing? (Woe To The Shepherds)

When you engage in “outreach” ministry, do you take up a cross and follow Jesus?  Or do you make sure to avoid helping that hurts???

If I ask your sheep if they had a bed to sleep in last night, will they report that they did?  Or will they show me a spot under a “no trespassing” sign where they camped?

If I follow your sheep around at … oh say… 9pm tonight, will they walk past your locked up church house door?  And if I look at your million dollar budget will I find where you took a second vacation this year?  If I visit your house will I find a guest room going empty night after night?

If I ask the giant grant-funding foundation about your proposal for which you receive the bulk of your funding, will I find you are more interested in preserving “the bottom line”, managing liabilities, raising money and looking good for the public than in carrying your cross and/or feeding the sheep?  Did you mention the cross in that proposal at all???

Why would you?  What does taking up a cross and following Jesus have to do with being a church and shepherding his flock???  For that matter, what does it have to do with anything?  You got ANY idea?

And be honest, just between you and God here for a moment… Did you throw homeless people out to the streets last night?

Think about it.

Think now while you still have time.

Hear what God says through his prophet Ezekiel to the wayward shepherds of Israel:

Woe To The Shepherds!

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.  The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.  So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered;  they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:  As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep,  therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.  As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.  And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country.  I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.  I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.  Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?  And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

“Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad,  I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.  And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.

(Ezek. 34:1-24)

I didn’t see one word of concern about whether your help might hurt the sheep.  Not one.  But I sure did see a lot there about feeding yourself and blowing off the flock!  Yup!  I saw plenty of that.

Hmmm…

Please, Let Me Touch You With My 10 Ft Pole

The love Lubbock’s homeless receives from the Church of Lubbock is genuine (sorta).  I need to take care and point out that through the various churches (in a few instances), parachurches, and 501c3 ministries, and alliance between these and other agencies Lubbock reaches out to the homeless with a lot of resources.  Lubbock feeds the hungry, no doubt.  There are numerous places to get a meal for free and at least one meal can be had everyday in this town by anybody needing it.  There are numerous clothing ministries keeping the homeless in something to wear.  We have various shelter options too.  I don’t want to misrepresent this stuff.

I sense it is possible that non-local people engaging this blog might suspect Lubbock does not offer these services.  That would be wrong.  Lubbock offers all of these services and more (medical care too, for instance) to varying degrees and in various ways.  These services have value, sometimes life-saving value.  I do not deny any of this.

On the contrary, I thank God daily for all the services this town offers to the poor as a part of my routine prayers.  Even more, I will freely tell you, these are the reasons I ever became involved with some of the ministries offered around town to begin with!

And I did not leave these ministries behind because I didn’t like them; I left when I was either passed over (my participation was not accepted) or kicked out.  But none of that should confuse the fact that real people with real needs get real needs met everyday.  And I am grateful for every crumb that falls from the table of Lubbock!

I hope that is clear to my readers here.  If it wasn’t clear before, I am telling you now.  Take it from Agent X!  I am the biggest critic by far; so if I concede all of that, you surely can trust it is true, even if you don’t verify it.

So what is the problem?

The “Church”.

This is a Christian town, if ever there was one.  You can’t get more “Christian” than Lubbock, Texas.  Yet to my knowledge (except for arrangements made through Family Promise, with a very narrow focus on women with children) no church in Lubbock hosts the homeless for the night.   The church-house doors are closed to “the least of these” night after night.  Few, if any, churches host the homeless to SHARE A MEAL.  And beyond that, there is no special welcome made to the homeless to worship with the church.  And there is no excuse for it.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter to you.  Some of you readers care about the homeless but couldn’t give a rip for the church.  I don’t share your values (completely), and this blog will be meaningless to you – if that’s you.  But for those who care that the “church” be the church – at least strive to be even if falling short – then we have a long way to go.

But some of you will say, “The church is doing much, actually!”  And I YES! – sorta.  But the church expresses the loving touch of Jesus with a ten foot pole.  Most of this benevolence is funneled through the nonprofits, and not handled by the Body of Christ.

Show up at ANY church in this town on a Sunday morning and look around.  How many street homeless people do you see?  Ten?  Five? Three? Two?? Is there even one???  (I almost feel like Abraham bargaining with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah.)

If you could be there following Jesus on those dusty Galilean trails and crisscrossing the Sea of Galilee  as he takes his ministry to Israel, you would find him mobbed by every kind of broken, lowly, sinner, the poor and the needy.  If you could watch him enter Jerusalem for that fateful Passover, you would find the poor and needy mobs lining his parade in welcome to him.  But you show up in church in Lubbock, Texas on a Sunday morning, and you are not likely to find such people clinging to him.  And if you ask where they all are… ask any pastor, any deacon… you are sure to find a caring response.  With a twinkle in the eye and a warm caring smile, they will tell you, “We have a place for them down at… [the other end of our ten foot pole]”.

Seriously, look and listen to the response.  You can see it all over the face that smiles and glibly gushes about all the great things “we” do for the poor, and, like I said, there are a lot.  The budget is huge, the array of services is vast, and so is the distance we carefully put between Jesus and the poor, disguised very carefully to look and sound like LOVE.

And if you want to take the guided tour, that is exactly what you will find.  The church of Lubbock is banking that you won’t ask the wrong questions, that you won’t dig too deeply beneath the surface, that you won’t think for yourself about some of these inconsistencies.  If you do, they say you are “going rogue”, and marginalize you too.

My Latest Church Spanking

I shared the message below in the comments under the post to which it reacted a few days ago.  For two days after publishing the post it, I got some unusually pleasant feedback – people reflecting how upbeat and inspirational they found it (my words, not theirs).  But then I got a blistering reaction to it via email from one of my shepherds at church who viewed it as “damaging” (his word (and apparently he hates me giving feedback using his words)) because I sent a copy of it to church friends from my Seeking Shalom class and from the small group that meets at my house – and particularly because one of the members of that small group is a woman recovering from addiction.  The point being, he thinks she is too vulnerable to handle it, and since she is the lamb under his watch, he treated me as a wolf he needs to protect her from.

Edited only to hide the identities of those referred to therein, here is that email note:

 

[Agent X],

Once again you have demonstrated just how insensitive and harmful your rhetoric can be.  For some reason you decided to include [Agent J] in this note, without asking, caring or knowing where her walk with God is at this moment and once again you have damaged someone.  This time, someone who is vulnerable and fragile.

If you ever hoped to persuade me or the other elders to hear your voice, let me now make this clear and distinct…

Your voice has no volume.  You may scream at the top of your voice, but it will not be heard.

Oh, I know you will send back a parsed rebuttal of phrases I have used.  You will expand on a single word or phrase in hopes of convincing me and others of your pure motive, but it is now clear that you wish to “party” and that you will “turn over tables” to get the chance to party at the expense of anyone who objects.  That will not happen.  Lest there is any misunderstanding let me repeat, that will not happen.  Your motives are clear and they are not pure.

In the future, if you wish to send further notes of this type, feel free to send them to me, [Agent B] and [Agent A], but do not send them to [Agent K], [Agent P], [Agent J] or anyone else in small group.

Now if you will excuse me, I have work to do to repair the damage you just caused.

[Agent G]

 

After reading that, let me ask: Do you feel the love?

My question is important because for months now, this shepherd, representing the others, has been leveling accusations against me starting with how “unloving” I was when I confronted the garbage my church was teaching via the Seeking Shalom class put out by the Lupton Center.

Yeah… They called me “unloving”.

I will freely grant that I was tactful and direct, that I dispensed with any pleasantries that denial might hide behind, but I assure you I said NOTHING so scathing as this note.

Nevertheless, here is the irony:  I spoke up defending the poor homeless people sleeping on the streets of Lubbock in freezing temperatures on those same cold winter nights when we were holding that lame class.  The insensitive rhetoric of that whole class that ENABLES a church to deny entrance of “the least of these” (Jesus) was exactly the point of my confrontation!  If it seemed “unloving”, I would expect someone penning THIS confrontation to appreciate it.

I am not insensitive to the possible ‘damage’ my words might have on a vulnerable person.  I trust this shepherd will, with the help of the Holy Spirit, tend to this vulnerable lamb in his care and not write her off blaming me as a convenient excuse for the ineffectiveness he might have.  And I note, after 20 years experience taking ministry to addicts in various stages of recovery (or not) how many of them don’t, in the end, beat the addiction!  That can be a little tough to take as a caregiver.  But then I had 3 years experience before all that serving Hospice patients!  And I will let you guess how many of them we “saved”!

(Actually, I think my work in Hospice really helps me to handle the sense of futility that causes so many caregivers to burn out in other fields.  Thus I am not terribly upset with the “failures” of ministry to prisoners, addicts, and child-abusers.  I don’t get all “outcome” or “effectiveness” oriented and hang all my value on that.  Rather, I find value in serving Jesus whose image I find in these folx like finding a diamond in the rough, and if serving Jesus the way he calls me to produces that next order of repentance and fruitfulness (which sometimes it does!), then it’s all that much better.  But when I don’t get to be the one raking in the harvest, I just recall what St. Paul says about one planting, another watering, and another gathering the harvest, but God is responsible for the increase!  And therefore that part I should trust in God’s hands, not mine.)

I just wanted to get all that out there.

It turns out, the post that caused all this fuss is one of the most visited posts on this blog with (I think) the most comments and conversation this blog ever generated.  It’s getting a LOT of traction.  And I don’t know who all is looking, but I would not be at all surprised if some of the lookers aren’t voyeurs from my church!  (Hi, guys!)

But of course, IF that is the case, it’s pretty clear, based on the insensitive/unloving rhetoric in which the message of this email is sent, that our conflict goes a LOT deeper than even I was appreciating.

Hmmm…

And this is not the first Spiritual Spanking I have gotten from my church friends in this town.  In fact, when the Premier Homeless Pseudo Church (not its real name) kicked me out, they sent me a private note outlining my crimes and banishment and then read (I think the same note) a letter aloud to the assembly outlining my crimes and banishment!  (I think they failed to tell those homeless people gathered there that day, that I had confronted them about kicking everyone out to the winter cold nights and how they refused ANY compromise to my confrontation… but….)

So here we are several days later, and I am still reflecting on all this.  And the thing is… I expect more sanctions.  I am not a betting man, but Jesus suffered more sanctions when he confronted the religious elites at the house of God.  He then warned his followers they should expect no less for following him.  So, yeah.  I expect more.  And of course more of this (or more to the point – more THAN this) will be pretty stinkin’ ugly.

Unless, of course, leadership wants to repent and turn to Jesus…

(Hey, one can hope!)

Point being… here we go…  Those of you who read here and care… please keep our church in prayer.  There is nothing I would LOVE more than for the church of Lubbock to throw open the door to Jesus!

“Behold!  I stand at the door and knock.  If you open up, I will come in and party with you…” – Jesus

(Rev. 3:20)

 

Try THIS For A Little Empathy

West Texas, like much of the western American states, suffers from drought.  Risking failed crops, wildfires, and water shortages, us conservative Christian types sometimes face ridicule in the national media when we pray for rain.  But pray we do!  And we thank God for every little sprinkle that drops to us, and you can bet, that includes me.

But as I wake up early and step outside to pray in the backyard, as I am apt to do, I watch the dawn take hold of the sky over Lubbock, and we get a light sprinkle.  And I think: Wow!  How grateful am I?  That is not enough rain to make any positive difference, and in fact, it will cause many of us to rush down to the local car wash and use the precious little water we have to make our cars look good.  And I am not sure just how thankful I am, really.

It occurs to me that even if we get a good, soaking rain (or better yet several), rainfall, for all it’s blessing that I will not deny for one second, is a hardship on those who sleep outside.  And as I join God in prayer there in the yard, these people are my real concern.

A little rain.  It’s not the worst.  No.  And in fact there are far bigger problems for the street homeless than facing rain.  But if my church were to host “the least of these” in our vast, empty facilities through the night, then I would not have any conceivable reservations about the blessed rains.  And lack of empathy, at root, is behind our obstinate refusal to open the door to them.

We prefer to content our souls with the idea that they suffer justly for their poor decisions and behaviors, and hope that these natural consequences will lead to good discipline.

But I ask for empathy.  And I suggest this:

To the door keeper at the house of God… to whom God warns “STAY ALERT”, how about you set your alarm clock for 2 a.m. and get up and move to the guest room and sleep there?  This will simulate just one aspect of the struggle to sleep when cops or other neighbors come and roust you and make you move along.  Then set up a water hose with a sprinkler on it, programmed on a timer, to spray a brief blast of water on your bed with you in it at 4:30 a.m. to simulate that deceitful cloud that promises so much but delivers so little.  (No.  Really!  Just run a hose in through the window.  I am sure it seems odd, but of course, no more odd than God’s people leaving “the least of these” to sleep outside when there is so much resource available and just sitting there empty anyway!)  Yeah!  Just 10 or 20 seconds of water sprinkling on you in your bed will suffice!  I bet you dry off and then finish the night on the couch!

But then when the dawn finally comes, get a shower, eat a quick bite for breakfast, run down to the bus stop, and catch a bus taking you to a job interview.  (Or for those interested in advanced empathy, run down to the local soup kitchen and take a spot in line and wait your turn to eat hoping they don’t run out of food first!  Then catch a bus….)  Don’t be late to the interview!  Look your best, and try not to stink!  Just see if you are prepared for that dreaded question: “What do you consider to be your weakness?”

Keep in mind that you, a white, middle-class American with lots of support network, typically don’t suffer mental illness, war-related PTSD, or low-functioning alcoholism.  I can’t think of how you will simulate that, but you can surely just imagine…

I don’t suggest (at the end of all this) that you actually accept the job offer, assuming you get one, I just suggest you walk this mile in those shoes before you criticize.  Just see if you CAN land that job with these experiences being your morning routine.

AND THEN…

Thank God for the rain!

Storming The Gates Of Hell (Agent Z’s Report From Behind Enemy Lines)

Jesus says, in Matthew 16, “On this rock I will build my assembly, AND THE GATES OF HELL WILL NOT WITHSTAND IT” (emphasis, mine).

This statement/agenda is rarely far from my mind.  It tells me that Jesus is amassing an elite force of special operatives (made up, ironically, of humble broken people) to go storming the Gates of Hell!  And that storming the Gates of Hell IS THE MISSION.

So I find it doubly ironic, then, when I witness (sometimes even participating with) the assembly trying so hard to fit in with the “dominate culture”.  Not living “peaceably” with in it, but becoming absorbed by it.  The elite special ops doing that are traitors in the fight.  I cannot imagine any generals or presidents in the American armed forces tolerating such treason for one minute, but I can imagine a Great God of Grace showing mercy and hoping against hope that these usurpers will get it straight again (like King David grieving the rebellion of his son Absalom).  And that gives me hope, but I find the continued, rebellious, presumptive indulgence of his mercy by these special ops to be alarming.

There is a sense in which attempting to change this situation is where so much of the conflict in my ministry is generated.  I belong to a church that accommodates and indulges the outer culture as a matter of good business.  Believe it or not, I joined the church of Lubbock years ago, and together we stormed the Gates of Hell… for a while.  And we prevailed too!  But we must have had other ideas about prevailing because then the church read When Helping Hurts and very purposely pulled the plug on all the wonderful work we were doing and began accommodating the culture.  Thus I began confronting the church, and thus the conflict.  We have gotten away from the mission.

“Gates of Hell”… just sitting there waiting to collapse at the first sign of our charge.  Yeah… we have a mission there.

You know what?  In addition to the many Scriptures that have both direct and indirect bearing on how God wants us to treat the poor, the broken, and vulnerable among us, I can’t help but think that “hell”, to the American cultural mindset (both “secular” and religious), very nearly finds its ground zero in homelessness.  To be “homeless” is basically the opposite of realizing “the American Dream”.  It is, rather, the American nightmare.

I figure I am likely the first to draw those particular phenoms into this particular orb for my readers, but I expect that once they are illuminated with this light, my readers will quickly think: That makes good sense!

But the real stretch of the imagination is this: What if the little beachhead of “dominate culture” we have let in among us, that bit of pride and privilege – that ever-shrinking bit of theological and prophetic imagination – we circle our wagons around (and believe me, we circle the wagons, I know this first hand!) is yet another manifestation of the Gates of Hell?  Yeah, the Gates of Hell found in our own hearts!

Think about it.

Well… enough with all the esoteric background.  I really want to talk about Agent Z and his summer internship in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I have the pleasure to visit with him on the phone from time to time, and he came home again briefly last week on a mission to baptize his younger step brother, which also gives me a chance to visit with him.  However, he is not one to sit down and write very often, despite his attempt at blogging.  I hope he will come back to his blog soon, and possibly tell the story in his own words – which I presume would be more accurate than mine.  But in the meantime, you get my version which is very obviously filtered through my vantage ground, experiences, and hopes.  Nevertheless, I have asked him various probing questions in order to establish the story, and so I expect my version will reflect the facts.

Upon arriving in ABQ, Agent Z was immediately struck by the prominence of street homeless people visible at nearly every turn.  We discussed how that unlike Lubbock, ABQ sits at the intersection of two major interstate highways that directly connect LA to Chicago and Denver, and that there are railroads as well.  Also New Mexico overall is one of the poorer states in the union, and we noted that features such as this help explain the difference he so readily found.

But that was just Agent Z’s observation driving into town.  When he arrived at work to meet up with his supervisors and begin the task of “ministry” – ministry, sure, but ministry as outlined by his academic agendas – this concern seemed lacking.  The stated objective is “youth & family” ministry, which is worthwhile alright, but he couldn’t help but notice there were no homeless people attending worship with this church.  And being sensitive to such matters, Z began looking for opportunities to incorporate homeless outreach into the stated focus area.

Yay for Agent Z!

But of course… too bad for the church.  In a city with far more homeless people, how is it that the church has not reached at least a few of them?  I mean if these elite special ops are empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, this should be a forgone conclusion.  No?

And then Z tells me that the church property sits adjacent to a freeway, and that just two yards (six feet) or so off the church property line, the freeway goes through an underpass… an underpass playing host to a group of homeless people!

Are you getting this???

Agent Z is describing a group of homeless people living their grubby, aimless lives (assuming they are aimless) just two yards – the length of a man – away from the place where Jesus meets with the two or three (and more!) who gather in his name several times a week!  Yet… for whatever reason, none of these homeless people have yet to be “reached”.  And there is no sign that the church has any interest in trying.

Hmmm…

Z took a short stroll down to the encampment, and there he met two young men, one by the name of Brandon and the other by the name of Tyler.  Z greeted these guys and offered blessing.  But being the humble intern, he did not presume to urge these men into the church that hosts him too.  And I gotta say, if you really want to have a successful internship, you really need to take care not to rush into sticky situations with your host church!  Much conflict, and your name is mud back at school, and quickly throughout the “brotherhood” too.  Z decided to err on the side of self-preservative caution.

However, in short order, Z was tasked with helping to host a special event at a church gathering for the youth and families that was supposed to involve a large crowd and was intended to feed them sandwiches.  But, what do you know?  The turnout was light.  Really light.  And there was a LOT of food left over.

(Holy Spirit empowering the mission???)

As you can imagine, the offer was made for Z, a strapping young man, to eat an extra sandwich and take a few for later too.  Z took that idea and ran with it.  He bagged up a heap of sandwiches and took them to the encampment taking shelter in the underpass just six feet away from the church property!  Seriously, RIGHT AT THE DOOR STEP!!!  And you can bet, this got noticed!

(I’m gonna say yeah!  Holy Spirit empowering the mission!!!)

So far, Z has managed to parlay this risky move into a new assignment suggested by one of those in leadership that he help critique some of the church’s outreach ventures in an effort to improve them!  And beyond that, Z has managed to get Brandon and Tyler’s names on the official prayer request list for the whole church.

That’s right.  You got it.  Agent Z now has this whole church praying for Brandon and Tyler by name!

Sadly, Brandon and Tyler have now disappeared and Agent Z has no current contact with them.  This is sad, alright.  But the church is praying for them by name (and now you can too, if you would like).  Of course there is more that can be done.  And no… this does not strike me as storming the gates….  Not, if by that we mean storming the Gates of Homeless Hell.  But it is a start.  Agent Z is finding a way to affect change with finesse – so far.  Baby steps, though they may be, he is playing a role in changing the course of the church in ABQ.

However, on the other hand… If we think of the Gates of Hell being that ever-shrinking theological and prophetic imagination trapped behind circled wagons of a defensive “dominate culture” the church has subtly given its allegiance to, then probably Agent Z has unleashed a major assault.  And hopefully a robust repentance will blow the gates wide open to a full on heavenly invasion!  Praying for the homeless by name almost feels like a Trojan Horse tactical maneuver.

Well, it’s really Agent Z’s story to tell.  And I hope he does.  But this is my version, based on what I see and hear.  And of course, I am very pleased to tell it!

Fat Beggars School of Prophets has been interstate for a long time, actually, but feedback of this kind and at this level has thus far proven scarce.  And, like I said, I hope Agent Z will get back on the blog and make his own report from behind enemy lines.  But in the meantime, you have my version.  And I hope you will find inspiration where you are to join God’s special ops in the mission to storm the Gates of Hell!

Thank God We Aren’t Legalists!

He paid a debt He did not owe.

I owed a debt I could not pay!

And I got Jesus to wash my sins away!

 

Freely Jesus gives to me, and this I know with all my heart.  Salvation is a free gift from God (Hallelujah!), and you must not insult Him by trying to earn it!

I cannot earn my salvation, and neither can you.  By definition, it cannot be earned.  There is no such thing as working your way to heaven.  All your best works on their best day are just filthy rags that can never measure up, never satisfy the debt.  But praise God, we have Jesus, who pays our way for us.  A perfect sacrifice upon whom you can depend, and on whom you must learn to depend despite your fleshly impulses to the contrary.  You will never make it on your own strength.  You must be “empowered” by the Holy Spirit to learn dependence on Jesus to pay your debt or you cannot be saved.

This is the core of the message my church lives by.  It is the reason we exist.  And if I had not learned this gospel message, I would be a damned sinner bound for hell today!  This gospel practically is the law of grace.

It is so easy to get entangled in the flesh and fall into sin.  It is so easy to fall into a fleshly mindset and try to work your way to heaven.  To try and make it so God owes you salvation, but that is a lie.  It is the devil’s lie, and it entraps you and makes you into a pharisaic legalist that does not have the Spirit of God who is fit only for hell.

That’s why I thank God we are not legalists!

(Of course none of this applies to benevolence and charity programs, you know…  No.  Of course not.  These people need to work their way out of poverty, and we mustn’t deprive them of their dignity by “enabling” them in their laziness and addiction.  If you’re not careful you will create dependence that will harm both them and you, and you sure don’t want that!  Jesus doesn’t want THAT!  They must learn to appreciate the value of a dollar… of an honest day’s work.  You know… like the rest of us.  Ain’t nuthin’ in this life comes free!  If it seems too good to be true; it probably is.  Suckers and sloths fall for that gimmick, but if we are to bring Jesus to the poor, the broken, the sick and homeless, then we must tell them to GET A JOB!  It’s like the law of gravity; if you wanna get right with God, you can’t break it.)

But thank God WE aren’t legalists!

 

 

 

***DISCLAIMER: (For those reading here who haven’t figured it our yet… Yes.  This entire post (from start to finish) is facetious, and does not reflect my true beliefs AT ALL.)***