A Pandemic Hymn (or Anthem?)

As I grew up, I found many of the hymns we sang at the Methodist Church to be onerous, at least for a kid. It seemed like most of the classic hymns were comprised of 5-6 stanzas and we sang all of them (except if the preacher was long-winded, then we only sang the first and last verses of the closing hymn – “music” to a middle schooler’s ears).

Did you know that states have a “State Hymn?” Minnesota’s hymn is Hail! Minnesota. I remember the first time I heard the U of M Marching Band sing Hail! Minnesota a capella at their indoor concert in Northrup Auditorium some 50+ years ago. I got the chills. (They apparently continue the tradition – Listen here.)

The definition of a hymn: a religious song or poem of praise to God or a god; a formal song sung during Christian worship, typically by the whole congregation. Its origin? It comes from old English, via Latin from Greek humnos “ode or song in praise of a god or hero.” New Testament writers spoke of the use of hymns in corporate worship. Example: Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts, Colossians 3:16. (By the way, my appreciation for the classic Christian hymns has improved significantly since my middle school days!)

A synonym for hymn is anthem. An anthem, by definition, is a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body or cause (i.e., a choral composition based on a biblical passage, for singing by a choir in a church service). At the Methodist church, the choir sang an anthem each week, which I enjoyed much more than the hymns. Sometimes they gave me chills.

Early in March as COVID-19 was descending upon us, reshaping the world as we knew it, an anthem for the pandemic was birthed. It was written in late February as a collaborative effort by Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe (husband and wife) with Elevation Church’s worship team. They collectively sang and led the song at an Elevation Church worship service on March 1st. It was an instant hit and likely you’ve heard it – The Blessing. If you haven’t heard it, you must. If you have, I encourage you to listen again (as I am doing as I write this).

My first hearing of The Blessing wasn’t the Elevation Church debut. The first rendition I heard was a virtual YouTube video put together by Christians from 65+ United Kingdom Churches specifically as a blessing over the UK. It gave me the chills! I’m sure it gave me “the chills” because it was the first time I had heard the song. But, more importantly, it was an obvious labor of love to the nation. It seemed so selfless and genuine – something us Americans could maybe learn from the Brits!

Most importantly, The Blessing came directly from scripture (remembering that the definition of an anthem is a choral composition based on a scripture passage). That scripture passage? The well-known blessing we often hear at as a benediction to worship servicesfrom Numbers 6, known as the Priestly Blessing. The Lord told Moses, to tell Aaron and his sons (the priests), This is how you are to bless the Israelites:

The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.

If you find yourself feeling a bit whelmed as we enter into month 7 of disruption, I would encourage you to ponder the significance of the words of this blessing. Listen to either of the renditions as you ponder these words that come directly from God. Hopefully it will give you peace. Or the chills. Or maybe both!

North(ish)

I was asked to write a blog post this week for the Zoë Website. The topic is the concept of Northish which has been a driving force in the development of the Zoë platform. So, I thought I’d share it here. (Full disclosure: my friend Pete Paulson gets credit for coining the term Northish – it came out of a conversation we had several years ago.) The Zoë blog posting…

As an adult that has worked with high school and college-aged young people for several decades, I have to wonder if we haven’t done them a disservice as they think about their futures.  I have witnessed a lot of angst as they try to figure out what direction to head or as they struggle searching for their niche in the world.  We really see the prevalence of angst in recent years, given the steadily increasing costs of post-secondary education.

I wonder if the angst comes from the culture we live in, especially in our western culture.  We are results-driven people.  We tend to focus on outcomes and miss the value of the journey and learning along the way toward realizing those outcomes.  Our young emerging adults especially feel this.  Since the adults around them live with outcome-based definitions of success, it gets transferred onto our young people (unintentionally or maybe intentionally).  We talk about winning, scoring well on tests, “getting it right,” etc., looking for “due-North.” 

Emerging adults learn well from us – wanting to “get it right.”  Thus the angst!

In more recent years, I’ve been talking with young people about a perspective that I like to call “Northish.”  What is Northish, you might ask?  Well, it’s not “due north,” that’s for sure.  Northish is more about setting a general direction.  Northish is more like asking the question, “Do I want to go to Canada or to Mexico?”  If I want to go to Canada, I wouldn’t get on a freeway heading south.  I would take roads that generally head toward Canada – NorthishNorthish isn’t about “getting it right.”  It’s about getting the general direction figured out.  The concept of Northish starts one on a journey that leads toward self-discovery.  The journey is as important as (I would argue more important than) the outcome.  Northish is freeing, giving one the freedom to adjust and tweak along the way.

We would do our emerging adults a great service if we help them toward discovering their Northish; if we help them learn the general direction they might want to head; if we help them find a sense of purpose.  Enter Zoë!  What I like about Zoë is that it’s a platform that helps people find their Northish.  Zoë reinforces a message that it is all about the user’s journey toward finding their purpose in the world.  It helps the user discover who they are and what they value, pointing them toward a life of purpose and meaning.  Purpose isn’t a destination; it’s a direction.  Northish!   

The above posting is obviously about young emerging adults. But aren’t we all still emerging – especially when related to our faith? Studies show that only one in three adults know their purpose, can describe their Northish. Pay close attention to what Jesus said and did. I would argue that he encouraged people to find Northish. In a world that often focuses on “getting it right,” may God help you find your Northish.

Jesus – “I have come that they might have life (zoe) and have it to the full.”

(John 10:10)

Scripture for a Pandemic

Over the years, God seems to provide us followers with scripture passages that carry us through various seasons of life – anchors we can cling to. For my 18th birthday, toward the end of my senior year in high school, I was given a little Hallmark book entitled Consider the Lilies: Great Inspirational Verses From the Bible. It actually served as my bible for the next year or so (sad as that seems today). It pointed me to a few scriptures that served as anchors through my first couple years after high school. The scripture that resonated the most with me can be found in Matthew 6, part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Especially helpful were verses 25-34…

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (NKJV)

Looking for a go-to scripture on which to focus as you figure out how to navigate a pandemic such as this? You might want to think about this passage from Jesus’ teaching to his first century followers. He was preparing them to live in a pandemic of sorts. He was preparing them to be kingdom people in a time of uncertainly – a season laced with anxiety, hardship, and persecution. He was telling them clearly that God is bigger than anxieties, hardships, and persecution. And he’s bigger than pandemics, I suspect.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet they thrive during a pandemic. Lord, help us to not simply survive this pandemic, but maybe even thrive a bit. Help us to surthrive, as my friend Mick would say.

If I keep on doing what always done…

There’s an old saying that goes like this: If I keep on doing what I’ve always done, I keep on getting what I’ve always gotten.  Albert Einstein is attributed to having said something similar, coming at it from a different angle: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

This is great advise and not necessarily rocket science (no disrespect to Mr. Einstein).  Then how come behavioral change is so doggone difficult, especially when sin rears its ugly head?  How often have we been determined to change our behavior, to change what we do so we could realize a different outcome?  And the outcome?  So often the same old results.

The Apostle Paul spoke to this in Romans 7:18-19…I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Paul reminds us that this is the frustration we live with while we are in the process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  Paul also reminds us of God’s grace and deliverance: Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Vs. 24-25)

Paul never suggested that we concede to living this life of frustration.  Nor did Jesus. Jesus said he came that we may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). The answer, however, isn’t to simply change what we do. It doesn’t seem to get us there. Consider the following trustworthy saying:

If I keep on thinking what I’ve always thought,
then I’ll keep on perceiving what I’ve always perceived.
If I keep on perceiving what I’ve always perceived,
then I’ll keep on seeing what I’ve always seen.
If I keep on seeing what I’ve always seen,
then I’ll keep on doing what I’ve always done.
If I keep on doing what I’ve always done,
then I’ll keep on getting what I’ve always gotten.

I became aware with this saying half a life-time ago in a Fuller Seminary class.  It changed my life!  I was under the assumption that if I simply changed my behavior – what I was doing – then all might be well.  But all wasn’t well and I knew it.  And, just like Paul, trying simply to change what I did left me frustrated.

This saying reminds us that change in behavior comes from a change, first in our thinking, not just addressing the behavior.  Granted, we can change our habits for a while, but if our thinking and perceiving is the same, we will revert back.

Jesus reminded the Pharisees (with strong language) of the danger of trying to address the behavior without changing our thinker/perceiver: What miserable frauds you are, you scribes and Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, while the inside is full of greed and self-indulgence.* Can’t you see, Pharisee? First wash the inside of a cup, and then you can clean the outside. (Matt. 23:25-26)

Jesus continued his critique of the Pharisees by calling them whitewashed tombs.  (I don’t think I would ever want to hear Jesus call me a whitewashed tomb!) 

We do want to change don’t we?  (I’m assuming a response in the affirmative, but I could be wrong). But change doesn’t happen by merely changing what we do.  This is probably what Paul was addressing when he suggested we are transformed by the renewing of our mind – our chooser/thinker/perceiver (Rom 12:2). Change comes from the inside. Change comes with the transformation of how we think and why think the way we do. The good news: God does the heavy lifting. Our job is to show up. But show up we must!

* The Kingdom New Testament translation suggests “moral flabbiness” in place of self-indulgence.

Smoking Pot in the Old Testament

In the previous post (Dot-to-Dot) we discussed a theme woven throughout scripture: “I will be your God and you will be my people” stated in some manner, shape, or form. This was God’s covenant promise to the people he called (Abraham and his decedents) to to be a blessing to the world and participate in his project of “putting creation back to rights” (NT Wright).

One of the most obscure, unknown stories in the Old Testament is probably one of the most significant stories.  In Genesis 15, Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) asked God a question we all ask from time to time: “How do I know what you are saying is true?” So the LORD (Yahweh) said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”  Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.

Wait!  Abram cut the animals in two and arranged them in two rows?  God didn’t tell him to do that!!  Why did he?   Because in Abram’s world 4000 or so years ago, this was how contracts were signed.  The parties would each bring and split animals in two, arrange them in rows, putting the birds together in a single pile at the head of the two rows.

The two parties would then each take a smoking pot or torch of some sort and simultaneously light their respective rows of animal parts on fire.  They would meet at the end of the rows and together light the pile of birds afire.  Basically they were saying, “If I should break this covenant, may I be drawn and quartered and burnt in a similar fashion.”  They took their contracts pretty serious!

Abram apparently knew that God was about to sign a promise or covenant with him.  What he didn’t know was how the signing would take place. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.  Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain…” and then went on to describe the future and His commitment to Abram and his descendants.  When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.

GOD SIGNED BOTH SIDES OF THE AGREEMENT WHILE ABRAM SLEPT!  That’s a covenant, Yahweh style.  God did/does it all.  All Abram did was show up.  God did the rest. It was all about God and not so much about Abram. God was serious when he said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” He is the promise-maker. 

And he is also the promise-keeper. Fast forward a couple thousand years and we witness God as promise-keeper, this time through Jesus. God’s first promise was to Adam and Eve.  He promised them everything (including the tree of life) but their desire to become like God cost them their life.  They chose death over life. God honored their choice and death reigned – ultimately resulting in His own son’s death.  With Jesus’ resurrection, death was defeated and the original promise was again on the table. Humanity didn’t hold up its end of the promise, but God held up his end of the covenant and fulfilled our part! “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

In Jesus, we see the smoking pot all over again. Jesus did it all. We just show up. It’s that simple. Imagine our world if we remembered to just show up and give him permission to hold up his end of the deal! It’s really all about God, not so much about us.  “For God is at work within you, helping you want to obey him, and then helping you do what he wants.” (Philippians 2:13, TLB)

Dot-to-Dot

When I was a kid, I always enjoyed the coloring books with “dot-to-dots.”  It might have been the first indicator that engineering would be in my future.  When first learning to connect the dots, I paid close attention to the numbers, ensuring the figure that was developing was correct.  In short order, I discovered that if I “stepped back” and observed the arrangement of the dots, I was able to envision the figure that was about to emerge.  Since I knew what the ultimate figure was likely to look like, I could stray from using just straight lines, ending up with a more artistic version of the picture.

One of my top five CliftonStrengths is Connectedness.  When I am able to connect dots in life, things make a lot more sense to me (I’m guessing I’m not alone in this).  This is especially true when connections lead to a better understanding of Context (another of my top five Strengths).  I’m guessing I’m not alone in this, either.  I think it’s an important consideration when it comes to practical theology, to our understanding of who God is and what he is up to.

Dot-to-Dot

As previously discussed, theological understanding comes through the reading and interpretation of scripture in context.  The greatest context, of course, is all of scripture.  As we continuously spend time in scripture in its full context, dots get connected and themes begin to emerge – themes that allow us to “step back,” giving us a better understanding of who God is and what he’s doing in his creation.  One example is the theme of Justice that threads throughout scripture (see What is Justice?).

About 35 years ago, through an Old Testament seminary course, I was introduced to a theme that has helped me connect biblical dots, giving me a context that has informed my reading of scripture ever since.  It’s a theme woven throughout scripture.  That theme?  “I will be your God and you will be my people” in some manner, shape, or form. 

The theme first appeared in the book of Genesis when God called Abram (Abraham) and his descendants to be a blessing to the world, to participate in His project of “putting creation back to rights,” as N.T. Wright would say.  After changing Abram’s name to Abraham (meaning father of a multitude), God told him of a covenant that he was about to establish with His people (Abraham and his descendants).  The covenant was to include land and the inclusion that “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:1-8).  For the restoration project to succeed the people needed to follow God’s lead, letting him be God.

The people seemed to like the idea of being God’s chosen, but not so much the idea of following his lead.  Hundreds of years later, we find his people in captivity as slaves in Egypt.  As God was about to rescue them from captivity, he said through Moses, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:6-7).  At this pivotal point in human history, God reminded the Israelites that he was God (and presumably, they were not), promising that he would lead and care for them.  As the people followed his lead, God provided for them and reminded them of their covenant relationship to him – e.g., “I will put my dwelling place among you…I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12).

As we watch the story unfold, we see a recurring pattern. The people strayed from letting God be God, got themselves in trouble, requiring God to repeatedly rescue them. As we watch the story continue to unfold, God repeatedly reminded his people of this covenant relationship to him. We find the theme in both the Old and New Testaments:

  • I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. (Jeremiah 24:7, NIV)
  • And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord God.  And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 34:30-31, ESV)
  • The Apostle Paul, drawing from Leviticus 26 and Ezekiel 37 – For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Corinthians 6:16, NLT)
  • The author of Hebrews, drawing from Jeremiah 31 – This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Hebrews 8:10, NIV)
  • And from the book of Revelation – I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3, NIV)

Since this theme threads its way throughout the entire Biblical narrative, it translates to us as Christ-followers today.  God wants to be God (which he is very good at, by the way) and has invited us to be his people.  If we live in that relational understanding, “all will be well” (Jeremiah 7:23, NLT).  I’m not intimating that following Jesus is easy or simplistic.  But I do know this: God wants to be our God and he wants us to be his people. This is bottom-line stuff. It’s the stuff that helps us connect dots.

What ELSE Can I Do?

My dad used to say that I was a charter member of the “Do Daddy” club. Always a curious person, I bombarded him with questions about what he was doing or going to do and why – “Whachya gonna do, Daddy?” He would then let me watch and listen as he explained what he was doing and, equally important, why he was doing it. Of course, that only led to more “do Daddy” questions. As I got older, I was able to participate, joining him with the never-ending farm work. I loved doing stuff on the farm and often looked for more things I could do – “What ELSE can I do, Daddy?”

A couple weeks ago in the posting, What Can I Do?, I addressed the question that many woke white Americans are now are asking. Beginning to realize that there are such things as unjust racial policies and white privilege, we all want to know what we can possibly do to make a difference. I directed us to Jesus as a start point, reiterating that “I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change.” So we correctly ask, “What ELSE can we do?”

I have been privileged to spend some time the past ten years with Dr. David Livermore, a social science researcher who has devoted his career to helping people develop their cultural intelligence. He helps clients objectively discover their cultural intelligence, describing it as one’s Cultural Quotient (CQ). As a Christ-follower, Dave has the privilege of helping people all over the world develop their CQ.

According to Livermore, the development of one’s cultural intelligence starts with their CQ Drive (see graphic). CQ Drive is asking me how much I really care about developing my cultural intelligence. Am I willing to put in the work necessary to let God create in me a heart for those who are racially or culturally different than me? Am I willing to spend time with Jesus to let his heart for the other permeate my own heart? Am I willing to listen, learn, and understand?

As God draws our heart into alignment with his, the next thing we can do is learn and gain an understanding of the culture and the world of another. This requires me to listen and learn from those who live in that culture. This cannot happen without intentionality, effort, and humility. It’s the next step in answering the question, “What ELSE can we do?”

How do we do this? The best way, of course, is to learn directly from someone from the culture that we want to understand. We also need to know the story behind the story – the history. Right now, many of us want to better understand the world of our fellow Black Americans and fellow Black Christ-followers. We want to understand, Why are people angry? Why so upset? Didn’t we elect a black president? Pass civil rights laws? Isn’t racism illegal now? These are the tough questions we ask and were posed by Phil Vischer (creator of Veggie Tales) in his podcast Holy Post.

So what ELSE can we do? Certainly we can watch Vischer’s video! And if your CQ Drive pushes you to know and understand better, let me suggests some resources worthy of your time and persistence:

  • Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody
  • Cultural Intelligence (Youth, Family, and Culture): Improving Your CQ to Engage in a Multicultural World, David Livermore
  • Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland
  • Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith
  • Do All Lives Matter? The Issues We Can No Longer Ignore and the Solutions We All Long For, Wayne Gordon and John Perkins
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World of Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson (the movie as well)
  • Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (also a movie)
  • The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities, Adrian Pei
  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (Vischer’s video addresses some of her content)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (an old classic)
  • White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum  (This is the only book from this list I can’t vouch for personally.  It’s next on my reading list.)

We start by allowing God, through Jesus and reading books like the ones above, to develop in us a CQ Drive, followed by CQ Knowledge. Then we can begin to move toward action that can make a difference within our spheres of influence. And we all want to make a difference, don’t we?

Meet My Friend Pete Paulson

I want you to meet Pete Paulson, Associate Regional Director for Young Life in the North Star Region (MN, ND, SD). He provided this word of encouragement to Young Life staff of the region last week. With his permission, I want to share it with you. It is an excellent, thought-provoking treatment of the abundant life Jesus promised us all…

Peter Paulson
A word of encouragement from Peter Paulson

John 10:10
How do I live “Life to the full”?  I want it.  I want it so badly.  When my time comes to go home to Jesus, I want to know that I experienced everything that this world has to offer.  We talk about this abundant life a lot in Young Life.  We even promise this to kids.  Life with Christ is life to the full.  However, I’m starting to realize that what I thought “abundant life” is, might in fact, be found in a different way.

Mark 10:17-31
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the young man asked.  It’s the same question I asked, just framed in a different way.  “You know what the Bible says” says Jesus.  “I do, and I follow what it says” the rich young man replies.  “There’s a deeper way than the rules…let go of what you have, give it away to those who need it, and come spend time with me” Jesus offered.  He offered him life to the full, but the man’s eyes looked down, and he slowly walked away not willing to give up his previous dreams. 

Jesus looked at those with him and said basically, “see how hard it is to live a different way?  See how hard it is to go against the status quo and look at a new way?”  Peter said, “ but we’ve followed you!”  Jesus looked at him with compassion and concern and encouraged him, “Yes, Peter, you are right, and the things you left at the fishing boat pale in comparison to what you have!  Life with me, and life in true community!  Hundreds of times better than what you left, but don’t forget, with it comes persecution and pain. You can’t have one without the other because my way isn’t just about you, its about life for everyone”.  

Life to the full only matters for any of us if it is possible for all of us.  God has rigged it to be just so.  Our lives are linked together and also linked with Him.  Those who are rich and privileged, though, can be owned by their possessions; physical possessions as well as their self-ambition and dreams can get in the way.  So those with much must let go, and give to others, so everyone can have abundant life together.  They must see that the old way only worked for the few, because it took advantage of the many.  

Jesus offers us an opportunity to change and do life differently, by letting go of what we cling to, and instead cling to one another and to Him.  This is what eternity looks like, and we can live it now.

I pray we do not walk away.

What is Justice?

This is a continuation of conversations started a couple weeks ago in the postings My Journey Into Racism and What Can I Do? As we continue this conversation, let me be clear as to the reasons why I decided to address racism in a blog-site focused on practical theology. My reasons are (1) to not remain complicit through silence, (2) to work through my own understanding of systemic racism and the role I play, and (3) to invite fellow Christ-followers to do the same.

The term Practical Theology implies an understanding of God, his worldview, and how that informs the way we live our lives – the way we relate to others.

What could be more practical than gaining an understanding of God’s heart for all people, not just the predominant group? We do not need to spend much time in scripture to become aware of God’s desire for justice and mercy is for all his people, not just the predominant group (thus Micah 6:8 – And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God). We do not need to spend much time with Jesus to see that he walked away from the predominant group in order to seek the outsider (see Jesus’ Mission Statement).

We cannot act justly, let alone love mercy, if we do not have a clear biblical understanding of justice. But what is the biblical/theological understanding of justice? Fortunately, the BibleProject has created a six minute video that paints a very clear picture of the biblical understanding of justice. Enjoy – it’s captivating. Then be watching for my next post, What ELSE Can I Do?

 

What Can I Do?

“What can I do?” is the question that I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations since May 25, the date of George Floyd’s death at the hands of former police officer, Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s death has launched world-wide protests and conversations related to systemic racism. While a segment of our society refuses to believe that systemic racism exists, an even larger segment has come face-to-face with its reality and ugliness. And its left us stunned, numbed, and in a quandary about what we can do to thwart such rampant oppression. It’s a natural response to injustice. We are passionate about a need for change and want to do something.

My confrontation with the ugliness of racism came to a head twenty-five years ago (see My Journey Into Racism). I was outraged and immediately wondered what I could do? What could one outraged and frustrated Jesus-following engineer do to have any impact on systemic racism? It’s a natural question. But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “What can I do?” maybe we should be asking, “Who can I be?” When confronted with issues like systemic racism, the first response of Westerners, and certainly Americans, is to jump right to doing. And there certainly is a place for that. However, as I read scripture, it is increasingly evident that God is primarily interested in actions that are natural extensions of who we be.

All during his ministry, Jesus was confronted with groups that focused primarily on outward actions, disregarding the inward being and its attitudes. This was especially true of the group known as the Pharisees. We tend to imagine them as an evil group of oppressors, kind of like those racists, of which we assume/hope are not. In truth, the Pharisees were a grassroots group that wanted to address the issues of a nation gone awry, that had moved away from God’s vocation as a called people. So they banded together and asked, “What can we do?” For a century or so prior to Jesus’ arrival on the scene, the Pharisees worked hard to get the Israelites back on track. In doing so, they focused on actions (doing) and missed the opportunity for God to address and transform their hearts.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, they had lost sight of their original intent of systemic change, actually becoming a systemic problem in and of themselves. Today we might refer to this as Mission Drift, which occurs when one’s passion for a cause outruns their passion for Christ. The Pharisees were passionate about the re-institution of the Mosaic Law into Israel’s life and practice. Over time, the Law became more important to the Pharisees than God himself, which is idolatry in it’s truest form.

As a result, they did not know God’s heart for the “other” which led them to become an oppressive separatist group, focused on their tribal rights and neglecting the needs of others. They missed God’s heart to such a point that they could not recognize Him when he stood right in front of them (Jesus). Jesus called them out on their miss of God’s heart – Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders (Matthew 9:13, Jesus quoting from Hosea 6).

What can we do? We can find ways to let God’s heart for the outsider permeate our heart. Right now, many of us are incensed with the injustice we’ve recently witnessed, and rightly so. We are passionate about being participants of change, and rightly so. We cannot, however, let our passion for justice outrun our passion for Christ or we might someday also hear Jesus say, “Go figure out what this Scripture means…”

Actually, that’s exactly what we can do right now – go bathe in scripture and figure out God’s heart. The best way to do that? We can never go wrong by focusing our attention on Jesus. As the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), he can give us a clear understanding of God’s heart.

I’m going to be frank here: I am continually amazed at how few of us who call ourselves Christ-followers have ever completely read through the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). We settle for bits and pieces here and there, learning about him without really knowing him. Continuing the frankness: if we aren’t willing to do this, then how serious are we really about affecting systemic change?

As we get a clear understanding of God’s heart, we are better equipped to speak into the lives of people in our circles of influence. It gives us credibility (who is more credible than Jesus?) when in conversations with Christian friends that display racist tendencies (unfortunately, many exist). We can point them to Jesus – who he is, what he did and said. They can argue with us, but they can’t argue with him (though they might try). Our job is not to change minds. Our job is to point people to Jesus and let him do the heavy lifting. If people have ears to hear, they will.

Note: I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change. Stay tuned for more thoughts on this worthy topic.