Becoming Children of our Father in Heaven

This isn't the woman I met, but this photo reminds me of her. (HT to Getty Images for this photo.)
This isn’t the woman I met, but this photo reminds me of her. (HT to Getty Images for this photo.)
This post started as an email to the pastors of Mill City Church. I wrote to thank them for the many ways they help us discern what God’s up to and challenge us to join in. The first two sermons in the current series, on “Success and Security,” coming on the heels of the last few from the last series, about Mill City Church’s “Mission Priorities,” have been particularly helpful. They’ve been especially so because they so clearly resonate with what we’ve been hearing God say to us as a family already. I wrote about all that in my last post. The super short version is that as a family we’ve been feeling very called to make ourselves small. We’re learning that we’re not just called to help the poor; we’re called to learn from and be helped by them. We have so much more to learn about interdependence with one another and dependence on God, to which we’re called. Some of this has come from our decision to do the monthly recommended readings for January from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (again, see my post; it’s a resource we’ve been using for years but never in the way we are now). The four books recommended for January have been simply life-changing. We had read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger years ago; so we moved on to the other three. Economy of Love started things off, and was profoundly moving and challenging. Next came God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and I can’t even begin to describe how reading that book is changing us. It’s interesting because of some of the stuff in these books we’ve “known” for a while, but clearly just weren’t willing to do anything about. We were stuck on the “wide road.” Anyway, I’m just now finishing up Sabbath Economics: Household Practices by Matthew Colwell. It’s a follow-up to Sabbath Economics by Ched Myers, which comes from Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries and was one of the books recommended in Common Prayer, but is unfortunately out of print. Sabbath Economics recommends a “Sevenfold Household Covenant,” which looks like this:
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Basically, the idea is that in God’s economy, Jesus has something to say about all the areas of our life or practices identified above. So, as I recently read in Sabbath Economics:

Solidarity is therefore not a form of disengagement with those who are not poor. It is instead an engagement with the whole world from the vantage point of a deep connection with those who have been excluded, confined to the margins of society, or made poor by the economic systems and structures of that world. It is the practice of aligning one’s hopes with the poor and marginalized by placing one’s self in proximity to those people. (Italics added)

I found this particularly insightful and challenging. I’ve known God has a “special concern for the poor” for a while (though I did little about it). And I’m learning that I understand the New Testament especially, but also Jesus, much better when I attempt to do so as a person on the margins, since it was written by folks on the margins to folks on the margins. It was written from “under,” not “over.” Rod White’s several post(s) about this were very helpful. Moreover, I’m learning again that poor folks have something to teach us, that they can help us just as much or more than we’ll ever “help” them. I’m learning especially that there ought not be a them and us. We must work much harder to make sure there is only an “us.” So our family has been working to get “small.” So far we’ve:
  • given the church the TV and sound bar that are in the Mill City Church Commons now
  • cut cable and just have local channels now, plus Netflix, etc.
  • got rid of our PS4 and a handful of games
  • gave up our smartphones for basic flip phones (this alone we’ve experienced as an incredibly counter-cultural, near revolutionary act)
  • canceled our credit cards and started (another, sadly) Debt Management Program
  • gotten as creative as we can with things we’re bound by contract not to let go of yet. For example, sadly we both have Massage Envy accounts. Kirsten has chronic neck pain that causes migraines (hear the justification?) and I got mine when I was running, which I desperately need to get back to (again, hear the justification?). We can’t cancel these contracts, but I’ve been talking to Mile In My Shoes about donating my remaining massages to them.
  • We’ve also ended our contributions to our retirement plans. In God’s Economy by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (one of the January books, again), which was and is incredibly and amazingly challenging, he makes a compelling case for following Jesus so closely that it’s hard to see how (for us, as far as we can tell, anyway) using those resources in that way is faithful. When we dug in and did the hard work of seeing how Kirsten’s retirement funds were being used by Lincoln Financial (and it was, interestingly, hard work just to follow the money), for example, it became incredibly easy to see that our participation in the plan Kirsten was in is sinful. The money God gave us to steward that we gave to Lincoln Financial is being used to build drones and missiles; to get teenagers to smoke; to oppress poor people with bad mortgages, debt, and financial products; to poison the earth, produce GMO’s, and insure generational poverty among subsistence farmers; and I could go on and on. This begs lots of questions about what it means to “retire” and what we would be “retiring” from or to. We have some ideas about this. It also obviously raises questions around stewardship and whether or not to have, for example, an “emergency fund.” Historically, our family has struggled to do this and has been largely unsuccessful, largely due to selfish financial choices in the midst of a few extravagantly generous ones. Still, our generosity has not been supported by a lifestyle that was consistent with following Jesus instead of Mammon.
We had another idea, too. Wilson-Hartgrove talks a little about basically using the world’s evil economic system from time to time to subvert that very system. So, we attempted to trade in Kirsten’s 2013 Ford Escape that we never should have bought. We owe something like $18,000 on it, with 9% interest. We were hoping to trade it for a much older, cheaper car. We explained a little bit of our motivation to the person we approached to do this, whom we know. He said he wasn’t able to help us, and he told me I should “educate myself” and quoted Mark 14:7 at me, where Jesus says: “The poor you will always have with you…”. However, there’s a second part to that verse: “…and you can help them any time you want.” The first part of the verse echoes Deut. 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land…”. There’s more to that verse too: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” This comes in the part of Deuteronomy that is dedicated to canceling all debts and freeing all slaves every seven years, and can be tied to the concept of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-13, in which debts were canceled, slaves were freed, land was returned to its original owner, and the land itself was to lie fallow, to give it a break from all its labor on our behalf. In the Deuteronomy chapter that Mark hearkens back to, the point is clear:

 …there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today…If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

Moreover, when Jesus says in Mark that “you’ll always have the poor among you,” not only does he follow it up with “…and you can help them anytime you want…” (which perhaps should read: “you can help them anytime you want,” as you should have been doing all along), but he’s making a point. A jar of expensive perfume has just been poured over his head, and “some of those present,” likely including Judas, the betrayer, are upset because this is an act of gratuitous extravagance, and the year’s salary the perfume was worth could have been spent on the poor. Jesus isn’t making a normative statement for all time about poor people (like: “I, God, say there should always be poor people”); he’s making a descriptive statement about the faithlessness of God’s people (like: “you could help poor people any time you want; but you don’t, or don’t do it enough; so you’re likely to always have them around. Therefore don’t use your lack of love for the poor as an excuse for this woman not to do what she just did, which was to prepare me for burial.”)

The weight of Scripture is astoundingly clear: God has a “preferential option” for the poor. We are to help them, and to be helped by them, for they have something to teach us about holding possessions loosely, about being ready to receive God’s good gifts, about relying on God’s provision and not worrying about tomorrow. Moreover, there’s strong evidence for the idea that drawing near to the poor is to draw near to Jesus himself, and that standing in solidarity with the poor requires proximity to them (affluent suburbs notwithstanding).

So, I told the pastors in that email that this is what we’re learning, and what we’re doing. In the meantime, we’re encountering some resistance. I wouldn’t call it a “spiritual attack;” what I would say is that the resistance we’re experiencing helps confirm for us that we must be moving closer to, and perhaps even down, the “narrow path.” In addition to the response I talked about above from the person we approached in an attempt to “downsize” one of the cars we drive, we found that when we traded in my smartphone it had been reported stolen in TN (I bought it “new” here in MN). The police investigator that called me said, confirming an unfortunate stereotype, that the suspect was a “black male” and he knew I was not, but our decision to give up that bit of power and means of control by the Empire/Domination System/”World”/Call-It-What-You-Will got some attention, apparently.

Then, last week I took the other care we drive in for some repairs. As it was being worked on Kirsten called to say the 2013 Ford Escape we were trying to trade in, which she was driving, had a flat tire on I-35. I had no way to go help her. Our car insurance includes roadside assistance (one of the many perks of our power and privilege), but accessing this was made a little more difficult by Kirsten’s lack of a smartphone. She got help, but we eventually “had” to put 4 new tires on it. At the same time we learned that the work on the car that I had in for repairs, which was starting when Kirsten called me to say she was stuck with a flat tire, is going to run about $750 (again, plus the cost of the Escape’s tires). All told, this will run us over $1,100. We don’t exactly have that saved up, but all the work we’ve been doing to get “small” means that we can probably come up with the funds soon, right about when we might need them, I hope. We got the new tires on the Escape already, and the parts for the Focus aren’t in yet and won’t be until close to when we get paid again, when more funds will be there than would have been otherwise if we hadn’t made all the changes we’re making. Kirsten and I have also had a few little health scares recently too, but those seem to be mostly resolved and aren’t worth talking about more now. So, again, I’m not saying all this is any sort of “attack;” I’m just saying that following Jesus instead of the Empire is hard, even if only, so far, in the “white people’s problems”-y ways I’ve just described.

One thing we’ve been thinking about is how individualistically we’ve been (not) following Jesus in terms of money, despite our professed love for all things communal when it comes to everything else. This must change. Thus I’ve been thinking again a little more about Common Change. Common Change came out of Relational Tithe, and is a resource for sharing money to meet one another’s needs and the needs of those around them. We’re thinking that instead of Kirsten and I laboring to build up an emergency fund for the next time we need new tires or car repairs and also to build capacity in our “personal” budget for the kind of generosity we feel called to, if instead it’s not more faithful to join with others we know (including especially, we hope, from Mill City) in opening a Common Change account and committing to contributing to it. We’d have much more capacity together than we would alone, and could again, I suspect, be much more faithful in this way.

Finally, I have a co-worker with whom I largely agree about secular politics. He’s not someone who would say he’s following Jesus, not by a long shot. I have another co-worker with whom I largely disagree about secular politics. He is a professed Christian. I’ve found myself in a position of not having anything helpful, really, to say to either of them. I don’t know that my “evangelical” co-worker and I will ever agree about secular politics, and it has been a real challenge to put to death any hostility between us with Jesus on the cross. Likewise, it’s been hard to find a way to even talk about Jesus with my secular progressive co-worker….until the other day as I was telling the story of all the car issues and what we were trying to do with the car Kirsten drives and how that was connected to all the bigger changes we’re making in our life. As I told him how we got rid of our smartphones and a big TV and were ending our 401k contributions because they were supporting war and environmental degradation and the like and how we were switching banks and on and on; it only made sense to mention that we were doing those things because we were trying to follow Jesus. What I’m reminded of, again, is that we don’t have anything to share, at least in my experience, if we don’t have a story to tell about what following Jesus looks like in our lives as we swim upstream amidst the Empire we live in today. I didn’t have much of a story to tell to my co-workers anyway until recently. I actually have quite a story to tell about my life, but that doesn’t come up in every day conversation unless every day we’re living a life that’s worth talking about. I’m praying now that each day will lead us further into such a life. It’s what we’re here for, after all.

With such thoughts swimming around in my head, I found myself in downtown Minneapolis the other day. I went into the soon to be closed downtown Barnes and Noble. I like bookstores, sadly even the commodified, homogenized, big chain variety. From there I went through the skyway into the soon to be closed downtown anchor Macy’s store. As I reached the threshold of Macy’s and passed into the store, I saw her. It was hard to tell if she was a “her,” actually. What I saw was a person clearly experiencing homelessness, obviously world weary and weather beaten, curled up in a corner, leaning against the wall, asleep. She had a cardboard sign, but it had fallen over and I couldn’t make out what it said. I had Sam’s allowance cash in my wallet, a total of $30 ($20 for this month and $10 we owed him from last month). I walked into Macy’s, stood there for a moment, and then turned around and walked back out. I went to a sandwich shop I had passed in the skyway and bought her a hot sandwich and some chips. I went back and touched on the shoulder, waking her to offer her the food. She thanked me, said she was very grateful, but then explained she had arthritis, and showed me her hands. They were visibly swollen. She said what she really needed was $20 to pay for a room she rents in St. Paul, when she can, presumably. She said she had a bus pass which she would use to get there tonight, if she had the money. She said she had been cold and just “couldn’t take it any more,” and came in to try to sleep for a while. She said she didn’t want to bother anybody; so she put up her sign (which had fallen), and then fell asleep, hoping someone would help her. It wasn’t long before I pulled out the $20 I had and gave it to her. I was reminded, as I constantly am now, of this bit from God’s Economy:

Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.

I asked her what her name was, and she told me. Sadly, I’ve forgotten it already; I’m not good with names. She asked me mine, and I told her. She exclaimed that Robert was her son’s name. She asked me for a hug, and I gave it. We parted, and I wandered back in to Barnes and Noble on my way back to the car. I had about $3 left. I bought a cookie for $2-something (just what I need, I know) and walked outside. There, I passed by another person potentially experiencing homelessness who was “signing.” I gave him the coins I had left, and the cookie I had just bought. I walked back to the car, pockets empty, and a little lighter, literally and metaphorically.

Look, I know I did nothing to solve the economic and housing insecurity either of those people I met are experiencing. I know I may very well have perpetuated their “problem” and the systems that create such insecurity. But then again, as Wilson-Hartgrove said, I’m not called to “fix” the poor. They are not problems to be solved. They are people made in God’s image, people God loves, and whom I am called to love. They are folks who have been marginalized, pushed to the sidelines of the economic and political systems of our day. In very real ways they are folks who have less because I have more. Maybe the woman I met has a son named Robert; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she used a bus pass and went to a room that night and slept in a warm bed. Maybe she didn’t. What I do know is that we exchanged names, and a hug. She got lunch, and she knew that a stranger stopped to love her, if only for a moment. Now, the real work begins. Now, my family and I, both my “nuclear” family and church family, must work to not just subvert the system that marginalized those folks, but to build a better one. We must work to live as if God’s kingdom is already here. We must work to build God’s economy, an economy of love. In such an economy, no one has more than they need, and therefore there is more than enough for all. God, help us.

Being Small(er), I Can See You Now

 

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I’ll try to describe how it all happened. I have a bit of a story to tell. First, though, let me offer you another song. As in the past, I’m listening and being shaped by it as I write. Feel free to hit play and listen as you read:

 

So the book above, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, has been blowing my mind, and that doesn’t happen very often. A few days ago now, describing to Kirsten what I was learning and how it was changing me, I literally wept on her shoulder, but I’m getting too far ahead in my story. So I guess like so many things in my life this story starts in Philadelphia between 1996 and 1998 where I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know as an acquaintance Shane Claiborne. It was right around that time that Shane and others founded The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community and agent for change in a little corner of Philly that has helped spark a movement of folks who want to live simply and radically, together, while trying to follow Jesus and love and serve those around them, especially those “on the margins of Empire.” Such love, and such a life, is by definition radical because we USAmericans live in the belly of one of the greatest “empires” the world has ever known. Shane and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove are friends and colleagues, having served together in Christian Peacemaker Teams (see my last post for more on CPT) for a while. Notably, it was shortly after the U.S. military bombardment of the city of Rutba, Iraq that Shane and Jonathan’s Christian Peacemaker Team was wounded and experienced the love and hospitality of the very people who their government had just been bombing. This post tells a little bit of that story while describing the founding of Rutba House, the intentional Christian community that Jonathan and has wife founded in Durham, North Carolina. If you know much about me or have read this blog much, you may know then already why I like Shane and Jonathan both so very much. Kirsten and I have lived in a few little “intentional Christian communities” over the years. Mostly we’ve failed at really loving and investing in those we felt called to build community with under one roof for very long, but the ideal of such community, very much rooted in the kind of life Jesus calls us to, continues to spark my Christian imagination.

Anyway, Jonathan would later collaborate with Shane and Enuma Okoro on Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the prayer book/devotional I’ve used for years and continue to be challenged by. In fact, that book has a key part to play in this story. It gives recommended readings for each month, and Kirsten challenged our family to try to read them each month this year. So here (sort of) are the ones for January:

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Having read and been deeply influenced by Ron Sider’s seminal work Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger many years ago, I started off this reading project with Economy of Love. It’s a short little book meant to be used with a video that Shane and others produced. It was very, very challenging, though. Here’s a page from it:

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Challenging, eh? As another hero and, in this case, friend, Duane Crabbs from Akron said, and which I’ve also recently referenced on this blog:

As someone who spends much time among the suffering (nursing homes, jail, inner city, hospitals, hospice) I have discovered that they are each one individually, a rich vein of incredible faith. The main people who I hear debating issues surrounding suffering and doubt tend to be well-educated, relatively young, materially comfortable people. To debate requires us to abstract principles and philosophical ideas form the particulars of actual suffering people. The suffering themselves do not seek life-meaning from philosophical debates. They want to touch and be touched, to care and matter to somebody. Instead of debating, let’s re-enact the incarnation and throw our lot in with the suffering and learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity. Now that is the good news, not just preached, but incarnated…

Another way of putting this is to paraphrase what Eugene Peterson says in the foreword to God’s Economy, “Money impoverishes rich and poor alike.” The poverty of the poor ought need little explanation. The poverty of the rich is another matter.

Speaking of God’s Economy, I should say a little about some of what I found so incredibly profound and challenging about it. Here’s one page that struck me early on:

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Another former pastor of mine often used this quote, I believe by MLK, Jr., which posited that “…it is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” the point being that not only does God call us to something more and better than middle-class society, but we must take stock of just how readily our lives comport with the expectations of that society. If there’s little difference, really, between our “Christianity” and our standing as patriotic USAmericans, then something is terribly wrong. As Wilson-Hartgove put it in God’s Economy:

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“Jesus was born homeless to a family living under Roman occupation and grew up as a refugee in Egypt because the authorities back home wanted him dead.”

Meanwhile, the country I grew up in is an occupying force and supports other such occupying forces, and is currently doing its best to build walls and keep out refugees fleeing genocide, all in the name of protecting the comfort of our middle-class citizens. Thus, in the midst of reading God’s Economy, our family came up with our focus for the month of January:

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Yes, I know I misspelled “implications;” I was writing fast.

Pretty soon we came to terms with the fact that we had accumulated two 40-inch-or-larger TV’s, and we didn’t need one, let alone two. So, with joy we gave our living room TV and sound bar to the Mill City Church Commons (our shared space- the only building we “own,” which is used for meetings, offices, training, and hospitality while as a church we remain committed to meeting for worship and maintaining a presence in the Sheridan School in Mpls.). Other such realizations would follow, but more on that later.

I should pause and talk about another part of this story, which has a lot of threads that I hope you’ll find decently come together at the end. In the midst of all this good reading I’ve been doing in January, I’ve also kept up with the goings-on and writing coming out of the Circle of Hope community, our former church in Philadelphia. First I read this post, titled Doing Theology: Paul’s “Two Tiers” and Social Action, which still has me thinking about the implications of it all. It opens provocatively:

The big temptation for Jesus –followers who want to make a difference in this troubled world is to join forces with the very powers that be who make the world troubled — all in the name of getting something done. In the name of tolerance, acceptance, mutuality and humility (and maybe fear or shame), they shelve their faith or make it “personal” and dig into world-changing according to principles they can share with the world. All too often, they join the endless cycle of history and just repeat the same old damned things in the name of love, hope, and goodness.

In describing the “two tiers” of the post’s title, Rod White, Circle of Hope’s Development Pastor, says: “What I mean is that there is a general, universal, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it.” I should mention that this “doing theology” piece is the result of something they actually “did.” They got together, face-to-face, and worked some of this theology out. That’s what they do. Rod elaborates on the two tiers like this:

Romans 12

First tier:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. – Romans 12:3-5

Second tier
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. — Romans 12:6-8

The first tier starts with God, who distributes grace. The second tier is more about us who variously receive it. One could start with the second tier and celebrate the “diversity” of it and easily miss the first. God’s distribution is the essence of our oneness and what dignifies our diversity.

Trying a second example from Romans 12, I rearranged the material to make my point. Some people wondered if it was accurate enough.

First tier:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. – Romans 12:21,17,19

Second tier:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” — Romans 12:14-21 (minus the verses above)

The first tier is a word from the Lord, a basic new thing that Jesus reveals. It is the heart of the new humanity the Lord is redeeming from their bondage in evil.

The second tier is a brainstorm of how one does that, what it means to keep revealing this in the world. It is a list of actions to take. Like in the Lord’s metaphor, the first tier is about good trees, the second about good fruit. Paul could have said more about action in Romans 12, and he does elsewhere, because he continues to apply this truth. He doesn’t try to sum it all up because Jesus is his heading. He is describing something that is living. Our actions are more like the traits of our character, like an aspect of Christ culture than like an ideology we apply or a law we follow.

These two tiers become especially useful in dealing with some of the more challenging of Paul’s writings. Here’s how they apply the two tiers to Paul’s writings about women:

Paul’s writings about women, as revolutionary an application of his revelation as they were, have been the source of much oppression by the men who eventually came to dominate the church. Circle of Hope is alternative to so-called conservative and liberal churches in how we deal with the “issue.” We are acting out Paul’s two tiers.

First tier:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:23-29

In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. — 1 Corinthians 11:11-12

Everything comes from God. We receive it. Our faith makes us children of God, and we go from there. Relatedness, love rules.

Second tier:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved…. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. — 1 Cor 11:4-5, 11-16

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. — 1 Cor 14:34-35

Head coverings, long hair for women, not men (although Jesus probably had long hair), women not speaking (elsewhere they are forbidden to teach men) although he encouraged them to keep their head covered while prophesying in the meeting – these are all inconsistent and specific applications. Paul was not trying to write the Bible as the modernists saw it. Surely he did not expect his writings to be collected. He is not a professor writing a book about a topic. He is working things out as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, “in Christ.” You can make your own discernment in Christ, but it looks like we should apply a principle of Bible interpretation that says the closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day, the more likely it is to be culturally bound, and the more counter-cultural it is the more likely it is to be universal in application. It’s not an ironclad principle, but a useful guide. (*italics and bold print added*)

That not-ironclad principle alone is incredibly helpful, but this “two tier” approach to Paul is especially important, and important to the larger argument I’m making, in regard to slavery. Rod takes the work Circle of Hope did in “doing theology” and riffs on it over on his blog in a post you’ll find here. I’ll let him speak for himself again:

One of the places where we could see Paul’s two-tiered thinking was when he related to slaves. In this day, when people are into the idolatry Trump preaches, in which young people are chained to their survival jobs and debt, when white supremacists are trying to re-enslave African-Americans, and in which we are all tempted to bow in fear before the Tweeter-in-chief, we may need to think about freeing the slaves more consciously than ever.

Be small

First, if we want to get anything out of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, we have to remember that when he speaks to women, Gentiles and slaves seriously as members of the church, his respect is subversive. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

Slaving

Once in Paul’s shoes, we can see what he is talking about. His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us. Here’s just one example of how he thinks:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – Colossians 3:23-4. That last clause should read: “It is for the Lord (master) Christ you are slaving.”

Everyone who is thoroughly trained in democratic equality and the centrality of human choice (the general God-free zone of Western thought these days) is likely to think those lines are heresy; it might even feel icky to read them, taboo. Slaving?! Paul has none of those qualms. He finds it an honor to be a slave in Christ’s house as opposed to being a ruler in a house of lies. God is a “master” beyond anything Hobbes, Rousseau or Ayn Rand could imagine.

So when he goes on to talk to slaves, locked in their situation with masters, benign or despotic, Paul has a variety of options for them. His first tier thinking makes him completely free to do the best he can with what he’s got in the day-to-day, passing-away, fallen world. So he says to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” — Colossians 3:22, 25

Elsewhere, of course, he advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.

There are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I wanted to include it all because it’s central to how I and my family are being shaped and formed right now. I don’t think I could re-state much of what Rod says any better than he did, but I want to pull out a few quotes that I find terribly important:

  • “We often forget, as we turn our ‘imperial gaze’ on the ‘others’ who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those ‘others.’ He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the ‘others’ in their towns and villages. So he writes from ‘under’ not ‘over’.”

This language about Paul being “small” is crucial. Relatively rich white male U.S. citizens like myself are at the height of power in what is again one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Though Paul was a Roman citizen, “he has become small,” as Rod said. He gave up persecuting as a Roman in order to be persecuted as a Jesus-follower. He has become one of those “on the margins of society.” If I am to better understand what God might be trying to teach the church through Paul, I need to become “small” too. More importantly, if I am to follow the same Jesus that led Paul to become “small,” the chances again are very high that I must do likewise. I must give up some (maybe a lot?) of my power and privilege. As Rod says:

  •  “One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ.”
  • “The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us” (italics added).

Rod isn’t arguing, I don’t think, that those experiencing modern-day slavery shouldn’t get free, if they can, nor that we shouldn’t be a part of helping make that happen. What he is arguing is that:

  • It is a “delusion (to think) that law makes (anyone) free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering.”

So if we want to understand Paul, we powerful rich white Westerners have to become small. Paul, a person-on-the-margins-of-empire for Jesus, wrote to other people on the margins who also met Jesus there. If we want to meet (and understand and follow) Jesus today, perhaps we should look there too.

So then last weekend our family experienced a very meaningful Mill City Church Winter Get-a-way during which Kirsten and I were honored to have been asked to share a little (I posted my talk recently; you’ll find it here). The weekend ended with an impassioned plea by one of our pastors, Stephanie, which she summarized helpfully on Instagram:

Less than a year ago a Missional Community from @millcitychurchmpls welcomed a refugee family from Somalia. The team spent months preparing, praying and training before the family arrived. When the family got to Minnesota they got to see their own relatives who they’d been separated from for years. It’s heartbreaking to me that the ban ordered by President Trump means that so many teams will not meet the family they have been praying for. Not to mention that families will continue to be torn apart. As followers of Jesus, we can have different political opinions about HOW to welcome refugees, but there is little nuance in the call as gospel people to allow and to welcome the foreigner. This is an opportunity to unite across party lines as people who pledge allegiance first to the Kingdom of God. (Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Exodus 23:9, Malachi 3:5, Matthew 25:25-36, Luke 10:29-37 – and many more…)

Then, on our way home, we listened to the live stream of that morning’s Mill City worship service back in Minneapolis. Another of our pastors, Michael, gave this sermon, the final in the just finished series that introduced our church’s “mission priorities” for the year:

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In talking about how to engage with the marginalized, Michael used Mark 10:13-16:

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms,placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Michael makes it clear in his sermon that the interpretation of this story that many of us grew up with simply misses the point. Many of us grew up thinking that what Jesus meant is that we have to have an innocent, child-like faith in order to enter God’s kingdom. Michael says that while simple, child-like faith might be helpful, what’s notable about this story is that in the economic and political system of the day children were absolutely without power. They had no status or standing. Thus, when Jesus acknowledges them, makes time for them, receives them, and says that you have to be like them to enter his kingdom, he’s saying something about power and status. He’s saying that if you don’t receive the kingdom of God like one on the margins of society, like one without power or privilege (like a child), you won’t receive it at all. Just as importantly, Michael reminded us that the mission priority he was focusing on was “engaging with those on the margins,” not “serving” them or even loving them, though that’s obviously important too. Michael notes that it’s important that we work to engage with those on the margins and not just try to do things for or “rescue” them because, put simply and as he said, “we have something to learn from the people on the margins: the poor, the widow, the foreigner, the fatherless, the oppressed. They have something to teach us about what it’s like to receive from God the good news of Jesus Christ.” He adds that engaging with the marginalized is meant to be reciprocal. He says, “I think that God is easier to find on the margins…because when you’re not on the margins it’s easier to value self-sufficiency and fight off dependence and lose your sense of trust in something bigger than yourself.” He adds: “The heart of the good news of Jesus Christ is about receiving; the whole point…is that we couldn’t do anything to earn God’s grace and God’s love in our lives;…so it makes sense that people on the margins might understand that better on a daily basis.”

On the heels of all that, I read a little more of God’s Economy, and lo and behold very soon Wilson-Hartgrove is also talking about that very same story of the “little children and Jesus” from Mark 10:

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Wilson-Hartgove likewise describes the household economy of the day and details how trade was conducted household to household and therefore the head of a household, especially a large one, was something like a corporate CEO. Thus, when Jesus is inviting the children to come to him, and when he says you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom, he’s again saying something about worldly power, about worldly “success and security” (more on “success and security” below). In other words, Jesus is inviting his followers to make themselves small, to put themselves on the margins of society, to give up their (worldly) power. It’s a theme Paul would later echo, as we learned above.

Wilson-Hartgrove, though, makes a point to show that the pericope with the story of the little children and Jesus very much sets the stage for what happens next in the Biblical narrative, which is detailed in the “story” of the “rich young ruler:”

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

With deep conviction that everywhere I turned God was inviting me to become “small,” to find him on the margins of society and there perhaps to understand Jesus, let alone Scripture, in a way that my power and privilege had prevented me from up to this point, I was simply stunned as I realized for the first time in my life, at the age of 41, what this verse (Mark 10:29 and following) might really be all about: ” ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life’.” I know someone who thinks this is saying something along the lines of this: because Kirsten and I gave up a modest (by U.S. standards) home in OH in order to move back to MN in part to help my mother-in-law as her health declines, if that act can in any way be construed as having something to do with following Jesus, then this passage means we’re going to get a much nicer, bigger, better house here. In fact, I now know that quite the opposite is promised by this passage, and it has everything to do with we, the church, actually “being the Church.”

God’s Economy puts it this way:

Jesus is no less concrete in enumerating the abundance of the new (God’s) economy that the disciples are to receive. Where they had a home, they will have homes with fields aplenty. Where they had siblings, parents, and children, they will have brothers, sisters, mothers, and children- but notably, no fathers. No heads of household. In this new economy there is only one Father, and his abundance is enough for everyone…..Jesus says that those who follow him will receive a new economy here and now. We have access to a global network of people who, with us, have devoted themselves and all the resources at their disposal to the way of subversive service.

I’ve long known that many of the “you’s” in the Bible that describe how to follow Jesus were plural; they’re directed to you, the Church, because we can’t do this alone. Yet somehow it never occurred to me to quit interpreting this passage individualistically too. The point of this passage isn’t that I’m going to get a bigger house because I left a smaller one to (arguably) follow Jesus. The point is that I don’t need one, because together, we, the Church, already have everything we need. This was startling to me. Some would-be Jesus-followers exhaust themselves pursuing worldly economic and political power, thinking that somehow they can do more good by participating in the structures of the “principalities and powers” of our day. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has already given us, the Church, absolutely everything we need to follow him closely and well. He’s given us each other. Could it be that we really are the answer to our prayers, that we really are the ones we’ve been waiting for?

It was this realization that had me weeping on Kirsten’s shoulder, and doing so all the more because of this line from God’s Economy: “Most of us would rather listen to our iPods or blog about hunger than cook a meal for people we know and love,” the implication being that we should know and love people who are hungry, and if we don’t, we’re not doing it- following Jesus- right. Naturally, I am promptly blogging about this, but when I read that I was- and am- devastated.

Even so, God wasn’t- and isn’t- done with me yet. After the crying session on Kirsten’s shoulder I saw this post on Instagram:

Mill City Church posted this as a preview for the new sermon series that started this past weekend. They said:
Mill City Church posted this as a preview for the new sermon series that started this past weekend. They said: “New conversation starts this week at @millcitychurchmpls. Success and Security – Questioning What Matters. Many of us want to be successful. We want to feel secure. Yet we often find ourselves struggling to feel like we have achieved success or attained security. Jesus consistently redefined success and security by inviting people to question what matters most in their lives. This series will look at the ways Jesus redefines success and security.”

So we went to yesterday’s worship gathering having more than an inkling of how this conversation might go, as it seemed more than likely that we would be invited again to meet Jesus on the margins, to give up our power and maybe even some of our stuff so that we might have even just a slight chance of receiving the goodness God has for us instead of clinging to and trying to create our own. Prior to attending this past Sunday’s worship gathering, Kirsten and I began taking some concrete steps to get just a little smaller ourselves. After just a little conversation, we gave up our smartphones and went back to basic flip phones. This certainly “costs” us something in terms of convenience, but honestly having been without a smartphone now for all of three days I can tell you that I’m receiving so much more than I gave up. Obviously this frees up some money (we cut our cell phone bill in half) and is part of a larger financial strategy that includes once more starting a debt management program, all of which will, Lord willing, put us much more readily in a position to live out the oft-repeated Mill City Church truth that “generosity is something God wants for you, not from you.” We hope to much better be able to be generous like we believe we’re called to in the very near future. Even more importantly, perhaps, we’re receiving a little freedom from the constant bombardment of news alerts about every offensive posting by the tweeter-in-chief and the inundation of our social media feeds. We’ve now gotten rid of one big “screen” in our life and several smaller ones, and we’re finding it easier to resist the temptation to think that we’re responsible for and must respond to everything that’s happening in the world all the time. We can now have just a little more ability to choose when to be informed about things and by whom, and we’re reminded that if something happens when we’re not paying attention to it, God is still working all the while to love and save us all.

This theme of how to use the (technological, in this case) tools we’ve been given would come up in J.D.’s sermon yesterday (J.D. is another of Mill City Church’s pastors). In what could only be a providential act, J.D. picked up right where Michael had left off the week before in Mark 10, with the story of the “rich young ruler” and Jesus. I’m paraphrasing him here (and didn’t have a smartphone to snap a picture of the slides he showed during his sermon!), but essentially J.D. said as he was setting the stage for this sermon series on just want constitutes “success and security” in God’s kingdom that he wanted initially simply to ask a number of questions. Among them were:

  • Does what you have, have you?
  • Is it easier to give than to receive? (A related question for me comes to mind: what does God want to give us, and does our “stuff” prevent us from receiving it?)
  • This isn’t a question but J.D. wanted to really highlight verse 21 from Mark 10, in which we read that Jesus looked at, and loved, the rich young ruler.

That first question, “does what you have, have you?” is one that it should be clear I’ve been wrestling with for some time now (probably decades, but in a new way over the past few weeks). Therefore I need to report that I think the answer was absolutely “yes!” In the relationship between myself and my stuff, one of us was a tool, and I’m ashamed to report that it was me. It has become very clear that I was a tool, not my smartphone. Having given up my smartphone, I had a remarkable experience on Saturday (even before J.D.’s sermon). We went to my mother-in-law’s for breakfast on Saturday, as we’ve made a commitment to do most weekends, and I found that the dynamic in my relationship with her had changed. I won’t go into needless details publicly, but I found that I suddenly had more capacity to love her, to really see her, to quit (I’m again ashamed to admit) judging her and simply be open to taking her for who she is, another sinner in need of grace. I’m still slightly dumbfounded at the love I found myself a conduit of.

After J.D. preached, the closing song the band sang was the one I opened this post with, Broken Vessels by Hillsong. Hopefully you’ve been listening to it as you read this. I still am. The lyrics are:

All these pieces
Broken and scattered
In mercy gathered
Mended and whole
Empty handed
But not forsaken
I’ve been set free
I’ve been set free
Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
You take our failure
You take our weakness
You set Your treasure
In jars of clay
So take this heart, Lord
I’ll be Your vessel
The world to see
Your love in me
Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I seeOh I can see you now

Oh I can see the love in Your eyes

Laying yourself down

Raising up the broken to life

Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
[2x]

Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life

Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
[2x]

Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
[3x]

Some lyrics stand out: “Empty handed, but not forsaken, I’ve been set free…I’ve been set free…” As I tried to sing that song yesterday I thought of my empty hands, no longer clutching a smartphone, and all that this entailed. I thought of how much more present I hoped to be to those around me. More importantly, I thought of what it meant to go without Google in my pocket, to be not willfully ignorant but consciously aware that even with the benefit of Google I can’t possibly know, respond to, and solve all the problems I’m daily confronted with, but I know someone who can.
Finding myself just a tiny bit smaller than I had allowed myself to be before, I sang the next bit in the song: “Oh I can see you now, Oh I can see the love in Your eyes.” Stunned, it hit me again that I am the rich young ruler, whom Jesus looked at, and loved. Gratefully finding myself a little closer to the margins of society, I hope, I found that in a new way just as Jesus was looking at and loving me, I could really look at and see him: “Oh, I can see you now….” I can see the love in Your eyes. I sang a little more:
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
You take our failure
You take our weakness
You set Your treasure
In jars of clay
So take this heart, Lord
I’ll be Your vessel
The world to see
Your love in me
I pray for the courage to keep making myself ever smaller, to keep giving up my power and privilege so that I can better understand Scripture, and more importantly, Jesus; so that I have capacity to receive the goodness God has for me, the success and security he wants to give me not through independence but through the interdependence and mutuality that comes as a result of really being the Church. I pray to be a vessel through which God keeps pouring his love. I pray that I will be part of a movement, a Church that eschews political power and prestige and that uses instead the incredible resources God has already given us: each other. Could it be that Jesus meant what he said? Could it be that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for? Lord, let it be so.