Archive for October, 2010

Five times in the twenty-two grief-stricken verses of the book of Lamentations’ first chapter, the poet wails out a most forlorn cry: אין מנחם, there is no comforter.

In point of fact, one of the two reasons by which the book of Lamentations finds a place in the biblical anthology is precisely because this claim is factually wrong.

The other reason is that human experience shrieks from both good hearts and bad ones that the claim is right.

There is indeed one who comforts. Yet in Zion’s debris—or ours—he makes himself invisible. His footsteps become almost—though rarely completely—silent.

We cry with the poet of Lamentations that no one comforts. We are bereft, left with only poetry and tears.

And hope. It is this third ash-dusted treasure that we guard in an inner pocket of our shredded jacket, touching its tiny lump from time to time to assure ourselves it is still there.

One must not believe that hope alone bears witness to a Redeemer who might yet appear. Tears and poetry do that also. Yet hope endures more stubbornly than they. Tears flow down our cheeks, poetry pierces the air and penetrates the audition of those who share our shaken Zion. But hope, that one we keep on the inside pocket, whispering to our neighbor that we have a store of it for when the need should undo us. We touch our coats. It is still there. We do not pull it out, do not ask others to gawk at it, do not risk it falling from our trembling fingers to become lost beneath stones or the desperate mob.

This hope, it is ours. Yet more than that it is mine.

Even as we cry again that ‘eyn menachem, we know better.

A small lump in our overcoat interrupts the otherwise level, sweating, fearful line between our forsaken flesh and the betraying air. We touch it again.

It is still there.


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I cannot recall three hours of unalloyed joy that compare with the experience of four thousand delegates to Cape Town 2010 in its closing worship celebration.

For this, surely, we were made.

For this were eyes created, for taking in the images of God’s Lamb that slid across the mammoth screen as the orchestra took up its solemn, giddy task of lightening hearts so that they could soar.

For this did Providence design throats and tongues, for praising the One God, Maker of Heaven and Earth in languages too many to count.

For this did arms occur to their Maker, for lifting praise heavenward in a plethora of shapes and sizes, skin of every hue stretched over them, clothed or bared with all the beautiful idiosyncracy of many tribes, eight thousand human steeples pointed toward heaven while never detaching from earth.

For this tears mimic earth’s first rain, falling from cheeks that tremble with joy and awe.

For this was grain first sown, vineyards first tilled, so that a numerous, polyglot family could take one in hand, dip it in the other, and so remember the body broken for us, the blood of a new covenant poured out like wine.

For this were syllables stitched together to speak word and meaning, so that a hungry people could be taught to live towards glory.

For this was humankind commissioned to fill the earth, so that dispersal would make us not too much like each other, that our common humanity might be expressed with the full, colored range of a Creator’s large pallet.

For this Beauty first saw the light, so that it could shine from the Face and adorn a people too gorgeous to be described.

For this do strength and weakness mingle, so that a strong man like a young warrior could carry the Gospel to the stage, so that African beauties could remake space with their reverent, gusty procession into worship, so that old men and broken hearts could find their way to grace beside those whose strength has not yet failed the dance.

For this martyrs watch carefully, rejoicing in the many and knowing that some of these—before next meeting—will spill blood and join their observant, impatient company.

For this savor came to be, for neither sweet nor sour alone tastes so rich as this.

For this hearts turn towards New Heaven and New Earth, knowing this Jerusalem must descend, this temple fill Earth, this knowledge of Him settle upon its near and far reaches as waters cover the space given to Sea, the song of Seraphs come uninterrupted into full vindication.

For this do words fail, because He who is Holy Love is stronger and more beautiful than they know to speak.

Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.  
Say among the nations, ‘The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.’ Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
(Psalms 96:7–13 NRSV)

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Our logic is simple and reductionistic.

It goes like this: money corrupts. Therefore let us not transfer money and, so, not foment corruption.

Things become, upon close inspection, even more banal. We begin by taking the modern nation-state as a given, as an indisputable fact on the ground. Since this is our self-evident starting point, we work our way forward. To transfer funds from one nation-state to another or from one region of nation-states and/or economic regions to another will necessarily distort matters.

Poverty is the only solution.

Because money corrupts, we mindlessly forgo the hard work of mutuality and relationship, short-cutting the entire process with truisms about how we will not be party to such distortion because we will not move money. One thinks of the falsely pious King Ahaz in the prophet Isaiah’s time. Confronted with the challenge to name a sign to which the Lord himself would respond, Ahaz takes himself out of the game with a pious and even Scriptural evasion: I will not test the Lord.

YHWH, via the voice of the prophet, finds no piety in Ahaz’ response, only self-protection and enmity.

If in the context of, say, Microsoft or HSBC or 3M, one were to terminate strategic discussion with the platitude that ‘money corrupts’, one would soon be seeking money via a government check in the queue at the Unemployment Benefits office.

Microsoft or HSBC or 3M have developed other disciplines intended to assure quality performance. We, by contrast, in a stunning display of mistrust in our majority world brethren, prefer to manage the character of performance by assuring poverty as its moral backstop. It speaks of laziness and the absence of vision.

May it be that we lack the fiber and perseverance to employ the normal process and disciplines that are prevalent in the business world in order to heighten our chances of success, falling back instead upon the easy mantra that money corrupts?

I believe such a diagnosis is plausible.

When the Lausanne Movement seeks a ‘new global equilibrium’, its spokespersons rightly attempt to avoid the connotation that they are seeking the redistribution of resources for its own sake.

Yet I believe that the global evangelical community has in hand a shared task that calls for large-scale transfer of resources of all kinds—financial resources included—in order to accomplish our common cause. An ideology based upon the absolute status of the nation-state and the derivative logic of self-sufficiency cannot possibly embrace such a logic.

So let me suggest another way of thinking about the matter: Suppose we are a global evangelical family. In this extended family, some households have fallen upon particularly good fortune. Others, to speak only of the material framework, are hard pressed to pay the rent and the light bill, though they would long to make the investments in their children’s future that would secure a secular change in the family’s capacity to contribute to society. If it were to emerge that the economically prosperous head of a household—he may not be the most spiritually poised, indeed he may be distressed by the angst that commonly pursues wealth—had for some years been quietly paying the university tuition for two or three daughters and sons of his working-class cousin’s children, we would celebrate his capacity for solidarity, to say nothing of his generosity.

Yet if by analogy it were to emerge that a California-based real-estate tycoon of deep Christian conviction had entered into a twenty-year commitment with a north Indian theological college in order to secure the supply of well-trained Christian pastors in a region dominated by Islam, we might consider him dangerously naive for his thoughtless support of dependency.

Shame on us.

A new global equilibrium will need to dispense with all the psycho-social and pseudo-theological complexes that make us fear dependency as the ultimate—or at least the most awkward—sin. Where mutuality, vision, and discipline exert their salutary effects, money will retain its potent capacity to distort and corrupt. Yet we will not see that outcome as determined. We will discover processes, based upon deep and mutual friendship, to contain that ever-present danger while we celebrate what can be accomplished in this complicated world when all manner of blessing—not excluding the economical—flows, in words now common to the global evangelical movement, from everywhere to everywhere.

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Prophetic oracle finds few reasons to go gently with Edom.

This too-close-for-comfort neighbor of Israel-Judah comes in for uncommon diatribe and unflinching condemnation from the prophets of Israel-Judah. Just as those who stand—or sleep—nearest to us wound us the most grievously, so does Edom fail to go gently into the good night when the Hebrew prophets have got their dander up.

Curiously, Edom’s announced demise does not turn on pure Hebrew nationalism. Edom is condemned for the same reason that humans everywhere fall afoul of YHWH’s way: they crush the most vulnerable among them.

Concerning Edom. Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Is there no longer wisdom in Teman? Has counsel perished from the prudent? Has their wisdom vanished? Flee, turn back, get down low, inhabitants of Dedan! For I will bring the calamity of Esau upon him, the time when I punish him. If grape-gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings? If thieves came by night, even they would pillage only what they wanted. But as for me, I have stripped Esau bare, I have uncovered his hiding places, and he is not able to conceal himself. His offspring are destroyed, his kinsfolk and his neighbors; and he is no more. Leave your orphans, I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me.

For thus says the LORD: If those who do not deserve to drink the cup still have to drink it, shall you be the one to go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished; you must drink it. For by myself I have sworn, says the LORD, that Bozrah shall become an object of horror and ridicule, a waste, and an object of cursing; and all her towns shall be perpetual wastes.’

YHWH in the Hebrew Scripture only seldom appoints himself the guardian and vindicator of half-pagan orphans and widows.

Yet he sometimes does, which in itself distinguishes him from all other gods.

YHWH the defender of Edom‘s orphans and widows.

The rabbis cultivate an uncommon instinct for moving from the lesser to the greater. The New Testament, in its quite distinct dialect, does the same.

Both press upon us the comforting, judging logic that runs something like this:

And if of Edom‘s orphans and widows, then what of ours?

Then what of us?

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Cape Town’s Pentecost

It is easy to dismiss the Big Meeting in a day when connectivity is cheap, frequent, and easy.

It may well be that the Lausanne Movement’s Cape Town 2010 ambition will have proven to be a mere spasm of spiritual and communal ecstasy, unrelated to the ongoing task and shared life of what can now accurately be called the global church.

But that seems unlikely. (more…)

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Jon Foreman’s magnificently understated rendition of the twenty-third psalm flavors the crisp morning air of this apartment in Cape Town, its door swung open to southern African sun and sky. Life-Long-Friends (LLF) John Bernard, Fritz Kling, and I seek shelter here after long and fascinating days among the Pentecost-like throngs that fill the city’s convention center at this epochal Lausanne-inspired gathering of the Global Church. Into that massive hall and the vein-like corridors and meeting spaces that encircle we bring our worship, open hearts, hungry minds, intense conversation, privileged hugs, and that shared life thing that makes everything worthwhile.

Glorious is not too large a word.

Yet this place and this gathering will ever bear a double meaning for this pilgrim and his broken hallelujah. Here, in the Marimba Restaurant that has become my afternoon cave, I received the email that ended Something Important. A quixotic project and promise, it endured and often thrived for twenty-eight years. It is over now and she is gone. (more…)

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When the conversation become difficult, we agree to bow together before the idol named Balance.

‘Well, it’s really a matter of balance,’ we intone, only half suspecting that we are confessing a lie.

A slightly more sophisticated half-truth, half-lie stakes its seductive claim thus: ‘Well, these things must always be held in tension.’

We speak carelessly of love and truth as though they were fruits of the same size placed into our refrigerating care. We discourse with all the shallow persuasiveness of truism about ‘Grace’ and ‘Law’ and their needful equilibrium.

So does good intention come to smell of distortion, divine disclosure of human fabrication. (more…)

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We desperately want good news. In time of distress, our minds scan their half-remembered data for a word of hope. As we need food and water, we sense that there must be a happy description of what is happening under our feet that will declare things not be as bad as they appear. Salvation is just around the corner. It must be so.

In Jeremiah’s day, prophetic voices of easy hope abounded. The canonical text calls them false. In the literature that comes to us bearing Jeremiah’s name, YHWH’s verdict upon such happy criers is almost violent for its brevity: ‘I did not send them’. (more…)

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The sheer quantity of the prayers that find their way into the New Testament anthology—from Jesus’ expansive ‘high-priestly prayer’ in the gospel of John’s seventeenth chapter to the heavenward words that flow like the ink of Paul’s amanuensis—suggests that a world is being re-made against massive resistance.

The life of such pray-ers is seldom tranquil. ‘Sin, the flesh, and the devil’ are ever the wolves at the door. This does not incapacitate the New Testament writers, though it seems seldom far from view that it could. Instead, they pray constantly—’without ceasing’ in the familiar words of the apostolic exhortation—that the outbreak of a New Creation might not be stopped ahead of time and that the casualties not become more than can be borne:

Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you, and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

In this passing breath of reported prayer, Paul speaks fluidly of the need for rescue and protection if the ‘word of the Lord’ is not to see its expansion halted. The word ‘evil’ recurs, first with reference to people who have no faith and so resists Paul’s mission, secondly in his desire that ‘the evil one’ (the personal ‘the evil one’ rather than the impersonal ‘evil’ is likely the preferred translation) might not have his way. (more…)

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It wouldn’t be good to resist the Autumn light that makes it easier than normal to get out on the bike and onto the Monon Trail. In a few weeks, Winter will have us scavenging for motivation like junk-yard raccoons. Today tosses the thing in front of us like a juicy sirloin. Don’t waste the moment, I tell myself.

After a month of travel and bad sleep, the belly fills up the Lycra biker’s shirt a bit more amply than in the heat of summer. Dressing up like a biker in form-fit color is one of the few acceptable spaces for a man of conventional preferences to strike out in just this way. But there are lots of other splashes of yellows and blues on bikers of all ages, many shapes, and both genders on the Monon this afternoon. I’m in good company. (more…)

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