Saturday, April 23, 2011

Brueggemann's Journey to the Common Good

I've been enjoying an excellent book called Journey to the Common Good by Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox, 2010). As I've thought about the Exodus and Passover this past week (see my earlier post about the Exodus), I returned to the book, wherein he points out that "The exodus-Sinai memory produces an uncommon social ethic" (p. 39). His examples are:

The prevention of a permanent underclass through debt cancellations (Deut. 15:1-18), with the reminder of Egyptian slavery.
Openheartedness and generosity toward one's neighbor (Deut. 15:7-11)
No interest on loans within the community (Deut. 23:19-2)
Runaway slaves are always extended hospitality (Deut. 23:15-16)
Collateral-free loans to poor people (Deut. 24:10-13)
Poor people cannot have their wages withheld (Deut. 24:14-15)
Resident aliens and orphans receive justice (Deut. 24:17-18), again with the reminder of Egyptian slavery.
An economy structured for provision for the needy and marginalized (Deut. 24:19-22), yet again with the reminder of Egyptian slavery (pp. 39-41).

An ethic of neighborliness, generosity, and the common good are rooted in the nature and salvation of the Lord of the exodus (pp. 42-43). The experience of liberation from Egyptian slavery is supposed to lead to an economy and society in which people are cared for.

Interestingly, Brueggemann connects King Solomon with Pharaoh! He argues that Solomon, with his accumulation of power and wealth, comprise a "nullifying [of] the vision of Sinai" wherein the common good is provided for (pp. 53-55). Thus the prophetic tradition of Nathan, Amos, Jeremiah, and others call the people back to the Lord of the exodus (p. 57). Jeremiah, for instance, calls people to "praise" or "boast" of the Lord rather than their own wealth, wisdom, and power---the qualities of Pharaoh and Solomon (Jer. 9:24) (p. 61). Both Jeremiah 9:24 and Hosea 6:6 remind the people that God is a God of lovingkindness (hesed), justice (mispat) and righeousness (zedaqah), and God desires and delights in these things more than sacrifice and burnt offerings (pp. 62-63).

Brueggemann connects these verses and traditions to the New Testament. For instance, Hosea 6:6 is referred to in Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7. God continues to love justice, lovingkindness (or "steadfast love, which in turn is connected to the Sinai covenant and its social ethic), and righteousness (connected to the social well-being) (p. 64). That notion of "boasting the Lord" is a favorite saying of Paul (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:31), even if we don't realize it is a quotation of Jer. 9:24, which in turn is a reminder of the will of the Lord of the exodus (pp. 66-67).

All these have contemporary relevance, Brueggemann argues. "[T]he U.S. national security state thrives on wisdom, might, and wealth. That triad of commitments, moreover, gets articulated among us not as savage militarism but as consumer entitlement in which liberals and conservatives together take for granted our privileged status in the world as God's most recently chosen people....[T]he coming troubles of our society call us away from our internal struggles in the church in order that the church may address these great public missional issues. It remains to be seen how the church can fashion an intentional alternative to the national security state, which [comparing it to Israel and Judah during the prophetic era] is itself a path to death" (p. 68).

Although this sentence sounds like a typical way to close a book report (LOL), I do find this book, typical of Brueggemann's work generally, a very creative reading of the scriptures, and this one is particularly important amid our contemporary, competing discussions about the common good, and the ways to achieve it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Thoughts about Hell

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tight Buttons, Soft Pews, Warm Memories

Here’s an Easter memory (originally posted in 4/09) with just a little bit of profanity. I had a little trouble buttoning the collar button of my dress shirt this morning. I need to lose some weight. But my button, and the fact that we're nearly at Easter, reminded me of my father. When I was little, Mom conscientiously got me into church, but Dad didn’t go. Whenever we visited churches during vacations, he’d sit in the car reading Westerns. We got him to church on Christmas and Easter, and that was about it. Therefore Dad didn’t wear dress shirts frequently enough to have a well-fitting supply, plus he was too frugal to buy a new shirt. So on the infrequent occasions when all three of us went to church together, ridiculous struggles ensued to get his top button buttoned. My mom pitched in. I think my folks even had a little hook tool to help.

I don’t know much about Dad’s childhood, for his father was long deceased and he was estranged from his mother. He was paradoxical: angry and caring, cheap and generous. Dad was a terrible grudge-holder, what Theodore Roosevelt called “the fun of hating.” For instance, he unfailingly referred to his stepfather as “the bald-headed son of a bitch” or “that goddamned bastard,” years after the man died. Yet Dad's softer side revealed itself in, for instance, his love of George Beverly Shea, the long-time singer with the Billy Graham crusades. We owned some of Shea’s LPs. Unless Mom prompted him without my knowledge, Dad also bought me my first Bible. He and I were downtown in our hometown, and he took me into the G. C. Murphy store and helped me pick out a King James Version which I still own as a keepsake.

I don’t remember exactly why my mom and I started church-shopping back in the fall of 1975, when I was eighteen, but we began attending the local United Methodist congregation--Vandalia's First UMC. What a wonderful, welcoming church! We even talked Dad into coming. What a great opportunity this seemed: to help Dad have a connection to a church. But the worst thing happened: the first Sunday we visited that church with Dad, the minister preached on tithing. Sermons about tithing sermons are, 90+ % of the time, mildly scolding, and Dad, with his Depression-era frugality, was very put-off. “At least those padded pews made my ass feel good,” was his comment about the service.

But he was also welcomed by local people he knew. The pastor was happy to meet him and made him feel respected. When we joined the church, Dad was baptized. Over the years, my parents enjoyed the church’s fellowship and programs. Although others planned and implemented an outreach program at the church, Dad was among the early faithful helpers of that ministry and was called upon to help select a reliable van and to drive it. I'm not sure how the issue of the collar buttons got resolved, but as Dad grew older he "shrank" a bit and didn't bother wearing ties anyway. When he died in 1999, his service happened in the church’s sanctuary.

Dad was one of those men, not untypical of his generation, who kept his deepest feelings hidden. Mom, who was married to him for 58 years, never professed to understand him. But the fact that he became a churchgoer late in life is a testimony to the power of God acting through a caring congregation.

(Addendum: My mom's funeral was also at the church, in October 2012. Her pastor made wonderful reference to the blessings of the Vandalia First UMC in her and our family's lives.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Eminem and the Girl Scouts

Thoughts about the poor, with just a little profanity.

There is a portion of Eminem's song, "Lose Yourself" that "gets" to me whenever I play it:

All the pain inside amplified by the fact
That I can't get by with my 9 to 5
And I can't provide the right type of life for my family
'Cause, man, these goddam food stamps don't buy diapers...

I thought of that song because, last Saturday, members of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri hung an "April Showers" bag on our front door. This is a program where you can donate shampoo, soap, TP and tissue, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrushes, feminine products, diapers, and other items not purchasable with SNAP benefits. The Scouts deliver bags to homes, and all you have to do is purchase such items and place the bag at your door this coming Saturday, and the Scouts will pick it up and deliver the items.

The song also reminds me of some of the reading I've done for research projects, like the book Nickel and Dimed, and an article that told the story of a construction worker who lost his job. The family subsequently lost their home and live in a trailer donated to them. The wife indicated that being homeless is about “being called names. Its being ridiculed. It’s running into people that have seen you in your highest and are not even speaking to you anymore because they’re too afraid for where you are and don’t know what to say.”(1)

A couple years ago I noticed something in the story of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-23). I realized recently that money was not the only issue with the man, maybe not even the main issue. People say, "Oh, he was so foolish, he kept his money instead of following Jesus!" He also had no empathy with the poor. Jesus gave him a specific thing to do with his money: help the poor. The man felt sad, but not a sadness for the poor. He couldn't see how Jesus’ command was a meaningful and compassionate opportunity. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, met Jesus and spontaneously formed his own plan to help the poor.

Our political rhetoric in America can be blameful and hostile to the poor: the poor are "they" who won't work hard enough, or cheat the system, etc---not like "we" who are successful. But the Luke story alerts us that Jesus himself urges kindness and outreach to the poor. His famous comment, "you always have the poor with you" (Matt. 26:11) is a reminder that we've ample and, unfortunately, endless opportunities to help the poor.

But this is not always easy. For one thing, it’s very easy to judge others harshly. I love this story that John Wesley told on himself. He looked at the yearly contributions to the Methodist ministry and noticed that a particular man had not increased his contribution recently, and Wesley challenged the man not to be selfish with his money. As it turned out, the man had turned his life around, was trying to pay off his sizable debts honorably, and was living on boiled cabbage in order to do so. Wesley felt sad that he had made a hasty, superficial judgment about the man's heart and circumstance.

We can agree that the Bible is unambiguous about our need to care about and help the poor ...but how do you care for the poor? That, too, is not always easy! Experts in social ministries caution that giving cash to people (e.g., "panhandlers") is not a good thing to do at all, and you're not really helping the people. Unfortunately, I learned this after working at a church where I couldn't always tell, intuitively, who was genuinely in need, and I found that ambiguity very upsetting. Addressing the social problems that cause hunger, homelessness, and poverty is a better way to help. Addressing those problems may indeed mean a monetary donation to an agency. Getting involved in some ministry or program is another way, especially when you're involved in the work with friends. The trick is to do so with right motives, not just guilt or "getting a good feeling from helping others." As for changing social structures?.... That seems beyond our individual abilities, unless we're prepared for extraordinary personal sacrifices (e.g., to seek political office). When we're dealing with public policy, issues of justice and fairness become complicated and open to debate.

But simple opportunities may present themselves---like the Girl Scouts' program, and many others. We don't need to think we should save the world. As we grow in grace, God may show us many ways to respond to people in need. We can feel kindness in our hearts whenever such an opportunity arises.

1. Mike Osborne, “Slide into Homelessness Jolts Middle Class US Families,” Voice of America, Feb. 1, 2010:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Lent and Solitary Times

Our pastor preached a good sermon this past Sunday on the spiritual discipline of solitude. Among his points, he noted that Jesus spent alone time with God as he balanced his public ministry and private teaching. Our pastor then connected Jesus' prayer times with Jesus' own words:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28).

If we are weary and burdened, we can set aside time to spent with Jesus (in whatever form that may take: Bible reaching, prayer, fellowship, worship, or a combination).

I liked our pastor's point, because I hadn't connected this verse with Jesus' prayer time.

This Matthew 11 verse bothered me when I first read it, years ago. Jesus' teachings in, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount constitute a very high standard, after all: how, then, can Jesus' "yoke" be "easy"? His yoke (that is, our discipleship and our obedience to him) seemed hard.

Well.... it is! But we're not supposed to be out there trudging along and doing things on our own. We can approach Jesus for help, without fear that he'll disapprove of our weakness and failure (Heb. 4:14-16). We can call upon divine help for our worries and burdens, knowing that our prayers are heard with gentleness.

As our pastor noted, we discover Jesus as a source of rest and gentleness for our souls, when we spend time with him as he spent time with God. Setting aside times of solitude can be powerful sources of divine help.

It's not easy to find such times. I’m the son of a man who worked 12-15 hour days as a truck driver, and I’ve had students who are raising children, working full-time jobs, and also taking classes. I’m sympathetic to the challenge of working even basic Bible reading into your schedule, even when you’re interested in doing so. I read a Newsweek article about the evangelist Billy Graham, who said that if he could life his life over, he would’ve read the Bible and theology more.(1) Even Billy Graham!

Taking on Jesus' "yoke" is challenging too. How, for instance, do you practice love, kindness, gentleness and patience—fruit of the Spirit that are not negotiable—in circumstances where you must be firm and harsh, and even duplicitous and adversarial? How can you be a faithful student of Jesus’ in a difficult world wherein his teachings might not seem "workable"?

But, again, we have only divine power available to us for help, understanding, and guidance. God's Spirit is way, way ahead of us.


1. "Pilgrim’s Progress" by Jon Meacham, Newsweek (Aug. 14, 2006), pages 42-43.

Friday, April 8, 2011


When we lived in Akron, OH, we lived along a small lake. I love our present location and yard, but our yard in Akron was so peaceful, and during the nine years we lived there, the changing seasons were so pleasant! Canada geese, which were year-round residents, flew over the trees and land upon the lake with a soft, gliding splash. Blue herons, gulls, and ducks were common on the lake, too, and once I spotted a bald eagle in a tree above the water. We saw deer occasionally, and our daughter, looking at the window, saw a coyote stroll through the yard near the lake. I had a feeling the coyote would rather not live in the suburbs.
In the warm seasons frogs began to croak along the lake. We also noticed killdeer, those pretty birds that make their nests in inappropriate, vulnerable places. At a country church I once served, a killdeer laid its eggs in the gravel parking lot—then, of course, each time a car pulled into the lot, it fussed and ran and pretended to be injured. A thoughtful church member made a sign and put it beside the next so people would take care not to drive into the nest. Killdeers always remind me of that.

Between our back yard and the lake, an area of brush and wild flowers grew. My daughter once identified some of those flowers for a school project: yellow wood sorrel, spotted touch-me-not, elecampane, sweet goldenrod, and others. We left that vegetation undisturbed, except for a path that I kept mowed so that we could walk to the lake. Beside the path, I planted a small U.S. 66 sign. An oak, cottonwood, and willow tree stood at the edge of the yard. In the autumn a few good windy days carried the leaves into the brush so I didn’t have to spend much time raking.

The wild flowers and bushes disappeared in winter; I saw neighbor kids tramping through there in the snow or crossing on their skis. But in springtime the flowers and rushes returned, and by early summer that section of our property became impenetrable except for my little mowed path. The vegetation grew so thick that it was difficult to cast a fishing line properly; my daughter, her friend, and I tried but couldn’t avoid tangling our lines. During our many backyard play times, Emily and I also lost many a golf ball in the brush. We also kicked beach balls around the yard and put up the badminton net several times.

All of us look back on our lives and think how fast time goes. We tend to picture time as linear, one day or month or year after another, in sequence until we come to end of our personal time, whenever it may be. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (Ps. 90:12). Of course, the Bible contains many images of warning–the prophesied Day of the Lord, the commands of Jesus that we be watchful and ready, the apocalyptic passages of the New Testament. These teach of time as a line along which we move.

The Bible also presents a cyclical idea of time, though not as strong as the linear view. Think of the well known passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (which I first learned via the Pete Seeger song): there is a time for everything, a season for planting and harvesting—but the word “season” implies that certain times go away and then return. We experience seasons, both the four seasons and the metaphoric seasons of life. We experience cycles and in small things and large: we return to a place we left, we rediscover music (or other interests) that we once loved, we realize that certain difficult experiences made us stronger for later challenges; we’re given second chances we never expected. We’ve also all have had the never-pleasant experience of old wounds reopened.

The Bible also speaks of the circles of repentance: the ways we stray, backslide, return, stray, return, and through it all, God is always faithful. With its recurrences of sin, punishment, redemption, and return, the book of Judges is as much a spiral as a line of history. I freely admit that my Bible study over the years has been closely connected to my own spiritual ups and downs, and sometimes the “downs” were occasions when I sought its promises more conscientiously.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, if God is our Lord, we are not subject to such things! God cares for us and guides us across our short years; God calls us not to lose heart at life’s hazards but, instead, to focus on our relationship with him. God’s plans and purposes may not always be clear, and sometimes we may feel quite lost. But even the “lost” times may simply be seasons across which God provides...

....But I don’t want to continue to write so wistfully. Today is a pretty spring day, and purely for enjoyment, I’m leafing through my old Bible in search of spring-y texts.

The Garden of Eden is an obvious text, not of spring per se but of newness and of nature’s purity. If I gardened, I’d probably think I was, in a very small way, recreating a sample of lost, natural paradise.

Of course, the Passover stories of Exodus are spring stories: at this time of year, observant Jews clean their homes for all traces of hametz, leavened bread, in preparation for the Pesach remembrance of God’s salvation of the Israelites from Egypt.

Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt. You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year (Ex. 13:3-10).

Here is another springtime verse from “sexy” Song of Songs.

The flowers appear on the earth;
   the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
   is heard in our land
(Song of Songs 2:12).

Here are Jesus' words, which make me think of spring because we like to see birds like robins, sparrows, cardinals, doves, finches, and titmice.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of our head are all numbered. Fear not; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

The saying would lose something if it mentioned starlings or blue jays, species that many people find annoying. Sparrows, in their smallness, seem more illustrative of God’s tender care. Blue jays seem like practical atheists, able to fussily take care of themselves.

The ability to go outside barefoot is a wonderful gift of spring.  I love the arrival of warm weather so I can start being barefooted in the yard, on the neighborhood sidewalk for a walk, and beginning to feel the earth's surfaces and textures.  As I look through my Bible, I find this prophetic warning:

Keep your feet from going unshod
   and your throat from thirst
(Jer. 2:25a)

In context the verse means, sarcastically, don’t wear out your shoes and parch your throat in your effort to pursue false idols. But (I lightheartedly think) aren’t Bible people usually depicted as barefoot? It must be okay as long as we’re not pursuing idols!

It’s been a rainy spring. Rain makes me think of this passage, which is tragic and concerned but also with a comic edge.
Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.’ Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them (Ezra 10:9-15).

“Please, Ezra, can we go inside and dry off first before we divorce our foreign women and avert God‘s wrath?”

The death and resurrection stories are beautiful springtime stories: the new life of the season and the spiritual new life offered by Jesus.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened (Luke 24:1-12).

I can never read those stories without also feeling some of the happiness of the warmth and renewal of nature, and of springtime during little-kid days, both my own and my daughter’s. In my imagination, daffodils and Easter eggs "illuminate" the Resurrection texts. Stories of Jesus, rendered in bright colors in children’s Sunday school materials, coincided uncritically with chocolate Easter treats and the egg hunts. Our congregation in Kentucky had a good children's program; I vaguely remember that Emily took a basket to church one time for the big egg hunt around the church grounds. I also remember the excellent egg hunts that pint-sized-me enjoyed, up the street from our house, at the shady and pleasant Rogier Park. Meanwhile, back at my childhood home (amid the scattered bricks in the backyard left over from the house’s construction, and near the television antenna) daffodils appeared reliably just before Easter.

Daffodils—and flowering plants generally—invite speculation in springtime. Will they survive the cold snaps that inevitably follow pretty days in March? Locally, people have been regretting that the March days in the 70s and lower 80s encouraged flowers to bloom, but then we had freezing days and a five-inch snow! How can flowers survive such capricious weather? Daffodils seem a parable for Jesus. When he died, people speculated pessimistically about him, too; how would his teachings and legacy survive his death? wondered his followers. Jesus in springtime still had some surprises.