A Prayer inspired by the prophet Micah

Almighty God,
You see the ruin
that we as human beings
so often bring upon ourselves,
individually and corporately.

We acknowledge that we have looked
to human strength instead of your strength
and to human leaders in place of your kingly rule.
We long for someone to set things right
and all our worry and efforts
seem sometimes to only make things worse.

Have mercy on us, O God,
that we might receive
Your severe mercy of correction,
and find the grace of restoration
through Jesus Christ,
the Promised Messiah foretold in Micah
and the only One who can truly save.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ,
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

Jonah [God in the Ruins]

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One of the hardest tasks of the preacher is to take a well-known part of Scripture and make it fresh for people again. This past weekend at Eastbrook, I tried to do just that as I preached on Jonah in our series on the minor prophets, “God in the Ruins.”

Unlike all the other minor prophets, Jonah tells a story about the life of Jonah instead of collecting messages from that prophet.

The prophet Jonah is mentioned one other place in the Bible in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet in the northern kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II. This tells us that, if taken at face value, Jonah’s story would have taken place chronologically during the 8th century BC, at a similar time as Amos, during the 40-year reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC).

Because the story of the book of Jonah is told so dramatically in the book of Jonah, there is a lot of debate about its genre: is it historical, is it a parable, is it a real story told in an imaginative style. Regardless of the outcome on those issues, the message of the book is clear:

We can run from it or we can receive it, but the mercy of God is greater than we understand.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series on the minor prophets here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities to connect.

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A Prayer inspired by the prophet Jonah

Almighty God,
You are the powerful Creator
of all the nations upon earth.
You are holy and wonderful
beyond what we understand.

We look at Jonah and we are startled
by his insolence in running away from You,
by his humility in recognizing Your rescue,
and his anger at Your mercy to those
he felt did not desire to receive it.

We are startled because we know
that same insolence, humility, and anger
run through our own lives and hearts.

Have mercy on us, our God,
and transform us from the inside out
that we might love what You love
and hate what you hate.
That our lives might overflow
with mercy like You overflow with  mercy.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ,
our Savior and Deliverer,
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

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One of our strongest longings as human beings is a longing for justice. We long for our lives and the world around us to be bounded by what is just, right, true, and fair without impartiality.

In presidential elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and people are given necessary attention. This is why we have impartial monitoring groups paying attention to elections around the world. This longing for justice is behind the outcries that arise when human rights are violated, whether around the world or here in our own country. International watchdog groups give voice to the helpless or the ignored so that justice can be brought to bear in their lives. We long for justice because we experience injustice and sin in our world.

This is a biblical concept that flows throughout the Bible. When we wonder what God is like, we inevitably encounter the God of the Bible as a God of justice. The Torah calls for maintaining justice and dealing appropriately with the wrongs in the world: protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and the weak in the face of a difficult world. The Hebrew word, mishpat, is the word most often translated as ‘justice’ in the Old Testament. It conveys the idea of right and appropriate order of a just cause being maintained in the world. When we ask the question, “What is God like?”, we discover that at least one answer is this: He is a God of justice.

But here is something interesting. Even as we long for complete justice in the world, we encounter our own need for leniency. We call for justice for wrongs done by some to us or others, but we often hesitate when we do wrongs ourselves.

When a toddler has his toy taken by another child who did not ask, the toddler cries out for the toy to be returned. It was taken unfairly. But, it comes as a great surprise to that same toddler when he is placed in a time-out for unfairly taking a toy without asking from one of his peers later on. Justice looks good from one perspective, but looks a bit more painful when justice hits closer to us personally.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a promising life ahead of her. But when a man broke into her apartment and assaulted her on a warm summer night, she vowed to put him in jail for the rest of her life. When the police gathered a lineup of men for her to identify, she pointed to man #5: Ronald Cotton, as the perpetrator. In the 1985 trial, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of release. Justice had been served, or so it appeared.

11 years later, Jennifer Thompson received a knock at the door of her home. She had moved on, gotten married, had children, but every day for 11 years, she had been praying for Ronald Cotton to die. The detective at her door had some important news for her. After a review of evidence through advanced DNA testing, it became clear that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant but, rather, another man already in prison, Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton was not guilty.

11 years. Ronald Cotton falsely imprisoned. Jennifer Thompson held in a prison of anger. The tables had been turned and Jennifer Thompson said, “I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison….I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.”

So, when Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were reunited, she begged for forgiveness. Ronald Cotton took her hands, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had forgiven her a long time ago.

Ronald Cotton said that both he and Jennifer were victims of the same man. They both became wounded, but they both began to heal. He said, “I choose to forgive…so that I stay free and not be a prisoner the rest of my life.”[1]

You see, we long for justice – for things to be set right in our lives and world – but we also long for mercy because we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our world and also right through us. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who was gravely indebted to a king for a tremendous amount of money. He owed the king so much money, in fact, that as a day laborer it would have taken him about 3,000 lifetimes to pay the debt off. When the king brought this man in to settle the debt – to experience justice – the servant begged for mercy. Seeing the servant’s pleas, the king decided to cancel the debt and give the man a new lease on life. Justice was going to be served but instead the servant received mercy.

Returning home, this servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him about four month’s wages and began to choke him, commanding him to repay the debt. Although this other servant too begged for mercy, the first servant denied it and had the man thrown in prison.

The king eventually heard of this situation and called the servant in. Hadn’t this servant owed the king more than he could repay in 3,000 lifetimes? Hadn’t the king shown mercy and cancelled the debt? And now the servant had thrown another man in prison for a debt of four month’s pay? Where is the justice in this lack of mercy?

We long for justice, but human justice can, honestly, at times be unjust. The encounter with justice leads us ultimately into a plea for mercy.  We long for mercy because we know we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our own souls as well.

What good news it is that the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. One of the most prevalent cries in the psalms is for mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony” (Psalm 6:2). And one of the most resounding themes of the entire Bible is that God is a God of mercy:

  • “Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
  • “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18)
  • “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

It is in the character of God to be both just and merciful. We struggle to bring these two characteristics together, but God is capable of bringing both to bear upon human lives in a way that also reflects His wisdom.

Ultimately we encounter this within the work of Jesus Christ, whose ministry is one of both justice and mercy. James’ description of the Christian reality speaks to the ministry of Jesus: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Paul’s marvelous summary of the good news in Ephesians 2, finds its center in the mercy of God:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5)

What a gift that our strongest longing for justice meets with our strongest need for mercy in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. What is God like? He is a God of justice and a God of mercy.

 


[1] “Finding Freedom In Forgiveness,” NPR – This I Believe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307, November 26, 2011.

The Weekend Wanderer: 5 October 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

guyger-hugging-01-abc-jt-191002_hpMain_4x3_992“Extraordinary act of mercy: Brother of Botham Jean hugs and forgives Amber Guyger after 10-year sentence imposed” – Forgiveness is complicated and powerful. There has been a lot of discussion around Brandt Jean’s response to Amber Guyger, but there is no doubt that it is powerful to see the extension of forgiveness to an offender. We saw something similar to this after the shooting of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Different people respond in different ways. Justice is required because all lives are equally valuable as made in the image of God. We must admit that justice and forgiveness apply in overlapping arenas of the public square and interpersonal relationships. Justice and forgiveness do not exist in an “either/or” dilemma perpetually at odds with one another. We must continue to debate the appropriate and equitable application of justice in these situations. We must also continue to learn more about forgiveness until we see the Author of forgiveness face to face.

 

SheepAmongWolvesII_6.16.1“Iran has world’s ‘fastest-growing church,’ despite no buildings – and it’s mostly led by women: documentary” – A friend passed this article along to me about a new documentary, Sheep Among Wolves, exploring the dramatic growth of Christianity in Iran. This dynamic growth is fueled by discipleship and not by structures. I have had the privilege of talking with movement leaders in this part of the world, as well as with the Iranian diaspora, and it is fascinating to hear about this surging work of God. While I haven’t watched the nearly two-hour documentary yet, I look forward to doing so.

 

Ghostly figure leaving the interior of Sanahin Monastery, Debed Canyon, Armenia“Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?” – One of the biggest discussions amongst religious folks these days is the decline of religion in America, particularly Christianity, and the rise of what is known as the “religious nones.” I am increasingly convinced that this at least partially a result and symptom of (manipulative?) messaging in the public square more than it is about theology and decline in religious desire. Derek Thompson writes: “Religion has lost its halo effect in the past three decades, not because science drove God from the public square, but rather because politics did. In the 21st century, ‘not religious’ has become a specific American identity—one that distinguishes secular, liberal whites from the conservative, evangelical right.” Now, that will make you stop and think for awhile. You will wonder to yourself, “Is that true?” And you will read the news, and you will say, “That may just make sense.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 11.06.51 AM“InterVarsity can require its leaders to be Christian, judge rules” – In a headline that seems obvious, we return again to the contested crossroads of faith and the public square, this time in relation to student groups on university campuses. If fraternities and sororities can choose for their participants to be only men or women (which is already debated), can social or religious groups not also limit their members based on affiliation? Thankfully, a judge in Iowa used some basic common sense here in relation to a lawsuit filed by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship against the University of Iowa. One could ask the searching question, “Why would someone want to be part of the leadership of a group that stands for something they disagree with?” The answer to that may lead us into deeper questions about hidden motivations and some aspects of the entire contemporary social project aimed at eliminating all limits and differences between individuals and groups.

 

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 11.19.16 AM“The Miracle of Canticle – I don’t remember when I first read Walter Miller’s post-apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, but I do remember not wanting to put it down. What was it that captivated me within this quirky series of three novellas depicting a world ravaged by war and scavenging for lost knowledge and wisdom? Was it the central role some aspect of faith plays in the form of a resourceful monastery at the heart of all three stories? Was it the author’s ability to weave together meaningful conversation about reason, faith, war, and loss in the midst of fascinating science fiction that feels contemporary? It’s still hard for me to put my finger on it, but as the work celebrates sixty years since publication, I don’t mind joining Daniel Kennelly in savoring it again.

 

Music: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” from Ella and Louis.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Emanuel, Charleston, Forgiveness and the Future

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Last night I had the chance to view Emanuel, a documentary directed by Brian Ivie (The Dropbox), about the shooting on June 17, 2015, at Emanuel A. M. E. Church in Charleston, SC, in which 9 people died. I attended with one of my sons, and we participated in a talk-back after the movie to reflect and process what we had seen.

For me, the movie highlighted three things that are part of my own journey and also things I hope to continue working on:

  1. The power of forgiveness – The documentary focuses largely on the power of forgiveness in the lives of those who lost loved ones through this trauma. On the one hand, there is the power of forgiveness to release the one who inflicted wrong into the hands of God but also the power of forgiveness to release ourselves from bitterness. This is no simplistic journey, but overall I felt the film did a good job of showing how there is spiritual strength that gives us the ability to forgive, but also how everyone processes forgiveness differently and according to different timelines. As followers of Jesus who live in light of God’s forgiveness through the Cross, we know the power of forgiveness. As Célestin Musekura says: “Because of this divine act, the Christian model of forgiveness stresses the granting of unconditional forgiveness to those who cause injury, pain and suffering in this life.”
  2. The need for racial healing – At various points during the film, attention is given to the racialized history of Charleston and the United States. Charleston served as a hub for the slave trade in colonial America and South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union in what led to the Civil War.By interspersing these hard realities, we are reminded of the need for racial understanding and healing in the midst of the contemporary moment in our nation. From Ferguson to Baltimore, from Oakland to Milwaukee, we cannot ignore that slavery, “America’s original sin,” has left a legacy of racial inequality, pain, and violence that cannot be ignored. We need to take steps forward both in facing into the realities that are here, as well as cultivating both personal and institutional healing of racism.
  3. The importance of stopping racial violence before it starts – While the documentary did not directly address ways to stop racial violence before it starts, it hinted at the reality that a wayward, lonely young man found a narrative of white supremacy that filled the gap of meaning and belonging in his life. This grabbed my attention as I considered afterwards how we might work intentionally on stopping racial violence before it starts. Where are those at the fringes of society who find belonging in sickened narratives of prejudice, injustice, and violence? How do we find them and interrupt their stories with grace, love, and shalom from God? While not easy to address, it is vital that we work as a society, as the church, and as Christians to overcome both the fruits and the roots of racial violence.

For the past six years, I have worked across racial lines with other pastors on developing ways to make a difference in our city through The Milwaukee Declaration and other organizationsEmanuel reminded me that in stepping forward with this work there is great challenge and greater hope, great darkness and greater light.

Just this morning I came across an excerpt from journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes‘ recently released account of the atrocity in Charleston in her book Grace Will Lead Us Home.  There, Hawes relates how after the atrocity, Reverend Kylon Middleton, an African American pastor and husband of one of those killed, was invited to a historically white congregation to preach.

Middleton had grown up in this city, a divided one, and knew well the significance of a black pastor in a white pulpit. He approached with a ready step. When he got there, he beamed. “I never imagined in a million years coming to Second Presbyterian Church!” Sunday, he noted, remained the most segregated day of the week.

But why? They all served the same Christian God, the same one who’d brought them all together here tonight.

“Faith becomes the equalizer!”

In many ways, this was the most important change in race relations to come from the shooting. Friendships and familiarity had been born, especially within the Holy City’s largely segregated churches.

May God give us grace to step forward with such grace before more violence happens and before wounds overflow into riots, that we might meet at the foot of the Cross where healing, humility, understanding, and forgiveness can be found.

 


 

Emanuel is in theaters for a limited time. If you want to see it, there are still showings for Wednesday, June 19.