Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Curfew?

Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash
As our nation is convulsing with the labor pains of protest over justice too often denied for African Americans, many peaceful protests have taken place. At the same time other more opportunistic elements, more committed to breaking things and cursing others than seeking the blessed kingdom have burned and looted indiscriminately. Saturday night (5/30) in America, over 40 major cities had curfews in place in an effort to stem the tide of rioting and the property damage that results from looting and burning. It is ironic considering the origins of the word.

What is curfew? As a young person, my understanding was that curfew was the time I needed to be home or face the consequences of being grounded or some other loss of privileges. My Mom used to say, “Nothing good happens after 12:30am!” and now, looking back forty years later, I seem the wisdom in her words! In common understanding, a curfew is a time when by law or by emergency order specific groups or the general populace needs to be off the streets and home, usually during the nighttime hours. While curfew has that meaning for sure, it was originally a fire-prevention term. 

The word meaning of “curfew” developed from the French terms for “Cover your fire” as Merriam-Webster.com explains.

During the Middle Ages, houses in European towns were often made of wood and were close together, and fires could quickly spread from house to house. To prevent this, people were required to put out or cover their hearth fires by a certain time in the evening. A bell was rung as a signal when the time had come. In early French, this signal was called coverfeu, a compound of covrir, meaning “to cover,” and feu, “fire.” Even when hearth fires were no longer regulated, many towns had other rules that called for the ringing of an evening bell, and this signal was still called coverfeu. A common coverfeu regulation required people to be off the streets by a given time. That was the meaning of the word when it was borrowed into Middle English as curfew.

So, in times like this, the word curfew is more appropriate than all, but a few Jeopardy champions might realize! The government has declared curfews to try to control the fires set by those claiming to be protesters. However, in many places, activist leaders are saying it is right to be angry and to protest but let us not burn down our own house. Some authorities advocate using a violent response towards the rioters in an effort to stop the violence and destruction. To which I, surprisingly, have mixed feelings. Let me explain.

I have no patience for the systemic and individual racial oppression of black lives...people made in the image of God! Over the years, and especially in recent days, as I have had the opportunity to listen to the stories of injustice my black friends have personally experienced it makes me angry, and ashamed. I have been changed through listening to these black voices and wrestling through difficult issues with them over the years. Even so, I cannot begin to understand the level of trauma that racism produces in those who experience ethnic insecurity, who because of their skin color are always under suspicion and at risk of discrimination and profiling. How exhausting it must be to always have to translate themselves into the dominant culture. So, I am not one to sit in judgment of the various expressions of that trauma. Those who have suffered such historic indignities should not be told to cover their fire, to calm down, and to wait a little longer, or even to use the language of niceness (though I prefer it). My preferences have no voice in their testimony. For the common good, their fire must not be covered by the wet blanket of majority culture systemic sensibilities.

Having said that, I also have no support for those who have no right to co-opt the righteous grieving and outcry of a wounded people to opportunistically act hatefully in the wanton destruction of the property and livelihoods of others for the sheer emotional rush of rebellion. Such actions only further victimize the oppressed and the immigrant. In my area, this is mostly done by the skinny white Antifa crowd. These people are like hyenas looking for an opportunity to curse others with sloganized expletives, to smash windows and to dash dreams, to light fires, loot, and to laugh at their own bravado as they hide their faces and run from the police. Their unholy fire needs to be covered for the common good. Yet even here, a relational approach may be more effective than an authoritarian response. When protests are self-governed, then the police do not have to step in and it leaves space for mourning, dialogue, and even celebration of our shared humanity.

Nearly 2000 years ago, some poor Galilean fishermen challenged the status quo by proclaiming to a lame beggar at the gate to the temple, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6). More money would not have changed his lameness, but the healing power of Jesus did! This act of powerful and generous mercy brought great openness for the crowd to hear about Jesus and at least 5000 believed. The authorities were “greatly annoyed” by this disturbance and arrested Peter and John for preaching the good news of the risen Christ. The next morning, after a night in jail, as they were hauled before the authorities, it was their boldness as they spoke filled with the Holy Spirit that convinced the council that they had been with Jesus (Acts. 4:13). If I am ever falsely imprisoned, may it be for doing good and my words be so boldly Spirit-filled and kingdom-focused, speaking the “big-T” truth to the “little-p” power! When the authorities warned them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus anymore, Peter and John refused to “cover their fire”, and answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). That last line echoes in my mind, “for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” The apostles could not unsee what they had seen…a resurrected Jesus and they could not stop talking about him even when the authorities issued a spiritual “curfew”.

What about us? What have we seen and heard? I don’t mean in someone else’s social media rant, but what have we witnessed? Have we taken the time and made space to listen to the testimonies of others, to sit under what they have seen and heard? Or do we forbid questions and dialogue that might bring understanding and acceptance? One of my longtime favorite quotes is from Michel de Montaigne, “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.” Sadly, this is a common tactic that has been used by both extremes the political spectrum and many polarized elements in the culture wars. Over the long haul, commanded curfews have never worked. However, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23). The fire of the Spirit is not shackled, no matter what the authorities do.

Thankfully, on Sunday (5/31) we saw police and protestors beginning to kneel together and march together in solidarity, and today (Monday) we saw more people peacefully coming together in unity to be seen and heard together. What will tomorrow bring?

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Risen

This year, as we remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ that is the heart of Christianity, I thought it would be a good time to post this poem. It was written last fall and attempts to capture the missional nature of his life, death, and resurrection.

Photo by Scott Rodgerson
on 
Unsplash
                                   Risen
God came to earth,
As a human,
Living in the dust, pain, heat, stench
Of a fallen world.
He understands us, our inhuman condition, well.

Spurning the spotlight
Yet bringing glimpses of heaven, miraculous moments
Where long marred image of God in us
Shone through clearly in Christ
          Healing, delivering, teaching, feeding, confronting,
Heart of the Father revealed.

Such revealing light was too much for those with much to hide
Dark-worshipers conspired to have the innocent die.
As Jesus the Second Adam bled into the reddening soil
Asking forgiveness from the Father for us
Commending his Spirit back it was done.

Garden Tomb, Jerusalem
Wrapped, laid in the dark on the stone
Until the third day.

God breathed life back into a dying race.
Jesus, having carried all our iniquity to its end
Rose again and shared his resurrection breath
The wind of heaven, his very self, that we might be
A new creation sent forth with purpose.
Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash
Kingdom leaven might permeate every tongue, tribe, territory
That, like the heavenly bread come down, it all might be risen.

No longer bent by curse, or by cross,
We are sabbath straightened
To see the grandeur of his completed mission.

              © Greg K. Dueker



Friday, April 10, 2020

Oppressor

A few years ago, I wrote a poem that talks about what the devil, the enemy of our soul, works to produce in us (see John 10:10)... I called it "Oppressor." Recently, I started rereading, and discussing, C.S. Lewis', The Screwtape Letters with my adult daughter and was reminded of this poem. Jesus Christ came that we might have life, a type of life that is poisonous to the oppressor!

As we think about the events of what Christians call Holy Week, Jesus' words about his body and his blood demonstrated in his acts of service and represented in the last supper (Holy Communion) prompt me to share this poem here. 

                                Oppressor
       An oppressor comes to steal, kill, and destroy.
 Always taking, breaking,
      Always twisting, taunting,
            Always feeding off of the multi-layered hurts inflicted:
                Physical—pain, bruising, scars, disability;
                Emotional—acids of discouragement, anger, fear, grief, hate;
                Social—isolation, prejudice, betrayal; and
                Spiritual—despair, disbelief. 
And when he has consumed all that he can, he leaves us numb,
Drones, to mindlessly, heartlessly
Work for him until we die.
Zombies, walking dead already,
In our pain and hunger, we deliver him his next meal.

Until Life came giving and died, 
To be our next meal.
Forever turning the oppressor's stomach.

© Greg K. Dueker


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Upside of Being Downcast--Encouragement from an Ancient Poet (Psalm 42-43)

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    
my salvation and my God. (Psalm 43:5)
During this season of social-distancing and even strict quarantine, there is considerable concern regarding the psychological impact of isolation in addition to the more widespread anxieties of the Covid-19 crisis. Many have lost their jobs; others can no longer visit family for fear of spreading exposure to the more vulnerable among us. 
Outside the local Costco. Photo Credit: Greg Dueker
I work at a Christian University and Seminary and we are currently teaching remotely and doing our best to reach out and check-in with our students regularly. But I miss seeing them in class, out on the campus lawn, or in the cafeteria. Even the library is quieter than normal (if you can imagine that). All this combined with the hoarder-induced shortages of TP, sanitizer, vegetables, and most carbs (rice, beans, pasta, bread), can produce turmoil in our souls. But will we look down or up for the hope our soul so desperately needs?
In Psalm 42-43 (which are generally thought to make up one psalm), the writer uses a common refrain where he addresses his own soul and directs it to trust in God. This psalm might have been written during David’s exile during the rebellion of Absalom, or later during the Babylonian exile, or as Peter Craigie suggests, “it is equally possible that the background is to be found in sickness, which limited the poet’s  possibility of going to Jerusalem and participating in the worship in the temple.”[1] 
Currently, this hits pretty close to home for most churches in the US.
Photo by Jordan Hopkins on Unsplash
We live in just such a time filled with challenging circumstances and difficult directives as the various levels of our government pursue policies put in place to slow the insidious spread of Covid-19. Yet even as the virus captures our attention, nature’s other outbursts are not abated be it tornados, floods, or earthquakes.
Some people are overwhelmed by the darkness they see. Others recognize that darkness is the necessary precursor to the coming of the light. If we never experience the dark how then will we long for the light? Psalm 43:3-4 contains the prayer of the one who was downcast in the darkness. Do these ancient words of prayer resonate with our heart’s cry today?
Send out your light and your truth;
    
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
    
and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
    
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
    
O God, my God.   (Psalm 43:3-4)
These psalms were written by, or for, the sons of Korah who served as doorkeepers and worship leaders in the Temple of the Lord. Their cry to the Lord was that he would bring them back to the place where they were called to serve. They realized that, for whatever reason, they were no longer in that spot. I would argue that their season of difficulty, whether sourced in an attack of an enemy or their own sin was being shaped into a gift in the hands of the Lord who loves steadfastly! My pastor used to say, “Don’t despise that which drives you to your knees.” Whatever causes us to lean into the Lord’s love, and extend that love to others, is ultimately a cause for gratitude.
Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash
In the history of Israel and the history of the Christian church, there have been great feasts celebrated regularly, but the problem in modern times is that we too often cast off the fasts that precede them. Wisdom, and experience, teach that we appreciate and celebrate the light better after we have experienced the darkness. We need the longing season of Advent before the celebration of Christmas. We need the confessional season of Lent before the victorious joy of Easter. Even in the progression of the natural seasons, after a long hot summer, we need the cold and dark of winter before we will enjoy a sunny and warm spring day to its fullest! Isaiah 42:16 declares the Lord’s promised plan for his people on the other side of the darkness…
And I will lead the blind
    in a way that they do not know,
in paths that they have not known
    I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
    the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I do,
    and I do not forsake them. (See also: Isaiah 42:6-7; 9:1-2; Matt. 4:14-16)
But those who will not trust in the Lord will see their idols destroyed (Isaiah 42:17).
As we read through Psalm 42-43, we find that it is chock-full of lessons applicable to our lives as we walk through the current circumstances we face. Despite being ordered to responsibly practice “social-distancing” we can still digitally join our hearts together around the Lord and his word. I hope that we will take time each day to reflect on God’s written word, the Bible, and share his love displayed there with others.
To do just that, allow me to share nine truths that can be found especially in times of hardship and our downcast seasons of darkness…
  1. Hardship often reveals our deepest thirst and gives us an opportunity to admit it (42:1-2). Have we seen enough of the world to know that it doesn’t, and can’t satisfy our deepest longings?
  2. Hardship may open us up to criticism from others, those who love “piling on” when someone else is suffering, adding insult to injury (v. 3,10). I am reminded of Jesus’ words to “love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Times like this will give us opportunities to grow in this regard.
  3. Hardship reminds us how much we miss celebrating the goodness of God with our spiritual family (v. 4). Thankfully, we have the technology to reach across the distance and join in spiritual worship and acts of service.
  4. Hardship often increases our sense of isolation (v. 4) but the more we think of others, and check in on them (phone, text, email, social media) the less isolated we will be, even when confined to our home.
  5. Hardship gives us the opportunity to do some soul searching and some soul instructing. (42:5, 11; 43:5)
  6. Dark times move us out past our powerless pride to put our hope in the Lord (v.5-6). In 2 Cor. 1:8-10, the Apostle Paul described this experience clearly.
  7. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 
  8. Amid dark and tumultuous times, we may become more sensitive to the presence of God and his steadfast love (v.7-8). The more distractions are removed, the more quiet we encounter, the more we dwell in his Word, the less we can lean on our own strength the more we see him at work. Pro tip: Don’t watch more news than you can cover in prayer!
  9. In dark and tumultuous times, we can ask God honest questions about where he is in all that we face. We feel he is far away, but what encouragement can we offer our own souls? (v.11) “Put your hope in God!” He is our covenant-keeping Savior!
  10. In times of hardship, we can confess our weakness and choose to trust God to deliver us from the oppressor (43:1-3).

Sabbath in Modern Tiberius
One other comment before I close. Even good things need to have fallow seasons of pruning and rest in preparation for new seasons of fruitfulness. It makes me wonder since this current crisis is in effect imposing a sabbath rest on the land. While the imposition of a required sabbatical season is not the cause of this shutdown, perhaps that is how the Lord may use this terrible pandemic for good. if we will hope in him.

We are the nation that refuses to stop whatever it is that we are doing. Yet, being forced to stop, to pause, to trust it will work out, will we continue to be downcast, angry, fearful and divided, or will our souls be counseled by this psalm to hope in God? Will we trust that we will once again join our voices together to praise Jesus for the salvation he brings to share? I hope so!
How we live, and engage those we live with, will reveal both our heart and our source of hope… for better or worse!
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (2 Cor. 1:8-10)

[This post is also published on my Honest2God Psalms blog. If you are interested in more posts based on the Psalms, feel free to follow the link.]

[1] Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 19, (Waco, TX: Word Inc., 1983) 325.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Arresting Ministerial "Stop and Frisk"?

[This post was originally published on my pastoral advocacy blog called the Cupbearers Initiative, however, it has wider application than just pastors. It has to do with how we look at the world and how we engage those that we perceive as "other."]
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Since this is primarily a blog to support and encourage pastors and other ministry leaders, I like to be real about some of the issues we face. This post addresses one such issue.

A Dangerous Practice 
Photo: Creative Commons
One of the dangers faced by those of us in ministry leadership is having a “stop and frisk” mentality. I am referring to the well-known practice employed by Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Police (and many other agencies) in an approach to reducing their horrific violent crime and murder rates. They did so by stopping, questioning, and frisking people on the street to confiscate illegal weapons. While the policy arguable did reduce murder rates, it led to significantly unjust racial profiling and harmed the already tenuous relationship of communities of color with the police.

Photo: Greg K. Dueker
In this post, I am using “stop and frisk” as a metaphor to describe what happens when a shepherd’s heart is either lifted up in prideful self-righteousness or wounded by the pain, suffering, and trauma others have inflicted upon those they love. I have been one of those shepherds. As leaders, we don’t want to see the people we care for hurt so we can easily go into “protect mode” failing to remember that we have been called to love our enemies too. Our attitude can quickly become bounded by “us/them” feelings, thoughts, and words that lead to unwelcoming actions. We can become more about circling the wagons into a safe defensive perimeter that we fail to reach out in love and understanding (even in disagreement) to our neighbors. Jesus reminds us repeatedly that safety is not the highest value in the kingdom. When you read the previous statement, what verses come to your mind? I have my working list, but I prefer to let you develop your own.

Photo by Paul M on Unsplash
I remember a season, early in my marriage and my ministry, that while I was not actually stopping and frisking people on the street, I was ready to do so. I had become hyper-vigilant in a misguided effort to reduce the human damage caused by lawbreaking. I viewed strangers as suspects until they could prove otherwise. Though I was not deployed in any military conflict, I became quite good at real-time threat assessment in order to protect those I loved and to meet the challenge of the spiritual conflict that swirled around us.
The problem with this approach is that it loves people very selectively if at all. It does not love “others” as Jesus taught us to love. A probing question we should answer is, have we received the love of God so that we are content to keep it to ourselves, sharing only when seekers come and ask? Or, has the love of God so transformed our hearts and lives that we cannot help but share that steadfast love freely with others?

Wrestling Matches or Missional Welcome
Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash
While there is a very real spiritual battle surrounding us, we must remember that our weapons are not of this world and we are not to use the world’s methods when contrary to the scriptures (e.g., 2 Cor. 10:3-4). It seems to me that we are prone to compartmentalize this concept, limiting its declaration as applying only to literal weapons such as assault rifles, tanks, dirty bombs, and drone strikes.

Photo: Randy Fath on Unsplash
As Christian leaders who take the Bible seriously, we know that the kingdom of God is not established by the coercive force of human weapons but through sacrificial love (John 18:36; Rev. 12:11). We would certainly not want to commit again the sins of the Spanish Conquistadors and the accompanying Inquisition. However, do we engage those outside the church, or those from other churches, using the thinking processes of the world as a weapon? Paul writes in this passage that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12) so while we don’t physically throw all the seekers, skeptics, and schemers against the wall and frisk them for weapons, we may do something even worse. We can desecrate the holy encounters God gives us with people when we treat them more like confrontations than conversations, more like wrestling matches against wrong thinking than really hearing and entering into a human story, and then topping it off by justifying our confrontational approach as “striving against sin.” Sometimes we need to be reminded that “the anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:20; Prov. 29:22).

People want to be seen, heard, understood, and valued. Any ministerial stop and frisk ideology will hinder the type of outwardly focused love that best represents the way the Trinity shares their goodness with all creation. Stop and frisk processes remove the merciful welcome of hospitality. A mortal sin in the ancient world. These suspicious and confrontational approaches can make evangelism and gospel ministry more like a mugging than relational ministry. I would even suggest that we see conversion, and the larger discipleship process, as less transactional and more about the Spirit-led journey towards full faith in Jesus Christ.

Seeing Past the Edge of the Earth
Photo by Florian Rieder on Unsplash
It is normal for us to draw lines and make judgments. We engage and do life together with those people who are enough like us to dwell inside our circumscribed borders of us/them, the flat earth of our own making. We need Jesus’ to open our eyes to see beyond the edge of the earth with which we are comfortable. We need eyes to see and ears to hear as he does because his love is not constrained by our limitations.

What do we see when we look at others? How do we spiritually profile them? There was a time when Saul of Tarsus and others considered Jesus just a carpenter’s son. They could not see his true identity. We do the same thing when we fail to recognize that each person, who we meet, is an image-bearer (whether they know it or not) and is precious in the sight of God. Saul/Paul later testified that their own attitude had been adjusted by Christ so that now, “we regard no one according to the flesh.” (2 Cor. 5:16)

Photo: Unsplash
We need to discern Christ in the least like of those we meet, humbly being ready to learn from their stories, struggles, and even their strange experiences as human parables. Will we have an ear to hear and a heart to respond? Does our perception end at the edge of our little earth? Or can we see beyond that, with eyes of faith, love and hope what Christ intends for each person to become?

Even as many police agencies move away from stop and frisk tactics and embrace community policing through building positive and mutually helpful relationships, may we as evangelicals get a clue. Jeremiah 29:7 admonished the Jewish exiles to settle down and get busy, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” We are not in exile, but our mission cannot be any less engaged in seeking the common good. As ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven, the love of Christ compels us to do so!