Humility: What the “Developed” World Needs to Know

The distinction one makes between the “developed” and “developing” worlds hinges on the definition of development one assumes. For this presentation, I rely on Peet and Hartwick’s (2009) definition of development as simply “making a better life for everyone” (p. 1). Based on this definition, my presentation will explore four ways in which the “developed” world needs to learn humility as it considers the practice of development for those living in the “developing” world. Learning this humility means letting go of the prideful assumptions which typically influence development practice. Therefore, each section of this presentation will first problematize these prideful assumptions and then proceed to offer ways in which development can be practiced from a more humble posture. Specifically, these four sections argue that development is an intentional process that does not proceed “naturally” along a single path; that the “better life” of development cannot be reduced to a Western vision of the good life because all knowledge is inherently situated; that extreme damage is done when economic growth becomes the only means of development’s “better life” because economics has lost its connection with everyday life; and, finally, that development cannot be for a few but must lead to a “better life” shared by all. The hope for this presentation is to inspire in the “developed” world the kind of critical self-reflection that leads to a more honest self-knowledge and, therefore, a more humble development practice in and among the “developing” world.

According to Peet and Hartwick’s (2009) definition, development is “made”; meaning it is something freely produced through an intentional process of social, cultural, political, and economic change by individuals and communities. This concept may seem obvious, but it has not always been recognized as such in development discourse. According to Gustavo Esteva (1993), there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the West arrogantly conceived of development as a process of “social evolution” towards “a necessary and inevitable destiny” typified by its own modern industrial societies (p. 9). This “naturalist” view of development was buttressed by the modernization theory of the mid-20th century in which the “rise of Europe is endowed with a natural inevitability so that… global history is reduced to a series of copies made from distilling the experience of the West” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 131). According to this understanding of history, development is not “made” – it is a pre-determined outcome built into the social fabric of every society but achieved first and most spectacularly by the West. “Developing” nations need only discover and follow the “natural” patterns of rational thinking, free markets, mass consumption, and the “worship of commodities” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 132) in order to “evolve”, i.e. “develop.” This blatantly biased, Eurocentric view of history proudly positions “developed” nations as the pinnacles of human civilization and makes development into a condescending, paternalistic game of “catch up.”

This self-aggrandizing, naturalistic conception of development based in modernization theory must be strongly rejected. Even though there are significant material differences between the lives of those who live in so-called “developed” and “developing” nations, these differences do not lead to the conclusion that the “developed” world has achieved the kind of life that should be desired by all nations. Geographer James Blaut debunks the West’s supposed “natural” rise in standards of living by demonstrating how the “European miracle” had more to do with Europe’s superior military might and their arbitrary geographical advantage which they used to plunder resources from North and South America, Asia, and Africa from 1492 through colonial times (as cited in Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 134). This was not an “evolutionary” process and therefore Western nations have no basis upon which to suggest that it is the “natural” way for other societies to seek a better a life.

Instead, development should be seen as an ongoing process happening every day in every society – “developed” ones included – in which human individuals and groups must make informed decisions about the kind of life they desire and the best way to achieve that life. Even though this decision-making process should not rely on the so-called “natural” pattern of development proposed by modernization theory, it can and should be guided by what Peet and Hartwick suggest is the best tool that modern societies offer: “a basically rational scientific attitude toward the world… in terms of carefully formulated, logical, and theoretical thinking about issues of utmost importance” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 281). The work of development should empower nations and communities the world over to utilize this powerful tool of modernism to create beautiful, diverse versions of the “good life” which can serve as alternatives – maybe even better alternatives – to the assumed “good life” of the West. The first step of humility is realizing that all communities and nations are in the process of developing and, most importantly, that development is not a singular, linear, or “natural” process.

The Eurocentric notion of development advocated by modernization theory gives “underdeveloped” nations only one option for a “better life”. As Esteva (1993) says, “to escape from [underdevelopment], ['developing' nations] need to be enslaved to others’ experiences and dreams” (p. 10). In particular, “developing” nations need to seek after a society which finds its fulfillment in the amount of goods and services it consumes because that is the goal of “developed” society as seen in the U.S. (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, 133). According to Tom Sine (1981), this societal goal has become a matter of personal identity for Western individuals who “derive significance and meaning for life from their ability to produce and consume” (77). The imagination of the West may be consumed by consumption, but the second dimension of a humble posture towards the “developing” world is in recognizing how its vision of the “better life” is only one particular vision among many others which are imagined within very different cultures, histories, and places.

However, this second step of humility requires an epistemological shift – a new way of thinking about knowledge and how knowledge is produced and validated. Modern ways of thinking arising from the Enlightenment are primarily rational, i.e. based on reason. As previously stated, this is not necessarily bad; it can be a powerful tool for decision-making as long as “reason” is accompanied by the freedom to think one’s own thoughts based on one’s own history and experiences. However, history has shown that this is the exception – not the rule. As Peet and Hartwick (2009) note, “modern reason metaphysically grounds its image of universal humanity in traits culturally specific to the Europeans – that is, reason claims to speak for everyone when, in fact, it is really speaking for the European minority in the world” (204). When the particular, European type of reason is made to be normative for the rest of the world, the “developing” world becomes trapped in the dreams of the West which, for many of them, have turned out to be nightmares. In addition, this universalization of European-style reason means that grand, universal plans and programs for development can be thought up by anyone from anywhere (but mostly Western development “experts”) and implemented in any place among any group of people without any regard for that people’s particular way of life.

This god-like, transcendent, top-down approach to knowledge needs to be relinquished in favor of a much more humble, localized, bottom-up approach. This epistemology sees knowledge as “situated” – i.e. arising from the embodied nature of human persons whose ability to know is always enmeshed in particular social, cultural, historical, political, and economic webs of meaning from which they cannot escape (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 249). In other words, what we “know” is indelibly shaped by who and where we are and it is therefore impossible to know anything with absolute certainty or completeness. Reason is not universal – it is particular. The way a Euro-American, middle-class man sees his world and thinks about it is exceptionally different from the way an impoverished African woman sees and thinks about her world. These differences present a serious, but not impossible, challenge to the practice of development, especially in cross-cultural situations.

Recognizing the situated character of knowledge means that there are no universal or permanent solutions to the problems which development attempts to solve. It requires development practitioners to leave the familiarity of their “developed” lives in order to “listen to peoples varied experiences, particular circumstances, and varied needs and desires to construct ‘situated developments’” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 250). This denotes an ethnographical approach which seeks out a “thick description” of life from the “native’s point of view” in a particular place and time (Klamer, 1990, p. 31). These situated developments require the input, direction, and participation of local people who have a more complete understanding of the problems they face. Peet and Hartwick (2009) describe this process as “indigenization”: “deriving scientific theories, concepts, and methodologies from the histories, cultures, and consciousness of non-Western rather than Western civilizations” (p. 213).1

The power of indigenization is harnessed by the set of development practices known as participatory rural appraisal (PRA). According to Chambers (1997), PRA “seeks to enable local and marginalized people to share, enhance and analyze their knowledge of life and conditions, and to plan, act, monitor and evaluate” (1747). The results of PRA practices affirm what an epistemology of situated knowledge has already suggested: “local people have again and again presented values and preferences which differ from those of outsiders or those supposed for local people by outsiders” (Chambers, 1997, p. 1747). A posture of humility means that the “developed” world recognizes the situated character of its vision of the “good life”, and, instead of assuming that the “developing” world will share its vision, it seeks first to listen and understand the “developing” world on its own terms.

The “developed” world has not only attempted to monopolize the end goal of development – it has also sought a monopoly on the means to that goal, namely, economic growth. H.W. Arndt (1981) recalls how the term “development” entered the English language with the translation of Marx’s Capital in 1887 which “gave development a specifically economic connotation” (p. 458-9). However, by the end of World War II, “development” had merged with “economic development” and was considered to be “virtually synonymous with growth in per capita income in the less developed countries” (p. 465). Also writing in 1981, Sine can claim that “at the very core of contemporary development is a notion that the better future [for all] is synonymous with economic growth” (p. 74). Instead of “making a better life for everyone,” development was narrowly defined as economic progress defined in modern, Western, capitalist terms.

While the means of development have broadened beyond economic growth since 1981, the West’s relentless pursuit of economic growth in the guise of “development” has had disastrous effects. In the striking words of Gustavo Esteva (1993), “the emergence of economic society is a story of violence and destruction often adopting a genocidal character” (p. 18). Sine (1981) documents one instantiation of this economic violence as he describes the increasingly powerful role of multinational corporations (and the “developed” nations which support them) in the cultural, social, and economic lives of poor people in “developing” nations (p. 81-2). Peet and Hartwick (2009) describe how scarcely imaginable levels of income inequality which continue to increase are another consequence of this singular pursuit of economic growth (p. 7-8). What is more, if this pursuit continues in its current form, Peet and Hartwick (2009) fear that “human history will indeed end – in environmental catastrophe” (p. 278). The equating of development with economic growth has been a terrible mistake with destructive effects that are now deeply embedded in the lives of billions of people in the “developing” world.

A more humble posture begins by seeing economic growth as only one dimension of the “better life” that development seeks. However, as Daly and Cobb (1994) describe in sharp detail, putting economic growth in its proper place is not enough because there are serious flaws in the way this growth has been conceived by discipline of economics. They present several ways in which it suffers from the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”: in its very successful pursuit of an ever greater level of scientific purity, the highly technical practice of economics now relies on a series of “conclusions [that] are drawn about the real world by deduction from abstractions with little awareness of the danger involved” (p. 35). The core assumptions underlying economic theories about the market, economic measures, human persons, and land are so far removed from reality that economics has lost its ability to guide communities and nations towards a “better life.”

Economics has been swallowed up by chrematistics: “the branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term monetary exchange value to the owner” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 138). The problem with chrematistics is the way it “abstracts the market from the community and seeks unlimited growth” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 158). In chrematistics, the market becomes an end in itself, and, as its growth continues beyond sustainable, physical limits, it works against the well-being of communities.

Peet and Hartwick (2009) are correct when they say that “development is fundamentally economic” and that “all theories of development have significant economic aspects” (p. 23). However, for economics to regain its proper place in development practice, it must be divorced from the abstract world of chrematistics and be re-rooted in the “management of the household so as to increase its use value to all members of the household over the long run” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 138). In this way, the discipline of economics can move away from science in order to “come back into the conversation of mankind” by relocating itself in the realm of history as a form of storytelling (McCloskey, 1990, p. 73). The “developed” world is in desperate need of humility to see how it has made economic growth the only means for achieving the “better life” of development. Only then can those in the “developed” world begin to take responsibility for the massive amounts of human suffering caused by their singular pursuit of this diseased kind of economic growth that failed to serve its proper, life-sustaining place in the community.

Finally, development is not just “making a better life” – it is making a better life for everyone. This prepositional phrase leads to the fourth and final dimension of humility I present for the practice of development. If development is not complete until the better life is shared by all, the existence of a “developed” and “developing” world makes little sense. The world – as one – is either one or the other, either “developed” or “developing”. When a minority of the world calls themselves “developed”, they assume that their lives are totally disconnected from the lives of those in the “developing” world; that they are immune from the “undevelopment” of others.

The “developed” West must let go of this prideful assumption because development works toward community: an ideal existence where space is made for all to participate in democratic decision-making processes, where the mutuality and interdependence of all created life is affirmed and embraced as individuals begin to see how their own well-being is interwoven in relation to the well-being of others, and where the equality and uniqueness of each person is valued and celebrated (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 172). As Daly and Cobb (1994) point out, these types of communal relations are equally important to a society’s external relations with other societies as they are to its internal relations (p. 188). The work of development remains woefully incomplete if it only means “better life” for the few. The “developed” world needs the kind of humility that sees how its own life is deeply dependent on the life of the “developing” world so that it might accept the call to live in authentic community with the “developing” world.

My goal in this presentation has been to explore the notion of development defined as “making a better life for everyone” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 1) in a way that illuminates the ways in which the “developed” world needs to learn humility as it relates to the “developing” world. This humility has four dimensions: rejecting the West as the “natural” goal of all development process and recognizing the ongoing nature of development in all societies; acknowledging the situated character of knowledge and therefore allowing the possibility of other visions of the “better life” to co-exist alongside the dominant Western version; admitting the grave mistake of making economic growth the only means to a “better life” and seeing its need to recover economics from chrematistics; and finally, accepting the call for development to work towards authentic community where the “better life” is shared by everyone. The “developed” does not need more knowledge about the “developing” world; what it needs is a much more robust, wide-eyed knowledge of itself that will lead towards transformation for its own good and the good of the “developing” world.

References

Arndt, H. W. (1981). Economic development: A semantic history. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 29 (3), 457-66.

Chambers, Robert (1997). Editorial: Responsible well-being – A personal agenda for development. World Development,25 (11), 1743-1754.

Daly, Herman E. & Cobb, John B. (1994). For the common good: Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Esteva, Gustavo (1993). Development. In Wolfgang Sachs (Ed.), The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power (pp. 6-25). London: Zed Books.

Klamer, Arjo (1990). Towards the native’s point of view: The difficulty of changing the conversation. In Don C. Lavoie (Ed.), Economics and Hermeneutics (pp. 19-33). London: Routledge.

McCloskey, Donald N. (1990). Storytelling in economics. In Don C. Lavoie (Ed.), Economics and Hermeneutics (pp. 61-75). London: Routledge.

Peet, Richard & Hartwick, Elaine (2009). Theories of development: Contentions, arguments, alternatives. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Sine, Tom (1981). Development: Its secular past and its uncertain future. In Ronald Sider (Ed.), Development Toward a Theology of Social Change (pp. 71-86). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

1However, as Peet & Hartwick (2009) note, indigenization does not entail a “wholesale rejection of Western science, nor does it abandon notions of a common humanity, nor even universal knowledge” (214). It simply puts all forms of knowledge on an equal playing field which means lessening to some degree the overstated importance of Western forms of knowledge so that there is room for indigenous knowledge to take shape and be heard.

Pentecost: We’re All Prophets Now

Moses heard the people crying throughout their clans, each at his tent’s entrance. The Lord was outraged, and Moses was upset. Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? And why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, for you have placed the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give birth to them, that you would say to me, ‘Carry them at the breast, as a nurse carries an unweaned child,’ to the fertile land that you promised their ancestors? Where am I to get meat for all these people? They are crying before me and saying, ‘Give us meat, so we can eat.’ I can’t bear this people on my own. They’re too heavy for me. If you’re going to treat me like this, please kill me. If I’ve found favor in your eyes, then don’t let me endure this wretched situation.”

The Lord said to Moses, “Gather before me seventy men from Israel’s elders, whom you know as elders and officers of the people. Take them to the meeting tent, and let them stand there with you. Then I’ll descend and speak with you there. I’ll take some of the spirit that is on you and place it on them. Then they will carry the burden of the people with you so that you won’t bear it alone. To the people you will say, ‘Make yourselves holy for tomorrow; then you will eat meat, for you’ve cried in the Lord’s hearing, “Who will give us meat to eat? It was better for us in Egypt.” The Lord will give you meat, and you will eat. You won’t eat for just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month until it comes out of your nostrils and nauseates you. You’ve rejected the Lord who’s been with you and you have cried before him, saying, “Why did we leave Egypt?” ’”

Moses said, “The people I’m with are six hundred thousand on foot and you’re saying, ‘I will give them meat, and they will eat for a month.’ Can flocks and herds be found and slaughtered for them? Or can all the fish in the sea be found and caught for them?”

The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power too weak? Now you will see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

So Moses went out and told the people the Lord’s words. He assembled seventy men from the people’s elders and placed them around the tent. The Lord descended in a cloud, spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and placed it on the seventy elders. When the spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but only this once. Two men had remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the second named Medad, and the spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they hadn’t gone out to the tent, so they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

Joshua, Nun’s son and Moses’ assistant since his youth, responded, “My master Moses, stop them!”

Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets with the Lord placing his spirit on them!

Numbers 11:10-29

Genesis 40: Don’t Forget – You’re Not Forgotten

Slide1

[My sermon this morning at 6:8 Community Church continuing the story of Joseph. My thoughts on being forgotten, God's hesed, and remembering others.]

We’re forgetful people: our keys, wallets, purses, phones (and wedding rings if you’re my wife). We forget all kinds of things. But the worst is when we forget another person… kind of like this: [show Home Alone “Kevin’s Not Here” clip].

Slide2

I used to think that clip was ridiculous. How could you forget your son?!?! After 8 months of Isla, I totally understand how it could happen. My memory gets worse every day. For Kevin, being forgotten turned out ok. He even enjoyed being alone. And, sure, he had to face some challenges but he made it. Of course, we know it’s a movie, and a comedy at that.

Slide3Reality is far less humorous. Being forgotten is a deadening experience – emotionally, spiritually, even physically. When we’re forgotten by those we know and love, we begin to lose our sense of belonging and purpose and, eventually, hope. When I forget someone, it means that, in some way, there wasn’t space for that person in my life. This happens to all of us in all kinds of way. We’re forgotten by our friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, even our church.

Slide4But we find ourselves on the flip side too; we often forget those we know and love. And then once we consider those outside our everyday social networks, our memory problems only get worse. Do we remember the poor? The hungry, the homeless, the widows and orphans – the prisoners, the immigrants and refugees, those caught in violent conflict or abusive situations? What about the elderly, the home-bound, the sick, and the intellectually and physically disabled? Or even single parents, the long-term unemployed, or those caught in depression? Remembering those who live in these kinds of difficult, painful, and sometimes even oppressive situations can be especially hard. It feels easier to forget. Even if that person is us; sometimes we’d rather even forget about ourselves. What does it mean for us to remember when remembering is so hard?

I’ve met a handful of people who are all too easy for me to forget. I want to tell you about one of them. About 7 years ago on a mission trip to Liberia, West Africa, I met a shy little girl on a beach. I noticed her staring blankly at us white folks, watching in the distance as we played joyfully with other Liberian kids. I could tell she wanted to play too so I stopped to talk with her. I found out that, like many in Liberia’s capital city, she was a fisherman and was out selling her catch; probably 8 or 9 years old. It’s hard to stop and play when you know what not selling those fish could mean for you and your family. She told me her name… but I forgot.

Slide5I conveniently forget about this little girl because her life holds up a mirror to my own. In it I see God’s unquenchable desire for justice, righteousness, and comprehensive peace for all people. I see my complicity in sinful social structures that desecrate her life and deny the abundant life that Jesus desires for her. I see that she is my neighbor and, whether I realize it or not, I need her just as much as she needs me. My story is incomplete without hers. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….”

Slide6When I forget that little girl’s story, I forget myself. Whenever we forget about others – rich or poor, strangers or loved ones – we all end up a little more forgotten, a little more lost, a little more alone, a little farther from God’s dream of justice lived out in diverse communities. No one should be forgotten. But we’re sinful people, wounded people: we all forget and, in differing ways, we’re all forgotten.

So let’s take a few minutes to remember Joseph’s story. At this point, Joseph reminds me of the lyrics of that Chumbawamba song circa 1997: “I get knocked down! But I get up again!”

Slide7He’s a natural born leader who gets sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers. But he gets back up and becomes the head of Potiphar’s household! He gets knocked down again when Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of raping her and he gets thrown into prison. But he gets back up: he’s appointed as the head prisoner. Joseph seems to keep landing on his feet… for now. Follow along as I read from Genesis 40 about what happens next to Joseph in the prison:

Some time later, both the wine steward and the baker for Egypt’s king offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officers… [and] put them under arrest with the commander of the royal guard in the same jail where Joseph was imprisoned. The commander of the royal guard assigned Joseph to assist them. After they had been under arrest for some time, both of them… had dreams one night, and each man’s dream had its own meaning. When Joseph met them in the morning, he saw that they were upset. He asked [them], “Why do you look so distressed today?”

They answered, “We’ve both had dreams, but there’s no one to interpret them.” Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Describe your dreams to me.”

The chief wine steward described his dream to Joseph: “In my dream there was a vine right in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. When it budded, its blossoms appeared, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, so I took the grapes, crushed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”

Joseph said to him, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three branches are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and return you to your position. You will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just the way things were before when you were his wine steward. But please, remember me when you are doing well and be loyal to me. Put in a good word for me to Pharaoh, so he sets me free from this prison. I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and here too I’ve done nothing to be thrown into this dungeon.”

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “It was the same for me. In my dream, there were three baskets of white bread on my head. In the basket on top there were baked goods for Pharaoh’s food, but birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”

Joseph responded, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three baskets are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and will hang you from a tree where birds will peck your flesh from you.”

The third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a party for all of his servants. Before all of his servants, he gave an audience to the chief wine steward and the chief baker. He returned the chief wine steward to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had said would happen when he interpreted their dreams for them. But the chief wine steward didn’t remember Joseph; he forgot all about him.

Joseph doesn’t land on his feet this time; he’s face first. How do we know?

Slide15First, we notice the repetition of the word “dream.” It appears 65 times in the Old Testament. 22 of those are in Joseph’s story and 10 are in this chapter! Ten repetitions in the same story mean that dreams are a big deal! Up until this point in the story, dreams have been dangerous. Remember what happened when Joseph told his family about his dreams? His brothers wanted to kill him! His dreams have gotten him into this mess. When we hear “dreams” 10 times in Genesis 40, all our warning lights should be flashing red. We know what happened last time. Trouble is coming.

Slide16Second, we hear Joseph’s desperation as he pleads for help from the wine steward and laments his situation. He’s been stolen, kidnapped – a victim of human trafficking, a slave with no rights. And he’s a Hebrew in the land of Egypt – a foreigner, a stranger, one who doesn’t belong.

Slide17And one who’s easily forgotten. Joseph begs the wine steward to remember him, to be loyal to him. But when the wine steward is restored to his position in pharaoh’s court – just as Joseph said – he forgets to tell pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph gets knocked down, and he’ll spend two more years in prison before he gets up again.

Slide18The wine steward forgets. Joseph is desperate and forgotten. What’s God doing in all of this? At first glance, nothing! Joseph mentions God but we don’t hear God’s voice. But God is present and working for Joseph’s well-being. We can see it in v. 8 as Joseph boldly declares that interpretations belong to God.

Slide19Then Joseph takes a risk on this truth by offering himself as God’s dream interpreter. And guess what? God is faithful. Joseph’s interpretations are right on the money. This proves the intimacy of Joseph’s relationship with God. It also gives Joseph a reputation as an expert dream interpreter with a person who is very close to pharaoh.

What’s God doing? God’s remembering Joseph. In Genesis 39:20-21, just a few verses before our story in Genesis 40, right after Joseph is thrown into prison, we read that “the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him” in prison. God’s loyal, steadfast presence enabled Joseph to be in a position of caretaker where he was given this opportunity to interpret dreams. God is loyal once again by giving Joseph these interpretations. God has not forgotten Joseph.

But Joseph is still rotting in prison! What gives God?! Joseph is doing everything right, but nothing changes. And all because the dang wine steward has a bad memory? Gimme a break God! Haven’t You forgotten Joseph too?

Slide20Let’s slow down. Remember when Joseph pleads for the wine steward’s help? He uses a very important word. Joseph begs the wine steward to “be loyal to me.” It’s the Hebrew word hesed. And, it’s the same word that appeared in Genesis 39:21, the verse we just read, to describe God’s “loyalty” to Joseph. God shows Joseph hesed in the prison and now Joseph asks the wine steward to shown him hesed. Why am I telling you this? Because this word hesed is the key to understanding how God is at work in Joseph’s life and in our own.

Slide21Let’s zoom out for just a bit to talk about hesed. It’s translated in a number of ways in the Old Testament: “mercy,” “kindness,” “steadfast love,” “goodness,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” Basically, it’s God’s unrelenting love for God’s people which brings them back into right relationship. It’s the love that keeps God pursuing after us even as we continually reject God and run the other way. God is not distant from us – God created us because of God’s overflowing hesed for us; God continues to be with us because God is full of hesedfor us!1Hesed is God standing in solidarity with us through all our sin and suffering, refusing to leave us, always pursuing us, and always making a way for us to return home to God’s love. Hesed means that God NEVER forgets us.

So, let’s zoom back in to Joseph. God has shown Joseph hesed by empowering him to interpret dreams. In doing so, Joseph is given a potential way out of prison. BUT… Joseph can’t go anywhere unless the wine steward reciprocates God’s hesed. Without the wine steward’s willingness to identify himself with a Hebrew slave in front of the king of Egypt, Joseph is stuck. God remembers, but the wine steward forgets. God shows hesed; but the wine steward refuses to stand with Joseph. This leads us to hesed’s second dimension.

Slide22It’s not just about God’s relationship with us: it describes the way God intends our relationships to be with others – faithful love, mercy, kindness, solidary. It’s the heart of our community. God’s hesed for us empowers us and is made complete when we reciprocate it through our hesed for others. We see this dimension in none other than Micah 6:8, “[God] has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”2Do you hear it: “embrace faithful love” or “love mercy”? That’s hesed. It’s inseparable from doing justice and walking humbly with God and others. As God stands with us and for us, we are called to be partners in God’s hesed and to stand with and for others as a community that tangibly, visibly embodies and enacts God’s hesed.

Slide23Now we can answer the question: if God doesn’t forget Joseph, why is he still locked in prison? Because the wine steward didn’t share in God’s hesed. He therefore failed to bring God’s desire for Joseph’s freedom and justice to fruition. The wine steward could’ve participated in God’s hesed by standing with Joseph and giving him an audience with pharaoh. But he forgot. God is full of hesed for Joseph but this hesed must be extended and shared in a mutual relationship between Joseph and the wine steward. It’s incomplete because it’s unreciprocated.

Slide24As we turn now from Joseph’s story back to our own, I want to be sensitive to the fact that some of us here this morning may feel a lot like Joseph: desperate and forgotten. Even if no one here feels that way, we know that our world today is full people who do. We actually don’t even have to think outside our own city limits to find desperate, forgotten people. Others of us may be more like the wine steward. Life is no piece of cake, but we probably wouldn’t describe ourselves as forgotten. And we may even admit how we struggle to remember others. In reality, I think we’re all a mix of both Joseph and the wine steward – both forgotten and forgetting others.

Slide25What is God saying to us today? First and foremost, we are not forgotten; you are not forgotten. No matter what kind of prison our lives have become – nothing separates us from the faithful love of God. Does this mean that the doors to our prisons will suddenly swing open? I don’t think so. What I think it does mean is the same thing it meant for Joseph: God’s hesed is providing a way out for us but we have a role to play too. Like Joseph, we need faith to take a risk on who we know God to be. Joseph knew God as the giver of dream interpretations and he took a concrete step of faith based on that truth. Who is God to you today? Is there a step of faith you can take with God?

But notice also that Joseph would’ve never been in a position to interpret those dreams had he not cared for the wine steward and baker first. He noticed they were upset and asked what was wrong. Could it be that the way out of our prison actually begins with caring for others? How might God be empowering you to care for someone else? Maybe the healing for our forgotteness begins when we remember others?

In any case, what we trust and believe is that God’s hesed– God’s faithful, steadfast remembrance of us – always come first and isn’t dependent on our actions. It’s a gift of grace: God has not forgotten you.

Slide26For the wine stewards, what does it mean for us to remember others, especially those we find it convenient to forget? When the wine steward is restored to his position of authority in pharaoh’s court, he’s given the opportunity to influence pharaoh – the most powerful man in the world. At this point, we might think that Joseph needs the wine steward to be his “voice” before pharaoh. You know a “voice for the voiceless.” We hear that a lot when discussing how to help forgotten people living in desperate situations. But that’s not it. Joseph has a voice! The man interprets dreams! He’s not voiceless. Let him speak for himself! The wine steward didn’t need to be Joseph’s voice. He needed to use his own voice to get Joseph an audience with the pharaoh. See the difference? Why stand in someone else’s place when they can stand for themselves?! Open the door for them and stand beside them! Don’t be their voice… be their audience!

This is what it means for us to remember others: we make space for them beside us. We become an audience, ones who listen, a people who show hospitality, whose hearts are open to the pain and suffering of others, and share that burden with them. This morning, you might just be a “wine steward” to someone else. You may be the person positioned to partner with God’s hesed to bring someone else one step closer to the redemption, healing, and wholeness God desires for them. Who are we forgetting? Who in our lives needs an audience? Who is God calling us to remember?

I want to end by saying that we, as a church, are already doing this. We remember and partner in God’s hesed every time we collect items for the Ardmore Food Pantry as part of our communion celebration. We remember as we serve with organizations like Chore Connection who put us in relationship with the elderly and home-bound, people like our friend Owen. With each game of bingo at PALM and every day of work with Six:Eight Cares, we remember. Every time we gather with our neighbors at Linwood Park, who knows – maybe we’re listening to a Joseph who feels desperate and forgotten? When we take the opportunity to remember, we make space for the kingdom of God to break in; for God’s hesed to be made tangible and visible.

Slide27These intentional practices of remembrance over the past five years have rooted us in this community. We’re tied to this place by the bonds of hesed. Through our roots of remembrance here in Ardmore, God is now preparing a way for us to link ourselves with communities on the other side of the globe. As Jason mentioned this morning, we’re now exploring a partnership with Vineyard churches and ministries in Indonesia – a place that we probably don’t remember very often. It’s the most populous Muslim country in the world, plagued by political and social upheaval, struggling against various forms of poverty; a place where Christian communities face real suffering for their faith. Part of the work we’re being invited into is to listen, to be an audience, to stand with our Christian sisters and brothers, remembering them with arms linked together for the journey into God’s global kingdom.

Even though we forget each other, the God of Joseph has not forgotten us! We’re invited as a faith community to be partners in God’s faithful, saving love, to stand in solidarity with one another and all those who are forgotten so that all people – in Wynnewood, Ardmore, Havertown, and Indonesia! – would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are remembered, that they belong, and that God loves them more than they can know. So now may God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

1 See Psalm 136, Exo. 34:6, and Jer. 9:24 for examples of the centrality of hesed in Old Testament theology.

2 See also Hosea 6:6 and Ruth 1:16-17.

Just Give Up: Brief Thoughts on Christian Community from Philippians 2:5-11

5Y’all have this way of thinking, feeling, and acting in and among yourselves which also [is the way of thinking, feeling, and acting] in Christ Jesus, 6who – while existing as essentially God – he himself considered equality to God [as] not something to be grasped, 7BUT [RATHER] he became powerless, taking the essence of a slave, being born in the likeness of humanity; and, being found in appearance as a man, 8he took the lowest place and experienced humiliation [by] becoming obedient to the point of death – the DEATH of the cross; 9Therefore also God exalted him as high as God could imagine, and graciously grants to him the name above all names, 10in order that at the name of Jesus every knee of heaven, and of earth, and of under the earth should bend, 11and every tongue should agree that the Lord [is] Jesus Christ to the glory of Father God.

Philippians 2:5-11, personal translation (I wouldn’t quote this if I were you)

 

Last Wednesday, a man in Tampa, FL got stuck in an elevator at an assisted living home along with an elderly woman. She told him that she couldn’t stand for long periods of time. What did he do? He got down on all fours and offered his back as her chair and she sat for 30 minutes while the elevator was repaired! A picture was taken and, of course, it went viral over social media. A random act of kindness. Doing a good deed. Serving others. Is this the kind of thing Paul is asking us to consider in this passage?

Sort of. Now, don’t get me wrong. This was a very kind, considerate act. He had to really sacrifice something. He literally had to “humble himself” and take a lower position!

But afterwards he walked away more or less the same person – maybe just a bit more famous. And I’m sure he got to know this lady a little bit. But now that it’s over, the chances are slim that they’ll stay in touch. Life will continue virtually the same as it was.

Now imagine: how would this story be different if this man was her grandson and, instead of living at an assisted living home, she lived at home with him and his family? Instead of offering his back as a chair on a stuck elevator, he just takes care of her – keeping her healthy, enjoying time with her, cooking for her, cleaning up after her – day after day. What if this was not just a once-and-done random act of kindness from one stranger to another but was rather a story of everyday service simply overflowing from a deep, caring relationship based in mutual trust and submission? Would it still go viral?

Imitating Christ rarely does. Igiveupkitty

You see, Jesus didn’t just show up for a photo-op. Jesus was God, God’s equal, the same stuff as God. But Jesus became human, he became powerless, emptying himself of the divine status that would keep him from fully relating to weak, fragile people like you and me. That’s just not what a god was supposed to do. He wanted to be like us, to speak to us, to break bread with us, hold our hands, and wash our feet. And He didn’t come to be one of our powerful friends-in-high-places. No, He was like the lowest among us as our servant; like people we usually ignore – the gas station clerk, the migrant laborer, the man selling flowers at the traffic light. Jesus, God’s equal, became like us so he could know us and share in our struggles and give his life to save us.

If we want to be a Christian faith community, this is the story we must tell with our lives together. Whose struggle are you sharing? What does each of us need to give up to get down in the mud and muck of life with one another? Are we willing to trust each other, to commit to serving one another? You won’t go viral. No one may even notice. It will probably be slow and boring. What matters is that we think, act, feel, and pattern our lives together in the downward way of Christ. God will see us. One day God will raise us up.

The Gospel According to Hauerwas

From Al Mohler’s recent interview with Stanley Hauerwas (click for transcript):

Mohler:            Well, again, looking at your writings, and even preparing for this conversation, and feeling the weight of your critique at many points and just very catalytic thoughts, I came back to another question, and that is, for Stanley Hauerwas, what is the gospel? What is the good news that is at the center of the Christian faith? Because I think I could hypothesize several answers, but I would just love to hear you to respond to that. What is the gospel?

Hauerwas:       That through Jesus Christ, very God and very man, we Gentiles have been made part of the promise to Israel that we will be witnesses to God’s good care of God’s creation through the creation of a people who once were no people that the world can see there is an alternative to our violence. There is an alternative to our deceptions. There is an alternative to our unfaithfulness to one another though the creation of something called church. That’s salvation.

 

Reshaping Our Life Together: A Review of Sharon Astyk’s “Making Home”

This review originally appeared in the Ordinary Time 2012 print issue of The Englewood Review of Books.
Reprinted here with permission.  CLICK HERE for subscription info.

 

Take a moment to think about your life in the next 5, 10, 25 years. What do you see? If your vision includes a car, reliable and cheap electricity, food from a supermarket, or a climate-controlled house, you may be in for a rude awakening. In Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, Shannon Astyk invites us to practice a new way of life that we both need and will inevitably be forced to acquire. She calls this new way of life “adapting in place” and bluntly describes it as “the only thing left that can save the world.” While her vision of the future is bleak and a bit frightening, she is nonetheless hopeful that another world is possible. She sets out to provide the tools and strategies that will give birth to this new world wherever we are – city, country, or suburb.

Before instructing us to compost our solid waste, give up our cars, and heat our beds with warm stones, Astyk uses the first three chapters to reveal the stark realities ahead as we face the consequences of living as if our homes were gods. Homes were meant to serve their inhabitants, but we have made them idols. Our worship is costly because it requires us to transcend the natural limitations of land, family, climate, and culture. Instead of ordering our lives around these limitations, we invest in cheap energy to power short-sighted, destructive solutions. The return on our investment: a lifestyle that is absolutely unsustainable for the 7 billion co-inhabitants of our planet. The god we have created has now become an economic and ecologic monster that threatens to consume our lives and those of several generations to come. Some – those who refuse to acknowledge the frequent failures in our complex systems – have chosen to ignore the monster’s presence. Others – driven by a conception of beauty that rejects utility for shallow appearances and hides the realities of messy, everyday life – choose to continue in their adoration, even as they are consumed. Where does this leave us? Collapse. We have passed a point of no return. Irreparable damage has been done and the storm clouds are brewing in our not-so-distant future.

How does Astyk respond to this bleak reality? She urges us to redefine home to be “an attachment to one place, one house, one set of people, one relationship between [ourselves] and a bit of dirt” that asks us to thrive with less of everything. This sacrifice is necessary if we hope to pass on a life worth living. She recommends that we assume failure and live in ways that serve our needs in and out of crises. These new ways of living should both lessen the impact of the coming collapse and build up our resilience against it. Finally, she encourages us to see beauty in old things made new, in dead things come back to life, and in the ugly, drab tools that actually help meet our real needs. She asks us to put down our Better Homes and Gardens and to fall in love with a “working home” – one that works for us. Bringing this vision of a “working home” to life will require us to come together as communities to think creatively about how we can say no to more energy, money, and resources and yes to more time with our families and more health, happiness, and resilience for all.

Over the course of the next 11 chapters, Astyk systematically deconstructs the “fossil-fueled, private solutions” that fulfill our basic needs and offers very practical strategies to help us “adapt in place.” She begins with triage: should we find a new place or just stay put? If we need to find a new place, Astyk helps us decide by offering a vision of how life in the country, city, and suburbs will be transformed in wake of collapse. From there, she marches through a litany of changes we will need to consider that address every aspect of our modern lives: heating, cooling, lighting, cooking, sanitation, transportation, and food and water production. As a general rule, if a system relies on cheap fossil fuel, it has no future.

Astyk cherishes no illusions about the difficulty of these changes, especially in our relationships. As a now married and formerly divorced mother of several kids, she knows the challenges of family life and gives strategies for navigating these changes with spouses and partners who may not be on board. She provides thoughtful advice on how to include your children even when they can’t or don’t really want to help. Since a working home incorporates extended family, Astyk critiques our somewhat ridiculous need for privacy and space (the average American is given 850 sq. ft. of personal space) and asks us to embrace a communal future with a broad and inclusive definition of extended family. She offers very practical tips to help us prepare our homes to be hospitable during short-term crises and suggests a renewed focus on caretaking, especially with our aging family members. Expanding into the sphere of neighborhood and community relationships, she echoes a well-known Biblical command: Love your neighbor. The alternative is simple: die.

Finally, Astyk shares her thoughts on issues of work and money and asks us to broaden our skills and learn to do things for ourselves. She even provides a list of seven skills that every adult will need. She emphasizes the coming importance of the informal economy, made up of “subsistence work, criminal acts, barter, under the table work, domestic economics, and self-employment in the cottage industry,” and suggests that we will need to be very flexible in how we define “jobs” or “careers.” With government services either failing or becoming unreliable in most places, those who adapt in place need to think about their personal and collective security. Astyk lists several ways individuals and communities can prevent violence but also ways to respond to violence if necessary.

As the book comes to a close, the idea of “making home” may will seem overwhelming, but Astyk ends with a message of hope. She and her husband were not experts in “making home” when they began this project 10 years ago, but they have made significant progress. In between some chapters, she helps to assuage our fears by inserting personal anecdotes from several folks who are making the kinds of changes she has suggested. Astyk is adamant that her goal is not to provide a rigid list of do’s and don’ts that are required for adapting in place. Rather, she insists that this book is a way for us to get started, a way to get our minds thinking differently, and a guide that may need some tinkering along the way.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, Astyk’s analysis of the crises I and my family now face and her vision for adapting in place struck me in several ways. First, I was deeply challenged to move beyond the empty lip-service I pay to my belief in the goodness of creation. Simply put: I say creation is good, but I live comfortably in ways that destroy it. Second, my understanding of the depth and reach of sin in our world was challenged by Astyk’s embrace of failure as the human condition. As it turns out, the seemingly “good” things I enjoy are actually very sinful when their human and environmental costs are rightly assessed. A robust understanding of sin must include the destructive effects of our lifestyles. A final challenge came to my belief in what has been called a “theology of enough.” Too often, I embrace the hope of this belief – creation’s abundance and God’s generosity – without accepting its command: take only what you need (Exodus 16:16-18). Thankfully, several affirmations came along with these challenges. Chief among them was how Astyk’s primary thesis of “making home” gives serious teeth to the Church’s call to practice hospitality. Since, as Christine Pohl says in her book Making Room, “the front door of the home is the side door of the church,” we would be wise to heed Astyk’s advice in transforming our homes if we desire a more hospitable world for all. While she does not claim to offer an exhaustive solution, she provides more than enough to spark further conversation.

I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to any individual or family in search of practical, down-to-earth advice about how to live in ways that honor creation, use a fair share of resources, and lead to stronger, more resilient families. While the changes she recommends are drastic, Astyk is very reasonable and humble in her guidance. She mostly assumes that her readers are very familiar with the concept of peak-oil, as well as the pace and consequences of climate change. If these are not familiar ideas, I would recommend some light research (use Wikipedia… while you still can) before reading. In conclusion, this book serves as a wonderful catalyst in an extremely important conversation about the reshaping of our life together in order to serve and protect the web of diverse, interdependent relationships that bind us to one another and our planet in ways more intimate than we sometimes like to admit.