On the “Nothing Here” Places

People here often tell you they want to die in this place. They say this even after telling you there is nothing here.

“You know,” says Robert Martin, paraphrasing a speech Anne Shelby wrote for their play, “if you look at the quality of life index, we don’t score very high. We don’t have museums, and we don’t have this and we don’t have that. But how many points would you get for our streams and for people who show up at your door with a casserole and say, ‘Call me if you need anything.’ How many points would you get for being able to grow up in a place where your parents and their parents grew up?”

There is a stubborn toughness in the kind of love for place those words express. It is a toughness that finds its mirror in the toughness demanded of all the people struggling in all the “nothing here” places all over the country. It is a toughness that rebukes the artificial stratifications of race. “All life is interrelated,” said King.

And surely, he would have welcomed “yesterday’s people” as co-authors of tomorrow’s hope.

What’s that in your hands?

A sermon I’ll be sharing at Pepperell United Methodist Church in Opelika, AL tomorrow morning (8.10.2014).

Exodus 4:1-20

I’m not sure how much y’all keep up with current events, but if you’re like me and you like to stay informed about what’s happening across the globe then you know that the news this week has been grim. There’s violence, injustice, degradation, and just plain brutality nearly everywhere you look. Some of these problems have just recently begun but others have been with us for years, decades in some cases. One website I found listed 11 active “wars” in the world today along with 8 “serious armed conflicts”. Untold thousands – millions even – have lost their lives in this violence. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the massive scale of human suffering occurring every single day; children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, neighbors – their lives filled with pain and sorrow. Along with all this violence, we hear about our brothers and sisters in West Africa facing a public health nightmare – the Ebola virus. I don’t mean to be all negative this morning – there’s a lot of good happening in the world that we don’t hear about. But goodness gracious, the news this week has just been heartbreaking.

These are big problems. But, for the most part, they’re all in distant places – or at least they seem distant. But we’ve got our own big problems closer to home too. In Tuskegee where ARM [Alabama Rural Ministry] is currently expanding its work, the community is struggling. The poverty rate has been over 35% and the unemployment rate over 16% for the past 30 years.

I’m not sure about you but when I hear about these kinds of big problems I tend to feel powerless, overwhelmed, paralyzed. Do you feel that way too? What causes our feelings of powerlessness, our inaction, in the face of big problems near and far? Why don’t we, followers of the risen Lord, do something? Why don’t we become people who make a difference? These are the questions I want us to consider briefly this morning in light of all the bad news in our world this week.

 Thankfully, we know and worship a God who is no stranger to suffering, who doesn’t ignore the big problems. As we turn to the story of Exodus, we find another big problem: God’s people, the Hebrews – millions of them – are brutally oppressed as slaves in Egypt. As you heard in last week’s sermon, when God’s people cried out God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant, God saw what was happening to them, and God understood their pain (The Message, Exo 2:24-25). But God doesn’t stop there. We know what happens next: God calls out to Moses from the burning bush. God has chosen Moses to be the leader of God’s mission for the redemption and restoration of the Hebrew slave. But right away Moses is not interested: first he doubts himself and then he questions God’s own identity. God is open to Moses’ questions and patient with his doubts. God promises to be with Moses and then reveals His true name, I AM – Yahweh – the one who will redeem God’s people from their suffering and restore them in a good land “flowing with milk and honey.” In the face of massive suffering, God is present and acts to redeem and restore because Yahweh is a saving God who doesn’t ignore the cries of those who suffer. Our text this morning picks up the ongoing dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush. So, Moses has just received God’s invitation to join God’s work of redemption and restoration for the Hebrew people. How does he respond?

It sounds something like this: but… but… but… (I can hear my mom saying, “No buts about it!”). As we heard in our text from Exodus 4:1-20, Moses is not on board with God’s plans. Three separate times, he tries to avoid God’s invitation. Moses is well-aware of Israel’s suffering; he saw it happening as a young man. He may be aware, but, much like us, he feels powerless to do anything. So let’s look at Moses’ three “buts” and see if they don’t offer us some insight into our own feelings of powerlessness:

  1. In v. 1, we find out that Moses lacks credibility and trustworthiness among his people. He fears they won’t listen to After all, he’s a runaway murderer turned shepherd. Why would they believe him? Don’t we feel the same way sometimes? I think we tend to feel like we need more before folks will listen to us – more money, skill, knowledge, training, degrees, expertise, experience, awards, more prestige, more authority? If only we had more we could make a difference because then people would listen. Like us, Moses is looking for that something more that will guarantee he won’t be ignored.
  2. In v. 10, we discover that Moses can only see his weakness. He’s afraid he’s just not cut out for this kind of work. Moses can’t be a spokesperson – he can barely speak! It’s just not his gift, his talent, his personality; God created him to be a shepherd, not a politician. Do we not make the same excuses? Are we not also blinded by our own weaknesses? We all have our lists of things we’d like to improve, right? Maybe someone who doesn’t have any weaknesses to worry about can solve the world’s problems but that’s not us. We’ve got our own issues. We’re not cut out for this kind of work. Like Moses, we struggle to see beyond our own weaknesses.
  3. Finally, in v. 13 we find Moses trying desperately to convince God that this plan is all wrong: “Please, my Lord, just send someone else!” Wow – at least he’s being honest. Moses is convinced he’s not the person for the job. But there’s a major flaw in his thinking: for some reason he thinks that he alone (or hopefully someone else) has to accomplish God’s work. Aren’t we sometimes paralyzed by this same kind of narrow, individualistic thinking? We think we have to solve the world’s problems alone, that we have to be the heroes and heroines, that the solution depends entirely on us. But no one person can handle that kind of pressure – not Moses, not us. It just leaves us powerless and stuck.

I think we’re a lot like Moses: we know about the pain and suffering, we’ve heard the invitation to join in God’s mission of redemption and restoration, and we just don’t think we’re up to it – we don’t have what it takes, we’re not the right people.

But God disagrees… and ain’t that some good news! Every time Moses says “But… but… but…” God asks him a question. God’s not backing down; He pursues Moses patiently and passionately, wanting Moses to trust Him and His power working in and through Moses’ life. God wants Moses to see that what he already has and who he is are more than enough for God. How does God do it? Let’s look at those 3 questions:

  1. After Moses doubts his own credibility, God asks in v. 2, “What’s that in your hand?” Odd question. Surely God can see for Himself, right? God knows that Moses is a shepherd and every shepherd carries around a shepherd’s rod; a wooden staff for herding sheep and fending off predators. Of course Moses is holding a shepherd’s rod – that’s his job, his vocation, he’s a shepherd. For Moses, this rod is just an everyday tool, a piece of wood that represents his lowly profession. But when it’s used in God’s mission, this piece of wood is transformed into a sign of God’s awesome power to redeem and restore. God will take this marker of Moses’ low social status, his lack of credibility, and transform it into a marker of God’s calling and anointing. All Moses saw was his little ole staff; he had no idea what it would become and how God would use it once he joined God’s mission of redemption and restoration.
  2. After Moses doubts his ability to communicate, God asks a series of questions in v. 11: “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord?” Yahweh, God the Redeemer, is also God the Creator. The Creator God who fashioned Moses already knows Moses’ weaknesses even more than Moses does! And this Redeemer God is committed to seeing Moses overcome these weaknesses. God promises to help Moses, to be his Teacher and Guide. It turns out that God’s big plan for the restoration and redemption of Israel also includes Moses’ own personal healing. All Moses can see is who he is, but God sees who he will become when he trusts in God’s help and joins God’s work.
  3. Finally, after Moses tells God how he really feels, we see that God gets angry with Moses, but not in the way we might expect. God’s anger doesn’t lead to punishment or abandonment. God’s anger – God’s passion for seeing Moses take up his place in God’s mission – ultimately leads to a relationship of teamwork and shared responsibility between Moses and his brother, Aaron. As Moses pleads with God to just send someone else, I think God detects the overwhelming sense of pressure that Moses is putting on himself. What does God ask? “Moses, have you forgotten who you are? You’re not just a lone shepherd! You’re a brother! And your brother, Aaron, happens to be an excellent speaker! I never meant for you to do this alone, Moses. I’m not looking for a hero.” Moses refuses to look beyond himself, but God asks him a question that reminds Moses of the relationships he has that can help him accomplish God’s work. Moses doesn’t have to take this risk alone. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for Israel will not be accomplished by heroic feats of individual power. God wants a team, a new kind of family.

It seems that all Moses can do in this story is think of excuses. Benjamin Franklin once said that “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Good thing Ben Franklin isn’t God! God doesn’t give up on Moses; God doesn’t give up on us. Maybe this morning you think you don’t have anything to offer God, nothing that can be of any use in God’s mission of redemption and restoration in Opelika, Lee County, Alabama, and the world. I think God may be asking us today, “What’s that in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff and that was enough for God – it wasn’t a sword or ruler’s scepter – just a simple staff. What do you have? A skill? A story? An experience? Maybe just free time and a listening ear? Each one of us here is a unique person that means we ALL have a unique role to play in God’s unfolding drama of redemption and restoration. Will you offer what you have to God?

Maybe all you can see this morning is your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your failures. God knows you – inside and out, backwards and forwards, past, present, and future. And guess what? God still wants you! God will be with you, your Teacher, your Guide. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for all people includes you and your personal healing. Will you trust God to be with you? To help you overcome your fears, your weaknesses, your doubts and to make you whole? Will you join God’s work knowing that you can’t accomplish it with your own strength?

Finally, maybe you’ve forgotten who you are this morning; thinking that you have to solve all of life’s problems on your own. Take a second to think about all the different roles you occupy. For me, I’m a son with a mom and dad, a brother to two other brothers, a husband to my wife, a father to my daughter, a co-worker with other co-workers, a friend among other friends, etc… We all live as members of a larger network of relationships that sustain us and make us who we are. And remember that God is Trinity, a community of three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. When we join in this Trinitarian God’s mission of redemption and restoration, we’re invited into a deeper fellowship with God, each other and our neighbors. We’re in this together. Are we willing to join hands and be the people whose life together shows the world a different, more loving way?

I love how this text ends. In verse 18, Moses tells his father-in-law Jethro that he needs to return to Egypt to see if his family is still alive. Now, either Moses is too scared to tell Jethro the real reason he’s returning to Egypt or maybe he still just doesn’t believe it. Whatever the case, the important part is that he goes. He may not understand how God is going to use him or how he’ll be changed in the process, but he packs up his things, trusts God, and hits the road for Egypt to face his people’s suffering head on. We don’t have to all be Moses, but I think we can learn something from his faith.

God has called us into His mission of redemption and restoration for all creation – beginning right here in Opelika, in Pepperell village. The kingdom of God is at hand. In the face of all the suffering we see in the world today, God is asking us, “What’s in your hand? Don’t you know that I created you? Do you know who you are?” We may not be able to see the end result, but let’s say yes to God, pack our bags and head towards Egypt anyway. Amen.

[See also, Dr. Al Tizon’s related post of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer “Deliver Us from Amnesia”]

Transitions: From Philly to Auburn

This post has been long overdue for at least two months. I’ve avoided it because I wasn’t quite sure how to say what I wanted to say… and I still don’t. On the one hand, it’s pretty straightforward: Cassie, Isla, and I will be moving to Auburn, AL, this Friday, August 1st where I’ll soon begin working as Alabama Rural Ministry’s Director of Ministry Operations.

We’re so excited to be moving back to AL – to AUBURN – and I, personally, am beyond excited to be working with ARM – a ministry that has had such a big impact on my life and sense of calling thus far. For those of you who may not know, ARM extends the love of Christ in order to end sub-standard housing in rural Alabama through home repair and children’s ministries. I served on ARM’s summer staff as a construction site coordinator in Sumter Count back in 2005. While my new role will have me at ARM’s main office in Opelika, AL, I’ll also have plenty of opportunity to seek God’s kingdom back home in Sumter County. It’ll be challenging work for me in a number of ways but I’m so grateful to Lisa Pierce, ARM’s founder and executive director, for her vision and the opportunity to work alongside her.

We’re also excited to be back down south, close to our families, and a bit further from the “big city” ;) On the other hand, it’s just not that simple.

I guess you could say we’re “moving back home” since we’ll be moving from PA back to AL (Cassie is from TN but… close enough). But saying that might imply that we’re not at home here, in Wynnewood/Ardmore, PA… and that would be wrong. We are home here. We didn’t expect it, but it happened. All we can say in hindsight is that God is so good.

We’ll be saying goodbye to so many people and places we’ve come to love: Six:Eight Community Church, our community group, all our friends at Linwood Park, our awesome neighbors, our friends from seminary, our co-workers… Leaving Wynnewood/Ardmore will not be easy at all.

All our excitement for what’s next can’t cover up the feelings of loss and grief that come from letting go of our life here in PA. We cannot thank God enough for all the people who have welcomed us into their lives. We southerners talk a big talk about hospitality, but I now know that hospitality doesn’t end when you cross the Mason-Dixon line. Cassie and I have been given such a gift in the friendships we’ve made here. In some mysterious way, we know that all those people, those relationships, will go with us as we move. We’re just not the same people as we were when we moved here 3 years ago. We’ve been changed by the people and the place we’ve come to know; and we can’t escape that – nor would we want to.

In a very real, yet mysterious way, I think Cassie and I have had an authentic experience, a foretaste, of God’s coming kingdom during our time here in Wynnewood/Ardmore – several experiences actually. Some have been at church, others at our community group, and still others at Linwood Park. God’s kingdom has been made real and tangible for us… and I’m in awe as I reflect back on its goodness.

So, transitions… we’re on the move once again, following the Spirit as little children who Jesus said would be the ones who welcome and enter the abundant life of God’s new creation. We hope to stay put for awhile in the Auburn/Opelika/Lee-Macon county area. We hope to be able to plant ourselves in a community in the way our church has planted itself in Ardmore/Wynnewood. We walk by faith – not by sight.

What can we say? Thank God and thank you – all of you.

And now, may “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Amen.

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.