MAGNIFICAT

Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 

In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.

Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.

He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.

He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

magnificat

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Praxis: Friendship in Prophetic Action for Shalom

As I reflect on the meaning of praxis in relation to development within my current context, a very special friend comes to mind: Mr. JB. I met JB ten years ago as I served with Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) for a summer leading home repair mission teams. My encounter with JB is likely the single-most influential factor in my decision to return to ARM in 2014 to join the full-time staff. In this context of ministry with ARM, my understanding of praxis – generically defined as “a unity of theory and practice” (Ledwith, 2009, p. xiv) – has been shaped by the stories of families in rural Alabama who strive to live lives of dignity and purpose in spite of their poverty housing conditions. These stories reveal how Alabama fails to be a “sweet home” for so many of its residents. Unlike my privileged experience as a middle-class, Euro-American, raced as white, able-bodied male, the experiences of families I have come to know through ARM are marked by various struggles with systemic injustice and marginalization due to race, class, gender, and (dis)ability. My friendship with JB was my informal introduction into this new, bewildering reality of poverty in my own backyard. As I try to be friends with JB, I am led into situations that call for a special kind of action – prophetic action – inspired by the Spirit of Jesus who still anoints God’s children to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to liberate the oppressed” (Lk. 4:18b, Common English Bible). This prophetic action is founded on the hope of “the day of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:19), which is a day of joy, peace, holistic and dynamic flourishing, and perfect community with God, neighbor, self, and all creation – a day of shalom. These three themes – friendship, prophetic action, and shalom ­– inform the praxis I am seeking to embody. After reviewing common definitions of praxis, this essay will briefly explore an understanding of praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom.

In most cases, praxis refers to a synthesis of thinking and doing, acting and reflecting. The term arose as a response to modern, Western culture which is rooted in “a dualistic post-Kantian epistemology which presumed a fundamental dichotomy between… thought and action” (Markey, 1995, p. 193). However, praxis can also take on broader, less specific meanings. Markey (1995) finds at least three fundamental understandings of praxis in common usage.  Following Aristotle, praxis can be synonymous with practice or any kind of “direct activity.” Second, following Kant, praxis becomes “any ethically relevant human behavior” (Markey, 1995, p. 180-1). These two understandings remain ambiguous since neither explains the purpose or goal of praxis. However, the third way of understanding praxis as identified by Markey’s (1995) analysis is more explicit about its purpose. Following Marx, praxis is seen as “human creative activity” that transforms history and people, as social praxis that shapes culture, and as revolutionary praxis which “works to subvert, counter, and overturn the existing social praxis” (Markey, 1995, p. 181).  This particular understanding of praxis is the most applicable to the aims of development, which seeks the transformation of individuals and socio-economic processes including subversion of the status quo in contexts of systemic injustice and oppression.

My friendship with JB and reveals the need for the kind of revolutionary praxis that Marx suggests. Even though he and I grew up in the same county in rural Alabama, our life experiences could not be more different and more unequal. JB is an African-American man, raced as black, twice my age, who is unemployed, and lives alone in a severely dilapidated mobile home where he gets by on a very low income from government assistance. JB has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has struggled with alcoholism, and has not been able to keep healthy relationships with his family or his surrounding community. JB’s home is very close to the town where I grew up in a very comfortable home, received a decent education, and was given all the love, support, and opportunity I needed to thrive. If not for my service with ARM’s home repair ministry, I would not have crossed JB’s path because social life in Sumter County is still sharply divided by race. My church, my school, my neighbors, and my friends were virtually all white in a town where African-Americans made up nearly 75% of the population. This oppressive reality of social division and inequality stands in opposition to the will of God who desires an abundant life of justice, love, and community for all people in all places, Sumter County included. A truly Christian praxis, which will be even more radical than Marx’s understanding of revolutionary praxis, is desperately needed to create a space for God’s healing and redemption to unfold in Sumter County and other rural communities across the state. This Christian praxis will be characterized by friendship in prophetic action for shalom.

Through my experiences with JB and many others I have come to know in rural Alabama, I have been convinced that Christian praxis must begin in friendship because praxis is, first and foremost, an embodied response to the God who is Love. As Gustavo Gutierrez (1988) makes clear, “if there is no friendship with [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to [the praxis of] liberation, because love exists only among equals” (p. xxxi). Beginning with friendships makes space for people to learn to give and receive from one another, to trust one another, to care for one another, and to share their stories from the heart. This foundation of love, trust, equality, and mutuality are essential to Christian praxis. What’s more, in order for these praxeological friendships to be truly Christocentric, they should be shaped by God’s option for the poor “not because Christ is with the marginalized but, rather, Christ is the marginalized” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 57). For me, this means trying to be friends with someone like JB who reveals Christ to me in uniquely powerful ways. I have come to learn that “Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those [like me] who serve the poor,” because “God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed” (Oliver, 2009). Those who pursue friendships of solidarity with the poor as part of their praxis must be involved in the transformation they seek to see in others and their communities, and be ready to be transformed themselves. As Ledwith (2009) notes, praxis is not an individualized experience because “in praxis, my journey comes together with others in the quest for critical consciousness: making sense of the world in order to transform it as a collective experience” (p. 41).

Christian praxis begins in deeply personal friendships, but it must move on to prophetic action. As stated previously, praxis is understood generically as a unity or synthesis of theory and practice. This dynamic is usually described as the action-reflection cycle. For Freire (2000), the two are inseparable such that “true reflection… leads to action… [and] that action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection” (p. 66). However, this is not a linear, step-by-step process. Instead, according to Freire (2000), “action and reflection occur simultaneously” (p. 128). This cycle is articulated well within Brueggemann’s (2001) concept of prophetic ministry which seeks to “to nuture, nourish, and evoke [an alternative] consciousness and perception” that simultaneously “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness… [while,] on the other hand, [serving] to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” (p. 3).

Christian praxis is prophetic to the extent that it employs a critical analysis of power, ideology, and hegemony. This reflective analysis will reveal how power “is located within a multidimensional system of oppressions in which we are all simultaneously oppressors and oppressed” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 143). In response to these death-dealing systems of oppression, prophetic Christian praxis will invite a “public sharing of pain,” which “seeks to penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 117). This lamentation goes deeper than political protest, and allows the voices of those who suffer most to be heard the loudest.

At the same time, prophetic Christian praxis will bring people together to work for concrete changes in their lives and communities. This will mean interacting with and possibly challenging “the political and social structures that normalize injustices” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 47). However, this political action, founded as it is in friendships, will begin locally and, over time, extend to develop “a [global] reach that aims to transform the structures of oppression that diminish local lives” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 3). This transformative action will look different in every context, but will, in every context, consist of “offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 116). Christian praxis as prophetic action must build upon its personal relationships to inspire movements for structural change that can adequately criticize the status quo while energizing diverse groups to pursue in unity a renewed common good where “justice [rolls] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Finally, Christian praxis that begins in friendship and leads to prophetic action will be inspired by a vision of shalom. Or, as Gutierrez (1998) says it, praxis is “the activity of “peacemakers” – that is, those who are forging shalom” (p. xxx). This Hebrew concept found in the writings of the prophets is usually translated as “peace,” but its original meaning is much richer. According to Myers (2011), shalom summarizes God’s “kingdom vision for the better human future”, and describes a community of “just, peaceful, harmonious, and enjoyable relationships with each other, ourselves, our environment, and God” (Kindle loc. 3778). All Christian praxis must be evaluated in the light of this holistic, comprehensive vision of redemption.

However, the light of shalom shines into the present from the future that God and God alone is working out. Shalom is the hope of those who pursue Christian praxis – not their reality – and “hope must be an inherent part of our present commitment in history” (Gutierrez, 1988, p. 11). The pursuit of Christian praxis will face challenges, setbacks, and obstacles at every turn. The structures of social injustice it seeks to transform are deeply embedded, and change will sometimes be slow. And, hardest of all, Christian praxis “will always be practiced through our own conflicted selves,” which are just as caught up in systems of oppression as those oppressed (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 118). Ultimately, our praxis towards shalom can only be a participation in God’s much bigger praxis towards shalom. Praxis, therefore, is a gift received by grace through faith. For now, this gift of shalom is only seen in part – “a reflection as in a mirror” – but on the coming day of the Lord “we shall see [it] face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

What does this understanding of Christian praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom mean in my context of ministry among children and families in rural Alabama? First, it means making friendship with those I serve not only a personal priority, but a matter of organizational culture and ethos. It can be easy to see ARM as just another “social service agency” where people with “needs” go to get their needs met and where people who like to “meet needs” go to volunteer. In pursuit of Christian praxis, ARM will need to be transformed from a social service agency to a social capital enterprise where friends – not “needs” – are met. Second, it will require creating a space for with whom we serve to voice their grief and struggles. Both myself and ARM’s volunteers need to hear and come to know the depth of suffering that is endured by families in rural Alabama who live without adequate housing. Third, Christian praxis will require an expanded advocacy role, especially on the state level, which engages and challenges Alabama’s political structure. ARM is already involved in this work in very small, indirect ways, but a deeper commitment must be made. This commitment to political change must be informed by and even led by those families with whom we serve. Finally, the gift of shalom as our hope reminds us to rest, enjoy, and celebrate God’s faithfulness together. Along with all the “doing” of ministry, there must be time simply for “being” together in God’s presence. ARM already tries to incorporate rest and times of fellowship between families and volunteers into its ministry design, but this practice must continue to grow even more widespread. As I recall my friend JB in light of this essay, I wonder: how can I be his true friend? How can I listen, amplify, and share in his pain? What are the socio-economic powers at work in his life and community? Who can come together to challenge these powers? What does shalom look like for JB?

Bibliography

  • Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • De La Torre, M. (2004). Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary edition. New York: Continuum.
  • Gutierrez, G. (1988). A Theology of Liberation, 15th anniversary edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
  • Markey, J. (1995). “Praxis in Liberation Theology: Some Clarifications,” Missiology: An International Review XXIII (2).
  • Myers, B. (2011). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
  • Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).

Linthicum: Shalom is Our Mission

In the final analysis, we are not called to build bigger or better churches, to prepare disciples or even to win people to Jesus Christ, though these are all important and strategic elements. We as the church are to focus on working for the realization of the shalom community in our political, economic, and religious life together. That mission of proclaiming the vision and doing whatever we can to move this world toward “becoming the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ” is the essence of what we Christians are to be about.

Robert Linthicum, Transforming Power, p. 40

While I agree with most everything Linthicum writes about shalom, I think he’s at risk of breaking the eschatological tension of shalom when he calls it an “achievable” society. He doesn’t define “achievable” but he needs to. Shalom is achievable only as an eschatological reality that we experience as a gift of the Spirit in brief fits and spurts, foretastes that leave us wanting more, until the day of the Lord comes and brings all things to their fulfillment, when God will be all in all. The language of “achievement” also contradicts Linthicum’s previous statement about shalom being a gift of grace. Gifts are not achieved. Yes, we have much work to do, but all our work towards shalom is meaningless apart from the power of the Spirit who is leading all creation on the reconciling way of Christ to be at home in the boundless love of God.

We are Church, We are Agents of Shalom

Over the past several weeks [in the spring semester of 2013], I participated in a creative group exercise along with two of my classmates: Clesha Staten and Edward Williams. We imagined ourselves as a church and dreamed about our life together in this community. Through much discussion, we identified our church as “agents of shalom” and described this identity in relation to the four marks of the church specified by the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[1] We also defined our church’s mission and described the context in which our mission would be pursued. We crystallized this discussion about our corporate identity as agents of shalom into the following statement:

As agents of shalom, we are one because the shalom we seek is the very presence and action of the one and same Spirit of God who empowers us to speak and act in order to bring God’s vision to its fullness as we endeavor to ensure a welcome place at the table for all. We are holy because the Spirit has set us apart to share the good news, peace and love of God in communities suffering from the fractures of personal and structural sin.  We are called to live by example the grace, righteousness, and justice of the Triune God. We are catholic because we recognize that the same Spirit who lives and moves in us is also present and active in other churches and throughout all creation.  The operation of the Spirit within and through every agent of shalom unifies us in purpose without diminishing the diversity of each agent as a unique creation. Finally, our church is apostolic because we continue Jesus’ prophetic ministry of liberation by proclaiming, celebrating, and actualizing the message of shalom to all those who are oppressed by sin, sickness, disease, and the political, economic and social systemic evils. We walk with the same Spirit of God who was sent forth as ruah before creation, who anointed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and who is present today and for all days to come to orient and empower creation towards the consummation of shalom in the reign of God.

The mission of our church is to be agents of shalom: the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. Agents are people who actively pursue the purposes of the one by whom they are sent. Because we are sent by the God who is communion, we are sent to pursue shalom as a community of love, forgiveness, and grace, which is extended to the oppressed and marginalized members of our community. This may require us to actively and non-violently resist systems of evil that oppress and marginalize. At the same time, our church is called by the life-giving Spirit to be agents of personal healing, deliverance, and restoration towards all people in our community.

Our church is called to contexts where the extreme suffering caused by a prolonged loss of shalom is being ignored or denied. These are the places “outside the gate” inhabited by people who have been silenced, forgotten, and deemed unworthy, unnecessary, and uninteresting by the powers and principalities of anti-shalom. We desire to join the Spirit’s work in and through the people with whom we live in these places so that a true, contextual shalom might be realized within our diverse community. As a local embodiment of shalom develops, we will remain open to being led by the Spirit to bring forth shalom in new contexts while remaining steadfast in our commitment to our current community.

This statement expresses an ecclesiology: a way of understanding the theological, historical, and eschatological nature of the origin, identity, and purpose of “a community that understands itself to be called into being by God through faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2] However, the ecclesiology expressed in this group statement differs remarkably from the implicit ecclesiology I have experienced through church participation in the past. In this essay, I hope to progress from a critique of the church I have experienced towards a more faithful, holistic understanding of church by contrasting the marks, mission, and context of my embedded ecclesiology with this new understanding of church as agents of shalom.

The unity of the church as agents of shalom is founded on the presence and action of the God whose unity-in-diversity is hospitably opened towards the other. In opposition to this Triune unity, my past experience in culturally, racially, and socio-economically homogenous churches reveals a unity defined by uniformity. This kind of unity ignores “the Spirit’s unifying power [which] enables the integrity of each one amidst the many” and therefore does not participate in the “unity of the Spirit that includes reconciliation and healing in the same Spirit.”[3] The church is to be one because the salvation of the Triune God which it proclaims is an ever-expanding communion amidst the diversity of creation.

A similar discrepancy arises in my past experience of holiness in church and the holiness which characterizes agents of shalom. While past church experience defined holiness as an individual goal of maintaining purity, those who pursue shalom identify holiness as “the authentic presence and activity of the Spirit of God directed toward the eschatological kingdom.”[4] This holiness is neither a possession of the church nor of an individual church member. Rather, the church is being made holy so that its “relationship of righteousness and justice with God… [will extend] far beyond the church itself” into the lives of those “on the margins of society.”[5] Holiness is put on display when the church’s presence and activity in the world matches the church’s inner reality of its participation in the life of Trinity.

As a member of primarily congregational or independent churches, my understanding of the church’s catholicity was very weak. Instead of being instructed to discern and partner with the Spirit’s work in other churches and throughout creation, my experience of church taught me to be suspicious of other churches and to devalue the life of non-human creation. However, agents of shalom recognize catholicity by affirming the Spirit’s power to inspire indigenous expressions of faith in Christ, which preserve the uniqueness of created life and culture.[6] However, contextualization was given little significance in my previous experience of church and therefore my church’s traditional theology – with a little room for disagreement – was the true understanding for all people in all times and places.

My past church experience held a very narrow understanding of apostolicity. The majority of churches I have participated in were representatives of the Free Church tradition where “the New Testament and early church [have] a normative significance.”[7] Therefore, apostolicity was implicitly defined as believing and teaching “sound doctrine” in line with a specific, literal interpretation of Scripture. In opposition to this narrow, disembodied expression of apostolicity, the church as agents of shalom seeks to embody authentically “the apostolic message and witness… in [its] ecclesial life and faith as directed toward the impending kingdom of God.”[8] Apostolicity is a sign of the whole person and ministry of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers which requires full, embodied participation by the Holy Spirit in the mission of Jesus.

In the past, the primary mission of the church I knew was understood as the fulfillment of Jesus’ last words to his followers as recorded by the gospel of Matthew: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them.”[9] The interpretation of this command led to a mission defined primarily in terms of kerygma – “the proclamation of the Gospel” – which was sometimes supported by acts of leitourgia – “prayer and praise, the waters of baptism and the bread of the supper.”[10] I agree with Gabriel Fackre that this kind of church may be “valid” but it “is not yet a faithful Church” because it does not include a healthy practice of diakonia ­– “a serving of the neighbor in need” – and koinonia – “a sharing and caring life together.”[11] While some of the churches I have experienced in the past have incorporated a practice of diakonia and koinonia in very meaningful ways, the expression of church with which I am most familiar is dominated by its kerygma with leitourgia in a secondary, supporting role.

In contrast to the identity and mission of the church in my past, the church as agents of shalom provides a more holistic and faithful ecclesiology. At the heart of this ecclesiology is the belief that the church’s “existence is not ‘for itself,’ but rather ‘for others.’”[12] More specifically, this church exists for the pursuit of shalom and therefore “outside of the action of the Spirit which leads the universe and history towards its fullness in Christ, [this church] is nothing.”[13] According to Avery Dulles, this vision of church would be categorized as the “servant” model in which the church takes up the diakonia of Christ and “seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood [sic] of all men [sic].”[14] However, this diaconal model is incomplete if it excludes kerygma, leitourgia, and koinonia.

Therefore, agents of shalom take up the message of Jesus and proclaim the hope of God’s now-but-not-yet reign to all people. At the same time, this kerygma includes a “prophetic denunciation of every dehumanizing situation, which is contrary to fellowship, justice, and liberty.”[15] Agents of shalom also gather to celebrate the good news they proclaim through the act of worship, specifically the sharing of the Eucharistic meal around the Lord’s table. However, this practice of leitourgia “presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of [Jesus’] life” and therefore leads the church towards concrete action “against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice.”[16] Finally, shalom is a reality bound up in koinonia because it is the presence of the God whose life as communion is the divine source and model of koinonia. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom seeks a koinonia “where everyone is welcome [as] a sign of the coming feast of God’s mended creation.”[17]

As it pursues its mission through a practice of koinonia, leitourgia, kerygma, and diaconia, the church as agents of shalom must be careful not to confuse its ecclesial life and work towards shalom with the reality of shalom itself. Shalom does not belong to any church because it is the very presence and action of the Triune God in the world which God created. The church as agents of shalom remembers its call to service which “consists in its dedication to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom” of shalom.[18]

The church as agents of shalom seeks to embody and enact its mission in contexts where the destruction of shalom due to the violence of personal and structural sin is being ignored and forgotten. My past experience of church has always assumed a privileged position in society. Even though I was raised in a community where the evils of poverty and racism interlocked in a system of death, I participated in a church whose identity and mission were so affected by social privilege that the fact of this reality, especially the role of this church in its creation and maintenance, was almost entirely ignored. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom must go beyond simply locating itself in a place of anti-shalom. It must make intentional, sustained efforts towards solidarity with all in its community and join in the struggle against alienation and violence because “to know God is to work for justice.”[19] Therefore, the church should simultaneously learn to listen to the needs of its community and to discern its unique strengths and its inherent goodness. The church should also be prepared to criticize its own participation in the evils which perpetuate the destruction of shalom. With this humble posture, a true, contextual foretaste of shalom can come to life.

[1] William C. Placher, ed., “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 223.

[2] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Ecclesiology,” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics: Reign of God THLE 521, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, April 2, 2013.

[3] Amos Yong, “The Marks of the Church: A Pentecostal Re-Reading,” Evangelical Review Of Theology 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 50, 54.

[4] Yong, 54.

[5] Letty M. Russell, “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 245.

[6] Yong, 61.

[7] Franklin H. Littell, “The Historical Free Church Defined,” Brethren Life and Thought 50, no. 3-4 (June 1, 2005): 59.

[8] Yong, 66.

[9] Mt. 28:19, 20, NRSV.

[10] Gabriel Facrke, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 156, 157.

[11] Fackre, 158, 159, 161.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 147.

[13] Gutiérrez, 147.

[14] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 92.

[15] Gutiérrez, 152.

[16] Gutiérrez., 150.

[17] Letty M. Russell, “Hot-House Ecclesiology: A Feminist Interpretation of the Church,” Ecumenical Review 53 (January 2001): 51.

[18] Dulles, 100.

[19] Gutiérrez, 156.

God Is Love

Yes, I’m posting a blog on Valentine’s Day entitled “God is Love.” What can I say? I’m a loser with a very bad sense of humor. If you can get past that though, this is a brief “statement of faith” that I wrote for a class recently. The assignment was just to “sit down and write about what you believe in your own voice” so… that’s what I did. It’s certainly not comprehensive and probably not thought out all that well. But, what I can say is that it has very little to do with Valentine’s Day.

God is the triune Community who is Love: who created all things for love, who is present with all things in love, and who calls and wills and moves all things towards love. This Love is not an attribute of God; it is God. God is Love because God is Trinity: the three Persons – Parent, Christ, and Spirit – who are inseparably united as one in a way that does not diminish the unique otherness of each Person. This triune Community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Christ and Spirit.

Because God is Love, God is relational and desires to be in relation with another. This desire gave birth to creation. God as Parent, Christ, and Spirit is the maker and sustainer of all things past, present, and future. In creation, God envisioned and then spoke into being a community whose life together would be inspired and shaped by Love in order to be a reflection of the Creator. Just as God is many and diverse, God’s creation is many and diverse. The unique character of created things is good because there could be no relationships, and therefore no love, without it. God gave one creature in particular – the man and woman – a special purpose in this creation: keeping the community, nurturing its multifaceted, interwoven connections, and preserving the diversity of each created thing in order to preserve the image of the Creator.

Because God is Love, God creates space for God’s community-keepers to reciprocate God’s love in freedom. However, the man and the woman rejected their purpose and turned away from Love towards self-reliance as if they could live apart from Love. This act of utter rebellion wounded creation at its core. Instead of Love, there was fear; instead of relation, alienation; instead of community, desecration.

Because God is Love, the Parent, Christ, and Spirit remain present and active in, with, and for creation in spite of the rebellion of God’s community-keepers. This active being of Love within and among creation is salvation. God is the saving God who comes to creation in a form it can see, and hear, and touch. Jesus the Christ is Love born to be the true community-keeper whose life, death, and resurrection made a way for all of creation’s wounds to be healed. In Jesus, Love reigns supreme.

Because God is Love, God creates anew by the power of the Spirit. Just as Jesus was compelled by Love to heal creation’s wounded, fearful heart, the Spirit was poured out over all creation to unite all things together again in Love. The Spirit is open-handed Love who reconciles relationships broken by fear, tears down the dividing walls of alienation, and restores all created things to their place in the embrace of Love. In the Spirit, Love brings new life.

Because God is Love, I am. God loves me and empowers me to love God, myself, others, and all creation. Through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, God has invited me and empowered me to play a small part in a fellowship of community-keepers who embody and enact and reveal the healing and new life Love desires for all creation. This fellowship liberates and embraces those who are suffering from the violence of fear, alienation, and desecration and gives it life for the transformation of this violence into peace and justice. They welcome others into their body of unity-in-diversity and are sent out as witnesses to the Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete.

Because God is Love, there is no reason to fear. Creation has hope because God is gathering all things into Love. The perfect communion of God and creation will be made complete.

Faith, Works, & International Development

James, one of the first leaders of the early church in Jerusalem, includes a radical claim in his New Testament letter: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”1 The apostle Paul agreed with James: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love [emphasis added].”2 These early church leaders were simply recalling the words of their Messiah who said that when his followers fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner they were actually serving him. Jesus and the New Testament authors did not invent these views concerning the necessity of making love known through action. It was an essential feature of Old Testament law; one which the prophets had to continually bring to Israel’s attention. Love and justice, peace and well-being, faithfulness to God and faithfulness to neighbor – these have always been inseparable in the story of God. The prophet Micah says it well: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”3

"Catch God's Dream" Pamorama Jones

“Catch God’s Dream”
Pamorama Jones

At its best, international development is one way the people of God participate in God’s mission to establish shalom on earth. Shalom is the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. International development seeks to contribute to God’s shalom through activities which increase the standard of living and overall well-being for those living in situations of poverty in hope that all people experience a life which reflects their inestimable value as God’s image bearers.

However, international development has too often been the work of churches from Western, “developed” countries who work with churches and communities in the “developing” world in order to make them look and feel more like Western church and communities. As David Wright notes, the mission agencies of Western churches which perform this work “have uncritically borrowed a politically oriented aid rationale that was born in the immediate post-War years with the Marshall Plan and fine-tuned during the long ideological struggle of the cold war.”4 When mission agencies employ such a politically, economically driven rationale for development work among their international neighbors, they create relationships lacking any real mutuality which “cannot be authentic or constructive” and usually end in “uneasy dependence or frustrated estrangement.”5 Bryant Myers identifies the cause of mission agencies’ uncritical adoption of these development theories as the Enlightenment-born divide between the spiritual and material world which asserts that “religion, faith, and values belong in the spiritual world” and “science, reason, and facts are part of the real world.”6 Mission agencies born in the West tend to separate the work of international development in the “real world” from the work of the church in the “spiritual realm.” This dichotomy facilitates the removal or cheapening of distinctly Christian values, methods, and goals from the manuals of mission agencies so all that remains are the values, methods, and goals of Western economics, politics, and culture. God’s shalom gets replaced by an “international” version of American or European society.

For international development to contribute towards God’s shalom, it must leave behind its dualistic, paternalistic ways. Myers calls development practitioners to break free from the grip of a modernist worldview and begin operating from a “holistic understanding of an integrated spiritual-physical world” in order to practice truly Christian development within a global context.7 In addition, Wright suggests four changes to be made to the “aid relationship” between Western mission agencies and those with whom they work: “we must restore mutuality to the aid relationship, develop and apply contextual standards to the definition of need/aid, moderate the effects of the bureaucratization of aid, and create full webs of meaning in which to situate aid relationships.”8 With these fundamental adjustments, the work of international development can become a vital, life-giving expression of God’s mission to establish shalom in all creation.

1 Jam. 2:17.

2 Gal. 5:6.

3 Mic. 6:8.

4 David W. Wright, “The Pitfalls of the International Aid Rationale: Comparisons Between Missionary Aid and the International Aid Network,” Missiology 22, no. 2 (1994): 187.

5 Wright, 192.

6 Bryant L. Myers, “What Makes Development Christian? Recovering from the Impact of Modernity,” Missiology 26, no. 2 (April 1, 1998): 145.

7 Myers, 149.

8 Wright, 201.

 

I AM Peace

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Over the past several weeks we’ve been exploring the lives of some major “peeps” in God’s story: Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. We’ve seen a lot and hopefully we’ve learned a few things too, but there is still so much to see, so much we’ve had to skip over for another day.

This morning we’re taking a little leap forward in the story; over the Exodus, through the journey in the wilderness, and just past the entrance into the promised land. We come to an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition that looks more like a stalemate, like a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper. A time of “is this what it’s supposed to be like God because I thought I heard something about a promised land, milk and honey, wide, spacious, freedom, security? Are we back in Egypt? Did we go the wrong way?” This is the “period of the judges”: after Moses, after Joshua, and now Israel is asking: “Who’s our leader? Where’s God? Are the promises still true?”

Enter the judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah & Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jepthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and – last, but certainly not least – Samson. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Today we only have time for one: Gideon. Actually, we only have time for the first episode in Gideon’s story, but we’ll hear a little more about him next week. For now, let’s listen to God’s “recruitment” of Gideon:

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 On Thursday I got a very excited email from pastor Jason. It was a message forwarded from the Vineyard Church USA office with 6:8’s OFFICIAL, signed letter of adoption into the Vineyard Church USA! We’re now “Vineyard” approved and you can even find our church on the Vineyard USA online church locator! While we’ve been a Vineyard church for a while now, it feels good to be official. One of the Vineyard’s core values, and ours as well, is living in light of of God’s Kingdom: “a dynamic reality that is the future reign of God breaking into the present through the life and ministry of Jesus [in the power of the Holy Spirit].”[2]

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We say that the Kingdom is “now-but-not-yet”; it has arrived but it’s still arriving. You might even say it’s an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition from the “now” to the “not yet” that looks more like a stalemate. The “not-yet” of the Kingdom seems to be much louder and more real than the “now.” It’s easier to imagine God’s Kingdom way off in the future, up in the clouds, but right now, in this mess? When we look around at our lives and our world, it seems like we’re in a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper.

Watch the news and you’ll probably hear about Syria: 100k dead, 4.2 million internally displaced, 1.7 million refugees. You heard about the royal baby, but probably didn’t hear of the 13 children born that same day, and every day since, to Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp where over 120k people eke out a life in the desert. The future doesn’t seem much brighter; I saw an article on Friday about the expected 50% increase in global violence due to climate change. It hit home for me because I have friends in Liberia who suffered through 14yrs of civil war where the rising price of rice bred anxiety, fear, and manipulation; leading them to war. When food prices spike due to shortages caused by irregular climates or the need for more “bio-fuel”, i.e. corn ethanol, to “combat” climate change, my friends in Liberia are once again put at risk.

But all of that’s on the other side of the world, right? Surely things are better back home? The AP released a study this week reporting that 4/5 – 80% – of American adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”[3] Last week I heard that the Philadelphia public schools re-hired 290 of the nearly 4000 employees they laid off at the beginning of the summer due to hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls.

And that’s just what makes the news. We all know there’s more. This “not yet” of the Kingdom hits even closer to home; it’s right here in the seats this morning. It’s here because we brought it here, it’s inside us; we can’t avoid it. The turmoil we see outside is just a mirror of the pain, fear, uncertainty, bitterness, and anger that we feel inside. Maybe you feel it, maybe you’re ignoring it, or hiding from it, or just completely oblivious. At some point though we all experience the not-yet: the incompleteness and inadequacy; the lack and the lies. Where are we going? Where is the Promised Land, the Kingdom? Where are we?

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We’ve arrived at “the period of the judges.” Much like us, the nation of Israel is in a tough place. Judges 2 spells out the situation clearly: God delivered Israel from Egypt and gave them the Promised Land, God was faithful to the covenant and expected the same from Israel. Israel was unfaithful, they abandoned God, worshipped the gods of people living in the Promised Land, and so God gave them over to be ruled by these foreigners. When Israel cried out to God, a judge – a deliverer, a savior, a mini-Moses – was raised up and God would be with the judge, who would set the people free and bring peace and rest to the land. Then the judge would die and the people would abandon God once more… and the cycle would begin all over again. Stuck in the mud, wheels spinning.

But each time the cycle repeated, things got a little worse. The first judge, Othniel, turns out ok; the last judge, Samson, is another story. He’s driven by lust and demands to be married to a foreigner, an idol-worshiper. He goes down in a flame of glory fighting a personal battle that does little for the people of Israel. Then the story gets even worse. The last few chapters of Judges end with a civil war between the tribes of Israel; anarchy takes over. The last verse of the book sums it up: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[4] It sounds eerily similar to Adam and Eve in the garden, with the serpent whispering, “Did God really say… What seems right to you Eve? Adam?”

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This is the story we jump into when we find Gideon hiding in the wine press threshing out wheat in Judges 6. Israel has turned from God once again and has done “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – idolatry of some sort.[5] As a result, God gives them over to the Midianites who plunder their land. “Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian” reads verse 6 and so they cry out to God. God hears and sends a prophet to chastise them for their unfaithfulness. In verse 10, God speaks an ominous word through the prophet: “But you [Israel] have not given heed to my voice.” You’re not listening, you’re deaf.

Enter Gideon! Things have gotten so bad that God needs to send a special messenger – an angel – in addition to a prophet just to get through to these people. So the angel appears to Gideon and says “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior”! Gideon looks up, rolls his eyes, “puh-lease… have you been living in a wine press? Don’t you see what’s happening? And you say God is with us?” Now, when most people in the Bible encounter an angel, they have a different reaction: shock, awe, silence. Gideon, he’s totally oblivious. Just like the prophet said, he’s deaf to God’s voice. He responds in bitterness, arrogance even: “What has God done for us lately? You’re wrong dude – God’s not here. It’s us and the Midianites. We’re on our own.”

Now, I’m pretty sure you can be forgiven for not realizing that you’re speaking to an angel… but look at what happens in verse 14: “Then THE LORD turned to him and said…”[6] This is God speaking directly to Gideon, completely ignoring his “Why is all this happening?”, and telling him “Go! Deliver Israel. I’m sending you. Vamoose!” Surely Gideon catches on, right? Wrong. He just has more questions, more excuses, more doubts. Gideon has ignored God’s voice through the prophet; otherwise he would know why Israel was facing so much distress.  Gideon doesn’t hear God’s voice through the angel either; he can’t imagine how God could be with him. Gideon doesn’t even hear God; he’d rather hide out in a wine press than get involved in some rescue mission with this strange man who just showed up out of the blue.

First, Gideon responds in arrogance and bitterness. Then, he gives excuses and doubts. The fact that God is still in the conversation at this point is testament enough to God’s patience and grace. In verse 16, God responds: “But I will be with you.” It’s a direct quote of Exodus 3:12, when God re-assured Moses at the burning bush. It triggers something in Gideon’s memory, the ice is beginning to melt in his brain. He’s curious now because this person – he still doesn’t realize who he’s talking to – also just assured him of total victory over Midian. He’s interested, so he asks: “How bout you give me a sign to back up this claim you’re making?” He’s timid, cautious, taking it slow, playing it safe. He politely tells God: “Hey bro, wait right here just a sec while I go cook something up for us. Just chill.” The Creator of the universe says, perhaps biting his tongue, “Ok, sure Gideon, I’ll wait.”

Preparing a meal for a stranger was an expected act of hospitality that Gideon follows in hopes that he can maybe get a little more info on the identity of this person who claims that God is with him and that he’ll defeat Midian. Of course, God hasn’t come to chit chat. As ridiculous and slightly humorous the situation may be at this point, it’s no laughing matter to be deaf to God’s voice. Israel, God’s chosen, beloved people are “greatly impoverished” and crying out for relief from the calamity they’ve brought on themselves. God is longing to bring them peace, but Gideon wants to have an interview. When the food is brought out, the angel takes over. No more wasting time. He immediately instructs Gideon to place the food on a rock and pour out the broth. Gideon says, “Well, wait just a minute. I prepared this fine meal for us to enjoy together and don’t you know food is kinda tight right now so why would I just waste it?” Gideon doesn’t say that, although that’s what we would expect from him at this point. He doesn’t question, doesn’t doubt, no excuses – he just follows direction. Then, as we like to say, God SHOWS UP.

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Gideon got the sign he was looking for and a little extra too. All of a sudden the mighty warrior is on his knees, crying out to God: Oh LORD GOD, help me, have mercy, spare my life. God hasn’t come to kill Gideon; He’s come to bring peace: “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.”[7] When Gideon finally sees, when he finally hears God’s voice, what does he do? He worships: “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace.” The Lord is peace. Finally, some good news.

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God answers Gideon’s “why?” with “Go!” It’s not that God doesn’t care – why would God still be involved with a guy like Gideon if God didn’t care deeply? God does care about our “why’s”; God hears; God listens. God didn’t answer Gideon’s question, but I think God does something even better: God calls Gideon out of hiding to join God in the work of peace. Gideon wants justice but God calls him to be a judge. Not the answer we expect.

God answers Gideon’s “but how?” with “I AM”! Gideon protests, “How can I save Israel?” God says, “YOU CAN’T! But I can and I will. You’re asking the wrong questions Gideon. This isn’t just about you and your family and your personal peace. It’s about me and my people, my promise, my Kingdom. You’re included but the victory is mine.” Apparently, Gideon knew of how God delivered Israel from Egypt through Moses, but he obviously forgot the song Moses sang after that deliverance: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”[8] Gideon wants the credentials, the status, the power but all God can offer is God’s self. Isn’t that enough?

God answers Gideon’s uncertainty and ambivalence with “I’ll wait.” God is willing to wait with us through our bitterness, our arrogance, and our anger. God is willing to bear our insecurity and our doubts, all the times we fail to hear God’s voice, even when we’re talking face to face. God waits because God “cannot help but be gracious.”[9] There’s a time for waiting, but there’s also a time for action.  Gideon wants to interrogate but God interrupts. Is it time for us to be quiet so God can move us towards peace?

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God answers Gideon’s fear with “Peace.” This word that’s translated as “peace” is the Hebrew word shalom. It’s not the kind of I-got-a-peaceful-easy-feeling kind of peace. It’s so much bigger, deeper, and longer lasting than that. Shalom is the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with every created thing. It is what community looks like when God is at the center of every heart, every relationship, and every system. It’s what God desires for all people and all creation from the very center of our broken hearts to the broken schools in Philadelphia, throughout the broken homes in our country, and straight across our aching world groaning in the pains of childbirth for its renewal. Gideon wants this peace and God says “I AM PEACE.” Will we join in Gideon’s worship?

Gideon had to encounter and submit himself to, and worship the God who is Peace before he could join God’s work for Israel’s peace, for his own peace. I think, down deep, we all want this peace, this community of love being worked out in justice, healed hearts, shalom – the “now” of the Kingdom. But we’re all a little like Gideon; hard of hearing, wanting to be cautious and have all our questions answered so we don’t have to take any risks. But God is the same today as God was with Gideon. God can wait with us, can take our questions, our complaints, our anger, and then tell us the same thing Gideon heard: “Shalom to you.” What will we do? We want peace but are we willing to worship the God who is peace with our whole selves, not just this morning, but every day, in every moment?

Now you may say, “Well, God came to Gideon and spoke to him and showed him a miraculous sign. I’d worship God too if God would do that for me! Gideon had it easy.” You’re right. As far as I know, God hasn’t called out fire from any rocks around here… not yet at least. I haven’t heard of any angels coming down lately either. Of course, why would God send an angel when God has already come to us as a living, breathing human being who walked and talked, who died and rose again? Why would God call fire from a rock when God descended like tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit was poured out over all flesh? God has come. God is here.

And, you know, God realizes we’re forgetful, so Jesus gave us a sign, a way to remember what God is up to.

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He took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. He took wine, gave thanks, and poured it. He said, “This is my body. This is my blood. DO THIS IN REMEMBERANCE OF ME.” Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez describes the celebration of communion as “a memorial of Christ which presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of his life – a total giving to others. It is a thanksgiving for the love of God which is revealed in these events.”[10] In this sign, we see, and feel, and taste the truth of Paul’s words in Ephesians:

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You may be asking God “Why?” this morning? Maybe you’re not even on speaking terms. You may be giving God excuses, delay tactics, avoidance measures. You may have all kinds of questions about who God is and who you are and what God is doing in the world and in you. You may just be completely oblivious. I don’t have all the answers for your questions or all the solutions to bring shalom to the world. But, if I’ve learned anything from Gideon this morning, it’s this: the first step, the foundational step towards shalom is to worship the God is who Shalom. I can’t answer you’re why, but I can answer you’re where: right here in front of you in this broken bread and this poured out juice, in the God you meet here, the God who has set this table and welcomed us all; right here in the community that gathers around this table. God has called us beloved children, has offered all of God’s self, can we be quiet and hear God’s voice today? Can we be still and worship the God who is Peace?


[1] Judges 6:11-24, NRSV.

[4] Judges 21:25.

[5] Judges 6:1.

[6] Judges 6:14.

[7] Judges 6:23.

[8] Exodus 15:2.

[9] J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation: Judges (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), 63.

[10] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 148.

[11] Ephesians 2:13-20.