Archive for October, 2010

This post is offered to raise some questions on the subject of evangelism in general and open-air preaching in specific.  Questions that I have been pondering – off and on – for some time.

As a student of church history and the communication of the Gospel, it is apparent to me that many of the scenarios taking place in today’s public arena are new.  This does not make them wrong, it just makes them new.  Whether it is an itinerant preacher on a public campus or believers preaching to the crowds who file into a sporting event – this scenario of evangelism/preaching is unprecedented in both general church and biblical history.

I say it is unprecedented, not because men and women have never publicly proclaimed the Gospel – they have, so this is not new.   What is new, what makes it unprecedented is the relationship between preacher/evangelist and his audience. What is new is the starting position of the audience, the presuppositions they bring to their hearing of the Gospel… in this sense the contemporary scenario is unprecedented.  A least in the history of the western church.

From a pragmatic perspective It makes me wonder what is the intended outcome of open-air preaching to the masses?  If the masses do not share a biblical worldview, if they do not share a foundational morality, what is the expected outcome of preaching biblical prohibitions?  If they have “been-there, done-that” as far as the concept of judgment or  Hell is concerned, is that threat going to have any effect?

This leads me to a theological perspective; why preach law and condemnation to people who are incapable of responding anyway?  If we were commanded to do this, doing so would make more sense to me even if it were not pragmatic and appeared theologically nonsensical.  Those issues would not matter if there were command or precedent in the Scripture.

Yet, from a biblical perspective I cannot find any parallel example or command.  There are examples of public preaching in the Scriptures to be sure, but all the examples I can think of either involve preaching to a people who have a common worldview (e.g.,  prophets preaching to Israel, Jesus preaching to the crowds, Paul in the synagogues) or preaching in a context where the audience expects such a thing and is predisposed to consider them (e.g.,  Paul on Mars Hill).

Even more problematic is the fact that such preaching, as it is often carried out, seems to be inconsistent with the command to be salt and light, to be an aroma of life, to be ambassadors for Christ, to live in such a way that even unbelievers glorify God because of our contribution to society.  Scripture is full of metaphors like these that illustrate how the church is to strive to be viewed by outsiders.  And setting out to preach to complete strangers in such a way that is guaranteed to just make them mad, or in such a way as to just be easily ignore, does not fulfill any of these metaphors.

I do not want to assign or discuss motives, I exhort you to refrain as well.  I have no doubt that those who preach at me as I head into a game are very sincere.  I have no doubt the banners they wave about Hell and sin and Jesus and death are designed to show the love of Christ.  I understand that they see themselves as agents of God proclaiming the truths of Scripture.  Maybe they are – hence raising the question.  Yet, is that really the kind of glory and attention God is seeking?  Is this really the aroma he wants his church to emit?

As far as I am concerned the jury is still out.  But as I ponder these questions I am being influenced by these facts: 1) open-air preaching to stranger-pagans who are not interested in the message has no biblical example or command and 2) we are to behave in a manner that, in as much as possible, causes the world to thank God we are here.   And I just do not see how open-air preaching is consistent with either of these.

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Daily Office

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’“ “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I know, before I make a single stroke on my laptop keyboard that this post will not be well received. I apologize in advance to those of you who will find my struggle with this passage offensive and immature. I do not intend to offend, but I think I will.

Fact is, and I don’t think anyone will disagree with this: the lawyer asks Jesus a theological question with eschatological implications. He asks Jesus this question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus does not tell the man this is the wrong question to ask. No. In fact, the very fact that Jesus answers this question is enough demonstration that this is a valid question to ask and, to be sure, that Jesus is the right person to ask it of. Ultimately, the answers that Jesus gives all work their way back to the man’s original question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

The theological, eschatological and practical answer that Jesus gives is simple: Love God, love people. Easy, breezy. This is something Jesus had said another time (Matthew 7:11-12). Even later on in the letters, Paul will say that love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:9-11). I think, at this juncture, we are probably all in agreement. Love is the fulfillment of the law; love sums up the Law and Prophets; love is what we must do to inherit eternal life. Love God; love our neighbors. Love. Seems a simple task, and easy requirement.

My problem is that this parable is often taught as simply a matter of defining who is a neighbor and that the Samaritan is the neighbor we must strive to be: loving those who hate us, tending those who despise us, helping those who hurt us. But this parable is not primarily about who is and is not a neighbor. This parable is spoken in the context of a theological, eschatological, question of salvation: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

When the conversation and the parable are done, Jesus simply says: Go and do likewise.

The problem I have is that Matthew or whoever wrote this Gospel, this book, wrote this story, this encounter, and this parable down after the cross even though the story happened, the conversation took place, and the parable was spoken before the cross.

Go and do likewise. To my knowledge Jesus never rescinded this command: neither to the lawyer in the story nor, since it was written down after the cross, to us.

All the commentaries I read, and have ever read, narrow this story down to this basest point: who is my neighbor? But none seem to wrestle with the real question that this particular passage of Scripture is itself wrestling with: what must I do to inherit eternal life? When Jesus said “go and do likewise” he was “this is what you must do to inherit eternal life: love God, and love like your Samaritan neighbor.” (William Willimon interprets this from the point of view of the man in the ditch, but I’m still not sure that is correct either. It doesn’t wrestle enough with how this parable answers the man’s original and secondary question.)

Please don’t be angry because I want to understand this passage of Scripture, why Jesus said it, and why Matthew preserved it. I want to understand how to better interpret this story and how to better teach it. There doesn’t seem to be, despite the exegetical gymnastics that the commentators engage in, an emphasis so much on being neighborly as much as there is an emphasis on what someone must do in order to inherit eternal life.

It’s tricky. I wrestle and struggle here greatly. I’m not trying to be contrary or difficult, but with all the emphasis we put on issues of grace and mercy and forgiveness and the cross and the resurrection, nothing seemed to change after the cross: Paul said love your neighbor; Matthew records Jesus telling us to do the same thing. Whatever else I might say, or confound, or struggle with here, one thing is certainly true. You can love your neighbor quite apart from loving God, but you cannot love God without loving your neighbor. Jesus does not define how to love God, but spends a lot of time defining how to love your neighbor. Hmm…

I don’t think we, as Christians, have struggled enough with this passage of Scripture and how it relates to the inheritance of eternal life—regardless of who are neighbor is or is not. The so-called Good Samaritan is not just someone who happens to do good deeds while he or she is on the way to McDonald’s to get a burger—as if the fact that he was a Samaritan is the main point of emphasis here. The Good Samaritan is, in some mysterious way, an example of what we must do if we want to inherit eternal life—since the emphasis in this passage is on what the Samaritan did.

Jesus didn’t say: Go and be (a Samaritan) likewise. Jesus said: Go and do likewise. Too many people are content to be mere Samaritans without any regard for how what the Samaritan did relates to his/her eternal inheritance. We should talk about what it means to do what the Samaritan did more.

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“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. – Jesus (according to Matthew 7).

Recently a group I am part of studied these verses and the surrounding context.  It is quite possible that this excerpt from Jesus’ sermon is one of the most oft quoted and oft misquoted of his proverbial sayings.  Contrary to our cultural pressure; it is obvious from the context that Jesus is not making an absolute prohibition against judging others.  It is equally clear that Jesus is calling for judgments that are fair, informed, and free of hypocrisy.

Shortly after this study I came across a new entry into the Museum of Idolatry.  It is a posting of a video… offered without comment, explanation, nor objection.  It carries the simple title: Marriage Dance?. The comments in response to the posting are but three, yet they acutely illustrate Jesus’ concerns about judging.

The posting and comments exemplify the insatiable need felt by many within the Body of Christ to judge others without restraint, without context, without relationship, and without a proper understanding of culture, and from a decided ethnocentric point of view.  In short – they judge by a standard they would never want applied to them.  They judge by a selfish standard of their own creation.

The dance is offered as an “artifact of apostasy”  - an example of “the Great Apostasy that is sweeping through the “Christian” Church.”  The misuse of 2 Thessalonians in this context will not be pursued, what will be asked is why the posting is entitled “Marriage Dance?”  What purpose does the question mark play? What is being questioned; there marriage status, their ability to dance?

The real travesty plays out in the three short comments.  The comments display and incredible lack of cultural insight and abundance of ethnocentrism – of improper judging.

Comment:

I couldn’t watch the whole thing, I turned it off before 2 mins were up. What is this doing in a church service? How is it edifying our Savior? I’m sorry but I would have walked out if I was there in person. The only good thing I have to say, it that at least they were married to each other (I hope). Still, not the thing to be showing in church!

It’s unfortunate this person cannot appreciate the manner in which people who are different from him/her express themselves to God.  Marriage was created by God.  The marriage covenant is one of the grander illustrations of the Trinitarian nature of our God… it also serve as an illustration for the relationship between our Savior and his Church.  Therefore, this dance could edify our Savior because it celebrates marriage.  And just why is this not appropriate for church?  How do you know it was a worship service?  Or is dance always inappropriate within a space used for worship?

Dance has a rich heritage in the African culture and nothing in Scripture prohibits it as an expression of God’s greatness.  The description of the video itself (which I suspect the commenter did not bother to research) gave the reason for the dance – “Married couples minister in dance: Giving thanks and honor to God for the blessing of marriage.”  Apparently thanks can only be given to God in a way that is culturally acceptable to Shar.

In response to this comment came:

You are so right, this is what is wrong with the churches today. It is suppose to be worship of the Most high God, not lifting up of the flesh.

Married couples giving thanks and honor to God for the blessing of marriage through dance is what is wrong with the churches today?  Seriously?  Again, no rationale is given as to why this is wrong, just the declaration that it is.  Though Floyd does add one clear objection – it lifted up the flesh.  This is an interesting (and rather cliché) objection. Since the Most High God created the flesh, created marriage, created the physical and spiritual bond… how is celebrating that “fleshly”  - in the improper sense.  Particularly when done in a tasteful manner.  Nothing in this video was inappropriately suggestive, or erotic.  Makes me wonder how Floyd would respond to… oh… say the Song of Solomon.  Talk about lifting up the flesh!

The final comment agreed:

Even worse than the obviously inappropriate, human-centered dance, is all the womens’ voices I hear cat calling in the background; makes me understand why Paul said women should be silent in the assembly. Boy, was he right.

This one made me laugh.  “Human (or man) – centered” is another cliché that is so over used it has become meaningless.  It’s basically code for “Anything I dislike.”  But Melba also shows a lack of understanding of the audience’s response.  No one was making cat calls.  They simply responded audibly to what they were seeing.

The bottom line is these comments show how easy it is to take our own cultural standards and assume them to be biblical… to impose on others the same cultural (as opposed to biblical) standards we hold… to assume the way we do things is the only biblical was to do things… to judge others who are different as inappropriate, as an examples of apostasy, as sinful – not on biblical standards, but upon personal preferences.

Appendices to address expected objections:

A – I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy.  I do not know the poster or those who commented.  Nor do I intend to fully defend the Marriage Dance.  In fact, one could have come up with all sorts of biblical/legitimate objections to the theology and practice of a UCC church.

B – I found the dance posted twice on YouTube (here and here).  Each posting gives one line to describe the video.  They are “The Married Couples Dance Ministry of trinity united church of christ in chicago dance to BabyFace” and “Married couples minister in dance: Giving thanks and honor to God for the blessing of marriage.”  Neither video gave the context of the dance.

C – The issue here is not one of race, and certainly not racism.  The issue is judging others without the facts and from a false premise.

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Daily Office

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)

If you look at the words and events surrounding these two short paragraphs you will notice that these words may seem rather out of place. Jesus has talked about sheep among wolves, the betrayal among family members, the sword that he brought, delight in a cup of cold water, and judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah and worse. We learn that John the Reformed Charismatic Presbyterian had serious doubts about Jesus and Jesus’ high praise of John. And we learn of the wit and wisdom of children. We learn of judgment on towns who had rejected Jesus. All of this is on one side.

On the other side we learn about Jesus who is accused of being a Sabbath scoundrel, in league with Beelzebul, more judgment, a ‘small’ miracle and the plot to destroy Jesus that followed, demon possession, the rejection of his family, and the simple nature of those who cannot even understand parables (!). Then John loses his head. It all makes for a great story—contains all the stuff we like: action, horror, drama, comedy, suspense. All this stuff we like, but there’s that point in the middle where Jesus inexplicably prays and talks about finding rest for the soul.

There’s a lot of sermon fodder in chapters 10-13, but this prayer in the middle bugs me. So does, for that matter, this business of Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden. You and I know how hard that yoke is and how heavy that burden is: could it be worse on the other side? And his intense statement about knowing the Father bugs me—it’s far too exclusive a club. And his thoughts about little children in the prayer bug me too—what do kids know? Jesus is saying something like, “What don’t kids know?”

Ultimately, however, I think that is the point: he is talking about recognizing something, someone in our midst, isn’t he? John may have been confused, but he was on the right track. Jesus says to him, “John, look what’s going on! The blind can see. The lame can walk. The unclean are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are alive. The good news is everywhere.” Then he says even children can figure this bit of nonsense out for themselves, “We play a flute, but you sit still. We sing a song, but you do not weep.” Jesus is shouting out: “Here I am! The One you have been waiting for and you are all missing it! You are so caught up in your own world that you cannot sing or dance or laugh or mourn. What sad people you are indeed.”

He says: “I did miracles in your cities and you missed it. Twice in these verses he gives props to Sodom and Gomorrah (10:15, 11:24)—ironically, the two places most Christians nowadays point to in order to prove God’s hatred of all things gay. Yet Jesus says those who lived in those places will get along better than most others. Strange. Strange that Jesus believed those who were most worthy of judgment and condemnation would most readily grasp what those who are right and good miss.

Then Jesus breaks out in praise and prayer: “Father I am glad for children. I am glad they have open eyes and see what adults do not. I am glad, happy, thrilled that you have revealed these things to those who can grasp them.” This stuff is so simple that even children can get it. Or, in the childlike heart and mind—the not too uppity—God reveals his good will and good pleasure. And the wise and learned ignore it.

I sense in these verses a joy that cannot be contained and yet is only marginally loosed. You sense it in Jesus: Go back and tell! Go back and dance! Go back and Praise and Pray! And when you get done reading about all the sickness and judgment in the world, come to me for rest. When you get sick and tired of trying to figure things out using all your wisdom, all your smarts, all your disbelief in the outrageous, come to me and I’ll help you figure it out; I’ll show you want you are looking for but will never find. I love Jesus’ short prayer here because it confirms what many of us know and believe but refuse to accept: wisdom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“In some objectifiably verifiable and convincing way, we want God to demonstrate his own existence. Deep in our hearts, I suspect that this is what all of us want, unbelievers no less than believers. And I have wondered sometimes what would happen if God were to do just that. What would happen if God did set about demonstrating his existence in some dramatic and irrefutable way?” (Frederick Buechner, “Message in the Stars”, in Secrets in the Dark, 16-17

Life, or whatever Jesus is talking about here, cannot be figured out by ignoring miracles or pretending they do not happen. It cannot be figured out by not dancing or not singing. It cannot be figured out by not eating or by not drinking. It, that is, ‘these things’, cannot be figured out by an appropriate ABAB single subject reversal study model. It cannot be figured out by hard work or by carrying around burdens we are not meant to carry. Jesus is saying here something to the effect of: If you want to figure out ‘these things’ they will only be made known as the Father reveals them in foolishness, and even then, to be sure, through me. Jesus says: I am revelation.

Something in here says to me: you cannot think your way to God. In a way, you have to embrace foolishness, wrap yourself in absurdity, traipse along with incredulity at this God who takes delight in revealing himself not to the wise and learned, but to the most foolish of the foolish: children (Gk. naypios; infants). This is God’s ‘good pleasure.’ This is the God who does things all backward like. God reveals himself to infants; God reveals himself in Jesus; God reveals himself through things we cannot believe or understand.

Thus Jesus concludes: God reveals himself in mercy, gentleness, humbleness. Can God do that? Why does God reveal himself to us in ways the world does not understand, in ways that we can scarcely appreciate, in ways we hardly approve?

If we can reach
Beyond the wisdom of this age
Into the foolishness of God
That foolishness will save
Those who believe

–Rich Mullins, Let Mercy Lead

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St. Steven's GreenFor the past couple of years, my wife and I (and by extension, our family) have engaged in a small “project” we tend to refer to as “good stories”.  Basically, it is this:  When we see someone out in public who does something really stupid/infuriating/bone-headed/embarrassing/etc., rather than view the situation with the obvious (and most likely) context, we try to come up with a “good story” to cover for them.

Example: My wife and I were taking an early Sunday morning walk by St. Steven’s Green in Dublin last year, when a redhead in a slightly-disheveled party dress and high-heels walked out onto the sidewalk in front of us.  She didn’t seem too steady on her feet when she made it to the end of the block and turned onto Grafton Street.  Zan made a comment to me about “the walk of shame”, but I said we needed to tell a “good story” about her, so we decided that she must have forgotten to set her alarm clock and woke up late, and was hurrying on her way to church.  Not only did this make us laugh, but it reminded us that it was possible that not everything might be as it appeared.

[This was actually one of the first official "good stories" we sold, though the root of the idea came from my late grandmother, who always looked for the most charitable explanation for other peoples' (or even animals') behavior.  It was a quality that struck me most about her, as I never heard her say a negative word about anything.]

For me, the best times I come up with “good stories” are when I’m driving and the guy in front of me (or beside me) does something dangerous/rude/boneheaded.  Now, almost reflexively (even if I’m the only one in the car), I find myself coming up with a “good story” (Oh, his coffee must have spilled on his leg, and he’s doing everything he can to maneuver with a scalded thigh!).  It’s certainly a lot better than the alternative of getting mad at the driver – and sometimes (if there are two or more of us in the car) it becomes quite funny as we try to embellish the story to make the guy into some sort of hero, rather than the cad he’s most likely being…

The one problem I have, though, with “good stories” is that I’m far better at making them, and letting them be, when I don’t know the lead character in the ’story”.  In engineer/scientist speak, the likelihood and overall quality of a “good story” is inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the subject of the story.

And this is sad.

Why?  Because it means that I’m far more willing to give the benefit of the doubt and to be charitable toward a complete stranger than I am to a friend or family member.   So my challenge, for myself, is to find a way to tell “good stories” about the people I know, rather than let them frustrate me…

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NOT Castle AnthraxMy style of humor tends to be a bit on the dark & dry side (in addition to my love of puns), much to the chagrin of my family. And so it is, from time to time, that when I’m doing something serious (working, reading the Bible, playing piano, etc.), something strikes me funny from a completely different (possibly twisted) angle, and that’s the end of seriousness…

And so it was a few weeks back when I heard a preacher quoting The Lord’s Prayer.

Everything was OK until he got to “and lead us not into temptation…

At first it was a little giggle, followed by stifled laughter (which earned me a quizzical skunk-eye from the other person sitting nearby). You see, in my head, this phrase, lead us not into temptation, triggered two different thoughts/pictures:

First, I don’t know about you, but I can’t say that God has ever led me into temptation, because I have been quite good at running right into it myself without His help. Sometimes with disastrous results, and other times escaping by a hair’s breadth.

Secondly, I could not help but instantly reliving the end of the Castle Anthrax scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’d link it here, but this is a family-friendly blog (most of the time, anyway), so the basic setup is this:

Sir Galahad, who is in search of the fabled Holy Grail, finds himself led on his quest for this artifact to Castle Anthrax, which is populated by “eight score young blondes and brunettes, all between sixteen and nineteen and a half” with nobody to protect them. When he realizes he has been tricked, his first instinct is to leave and find the Grail, but the girls begin to close in on him and just as his will begins to falter, Sir Launcelot arrives and pulls him out of the castle:

LAUNCELOT: We were in the nick of time, you were in great peril.
GALAHAD: I don’t think I was.
LAUNCELOT: Yes you were, you were in terrible peril.
GALAHAD: Look, let me go back in there and face the peril.
LAUNCELOT: No, it’s too perilous.
GALAHAD: Look, I’m a knight, I’m supposed to get as much peril as I can.
LAUNCELOT: No, we’ve got to find the Holy Grail. Come on!
GALAHAD: Well, let me have just a little bit of peril?

Followed by the Narrator’s voice-over:

Sir Launcelot had saved Sir Galahad from almost certain temptation, but they were still no nearer the Grail.

Thus, when my ears heard the preacher say “lead us not into temptation“, my mind interposed “save us from almost certain temptation“…

And I don’t remember another word he said for the next several minutes.

But it did get me thinking – there are many times that I model my prayers after The Lord’s Prayer, and when I ask God to “lead me not into temptation”, sometimes what I’m really doing is asking Him to play the part of Launcelot to my Galahad, and to pull me out of almost certain temptation, no matter how much I tell him I ought to have “a little bit of peril”.

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Daily Office

“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  ”Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.  They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)

I don’t want to be accused of taking this out of context and making it mean something it does not. So, in order to dispel that myth ahead of time, I add this disclaimer that I have in fact and indeed read the entire chapter of Jeremiah 29 and, at one time in the past, read the entire book. There. Now, on to other things…

As I read this early today before worship I wrote in my Moleskine something to the effect of, “Yes, but what does this mean for us, the church, disciples of Jesus?” I kept on thinking about it until we arrived a little late for bible school. We arrived late enough to interrupt and but early enough to hear a few remaining prayer requests from the young folks in the class.

One woman asked for prayer for herself and her husband. They want a child and, evidently, are having trouble conceiving. Another asked for prayer as they are trying to buy a house. Another asked for prayer concerning financing of a house already being purchased. I used to find this strange—all these prayers for simply mundane things that have nothing to do with the Jesus who told us to ‘take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow [him].’ What sort of self-centered people are we to pray that God provide us houses, children, money, crops or worse? Does God care about these things? “Dear God, please help my marriage,” is a lot different from, “Lord, your kingdom come.” But maybe it is not so much different after all.

I volunteered to pray for the class and as I did these words of the Lord written down by Jeremiah came flooding into my mind. I prayed for the people in bible school and reminded them of what the Lord said to the people through Jeremiah.

The importance of Jeremiah’s letter, his ‘word of the Lord’, is found in what the Lord told his people to do while they lived in exile among strange people: seek the well-being of the community in which you live, prosper, set-up shop, plant crops, have children, get married, do business and seek peace. This reminded me of what I read in Hosea chapter four last week, “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying, and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away” (Hosea 4:1-3).

So we walk a fine line. God tells us in nearly the same breath: seek the prosperity of the place you live and deny yourself. Hosea spoke to those who, because of one sin or another, allowed the place where they were to become a wasteland, uninhabitable by anyone or anything. Jeremiah spoke to another group of Hebrews and said: Don’t allow disaster to happen to the land of your exile as your fathers allowed disaster to happen to the Promise Land. Seek their prosperity. Pray for them; seek the Lord.

I find it strange that God commanded them to seek prosperity and yet I don’t. It’s like Jesus on the water in Mark four who calms a furious storm not just saving his disciples but also the ‘other boats with him’ (Mark 4:36). We live and move and have our being in the land of exile and while we do, we do not cease being people who curiously belong to God and who belong to a curious God—a god who cared not only about Ninevah but the ‘many cattle as well’, this strange God who ‘sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.’

I fail to see the connection between prayers such as, “God help me be a rich person so I can bless those around me” and “God help the city where I live to be prosperous and productive so that you will bless me through them.” How does this strange God bless his people through the prosperity of a pagan city where we are being held captive? Strange are the vessels God uses to bless his people and make himself known. Strange that I should want Blockbuster video to do well.

God’s grace in our lives is a light in the darkness. WE, I say that with no quiver in my voice, WE are called to be God’s means of dispensing grace in the world. We are not to decrease, but to increase. We too, like Israel, live in exile. Peter calls us strangers, aliens, foreigners. This place is no more our home than our possessions are our own. We live in this place for a little while, but our home is someplace else—we ‘long for a better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). While we are here we are to make the best of it, to seek the Lord for the city, to help it prosper. We are not only to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, but also for the peace of Madison, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids; Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, and California; the United States, Canada, Mexico and South Africa; the World.

Our prayers, and certainly God’s grace, extend far beyond the walls of the places we call sacred. We pray for the world that God might be known. We pray to God that the world might prosper in crops, people, and commerce. As such we should disregard the lying tongues of those who tell us otherwise. God seems to think such prayers are necessary, matter, and are vital to our own existence. Nor will I pray for the destruction of those who are opposed this godly message because that is not what God said to do. He said to pray for them and seek prosperity for their sake—for when they prosper, so also will I. So I’m not only going to pray for a young couple to have a child, for another couple to have a house, and for another’s crops to grow. I’m also going to pray that they will prosper wherever the Lord plants them—wherever their exile is manifest. And I will pray for the city where they are planted that it, too, will prosper.

Why? “For God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only Son.” For God so loved the world…for God so loved the world…

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“Most people confuse pleasantness with kindness and have no idea what kindness actually is. When they actually confront it, they find it to be unpleasant and often dismiss because of that.”

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