Monday, January 16, 2006

The Spirit at Work in Camden, S.C. in the 1960s

When I was in the second grade in Camden, South Carolina I became good friends with a black boy in my class. The year would have been around 1969. The Civil Rights Act had been signed into law. The Voting Rights Act had also become the law of the land. But real change, social and personal transformation, wasn’t brought about by debate in the house and senate, nor was it obtained by a president’s signature. If such things had been effective in bringing about change, the effects were not yet being felt in Camden – or at least not in some parts of Camden.

At some point during that second grade year my mother received a phone call from my teacher. She was expressing concern that I spent too much time with one child in the class. She thought it would be a good thing for me to expand my friendships, include other kids. My mother was able to read between the lines. I don’t know exactly what was said. My teacher was a member of the church my dad served as pastor. I think she was uncomfortable with the friendship I had developed with a black kid. Being the pastor’s wife, my mother didn’t want to be rude to a church member – but I think mom knew what was going on. She told me about my teacher’s concerns regarding having “more friends.” I think I knew what was going on as well. I was given no mandate in the matter, but something changed with my friend. I wish my memories were a little clearer about it all.

Today Martin Luther King, Jr. is being remembered and his achievements celebrated. And in the midst of the remembering and celebrating, there is an awareness of something not yet fully obtained, of a dream not fully realized.

Yesterday, just before dozing off for my requisite Sunday nap, I caught a few minutes of a documentary on MLK - a montage of old film footage and interviews with King’s friends and associates. One of the men remembering MLK spoke specifically of the day Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The film showed Johnson seated, signing the legislation, King and many others standing behind him. There is a smile on King’s face, a look of deep gladness and satisfaction. It was clearly a significant moment, one long waited for and prayed for. But now, roughly 40 years later, what seems clear is the powerlessness of law to change human hearts. And until hearts are changed, King’s dream remains elusive.

The church my dad served in Camden, the church to which my second grade teacher belonged, didn’t escape the tremors sent through the nation (especially the south) during the racially tense 60s. On one Sunday morning about 20 students from the predominantly black Mather Academy came to the First Baptist Church and seated themselves in the sanctuary. As my dad tells it, that event sent shock waves through the congregation and provoked a moment of decision. Would black people be seated in worship services at the First Baptist Church? About two months after the event the congregation met to vote on the question. The result was that the church voted to seat any and all persons who came to worship.

But the real story happened at the end of the meeting. As a traditional way of ending and dismissing on a positive note, my dad asked that a hymn be sung. I don’t remember the meeting. I’m sure I wasn’t there. I can only imagine the emotion in the room. After all, votes don’t change hearts and there were surely some bitter people among the relieved and triumphant. But something happened during that hymn. An elderly woman, Mrs. Richburg, slipped out of the pew and made her way to the front of the sanctuary where my dad stood. No “invitation” had been extended with the hymn – but she came anyway. She told my dad that she had come forward to make a rededication, a renewal of her commitment to Christ. After Mrs. Richburg came, others came to do the same. The meeting became revival, lasting another 45 minutes.

King was a prophet, and the words of prophets aren’t born of political and social machinations. Yes, prophetic words have political and social implications, but the vision and words are born of the Spirit. And it’s the Spirit that changes hearts and causes old southern women to make recommitments to Jesus. And it is by the Spirit, not legislation, that the dream will be claimed and lived.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

That Narrow Place In The Road: Believing In and Walking With Jesus

While he was still speaking there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mark 5:35 ESV)

Urgency will drive us to Jesus, but what keeps us there when the sense of urgent need no longer exists?

Sudden illness, financial crises, fragile relationships, unexpected and unwanted news that leaves us disoriented, not having a clue what’s next – these things drive us to Jesus and drive us to our knees before him. But eventually these things resolve. The illness becomes health or is finally healed in death. The crisis passes. The disorientation leads us to what is often called a “new normal.” And what then? What keeps us at Jesus’ feet? Or do we wander off and take care of our own stuff until the next crisis pushes us back to the ground where Jesus patiently stands.

Jairus had a twelve year old daughter who was dying. Things don’t get more urgent than that. This urgency has pushed him to seek out the teacher. In the circles in which Jairus moved, Jesus was likely looked upon as a renegade. Jairus has some connections with the well established religious structures of his day. He’s a synagogue ruler – not an “ordained” person but someone who has authority and responsibility in the place of worship. It’s hard to imagine that he hasn’t heard things about Jesus. He’s overheard and been in on the conversations, the disparaging remarks, the questions, the theological critiques of what the young rabbi says and does. Jairus has been watching Jesus froma distance.

And as he has watched and wondered about Jesus, his daughter has gotten worse.

When your little girl is dying the esteem of colleagues doesn’t mean much. After all, none of them have been of much real help. Maybe a pious word, a promise to pray. But Jesus isn’t into pious talk. He heals. He touches sick people and something happens to them. He makes a withered hand nimble, capable of playing a flute. Limp and useless legs are made strong and straight with only a word. That’s the kind of thing Jesus does. So when a crowd gathers on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to meet Jesus, Jairus is there. His words and actions reflect both boldness and desperation. He falls at Jesus’ feet. “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her.”

And Jesus goes with him.

The same urgency that drove Jairus to the shore and pushed him to the wet dirt at Jesus’ feet now sustains him patiently in the walk home. Jesus delays. He stops to discover exactly who had touched his garment. This surprises, even amuses, Jesus’ closest followers. But Jesus is intent on knowing what it was that had called forth power from him. The timid woman steps forward and identifies herself, explains her actions. They talk.

And Jairus endures this interruption. Why doesn’t Jesus seem more attentive? Why won’t he hurry? She’s dying . . . the journey resumes.

It is at this point that the drama of the event reaches its full intensity. Many dramatic things happen in Mark 5, but the most critical moment in the story is here. As Jesus and Jairus and others continue their journey, a delegation from Jairus’ house meets them. The news is not good. The dreaded report is blunt. “Your daughter is dead.” And then this directive disguised as a question: “why trouble the teacher further?”

The question thinly masks a kind of despair. Those who report the death of the little girl are saying, “it’s over, the need is gone, it’s too late. Why bother the teacher anymore?”

It is this kind of moment that reveals the nature of faith. Looking to God, calling on Jesus is one thing in the midst of urgent need. But when the urgency is gone and there seems to be a finality that won’t be changed, what happens then. Some would tell us “it’s over, too late, don’t bother the teacher anymore.”

But in such moments Jesus invites us to keep walking. His words to Jairus seem to ignore what has been reported. “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (Mk. 5:36). This is hard. How do you believe when your daughter is dead? How do you believe when the marriage is beyond repair or the business is bankrupt or your job is being eliminated? How do you believe in moments like that – and exactly what are you to believe? Doesn’t belief begin to look a little like denial?

Maybe the believing is simply in the walking. Jesus is ready to keep going. He doesn’t come right out and make promises about what he’ll do or what will happen next. He simply extends an invitation to keep walking, to make the journey all the way to the house.

That invitation is extended even now, and perhaps directly to you today. The urgency that drove you to Jesus may no longer be hanging over you – but don’t stop walking. Don’t quit the journey.

Who knows; this walk may well lead to a miracle, but only those who persevere will see it.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Lift Up the Cup and Call on His Name

When I started writing this there were roughly 40 minutes left in 2005. By the time I finished and got around to posting this the first day of 2006 was nearly over.

There’s a line from Psalm 116 that seems fitting for the cusp of a new year. The Psalmist asks, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:12-13 ESV). These verses contain a question (v. 12) and an answer (v. 13). The question belongs to the year past. The answer belongs to the year ahead.

I look back and ask with the Psalmist, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” I’ve known so many benefits this year, gifts small and great, sometimes recognized, sometimes not. It hasn’t been all benefits – but the benefits loom large in my mind tonight.

The only right response to that question is provided by verse 13, and it turns my thoughts to the year that will begin in minutes. We don’t respond to God’s gifts by repaying him, by giving something back. Every year, every minute comes to us by grace and is defined by grace. We live continually by that grace as we lift up the cup of salvation and call on God to fill it. We live by grace as we lean into the new year relying on God.

John Piper explains it this way. “When God helps us – as he does every moment of every day – we will not repay him with wage labor to even our accounts, but we will (again and again) lift up an empty cup of need and call on him to fill it.”[1]

I leave 2005 blessed, a cup filled and running over. I enter 2006 in need of more grace, dependent, calling on God to pour out grace yet again.

Gracious God, giver of days and years,
Time belongs to you and all that time brings comes from you. How can we possibly thank you for the way you sustain us from day to day, faithfully present in our sorrows and joys. We prayerfully lift the cup and ask you to fill it yet again as you see fit to do in these coming days. Amen.
[1] John Piper, A Godward Life, vol.2, page 155.