‘They are like trees planted besides streams of water, which yield their fruit in season and whose leaves do not whither- whatever they do prospers.’ Psalm 1:3.
When Kathie and I arrived to the Lawndale community in 1978, one of the finer business establishments found at the end of one of Lawndale’s beautiful boulevards was notoriously named: ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ People frequented its spirits served and often returned home with a reconfigured face. (This is a Great way to start of Christmas letter!) While Jesus was not referring to this west side tavern, he did reference a certain Jewish cross road, called the Jericho Road. This was the bloody boulevard which connected Israel to Samaria. It is also the street where the proverbial Samaritan cared enough to stop and crossover, thereby forever searing himself into human history.
The ‘Bucket of Blood’ no longer serves up its fisted-spirits, but Jericho Roads do remain in Lawndale and Pulaski Road clearly makes the cut. Most see this North-South cross way (a border between the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords) as not only dirty but downright dangerous. Put the 1200 block of south Pulaski on your bucket list for a Saturday evening out on the town!
Despite the efforts of Rich (as in ‘Daley’) and Rahm (as in ‘Emanuel’) pouring billions into the city’s beautification not many of those dollars have blown their way to this Jericho Road. But where politicians ‘green’ has grown short, the Holy Spirit is going long on a beauty, which yields fruit far beyond the earthy limits of money and landscape. At the corner of Pulaski and Roosevelt lies not only a green space but an entire oasis where lives find a reconfigured trajectory. ‘Innkeepers’ are strategically placed on both sides of the street for sojourners searching for refreshment. A hot meal at Brother’s Kitchen, a place of refuge at the YMEN/Pearl Center (the original 1241 building) for youth living in another ‘Ferguson-Fury-Neighborhood’, a school for both students and parents who are seeking a way beyond the rugged ‘eye for an eye’ individualism of a Jericho Road, and a church that recognizes whose blood sustains all.
Being one of those ‘innkeepers’ for many years, I have been able ‘to have room in the inn’ partly because of Samaritan friends like you who have continued to cover ‘any extra expenses’ that were incurred for travelers on the Jericho Road.
Yet another beautiful reason to give thanks.
Pastor Jim Wolff
‘Before God and with God we live without God.’
‘the most important things in life are human relationships’
‘We can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action.’—Dietrich Bonhoeffer
So now what? 125 days away, 25 different dwelling places, over 25,000 miles of travel, $35,000 of Lilly money spent, for what? How has this changed us? Most importantly, what word has God whispered in our ears? I will let Kathie speak for herself, although she did point out that at the very least this proves that the two of us can actually get along pretty well together! We have believed recklessly and behaved playfully- and still plan on staying married!
We started with the apostle John, a Roman prisoner, in Asia Minor and concluded with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Berlin prisoner, in Europe. One pursued by Caesar, the other by Hitler. The two separated by nearly 2 millennia, but each in their own unique context following the living Jesus.
As I was concluding my sabbatical this summer, sitting on Eugene Peterson’s porch overlooking the pristine waters of Flathead Lake in Montana, the news from the firestorm in Ferguson surfaced. It hit me with a chill, cutting into me like the ‘Hawk’ from a Chicago winter. We would need courage to reenter these headwinds.
Courage is required to go where our suffering God is: 2 B there 4 others. But what I was learning was this: when we (ie. John, Bonhoeffer) are there, we R there 4 God. It is our ‘participation in the sufferings of God in the world’, not some moral athleticism, that makes us Christians. (D. Bonhoeffer)
Courage demands one’s core, one’s heart (root word in ‘courage’), everything that is truly alive and pertinent to God. To bring courage is to bring all that is BEST and most ALIVE of our deepest self and OFFER it to ‘others.’ John & Bonhoeffer offered up their BEST: words of life and lives for obedience. Both were there for God by being there for ‘others.’
Courage requires repentance. We are compelled to abandon our propensity to privatize our piety. Bonhoeffer calls this privatization an ‘unconscious Christianity’ that frankly becomes irrelevant to anything outside two hours on Sunday and saying a quick ‘grace’ before a few meals the rest of the week. God grieves for the world, not just the chosen frozen, or those behaving themselves, or a few charity cases.
A private piety keeps one risk adverse. It numbs down our faith. It is more concerned with determining where ‘one stands’ (as if our faith ever stands still) on homosexuality, or if one is ‘red’ or ‘blue’, or ‘green’ enough before it is willing to even listen to another. It obsesses more on being right than forgiven. Dangerously well-intended, it mistakenly turns God ‘on His head’ by insisting first on an abstract ‘correctness’ while putting His passion (suffering) for relating-ship in the rear. It takes the static square peg of piety and forces it into a living triangle - the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! The two are not congruent!
Courage comes before piety. It takes more courage to engage in reconciling and restoring messed up relationships (ie. the brokenness represented in the Robin Williams & Michael Browns of this world), than to be running around trying to force our God into society (whether by self-righteously displaying the 10 commandments on billboards and church doors or by zealously keeping mosques out of our neighborhoods.) It takes courage to live one’s life with one leg limping in darkness and the other walking in light. Pure choices are seldom an option, not in Bonhoeffer’s ‘world come of age,’ nor in today’s polarized populous.
Courage tells the truth. Quite frankly as difficult as it is to enter into the Robin Williams story, it is easier than moving into Ferguson’s story. Fatigue is Ferguson’s closest companion. The sledge hammer of race has hit us too hard, for too long. We have become weary watching these reruns. I know I am supposed to say this. After all, I and my family have lived and worked in Lawndale for the past 37 years, and being a minority in a majority African-American community- I’d better say it!
The sobering reality is there are hundreds of Ferguson’s in our country and I and my family live in one of them. Places where smoke is smoldering and simmering just below a disguising placid surface, covering a dysfunctional underclass that is sweltering and suffocating, lying in wait for the right spark to ignite another inferno. Fergusons, will continue to embarrass this great country because to put it quite simply- ‘America, we have a race problem.’
A significant mass of people have been left behind and they disproportionately originate from the darker hue. They carry a history of oppression, some intentional other unintentional, by and in systems that whites as well as some blacks benefit (witness the drug driven prison- industrial- complex mushrooming in our nation.) Yes, despite advances, this country still does have a race problem.
I say this because this is my reality. It is no different than my saying 40 years ago that our society had a ‘handicap accessibility and attitude problem’ when I lived with my sister Elizabeth who was confined lifelong to a wheel chair. She was part of my world. She and her friends were ‘the others’ I encountered. Courage, which forced our society to change its priorities, was needed to speak the truth then as it is now.
I also am tired of the reruns. Fatigue is my closest friend. Part of me just wants to ‘keep on traveling’ (as our guru Rick Steves likes to say.) Why return? For one, this prodigal spent all Sugar-Daddy Lilly’s inheritance. But more importantly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing and life encourage me to go back.
Bonhoeffer did not have to return to Germany in the 1930’s. In fact he could very easily have stayed near Chicago or New York and taught his time out until it was safe to return. He belonged to the privileged in society. Why intentionally expose oneself to suffering that could and did eventually cost him his life. Yet he went back. For what? What difference would he really make? Did he really think he was going to save the German race? He was throwing away his life- quite literally! But his mission was clear- 2 B there 4 others.
2 B there 4 others is really God’s mission, Dietrich was only a privileged participant. The privileged part is that he realized he was not alone. On the contrary, God himself was there, because when we (he) R there 4 others, we are there 4 God.
Lord, we need you to EN-COURAGE us. To whom much has been given, much is required! And I (we) have been given SO MUCH!
'the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation.’ -Dietrich
In Montana we live on‘A-Hole Hill.’ For six summers we have heard stories about how a particular person had ‘P.Od’ (forgive the mountain vernacular) enough people to earn him the right to name the mountain. As a consequence of this behavior he was unwelcome to any more ‘Happy Hours’- ( aka-BBQ’s, or just making some mountain memories) on his hill’s namesake.
‘Jim, what are we doing here?’ My response to Kath’s question for the
last 125 days has been the same: to believe recklessly and behave playfully! Now with the sabbatical concluding in Montana, just as it had started in Turkey, it was time to live this out again.
Divisions today are not difficult to uncover. There are Palestinians and Israelis, police and unarmed pedestrians in Ferguson, Obama lovers and Tea Party zealots. Then there are a few dozen deer, some howling wolves, and a handful of humans living on a remote mountain in Montana. All of the above need to heed Rodney King’s
challenge: ‘Can’t we all just get along?’
But since Rodney King’s voice is not a particularly popular billboard in Northwest Montana, we decided food was still the king. We were there for such a time as this- to cultivate some hospitality and magical mountain moments. And yes, I decided to invite the ‘uninvited.’ On the sly, of course, surprise fireworks are always more spectacular!
Pastors for the most part are conflict adverse, yet I felt I owed it to him as to where he stood on the hill- besides I was out of there in 3 days! So I climbed the mountain. I informed him that he had indeed ‘P-Od’ people on the hill. ‘Who?’ He was clueless. (A common condition for these types- many require radical repentance!) Without specifying I asked him to trust my pastoral instincts. To my surprise, he did and he came.
There were no‘rocket’s red glare’ over the Montana skies that evening. Neither was there a‘Kumbaya’ moment on the Wolff’s patio. Only rave reviews for ‘bringing us all together.’
Hosting a hospitality moment on a mountain is nothing compared to the arduous climb necessary to achieve justice and reconciliation between peoples carrying centuries of hostility. The blood of humans, not hamburgers, has been shed and healing does not come without a high price. We are a fragile family that fractures frequently and requires forgiveness. As Eugene Peterson reminds us, ‘there are more than enough dirt, devils, and demons to destroy us all.’
Bonhoeffer is difficult to understand (the truest point I have made thus far!) But if I read him even half correctly, he is simply saying this: God is experienced in the encounter of Jesus Christ. He is THEE OTHER (incarnation, cross, resurrection) who ‘is only for others.’ Jesus is not discovered by escaping humanity- (nor by obsessing on some salacious pornographic end-time-tale). No, he is found by engaging ‘God in human form.’ Jesus is as near as ‘the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation.’ He is ‘on YOUR MOUNTAIN.’ That is the place to begin to discover who‘the others’ are.
‘Jesus is there only for others.’…‘The church is church only when it is there for others.’
On a rainy grey early June morning, the thought of a God who grieves was not exactly primary. The cool damp air had already penetrated our light jackets as we boarded the train at the ‘Zoo’ station in West Berlin. Our hope was to find, Marienburger Allee 43, the Bonhoeffer Haus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings and life had become one of the focal points of my sabbatical. His short 39 years of life had formed my faith and practice just as another 39 year old martyr, Martin Luther King, Jr’s life had done. While most know of King, Bonhoeffer’s legacy as a German Lutheran pastor attempting to bring an early end to Hitler’s life and consequently to the Nazis, is far less known. Even though the assassination plot failed and cost him his life, Bonhoeffer’s writings and thinking have not. His life continues to speak with amazing congruence to contemporary socio-political Christian conundrums.
At the door of the three-story light brown stucco house, we were asked to remove our wet attire. Quietly we were led into a warm spacious and brightly lit conference room lined with photos of significant points in Dietrich’s life. Kathie and I found two separated seats around a large wooden table where a resident pastor was engaging a group of Protestant seminarians and professors from Paris.
Our speaker stressed that Bonhoeffer’s thinking in later years was very different from his earlier. The ‘later’ (ie. prisoner) Bonhoeffer’s overriding issue, was not to be found in the ‘Cost of Discipleship’ (which he later saw as his attempt ‘to acquire faith by trying to live a holy life’), rather it was the desire to participate in faith by being where and who Jesus Christ was. His remaining quest was: ‘Who is Jesus Christ actually for us today?’ This is not an abstract question regarding God’s attributes, but rather a quest as to who Jesus is and what he is doing in the present.
For Bonhoeffer, God is found in Christ- the man for others. God so loved the world that He ‘consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.’ Precisely at this place of suffering and abandonment God permanently establishes an unshakeable relationship with the world. Bonhoeffer’s search for Christ today is clear: ‘Jesus is there only for others.’
Bonhoeffer believed that the God of the Bible was a very different God than the ‘god of religion’. The God of the Bible is the ‘suffering God.’ Jesus, ‘the man for others’, continues to suffer at the hands of a godless world- and we ‘are summoned to share in God’s sufferings.’ Real repentance (metanoia) must move beyond a personal pietism where a person only obsesses on ‘ones own needs problems, sins, and fears’. Repentance is the decision to return to the God who ‘is there only for others’-the SUFFERING GOD.
The critique of his contemporary church (even his own Confessing Church) was clear. He writes, ‘our church has been fighting during these years only for its self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself. Just as Jesus was the man for others, ‘the church is only the church when it is there for others.’
What would the church look like if it only existed ‘for others?’ This is ‘upside down’ thinking where church communities are commonly suffering adverse and shopping around for the best religious rhyming rap. And who are ‘the others’ that God is grieving for? I guess I need to write a another entry!
‘Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.’- Christians and Pagans- a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
‘We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short from the perspective of those who suffer.”
When one wanted to loose oneself from the ongoing mantra of Nazi war sites in Berlin, there was always the Tiergarten. ‘Thank God for the Tiergarten!’ A green space of nearly two square miles, sprawling with plains (trees) and waterways, providing a much desired respite for Berliners weary of the German grind. One sunny Sunday afternoon this June, Kathie and I, found and shared a shaded bench with two young ladies conversing in French. As we enjoyed this sensual sanctuary on our sabbatical, the sufferings of seventy years ago seemed as far away as the Berlin wall does to contemporary Berliners.
But the space between succor and suffering is as small as crossing the street. Directly across from the Tiergarten stands the Berliner Philharmonic, an architectural acoustical masterpiece, where one of the greatest orchestras performs. Adjacent lies a vacant lot, with a plaque embedded into the pavement reading: ‘Tiergartenstrase No. 4- Action T4.’
‘Action T4’ was the code name given in the late 1930’s to the racial cleansing that Hitler began on his own people. By the beauty of the Tiergarten, the first acts of compulsory sterilizations and euthanasia were incubated, marking the beginning of what would become the foundation for the ‘Final Solution.’
The Berliner Philharmonic side by side with ‘Action T4’ represent two tales, two views, one ‘from above’; the other ‘from below’.
Kathie and I saw high ‘from above’, perched in our ‘seventh heaven sixty, Euro seats’, listening to a seventy-piece orchestra play the celestial sounds of Strauss. This was ‘sabbatical on steroids.’
Neither the view nor the electric energy between orchestra and audience could be sustained. The scene ‘from below’- ‘Action T4’ remained as we exited the Philharmonic to our train. This tale of horror was juxtaposed to a tale of heaven by only a few meters. The diced difference between tears of joy and tears of suffering, were sharpened in the Tiergarten. A conundrum contained deep within the German soul.
And also ours! Bonhoeffer writes, ‘We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.’ Bonhoeffer is pushing the envelope here- he is claiming that ‘the act of Christian faith’ is to stand with God in HIS SUFFERING. ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’ This is the question of a grieving God in Gethsemane. Why? What good could his ‘friends’ have been? God grieves and He does not desire to grieve alone!
Where are we, when GOD GRIEVES, in His Tiergarten?
“Everyone wants a happy ending to a story-but some stories have no ending at all.”- Eldad Beck, (3rd generation Holocaust Survivor, in Hitler’s Children)
“What happened to Christ has happened for all, for he was the human being.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer- Ethics
“The German people are dealing with their past shame. In fact the way that they are coping with it may very well be an excellent model for other nations who are still unwilling to honestly look at their past.” REALLY? I thought to myself as Kathie and I listened to our German tour guide while on a walking tour of today’s Berlin. Is it really possible to find closure for the travesties of the Nazis? Is there possibly a ‘take away?’
It was true. Kathie and I saw the sculpture of a grieving mother holding her dead son at the ‘Memorial to Victims of War & Tyranny.’ The ‘Holocaust Memorial & Museum’ found us loosing ourselves among the 2100 dark granite ‘coffins’ towering higher and higher as each year during the war the efficiency of the German killing machine improved. We noted the bullet marks still remaining scared into the stone facade of Berlin buildings. When we walked into the German Reichstag, we were reminded that not everyone was ‘in step’ with Hitler. There, 96 names of assassinated elected representatives are memorialized because of their political opposition to the Third Reich. (We pay ‘silver- tongue radio DJ’s’ to do our ‘character’ assassinations!) We stood inside the court-way building where General Stauffenberg (one of the people who led the July 20, 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life- and whose story is seen in the movie ‘VALKIRIE’) and others were shot by a firing squad. The Germans were not hiding what had happened 70 years previous.
The German people with courageous honesty were unpacking their shame. And, yes, our German guide was right when he pointed to this ‘unpacking’ as a necessary exercise for other nations as well. I wondered to myself if our country has been as courageous in unpacking our unwanted cargo: Slavery, Jim Crow, and costly & unnecessary Wars- to name a few. Unpacking shame, whether personal or corporate, necessitates a courageous honesty. Give credit to the German people for making a start.
A start for sure, but it is only a tiny drop in a sea of mammoth misery.
Eldad Beck (a 3rd generation Holocaust survivor), after an Auschwitz visit, accurately assesses: ‘Everyone wants a happy ending to a story- but some stories have no ending at all.’
Point well taken, yet the story continues- and so does the unpacking. As a pastor of the ‘other race’- every act or word that encourages and strengthens my African-American brother or sister breaks open this suitcase of shame a little further. And each time I or my family pays a personal price (make no mistake, the cross does carry ragged edges) for engaging in this activity- it gives my African-American friends an opportunity to unpack our shame.
This is an ongoing task. Like the Dutch who continue to live by holding back the never-ending threat of flooding with their dykes, ditches, and dunes. So this mission of setting one another free from the ever-constricting chains of shame is what enables us to become human.
How? As Bonhoeffer tells it, ‘God became human so that human beings could become human.’ Every piece of shame we courageously and honestly unpack moves us closer to authentic humanity- that is Jesus.
Unpacking shame ain’t just for Germans!
'Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One can protest against evil; it can be exposed…against stupidity we are defenseless.'- Dietrich Bonhoeffer- “After 10 Years- 1943.”
Is ‘stupidity’ a German gene?
If Auschwitz further radicalized my reckless belief, leaving it gave opportunity to behave playfully. As our luggage was being swept off the Prague platform by a Czech trying to earn a tip, we found ourselves relaxing in a first class suite sipping coffee. The German ICE train whisked us at 130 mph out of the old and into the new. We were leaving the former Soviet satellites and entering what was being named the ‘new Germany.’
But ‘Berlin’ by now represents far more than schnitzel, sausages, and sauerkraut. Auschwitz wasn’t the only dark place I had paid a visit. I also lost myself during the visit to Oskar Schindler's museum in Krakow. I stood beside the Danube in Budapest and saw the bronze shoes set on its edge representing the nameless Jews who were tied together 2 by 2 so the Nazi's could ‘kill 2 for 1 bullet.’ I had listened to the stories of how the Germans starved entire towns on their march eastward toward the Soviet Union. And now we were headed to Berlin, the place where the ‘master race master-minded’ it all, at a price of 50 million lives.
How could the ethnicity of the Enlightenment evolve into an absence of light? How does one give an account for what happened in Germany and Europe from March 1933 to May 1945? How could centuries of rich German culture and thought be permanently scared in 12 sudden years? How could Berlin give birth to both a Bonhoeffer and a Hitler bunker? In short, how could this happen?
Berlin quickly became personal as I heard my German name called. 'Herr Wolff' the security guard shot back as he checked my American passport at the entrance to the German Reichstag (the German ‘House of Representatives.’) 'We must be related!' With a smile he directed me to his nametag: 'Klaus Dieter Wolff'. Yes, ‘Wolff’ was and is German and very possibly Jewish. (In Anne Frank's house, a place where Jews were hid in Holland, a 'Wolff' family was entered into the guest ledger.)
It is easy to demonize the Nazi's (we have everything from ‘calorie counter’ to ‘church heresy hunter’ Nazi’s) and to thereby keep their degenerate gene in a ‘never-never land’. But Klaus Dieter Wolff made my resemblance personal.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘stupid’ statement also spoke to my heart. 'Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One can protest against evil; it can be exposed...against stupidity we are defenseless.' Yet stupidity is not a dull intellect; on the contrary many stupid people have a 'remarkably agile intellect.' What marks a 'stupid person' is their refusal to challenge their own prejudgments or worldview. Even irrefutable facts are pushed aside as 'inconsequential or incidental.' Making matters worse the 'stupid person' is 'easily irritated, and becomes dangerous by going on the attack.'
Stupidity! Could that explain what has happened and continues to happen? Or is it only the Germans who get ‘stuck on stupid?’ This gene of stupidity is not generic to Germans, it is germane to humankind. And it is particularly acute in our religious and political landscapes.
Could this ‘stupidity gene’ be what is infecting our polarized partisan politics today? Why do we talk past each other on common ground topics like health care, immigration, climate change, illegal & legal abortion, and the proliferation of violence & killing of ourselves by our own weapons of mass destruction? The church unfortunately is not immune to this 'stupidity sickness.’ Sadly when it comes to discussions around poverty and race, clergy sex abuse, women in leadership, and (our most current lethal ‘stupidity’) same sex unions and marriages, the ‘stuck on stupid gene’ is activated. And the church is viewed like some old Nazi movie.
Only when we willingly crucify our ‘cocksure contagion’ (Eg.“This is what I think and I’m sticking to it!”) will we begin to move off ‘stuck on stupid.’ We can’t be cocksure of anything- not my line but Eugene Peterson’s. Today Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Discipleship’ may be the suffering that comes from being personally vulnerable and having a willingness to take a good look at oneself and be okay with doubt and uncertainty. And Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cheap Grace’- that may be the cozy spot of ‘stuck on stupid.’
AUSCHWITZ 'Thy kingdom come.'
Auschwitz. One is tempted toward sliding away from it with some simplistic slogans (or a stiff drink!) But one best pray, because one humanly does not have the capacity to contain it. It is a darkness that does 'put out light.' The depth, deceit, detail, and depravity of this dark place does cry with Jesus and His people through the centuries, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?'
Auschwitz demands of one something larger. Larger than a particular theology, larger than a parochial ecclesiology, larger (may I recklessly add) than just the Judeo-Christian faith. It demands the ever expansive Kingdom of God. One cannot visit Auschwitz without having one's 'kingdom boundaries' expanded. But this should come as no surprise, God is always pulling us into MORE. The twist here is God's ability to achieve this not via force but through the infinitely greater power of suffering. In the kingdom of God the way of suffering triumphs!
Auschwitz. From 1940-45, the 'master race', with an unimaginable meticulousness to detail, and an acquired efficiency at killing, quickly graduated from shooting hundreds (proved to be far too expensive), to cremating 1500, and gassing 8,000 victims per hour. A death factory- 1.3 million came to Auschwitz and 1.1 million were killed. As we know most were from the 'chosen people'- the Jews. (Although the impaired, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners, & Jehovah Witnesses were also included within the Nazis' scope. And I might add, they already were laying plans for other 'inferior people.')
Auschwitz. It not only outstrips superlatives surrounding the depravity of people- it cries for justice! But how? From whom? Out of the 1.3 million who came to the camp, only 110 were able to successfully escape. But the Nazis' layers of deception and secrecy were so thick that even the testimonies of the escapees among their own Jewish people (much less the wider world community) were not considered credible. To add further to this cry for vengeance is the fact that only 10% of the Nazis' who co-opted in this killing machine were ever brought to trail.
Auschwitz also raises the 'WHO HAD IT WORSE' question. What about the millions killed by Stalin? As a pastor for 35 years in the African-American church, I know some of their sufferings and ongoing desire for justice, due to 400 years of slavery. What about them? And we can move from Cambodia to China and only scratch the surface- in just the 20th century (our bloodiest century on record.)
Auschwitz, arouses abundant angst, yet it forces one toward a kingdom awareness. A sensitivity to the power of suffering and its force as witness. Adolf Hitler planned for his 'master race' to reign 1000 years. God tapped a 'rag-time band' from Abraham to bring in His kingdom reign. One a testimony to the use of force, the other a witness to suffering. It is no mystery today whose kingdom endures.
Last summer I asked Eugene Peterson, 'who will avenge the cries of those who are gunned down on the streets of this free nation?' 'Where are the victims now?' I think the same question can be asked of the victims of Auschwitz, Hitler, Stalin, Slave Traders, (you fill in your holocaust of choice.) Where are they? Will they be heard? When? Eugene pointed me to those 'under the altar, the souls who have been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.' (Revelation 6:9.)
Auschwitz. It demands an expansiveness beyond the 'favorite 144,000.' Those 'under the altar' are more numerous than our tidy categories contain. Their count goes beyond the lines of Christian or Jew or Muslim or Soviet or African-American. 'Under the altar' are all the victims of the unimaginable brutality that people made in the image of God can inflict on other image bearers. Auschwitz compels a kingdom expansiveness.
And 'Yes', their testimony is waiting and WILL BE heard and avenged- it is already happening. As 1.1 million people per year visit Auschwitz, they BEGIN to hear the testimonies of those waiting 'under the altar.' When the church tells the stories of 'the faceless' innocently gunned down within the country that stands for liberty in entire world, we are hearing from 'under the altar', and beginning to receive an answer to what Jesus taught us to pray- 'Thy kingdom come.'
'WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?' Answer # 9
Swimming among the LUKE WARM in Laodicea. Part 2.
Doctor John did not stop with his diagnosis. 'You say you are rich....but you fail to realize that you are poor, blind, and naked.' WHAT? Is this another 'John Joke?' Again Sort-of. But don't forget, John is pulling us into a 'reckless belief.'
Laodiceans were anything BUT 'poor, blind, and naked.' They WERE RICH- and there in lie the cause of their lethargy. Within Asia Minor, Laodocia rivaled only Ephesus when it came to wealth, wisdom, and wonder. Founded by the generals of Alexander the Great, they also had their temples to Artemis and the Roman Emperors.
But what set the 125,000 citizens nestled in the valley apart, was their 'Location, Location, Location.' Traders traveling from Ephesus to Pergamun and Anakara to Anatolya (both East-West & North-South) found Laodicea the best 'hotel' to check into. They were the Chicago of the 1st century. To add to their wealth, Laodicea developed an outstanding textile industry. Nakedness was not their forte, thanks to their valley's cotton crop, they had the latest fashions. And as if this were not enough, they also specialized in 1st century corrective eye surgery (I wonder if they could of done my cataracts!) Throw in some fermented grapes from their valley's vineyards and there was more than enough reason for traders to stop, stay, and SPEND a few days.
Doctor John's jest was no joke. It was meant to hit 'below the belt.' The Laodiceans were being lulled into a lukewarm mediocrity by their wealth. Their walk had lost its edge- its sword. John's jab was more than just not choosing to stand on one's favorite 'self-righteous' soapbox. The joke spoke.....to their LIVES.
Jesus came 'to bring fire.' He came to 'divide.' The Gospel must bring BITE! It is not some moralistic middle-class NICENESS! Neither is it theological CORRECTNESS. No, it confronts, unsettles, and disrupts- particularly the RICH! (of whom I count myself a member).
Wealth insulates our living. It positions us into impotent postures-where we blend in with all the flowery wallpaper around us. Jesus is 'reckless.' His cross carries jagged edges that cannot be sanded down by our likes and dislikes. Jesus jars our lives away from ourselves and towards 'the poor, the blind, the naked.' How? Where do we 'Rich Laodiceans' begin? John points us toward the continual process of repentance before Jesus- who is ALWAYS there.
'I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.'
'WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?' Answer #8.
'Swimming among the LUKEWARM in Laodicea'---Part 1.
'Is there a swimming pool where we are staying tonight?' I asked our guide as we pulled into our Five-Star Colossea Thermal Hotel. 'A pool,... of course!'
As Kath made her way to the small warm outdoor wading pool I slipped into the other Olympic sized pool. 'Why were people only looking at it and no one swimming?' As I hit the water its frigid impact gave me my answer!
I managed to get a few laps in and then promptly pulled a muscle in the chilly waters. It was time to find those healing thermal waters. We both headed inside. As I entered the attendant began to wave his hands, hollering in Turkish, and pointing to my head. 'You need a hairnet on your head' Kath poked me. 'A hairnet! You've got to be kidding. I don't have any hair!'
'What were we doing there?' The next hour saw 2 white netted American heads 'behaving playfully', warming themselves among waters spewing several foreign languages.
'Your deeds are lukewarm- neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other!... I am about to spit you out of my mouth.' St. John writes to the Laodicean Christians. 'John, you've got to be joking.' Sort of it turns out.
Laodicea is located in the Lykos Valley, bearing semblances to Livingston, Montana's Paradise Valley. Except here hay is not grown but hasheesh and opium poppies. On one side are the snow capped Bubba Mountains with ice-cold rivers cascading down and on the other side- the ancient city of Heraopolis with its stone white rocks spewing hot water into the valley. Laodicea had both hot and cold water plumbing for thousands of years!
But John's thermometer read the church's temperature as tepid. Neither bringing cool refreshment nor warm healing- only an unwanted mediocrity. If one's beer is warm or coffee cold, they are best spit out than swallowed.
John calls for repentance. Their deeds brought neither refreshment from meaningless materialism nor spiritual healing from a hollow human worship of the emperor- or worse yet Artemis- a sex goddess.
Meaningless materialism and 'worship' of our human 'graven images'- things have not changed much.
Swimming in lukewarm water is safe-no burns or pulled muscles. But a 'reckless belief' and a 'playful behavior' demand more. They require acts of risk. Deeds which challenge 'the party line' and are creative expressions of the Love that lives in us. This 'distinctive temperature' is what attracted people into the early church's baptismal pool.
'What are we doing here?'----Recklessly and playfully swimming in some strange surroundings!