Sunday, August 23, 2015

Slow church

Muggy. We were meeting in an Episcopal church along the river in a deeply wooded neighborhood of North Jacksonville. Good hiking trails to the river we were told at lunch time. No thanks. Too hot! On the deck outside our meeting room a family of raccoons hiked by. Not too hot and humid for them. We got a sandwich and continued talking. Our vision team was retreating, considering the insights from the book, Slow Church. Our church is slow enough I thought. We are out of the mainstream current for sure. So slow I wondered some times if were moving at all. What about finances? What about sustainability? We were a small, slow church. Who was going to replace those who moved on to other places, faster churches, perhaps? Those were some of my anxious questions. We don't have a permanent home. We have had to move several times in the past year. We are like nomads, someone offered. Hard to grow when you are moving all the time. Some Sundays we meet at the laundromat and wash and dry clothes with the locals or at the neighborhood park and clean and cook and talk to the people. I wonder some times what we are doing. If we are getting anywhere. What is our mission? We asked at this retreat.

We have t-shirts that share our vision: Love others, no exceptions. We are a diverse group, if a small one. The pastor led us in a reading from Ephesians 1. We heard the words of grace and blessing. Blessing, we said, a word over used for sure. What if everyone knew they were blessed by God, lavishly. We knew a lot of people who did not know that, and felt like an unblessing. What if people felt they mattered to God and he had blessed them so they could bless others. No matter who they were or how unblessed others saw them. What a powerful vision! By the end of the meetings my anxious questions had melted away. Let's go, slow.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hope for North Korea

Night time photos shot from space over North Korea reveal a country in total darkness when compared to the night time lights of China or South Korea. Some new memoirs are appearing that shed some light on life in the darkness that is North Korea. Most Westerners know little about life there. Joseph Kim's memoir, Under the Same Sky, is a must read for a number of reasons. Kim, who is only in his late 20's now, begins his story when he is an elementary student. Like many kids he enjoyed playing outside with friends and the love of his parents who desired the best for him. But, the best in NK is very different from the least in many other places. Kim knew nothing about life outside NK. When Kim Il Sung died what economy that NK had died, too. The years of the Great Famine began. Millions died of starvation while others scavenged for something to eat every day. People searched the mountains for food, sold what they could, bargained, stole or tried to sneak into China to trade goods. If they were caught they went to prison; gangs of pre-teens were rounded up and sent to brutal youth detention centers. Young girls were sold as sex slaves. Kim's story reveals a place that deserves to be in one of Dante's circles of hell. Yet, Kim and his fellow North Koreans knew no different and loved their homeland. They hoped for better days even while their friends and families died. After his father died, his mother was in prison and his sister sold over the border in China, Kim chose to try to cross the border himself. One of his ex-con friends told him to look for a church. What is a church, he asked. It is a place that talks about God. Who is God, he asked. North Korea is an atheist country and it has pretty much rid it's life of any traces of God. In fact, NK is what life looks like when people have done that. Or, when the state has done that. The people are quite open to hearing about Christianity. When Kim crosses the border he asks an old man how he can find a church. Look for a cross, the man said. Kim knew what a cross was it meant a hospital in NK. How do I find one, Kim asked the man. Look up, the man said. Kim did and he found a church. Not every church helped him but one did and through a Christian grandmother and LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) he was helped to find a new life in America. It's not a fairy tale story. Kim still has plenty of challenges; some days he is memorizing the Bible and other days spiraling into another round of depression. He has been out of NK for nine years and here with the help of author Stephan Talty tells his story. He says he told his story so that others would have a more compassionate perspective of the North Korean people. "My hope in telling my story, our story, is that the lives of the North Korean people would not be forgotten. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to so many important people in my life who have helped me to make it this far and have been a part of shaping who I am today.

We need these stories. So we don't forget. Some days Kim is consumed by survivor's guilt but he has  hope that things can get better in his home country for his people. And that he will be reunited with  his sister, Bong Sook,  who he dedicated this book to. Hope is what makes us live, he says.

Spiritual warfare

I was preaching on Ephesians 6:10-18 on Sunday. Our pastor was wrapping up a series on Ephesians from the lectionary and since she was away all week asked me to preach on this concluding text. I kidded her about wanting to get out of a difficult text. She told me I could preach on whatever I wanted. So I went with the challenge - and finished the Ephesian series. Eph 6: 10-18 is on spiritual warfare. Judging by the number of Christian books written on this subject, it is a huge deal. I have read some of them. They get into spiritual mapping and many other technical aspects of spiritual warfare. It would seem there is a lot to know - beyond what Paul writes. Some Christian writers/preachers believe that the legion of devils led by satan have targeted individual Christians and their churches to disable the good work God is doing through them.  In their thinking, this text becomes very individualized and personal.  There is a good bit of anxiety and fear of the devil that is a consequence of their teaching. Which seems the opposite of what Paul is saying.

Ralph Martin points out in his commentary on Ephesians that it was a fear of the demonic that led Paul to write about spiritual warfare in the first place. Because of that fear, Christians were defecting under pressure. Thus, Paul writes, Resist, Watch, Pray, and Be Alert!.

What Paul says here is not all that different from the counsel he has given in other places. In fact, to call it spiritual warfare is to put words in Paul's mouth and strange ideas in our own minds. This is not about some special battle with evil we are called to fight. It is a reminder that we live out the gospel in a hostile world. Calling the Church to remain steadfast in the midst of constant trials is a common theme of Paul (and James and Peter). The point here is the strength of God's power (6:10, echoing 1:19) - Which was a at work when God raised Jesus from the dead to rule over all the principalities and powers.

Be strong in the Lord is a command! In the Lord means in union with Christ in whom we are raised and seated above the principalities and powers. But, not just yet. Our hope is tempered by the realities of living in a world that poses numerous opportunities for people to resist God and His will. No less the Church which can be distracted by all sorts of silliness and worse, and tempted to act as if we were above temptation to sin. We can be so optimistic we ignore the evils around us, or so pessimistic we cringe every time a demon peeks at us from behind a bush, or we can be realistic which is what Paul advises here.

God has given us what we need to resist the assaults of the evil powers. We do not have to rely on our own strength which is not very strong at all but that's ok because we have God's mighty strength. "In the interim we are to resist the resistance to God's cause. We are not called to defend God, not even called exactly to defend our own souls; we are called to defend the beachheads God's cause has made, the displays here and there of a renewed creation and a new humanity, the places and times that bear the promise of God's good future." (Verhey and Harvard, Ephesians).

The weapons of war that Paul enumerates are not the secret of our success but the fact that they are God's weapons give us confidence. The weapons have all been mentioned before in the Bible. And they were visible to Paul every day that he was held as Roman prisoner. As Martin notes what is important is that no provision is lacking, no part of the body is unprotected. Our protection as believers is complete and sure.

The Bible does not explain evil - where it came from or why it is - it only says it is and we can readily agree with that. We know it when we see it. As we live out the Kingdom of God life here on earth we will have many encounters with it. "We will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us." (Martin Luther).