Friday, February 29, 2008

The gospel setting the stage for Justice.

A speaker (I didn't get his name) I listened to recently left me with this paraphrased quote which I found helpful:

The gospel replaces pride with confident teachability and fear with love.  Both are needed to pursue justice.   

A Raisin in the Sun -- P. Diddy & The Hansberry family

Here it is February 29th and I have only now gotten around to a post recognizing Black History month.    I have been encouraging folks to read a book AT LEAST once a year around black history.  A book about the civil rights era, a biography of Fredrick Douglas, or perhaps Dr. King or some other place to start.  

Another great option would be reading or watching "A Raisin in the Sun".   This story has close to home implications for me as the story actually took place between where I live and where I work. 

The neighborhood I live in is called Woodlawn.  In the 40's it was an all white neighborhood.   At this time the community was at the south end of the rapidly expanding and horrendously overcrowded black south side (called the Black Belt or Bronzeville).  The neighboring white neighborhoods made what were called "restrictive housing covenants" to cooperatively agree to keep blacks out of the neighborhood.  

The Hansberry family bought a place at 6140 South Rhodes.  (Our building is on the corner of 61st street and Eberhart -- one block West of Rhodes).   They faced incredible
 neighborhood persecution (terrorism, racism, zealoutry, bigotry. .. whatever you want to call it it was extreme!).  Thier daughter Lorraine Hansberry wrote a play to tell the story of the families expeience mainly leading up to the decision to move in and the play (A Raisin in the Sun) became the first Black written play on Broadway.  

Ultimately the Hansberry's fought in court (Hansberry vs. Lee) and went all the way to the supreme court, winning a victory against these racist housing covenants. 

This past Monday night a made-for-TV movie aired staring Phylicia Rashad and Sean (Diddy) Combs.  I thought the performances were extremely compelling and mid way through the show I read aloud to my wife the poem by Langston Hughes called "A Dream Deferred" from which the title comes.  Given the intensity of injustice and hardship permeating the the Black American experience, the Hughes poem drips with a rich texture that rings true.  Combs and the movie also captured this truth in rich imagery -- heartbreakingly so.  
Here is the poem. 

 A Dream Deferred, by Langston Hughes.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore-- 
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over-- 
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Friday, February 22, 2008

City of . . . immigrants

I need to let everyone know that I took the name of my blog (which may change!) from a Steve Earle song called "City of Immigrants".  I don't know any other song by him.  . .never heard of him before this but love the song. 

It captures the beauty, wonder, complexity and variegated face of the urban world.  

Here are the Lyrics and check out the music on Rhapsody.

Livin’ in a city of immigrants 
I don’t need to go travelin’ 
Open my door and the world walks in 
Livin’ in a city of immigrants 

Livin’ in a city that never sleeps 
My heart keepin’ time to a thousand beats 
Singin’ in languages I don’t speak 
Livin’ in a city of immigrants 

City of black, city of white, city of light, city of innocents 
City of sweat, city of tears, city of prayers, city of immigrants 

Livin’ in a city where the dreams of men 
Reach up to touch the sky and then 
Tumble back down to earth again 
Livin’ in a city that never quits 

Livin’ in a city where the streets are paved 
With good intentions and a people’s faith 
In the sacred promise a statue made 
Livin’ in a city of immigrants 

City of stone, city of steel, city of wheels constantly spinnin’ 
City of bone, city of skin, city of pain, city of immigrants 

[All of us are immigrants 
Every daughter, every son 
Everyone is everyone 
All of us are immigrants

Livin’ in a city of immigrants 
River flows out and the sea rolls in 
Washin’ away nearly all of my sins 
Livin’ in a city of immigrants 

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Evil's 2 victories

From The End of Memory, Remembering rightly in a violent world by Miroslov Volf.

"To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one.  The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned". 

As I read about and explore the issues of justice this year, I am drawn to consider things surrounding the subject including forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace.  Volf has written among the most compelling work on reconciliation I have ever read in his book Exclusion and Embrace.  

In the book quoted above Volf is exploring what it means for someone to remember who has been hurt while maintaining the goal of neither hating the perpetrator nor disregarding him or the event but of actually doing what Christ has done:  Love your enemy.  

Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr and others would agree with Volf's premise that we tear the fabric of our own souls and wound ourselves beyond that which has been inflicted on us when we seek retribution.  Volf suggests that it is a "given of the Christian faith" that we must pursue justice but ultimately move beyond it for the sake of love of one's enemy.  

Monday, February 18, 2008

discipleship: what difference does it make?

At the risk of asking a really obvious question, I would like to ask the most important changes in your life as a result of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  

What knowledge, attitude, values and skills would you say are a direct outcome of your walk with Christ?

How do you behave differently?

How has the condition of your life improved?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Can we be Christians first?

I've gotten several emails forwarded to me lately from family and friends that are really troubling. Some of them have come asking for my thoughts, others have asked for my support.

One of the most troubling is about Obama. I've gotten this email several times. . . you know what it says: he is secretly a muslim, he attends a wacky church that is so pro-black and pro-Africa that it is "scary" to imagine him as president. His dad belongs to a sect that is terrorist and his mom is an Atheist.

Another one is about how George Bush is going to sign a document giving all illegal aliens social security benefits. I've gotten this one a few times too.

The problem with each of them is the thoughtlessness and lack of any semblance of Christian patterns of thought, spiritual scrutiny or biblical insight. While I could easily wax eloquent about either topic, I hesitate because the more you discuss these topics (especially immigration or political candidates) you are immediately thrust into partisan political debate -- somewhere that I prefer not to go until AFTER I have a strong sense of what a biblical perspective is or at least what biblical categories of consideration ought to be brought to the fore, prior to making strong assertions of a political nature.

It seems to me that contrary to mainstream American values, biblical wisdom indicates that we ought to be slow to speak (i.e. slow to pronouncements about political propositions) and quick to hear (i.e. taking a long time to listen carefully). These are principles that are contrary to the media and political processes. But they are central to our body, community, family! This is particularly true in cross-cultural settings, something that God is taking us toward as a planet in a rapid way.

I'll give you 2 examples from the recent emails I referred to earlier. Anyone who calls themselves a Christian and forwards the Obama email should realize that the scorn heaped on his church is equally heaped on us. We are with him under that scorn. you may think at first that the ridicule is on him for the Black focus and nature of the church, but the the heart of the scorn is that the church actually believes the gospel. (look carefully at their website and you will find that they recommend books by white authors and that affirm people -- not just black people). (Here is an article in CT in which Obama addresses his faith specifically).

The anti-illegal alien email is just as anchored in fear mongering as is the anti-Obama email. there is a phrase in the email that says we should give them "no free services". does this mean, as it suggests, that pregnant women who don't have legal access should not be granted medical care? what about thier children? I think the email means what it says: don't give them ANYTHING.

What is the biblical position on how we are to treat strangers and aliens? I know this sounds radical, but can we please be Christians first in our thinking about these subjects and our examination of political candidates and issues prior to being partisan?

Monday, February 11, 2008


I have opened the site to comments. . . actually i have tried this about 4 times but think I have finally figured it out. . . so, for those who have been reading and emailing. . . thanks, but feel free to use the comment function if you'd like!!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Camp Illiana

I had a great time this weekend at Camp Illiana. I was privileged to be invited to speak to college groups from around the State of Indiana about God's heart for the poor.

We did 4 sessions:

1. God's heart for the poor (Ps 113) and for the city (Jerm 29)
2. A regular dose of the gospel energizes mercy (and makes Christ visible). (Matt 18 and Luke 6)
3. Remember the gospel. . . Rom 3; Re-evaluate our wealth (1 Tim 6)
4. Reconciliation through the "likemindedness" of Phillipians 2. (a first step in making justice issues personal).

I am grateful that a number of the students will be joining us for a week of Bridge Builders missions experience in Chicago this spring. I was also really encouraged to hear from various members of the group that had attended BB in previous years that through their experience God led them to encourage students to move in the city, take on new majors in school and find other effective ways to remain committed to mercy/justice issues in their ministry and life.

Thanks for allowing me to come and may God grant us a heart that clings to the cross, doesn't shrink from suffering, and pursues justice and mercy out of gratitude.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Not the way its supposed to be. . .

Cornelius Plantinga Jr. wrote a book by the above title on Sin. It is a very helpful book in exploring what sin is, how it functions, how others have understood it. In closing the book (or perhaps I am remembering this from an interview with the author some place) Plantinga suggested that the book longed for a follow up with a book on Grace.

As I am now reading about the subject of Justice and trying to understand it within a biblical framework, the title of Plantinga's book came to my mind. Justice is fundamentally about "The way its supposed to be". Sin and injustice are very closely related and its easy to see that using the question or even "sense" of what is supposed to be.

It should come as little suprise that the root words in the NT for righteousness and justice are interchangeable. The greek word is dikiaos and is translated both as justice and righteousness. Here are some interesting definitions (from online lexicon):

1. in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God

2. the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God

3. integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting
in a narrower sense, justice or the virtue which gives each his due

So Justice is (a) the condition acceptable to God and (b) the virtue which gives each his due.

How is justice doing on your block?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Too Hot to Handel. . .

Paula and I went to a jazz and gospel rendition of Handel's Messiah last week. It was quite an experience hearing "unto us a child is born" with scat and swing! The first half was truly remarkable even though we had the sense they were just warming up.

The second half was a disappointment, however, as the arrangements made us think that whoever did them was clearly not a believer. "We all like sheep" was done in a very upbeat jazzy, party style tempo.

The remarkable thing about jazz, blues and gospel is the range of emotion AND content that it can support. This has been a part of my own great appreciation for living in an African American community and learning so much from the culture and tradition. I am still a presbyterian at heart and being in a black Baptist church constantly challenges my own sense of emotion about various messages. (can ya feel it??!!)

So while I likely often appear to be a frozen chosen one amidst a sea of openly celebratory faces, I love the way the message of Christ and His gospel is made viscerally relevant. We should be emotional about God's goodness, His provision, and His glory! Jazz, gospel and the blues has the ability to support this important content and make it live.

But. . . in Too Hot To Handel the song of mourning (we all like sheep have gone astray. . . each of us has turned to our own way) upbeat jazz was just the wrong form. A song of lament could have been carried by either gospel or blues in a way that delivered a crushing sense of truth to this. The repentant and sorrowful voice should have replaced the party-boy that we heard at the show.

Still, it was such a great intersection of Western culture and African American tradition that I was glad we went.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The pain of ministry in transition. . .(a bit more on Sunshine Cove)

Our pastor had the following thing to say yesterday in church:

"Today you are either coming out of a trial, in a trial or about to begin a trial. . . why do I know this is true? Because that is life. . . "

He was teaching about trials and how God uses them in our lives. It was an apt point of consideration for me to think about the process of camping ministry at Sunshine.

12 years ago my wife and I were finishing Moody and had a clear calling into ministry . . . we were headed for a field of ministry called Christian Camping. The main point for me was that I sensed God's leading in my life to teach the scriptures and I wanted to do it in a context that allowed for something beyond what I saw in pastoral ministry . . . something where you really have time to get folks away from their normal context and spend quality time together in God's word. Camping was that context.

After a year in an internship in north-central Wisconsin at Camp Forest Springs, we were called by our home church (Covenant Presbyterian Church of Chicago) to return to the city and investigate the potential for starting a new camp from scratch, somewhere within 2 hours of Chicago. Our conclusion was that most quality camps were (a) full most of the year and (b) a LONG drive from Chicago. Through this process of investigation I met Dana Thomas, Executive Director of Sunshine Gospel Ministries.

I shared with Dana my vision for running a quality camp and a key part of that vision: working with inner-city kids. Dana responded favorably and explained that his organization (Sunshine Gospel Ministries) owned a camp (called Camp Sun-Chi-Win) that the board was debating about how to develop or sell.

Dana loved the idea of camp but his focus was on growing the city ministry. We visited the camp and immediately fell in love with the place. We decided that this was where God was calling us but felt that the camp should really be a separate organization to have the appropriate amount of attention from the board. So we asked Sunshine's board to give it to us.

As a point of discussion we decided it would be good to call it something else. Since we were currently working with Covenant Pres we drafted a proposal and called the new organization "Sunshine Cove". The board turned us down on the idea of giving camp away but Dana encouraged us to consider coming on staff and pursuing the vision of camp under Sunshine's auspices. Over a period of a year or so the Lord led my family to join the staff at Sunshine to essentially restart a property and camp that was all but abandoned. We saw huge potential!

So we packed up our 4 little kids and moved into a frozen, leaking, drafty, wobly old mobile home parked squarely in the middle of camp. I quickly learned a few things about plumbing and tested the limits of existing knowledge about carpentry and caulk. (Can you caulk 1" wide seams??)

The following 2 years are a blur as we ran short camps, fixed things, raised funds, fixed things, networked with new churches, fixed things, got to know the neighbors, fixed things. . . . you get the idea. It was a massive investment in a place God had long been at work with an eye toward many more years of living and working and ministering there. Years earlier one of Sunshine's camp directors died on the property . . . I pretty much expected the same.

Then in the early part of 2001 Dana Thomas resigned his role as Executive Director. By then we'd recruited 7 staff and had a lot of momentum invested in getting camp moving ahead. I felt that it was pretty much my duty to throw my hat in the ring to be the new E.D -- even though I knew that likely meant the end of the dream for me personally and that one day I would need to return to the city.

I commuted for 3 years from camp to the city before arriving at the conclusion that God was calling me and my family back to the city. I was meeting with a local pastor who was not very involved in neighborhood ministry and became very frustrated with his lack of readiness to engage the community. . . I realized he wasn't ready to move and I was. So that night I drove back to Michigan and told my wife Paula, I sensed it was time to return to Chicago. This time to live in the community we were being called to serve.

God had drawn my heart away from camp and back to the city. But my children and my colleagues who remained at camp. . . their sense of calling and their heart for ministry remained at camp. The challenge in this has been that I love camp and my kids and my colleagues. Yet just as when I was interviewed by the board 12 years ago I suggested that the camp would be better off separate from the city ministry, I still believe this is so. Furthermore, now that I have been changed through the fires of urban ministry, racial reconciliation, seeing God's passion for the city, wrestling with issues of mercy and justice. . . I find that the demand for real leadership it takes to run camp actually detracts from the intensity and demand for leadership here in the city.

So I am incredibly torn. I visited camp with the kids about 3 weeks ago and was overcome with emotion at the idea of selling camp. It is just crushing. Yet if I consider the role of our mission in steering our focus of time, prayers, finances, I know that separating the camp from the city ministry is the wise thing to do.

I am glad for Sunshine's highly committed board of directors who have prayed and agonized about various decisions. The current board has wrestled with various options for months. Previous boards have wrestled with the options for camp for decades. I, for one, trust God to work through them and am glad that no one person, myself included, can or would make such monumental decisions.

God has blessed Sunshine with about 50 years of camping ministry which we were blessed to operate ourselves. In recent years the leading and blessing of God has been directed back in the city. We have a new building, an expanding reach, a new community, a growing missions program and outreach and the list could go on. The pain of seeing camp go does not mean that the impact of camp was not meaningful . . . it was life changing for thousands. It also does not mean that camp will not continue to be a transformational tool used by Sunshine.

But it is still exceedingly painful. Fortunately God meets us in our trials and his grace is sufficient to sustain us through the trial.

(For an article explaining what the board decided regarding camp visit the Sunshine Gospel Ministries blog.)