As I listen to the news about the changes coming to our country at the hands of a new administration in Washington, as well as changes in my own state at the hands of a new administration here – both of which have starkly different visions of what the future ought to be – I am drawn back again to the words of Psalm 103 I recently reflected on:
“Bless the Living One, O my soul,
and do not forget all Their benefits—
who works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.”
In a way, the Psalmists’ words anticipate a type of dreaming of a better future.
Growing up as a small child up into early adolescence, my parents brought me up in a small, little known religious tradition called “the Church of God” – not the faith-healing tongues-speaking Church of God of the Pentecostal movement, but the Church of God which was an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists.
Regularly this religious tradition preached in hope of a new day dawning, quoting prophets like Micah and Isaiah, both of whom dream of a new day coming for all humanity. Since he is my name-sake, I will share the words of Micah, taken from Micah 4:
“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk,
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
forever and ever.”
This vision in the “Church of God” tradition was seen to be coming in a “Wonderful World Tomorrow” which Jesus’ second coming would usher in, when instead of bringing an end of human history like some other Christian traditions envisioned, would in this tradition bring about a fuller flourishing of human life and creation. Jesus would set right everything, ending war and poverty, violence and greed, showing humanity who they can be at their fullest til the end finally came in new heavens & earth.
I remember hearing many a stirring vision of what this new world would be like preached by many a Church of God preacher in my childhood, especially at a week-long revival meeting style convention it had every fall during a period associated with the Jewish festival of Shavout (“Festival of Booths” or “Tabernacles” in many English Bibles), which, because of prophecies like Zechariah 14, they felt somehow symbolized a time when all humanity would be one. I even remember drawing a picture for a children’s church class imagining what it would be like, and shocking the teacher by drawing dinosaurs within my crayon picture of this peacable kingdom. Because if the lion can dwell with the lamb, surely I would be able to ride a brontosaurus, right?
But the downside of this tradition is, like many apocalyptic faiths, hoping for Jesus to come in the bye and bye and set things right didn’t lead folks to actually commit to do a lot to make this world, here and now, better. Instead folks expected that the world had to wind down, get worse, and come to near cataclysm first, to usher in Jesus’ second coming. So, when asked to volunteer or send missionaries to fix the systemic problems of the world from racism, to poverty, to disease, to famine, folks would say “no, that’s why we pray for Jesus to come. We can’t fix this broken world. We have to wait for Jesus to come and it has to get worse first”.
When my home church of my childhood and, with it, my family moved away from this tradition to evangelicalism, and my own faith journeyed through a time in the charismatic movement to eventually an embrace of an open-minded and open-hearted eclectic form of progressive Christianity, I began to look at this hope for a new world differently.
In evangelical and charismatic circles, the idea I saw proclaimed most was that the way to a better world, by and large, was through changing individual hearts. If more and more people could be “born again” through a personal experience of God opening their hearts, then finally our communities could be more whole.
Yet, as theologian NT Wright explains in his article “Farewell to Rapture” , ultimately many of the more dispensationalist and fundamentalist approaches to talk of a new world coming & Jesus’ second coming in evangelical and charismatic circles can lend themselves to a similar cynicism about the future which I saw in my childhood religion: the idea of the rapture promotes a “view of reality that allows people to pollute God’s world on the grounds that it’s all going to be destroyed soon”.
Bill Moyers writes in the same vein in his article “Welcome to Doomsday”: “As Glenn Scherer writes in his report for the on-line environmental magazine Grist, why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture? Why bother to convert to alternative sources of energy and reduce dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East? Anyway, until Christ does return, the Lord will provide… ”
My journey toward embracing the progressive Christianity that guides my spirituality and faith now started with really reading the teachings of Jesus. What struck me was how Jesus proclaimed a new world coming, just like Micah and Isaiah, but did so as if it was happening now, today.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1
“Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” – Luke 17
The more I looked at the teachings of the Jesus, the more it seemed to me that the heart of what Jesus is saying is to experience a new world, a new reality, you and I must change. We must live as if this new world has come.
This is very different than the Adventist vision of the future of my childhood and also the dreams of rapture common in much of the evangelical world. No waiting for Jesus by and by.
So, we want to see swords beaten into plowshares, right? We must learn to turn the other cheek when threatened with violence, to not return evil for evil and to break the cycle of retaliation. We must learn to reject “enemy” and “foreigner” (another rendering of the words in Scripture we often translate “stranger”) as false categories and instead love even those whom we fight threatening, different, or outside of our normal circle of hospitality. Heck, we must even show hospitality to those we are at odds with.
We want to see poverty end? We must not buy into the systems of financial oppression which benefit the few by pushing the many underfoot. We need to give generously instead of simply having money be a way to have power over others. We must choose if we have two cloaks (or more!) not to hoard what we have, but share it with others for the common good. If we have vast lands and properties, we must divest our wealth, selling the extras beyond what we need for our selves & families, so that the excess wealth can be redistributed to meet the needs of those without.
All of these are almost word for word teachings of Jesus and his early followers.
These are envisioning practical hands-on ways we can live out, in the here and now, patterns of life which fit the vision of Isaiah and Micah.
In effect, what Jesus challenges us to ask is “how would God dream the world to be better or different?” and, rather than waiting for Jesus to come in the sky, recognize we are the hands and feet of Jesus in this world today. We are the ones we have been waiting for. And by working together here and now with each other, trusting in God’s power and guidance if we get to work with an open heart to work to mend the brokenness of the world, we can make in our own small way that new world already present.
When I think about the moves toward pushing the world forward in such ways, it seems to me this is how it has always worked.
Long before the end of the Civil War, Congregationalist minister John G. Fee envisioned a world without slavery and worked, together with other supporters, to build a community
where freed slaves and white people lived together as equals, beginning one of the first home-grown abolitionist churches in the south and, out of it, Berea College. He did this under threat of violence and jail, but he did, because he knew the best way to help a world be borne in which people of all races are free and treated equal is to go ahead and treat people that way today.
Modern feminism seems to have begun to bubble up and burst forth in this same period when women like Sojourner Truth and Sarah Grimke loudly began to proclaim the power of women to turn the world on its head, saying “and ain’t I a woman?” They not only argued this, but at great cost began to live as if they already were equal to men, their voice already with hearing. Though the recent women’s march not only on Washington but on cities around the globe reminds us we have a long way to go resisting misogyny and patriarchy until there is full equality of the genders in our society, goodness knows what a difference their efforts have made! A few short centuries ago, women did not have much in ways of right to property, right to speak out, right to govern their own finances or vote, even right to manage their own health and bodies. What a difference their living as if the world was different, at great cost, did!
Similarly the Civil Rights movement resisting Jim Crow led by individuals like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Septima Clark, and Rosa Parks, also was at heart a choice to live as if the essential spiritual reality that all people are created of equal worth by God, regardless of race, against the patterns of a society that claimed otherwise. It birthed communities of people working together against racial and class lines, who actively resisting the patterns of the powers that be, in ways that disrupted them, pushing them to change. Ultimately as groups like “Black Lives Matter” remind us, this work is not done. But how far such living as if has made a difference!
I could go on to talk about the work of queer people like Harvey Milk, Troy Perry, Lee Frances Heller, Pauli Murray, and others; or people with disabilities who likewise chose to live against the grain.
As Walter Rauschenbusch, founder of the social Gospel movement, often argued, this reality – the Kingdom of God – never fully arrives, but is always but coming. Even so, the heart the teaching of Jesus is a call to help make it so. It is a call to live out the world we hope for today. Or as Gandhi often said, to be now the change we want to see in the world.
Is it any wonder that the ultimate call of this visionary prophet, Micah, is
God “has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8
What new and different world do you feel called to see happen? How have you found a way to embody it today?
Your progressive redneck preacher,