Second Chances

As we reflect on the theme of new life and resurrection related to Easter-tide, the ways in which second chances — and third or fourth ones, even — open up to us through the new life the risen Christ opens up continually before us seems central to me.

To celebrate it, here is a nice piece by Gregory Alan Isakov celebrating second chances:



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(repost) Dying To Live

As we celebrate the power of new life resurrection brings in our life in this season of Easter-tide between Easter Sunday & Ascension Day,  I thought this old devotional would be worth sharing.

What experience of resurrection power and new life are you finding this season?

Your progressive redneck preacher,



John 12:20-26.

seedlingJesus puts loss into a new perspective. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”.  Our struggles, our waiting, our trials, our losses, so often cause pain.  This pain can lead to the death of ego, a laying aside of our self-centeredness and unhealthy pride.   It takes such death for us to open to our new possibilities, open to God’s guidance in our lives, and open to knowing ourselves and others in a deeper level.

Death and resurrection is pictured in this image as the pathway to real, meaningful life.   We must constantly be willing to put aside parts of who we are, aspects of our identity we have clung to which now are becoming barriers to true loving service, to building reconciliation with justice, or to humbly connecting more deeply with God, ourselves, and others.   Only in doing so can we discover the life with purpose for which we were made.



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Songs of the Season: Songs of Justice

Continuing on the theme that the resurrection life we remember in this season between Easter Sunday and Ascension Day — which is possible to all of us, if we open ourselves to the living presence of Christ — calls us to lend our hands and discover God’s power to heal this world.

Because of this songs of justice are in fact Easter hymns, songs of the resurrection life.

I thought it was appropriate today to share a few that resonate with me, calling me to join in the work of justice, as the living body of Christ.



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Mirrors and dead weight

In my “Week in the Word” feature this week I am highlighting a message I gave in a series following Easter, 2013, at Diversity in Faith, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville where I was serving.

I hope it blesses you this week!

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,

your progressive redneck preacher,



Mirrors and Dead Weight

mirror dimlyHappy Easter! He is Risen! Though often we fail to recognize it, is still Easter. In the Christian year, Easter is not just one Sunday but continues for 40 days until Ascension Sunday, ultimately climaxing in the celebration of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Can anyone remember what we talked about last week?

As you may recall we are talking about the new life Jesus’ resurrection makes possible for you and for me. We mentioned that we would each week until Pentecost look at a different time one of Jesus’ followers encountering Jesus risen from the dead offering new life to help see what is possible for us with the new life we have in Christ.

Today I want to look at the story of Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus in John 20, verses 11-18.

John 20

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

African version of Jesus with Mary in GardenWhat are some things Mary’s experience of Jesus taught her about the new life Jesus is offering her?

First of all, Mary Magdalene’s story suggests that new life in Christ shows us that God already loves us and already believes in us.

Mary’s back story helps us The description in Luke 8.2 of Mary as one from whom seven spirits had been sent out suggests Mary had some sort of mental illness when she met Jesus, since that was a common description for what we call schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder in Jesus’ day. Such illnesses rarely just happen.

Usually someone is deeply hurt to get in such a place. Likely Mary Magdalene had experienced years of abuse, mistreatment, heartache and rejection before she became mentally ill. Likely she experienced even more after she got the title “Mary with the seven spirits” – crazy Mary! – from those around her. Yet Jesus was different. When Jesus met her he had not judged her. He loved her for who she was. He had shown her a compassion she had never seen. He had treated her as a child of God, dear, loved, accepted just as she was.


When she met Jesus somehow she was changed. The Bible doesn’t explain how that mental illness no longer wrecked Mary’s life, only that Jesus healed it. I wonder if it was less a miracle in the form of hands being set right and more a miracle of the quality of his love. His love was so deep, so true, so healing, that Mary could not but experience and begin to be healed. Around Jesus Mary was no longer crazy Mary but loved Mary, embraced Mary, respected Mary.

Experiencing this healing power of love is a part of what your new life in Christ, when you embrace it, can do for you.

beloved (1)

James Allison, one of my favorite theologians pictures the difference between the love our new life in Christ gives us and the love the world has taught us to expect in our old life in the following dialogues.

First, here is one picturing our Old life–

False god: I want to love you, but I can’t love you as you are, because you are sinful and objectively disordered.

Self: Well, what then must I do to be loved?

False god: You must become someone different.

Self: I’m up for it, show me how.

False god: Love isn’t something that can be earned, it just is.

Self: Well then how do I become the sort of person who can be loved?

False god: If I were you I would start somewhere else.

Self: That’s a great help. How do I start somewhere else?

False god: You can’t, because even starting off for somewhere else starts from you, and you can’t be loved.

Self: Well if I can’t start off from somewhere else, and I can’t start off from where I am, what can I do?

False god: Give up on the love thing; just obey and be paralysed.

The new life Jesus offers, which Mary has already experienced, is so very different.

Notice is Allison’s dialogue about the New life Christ makes possible –

Unambivalently loving God: I love you.

Self: but I’m full of [garbage] how can you love me?

Unambivalently loving God: I love you.

Self: but you can’t love me, I’m part of all this muck.

Unambivalently loving God: it’s you that I love.

Self: how can it be me that you love when I’ve been involved in bad relationships, dark rooms, machinations against other people?

Unambivalently loving God: it’s you that I love.

Self: But …

Unambivalently loving God: it’s you that I love.

Self: But …

Unambivalently loving God: it’s you that I love.

Self: OK then, so are you just going to leave me in the [garbage pile of a life]?

Unambivalently loving God: Because I love you, you are relaxing into my love and you will find yourself becoming loveable, indeed becoming someone that you will scarcely recognise.

Self: Hadn’t I better do something to get all ready for this becoming loveable?

Unambivalently loving God: Only if you haven’t yet got it that it’s I who do the work and you who get to shine. Because I love you, you are relaxing into being loved and will find yourself doing loveable things because you are loved.

Self: I think I could go along with this.

The power of God’s love heals Mary … and in your new life in Christ, a powerful love is available that when you embrace it is healing for you.

middle eastern mary magdalene

Yet this new life does more. There are suggestions within the Gospel that Jesus not only loved and accepted Mary, but also drew her in as one of his own students, teaching her the Gospel and the Scriptures. Outside the Bible early Christian writings tell stories of Mary Magdalene sitting at Jesus’ feet as a student of a rabbi, learning to teach the Bible for herself. Early Christians later call Mary Magdalene an apostle just like Peter, James, and John. Not only did Jesus love her with an unconditional love that helped her accept herself and heal from whatever abuse she had faced but Jesus also believed in her. When others looked at Mary Magdalene they saw a failure, a broken woman, a crazy person. When Jesus looked at her he saw potential. He saw a woman who could be counted on.

He saw someone whom God had a plan for. A woman who can be counted on.

God believes in Mary when no one else does. God believes in you. Turn to someone and say “God believes in you more than you believe in yourself”. Turn to someone else and say “With God all things are possible for you”. This is a part of what new life in Christ is about.

Not only does this speak to us about our broken pasts. But also as a church we say our mission is to welcome all people, without prejudice, into finding their place in God’s family. What can we do to let the Mary Magdalene’s of our community find their place in God’s family, despite everything the world says about them?

Secondly, I think its important to notice that she is shown that seeming ends and broken places can be places we experience this new beginning.

black mary magdalene

Mary Magdalene already had a lot of broken places in her life, as we just discussed. And now Jesus, the first one to believe in Mary, the first to show her unconditional love, had been taken from her – beaten, left for dead. To Mary it must have looked like an end, another broken place in our life. To Mary this new life in Christ must have looked like a dead end all of the sudden. Yet in encountering the risen Jesus Mary finds out things are not always what they appear.

Early mystics used to say that God allowed broken places in our life not to harm us but so they might become windows through which the light of God shines through. Now coming to the tomb Mary doesn’t see signs of death but is surrounded by signs of new life: She sees angels like the ones who appeared to the prophet Daniel proclaiming a new day was dawning. She sees Jesus alive again – appearing like a gardener who brings life out of dead ground. That Jesus is like a gardener is important because Adam was created as a gardener. This is a sign of God has begun making all things new.

What looked like the ultimate brokenness is not an end but a new beginning. Through the resurrection life Jesus gives Mary, her broken place has become a window through which God’s light shines through.


What is your broken place? The fact that you have been born again to living hope means that if you open yourselves to the light of God in this dark place, the brokenness you feel need not be your end but can become a window through which God’s light shines into your life and, through you, to others.

As you invite the new life Christ makes possible into that broken place it can become a window, a place in your life God’s light shines.

black mary magdaleneFinally a part of entering new life is to quit clinging to the old. Jesus hints at this when Mary so glad to see him greets him with his old name – Rabboni, or teacher– and grabs on to him, literally clings to him so as to not let go. Mary in some way wants to hang on to how she had come to know Jesus and who it had made her be.

On the one hand, who can blame her? Jesus had loved her like no-one else. In a land where she was known only as crazy Mary, in a world where women were to be seen not heard, Jesus had taken Mary on as his student, breaking all the rules to teach her Scripture, and to equip her just as much as the men in his life to be able to teach the disciples.

Mary saw Jesus and hoped this meant she could cling to him, and keep to the life she knew. Jesus says – no, you cannot cling to me. You cannot cling to how you have known me – as teacher – or how you have known yourself – as student. You certainly can’t cling to the names the world gave you of crazy, of useless, of worthless. Instead you must let me go ahead of you, prepare a place for you, and then you must follow me into a role of life, a place of life you could not expect.

It is easy for us to do as Mary and try to cling to our past, or dig our heels into our present. Even though the new life is available to us, we can refuse to embrace all its benefits when we do this. We can cling on to the way of relating to God we always have had. We can cling to those old patterns of life that are destructive. We can live in the past, reliving over and over again our abuse, our heartache, our pain. We can continue to stay hooked on the bottle or the pill. We can even cling by clinging on to a picture of Jesus or a way of worshipping or serving God we have come to be comfortable with,forgetting that Jesus always goes ahead of us, preparing a place for us, calling us to follow him out of our comfort zones to something new.

What are you clinging to, instead of letting it go so you can see Jesus go ahead, prepare a place for you, and call you out of the comfortable into the new?

I have placed two things in this room I want you to engage with as we close.

First in the corner I have placed a big cardboard window. Take a moment as we end and go to the window and write down a broken place in your life right now. As you do so invite the life of Christ into it, so it can become a window through which you see God. Take time to ask and look for God each time you face that brokenness, so God can show you how it is becoming a window.

Also I have placed strips of paper on the table beside them. I want to challenge you as we conclude, to think of what things you have been clinging on to which have kept you from fully entering into the new life God has for you or, if you have entered it, what comfort zones you are clinging to that keep you from fully being God’s light and love to others.

Take time to figure out what it is. Write them down on the slip. And then pray a prayer giving that to God. When you feel you have – whether this week, next month, or next year, come back here and lay that strip on the altar to God.

Resurrection Life as the Power and Call to Help Heal the World


As we continue to reflect on what the resurrection means in our daily life, I want to share another post about the kingdom of God as a lived reality here and now because of the value in seeing Jesus’ resurrection and our personal experience of that new kind of life becoming known to us personally as a sign that Jesus and Jesus’ message of the kingdom has been vindicated, which is the heart of what scholars like NT Wright and Marcus Borg say is the message of the New Testament.

Seen in this way, resurrection life reveals this different way of being community, this different set of values enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount and other gatherings of Jesus’ teachings, modeled in his life, is in fact the way forward individually and as a community.  It is the path to healing our hearts, relationships, and world.   Jesus’ resurrection somehow makes possible not just knowing we are called to share in this work, but also the power to do so.  Somehow, if we are open to it, the presence of the everywhere present living Christ can fill us through the Holy Spirit with power to continue Jesus’ work of loving, healing, serving, resisting evil, and building reconciling community all around us.

I hope my sharing again of this old devotional on Jesus’ Kingdom vision helps call you to join in the work of healing God’s world.


Your progressive redneck preacher,


Building A Better World Now, Not Just Looking for the Bye and Bye


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:

The Blue Ridge Parkway“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 church-of-god-feast-of-taberanaclesof 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, endinfeast-church-of-godg 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 jesus-and-dino-peaceable-kingdomhumanity 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.

secondcomingYet, 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.

sermon on the mount laura james“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.

swords-into-plowshares1peaceablekingdomSo, 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 john-g-fee-peaceable-kingdomworld 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 grimke-sisters-3bubble 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 sojourner-truth-aint-iwith 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 martin luther kingthe 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.

quote-the-kingdom-of-god-is-not-a-matter-of-getting-individuals-to-heaven-but-of-transforming-walter-rauschenbusch-73-24-39As 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,


Cajun and southern stories of social justice

Had a great time recording our next podcast with Rev. Dr. Rollin Russell last night — eating cajun and talking about New Orleans, hearing stories of resistance and reconciliation by faith heroes here in the southland from the Congregationalist tradition within which my United Church of Christ rests, and also hearing the wisdom Rollin’s decades of progressive ministry could provide. Then Rollin and his lovely wife Betsy welcomed me and my significant other to after dinner conversation over sparkling water on their porch. Porch-sitting in the evening air… a great way to end a night of celebrating southern folk of faith!

Watch for this & upcoming podcasts.

(Feel free to suggest other folks you think about with important stories to share about progressive faith and activism here in the south-land, y’all!)

Your progressive redneck preacher,


The Resurrection as Revealing the Kingdom

Continuing on the theme I gave earlier that a part of the reality of the resurrection is discovering the power to work to bring justice in the face of oppression and injustice, life in the midst of death, and healing in the midst of community, I want to share a couple of posts about Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom of God.   Many scholars suggest one understanding of the resurrection story — and our experience of new life breaking forth within us as we, like the disciples, have our own resurrection experience — is a vindication of Jesus and his message.   Resurrection means, despite every appearance to the contrary, Jesus’ vision of justice, community, embrace of all people, through nonviolent love is the way forward.  It will be realized.  And we have a part to play in it.

I want to share some pieces I wrote about the Kingdom of God, which is the social reality that resurrection life makes possible.  I begin with the devotional below, from a few years ago.

I hope they bless, challenge, and inspire you.

Your progressive redneck preacher,



Working For a Better World, Not Just Waiting For One

hellfire preachingMark 1:14-20

This morning as I read through the words of Jesus – “the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe” I have the distinctive memory of hearing a preacher in the church in which I was raised. It was a part of the Adventist movement called “the Church of God” which believed that Jesus’ second coming was right around the corner. Their hope of Christ’s coming was probably best presented by their hymn writer, Ross Jutsum, in his song “It Won’t Be Long Now”:

The preacher, whose congregation met in a simple rented hall, said that Jesus’ words were like someone announcing at a train station, “The train’s just around the bend. Get ready!” He said, as that group of Adventists believed, the Kingdom was this brave new world God was bringing from the sky where the problems of human existence are no more, where people learn no war no more, end poverty, and live in material health and prosperity. Jesus was saying to his audience – it’s coming soon, so get ready.

train round the bendTo that preacher it meant leaving “worldly ways”, following the straight and narrow, getting committed to church.   It meant following a list of rules that would create “clean living” so you were ready.

There, of course, was a huge hole in the preacher’s message, one that at that young age of 12 or 13 I could see clearly. If Jesus’ message “The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe” was saying the train of a new world at his return was just a-coming round the bend, well it would mean at best Jesus has some difficulty reading a watch or a train schedule. Because it would mean this new world was over 2,000 years late. That’s some pretty big bend to turn, Jesus!

What’s more I could see no real connection between the kind of world we were preparing for – a world without divisions of class and money, where the earth was pure and unpolluted, where all were healthy without sickness, where none peaceable kingdomwent hungry – and how we were told to repent. To pull away from the world?   But it is in this world, the one we are being told to pull away in order to acquire this holiness found in being living apart by rules that the very things we are waiting for God to wipe out exist. Wouldn’t getting ready for a world where these horrors are done away instead mean plunging into this world, attacking the causes of poverty and pollution, working to tear down barriers built up by race and religion? I could see where a call to prepare for a better world would make sense, but not by pulling away from the world; instead, through plunging into the world to make it better.

Later, I found my child-like instincts to be right. When I began to read the Bible for myself, I found Christ proclaiming in texts like Luke 4 that the Spirit had come upon him not for some time in the distant future but to right here and now proclaim the year of God’s favor, by healing the sick, opening blind eyes, fighting oppression.   I saw texts like the Gospel of Mark showing Jesus not just proclaiming a new day would dawn, but initiating it in the here and now by modeling a life of seeking out what is broken in this world and seeking to mend it.   I saw him teaching a way to mend the world we live in: by choosing to embrace peace-making rather than violence, by choosing to tear down barriers of division, by seeing in each person the presence of Christ, by feeding the poor and hungry, clothing the naked.

I found there was a reality to what that preacher was getting at. As I would later read Anglican theologian N. T. Wright say in his book Surprised by Hope it was right to realize that when Jesus speaks of the “kingdom” it was not just about heaven surprised by hopewhen we die which Jesus spoke. Instead Jesus really is talking about a healing of our world. That is what the Biblical prophets spoke of – of a day in which people would have access to healing to disease so that those who died at 100 were considered young, of areas no desert and wasteland from pollution & war becoming vibrant oases green with life, of war and violence being done away with so that life might thrive.

But far from saying as my Adventist church of my childhood said we must wait for this to come some day, let alone the message we must wait to abandon this dying world in a rapture folks in the Left Behind crowd taught, Jesus was saying that in his life, example, and world we are invited to become partners in bringing forth this new world on the earth.

By joining Jesus in the work of living out a different set of values than the dog-eat-dog, heartless, dehumanizing message of our world we become partners with Christ in healing our world.   We can partner with Jesus through the Spirit to help confront and overturn the causes of poverty and disease, violence both in people’s homes and in the world at large.   We can work to tear down walls of prejudice, discrimination, and heartache. We can stand against the systems of oppression all around us, working like Christ to set the oppressed free through programs of reform.

When I look at the history of Christianity, it is those engaged in such work who stand out as shining lights.

saint Hildegard and RichardisI think of Hildegard of Bingen in Medieval Europe who spoke of visions of a new world Christ was bringing and who therefore spoke out against the men in power who crushed the poor underfoot. Repent, she said, you who eat up the poor like bread.   For Christ is bringing a new day where none need hunger any longer.

I think of Sojourner Truth in America who spoke up against the dehumanizing practices of slavery and oppression of women. Her message “Ain’t I a woman?” echoed throughout the land and world, a clarion call for freedom from slavery for all people of every race and of recognizing women as equally in the image of God and deserving of rights.

We still have those engaged in such work today. When I lived in Fayetteville, NC, as a pastor I was impressed to know Chuck Fager and his work at the Quaker House.   Situated in a military town, Chuck worked tirelessly to raise awareness about alternatives to violence, both in terms of domestic violence and also warfare. The Quaker House spoke out against violence against people of color and LGBT people done in the community and within the military.   It continues to be a voice speaking up for peace, teaching people a path of beating swords into plowshares.

Today as I read these words I am not hearing a call to wait for someone else to come and set the world right. I hear God calling me to imagine with God what a world where violence, oppression, illness, and heartache fall aside looks like and to join Christ in the work of helping in my own small way make that a reality.

I think you can hear that voice too.

And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie here, folks.

Your progressive redneck preacher,