A Week in The New Testament: God’s Scandalous Compassion

To provide some wider context to the New Testament readings for the week, I want to share some reflections from Walter Brueggemann on the role of the New Testament and Jesus in the Christian life:

“Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion. Compassion
brueggemann 2constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. In the arrangement of ‘lawfulness; in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion. Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion. The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms. Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement. Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public
criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.” — From The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

I hope these reflections help give you some context and perspective as you crack open your Bibles and read the Scriptures along with me. To me they are reminders that ultimately the scandalous compassion of God, which Jesus embodied, is the lens through which we are to interpret our faith, our Scriptures, and our lives.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Micah

micah pic

I chose Matthew 14:27, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” for my breath prayer mindfulness practice this week. I noted each day my response to this verse.
Josephine-Wolfe-Jesus-Walking-on-Water As I begin my breath prayer on the first day, my feelings of fear welled up about being without a job. Then I gradually felt a sense of peace enveloping me, as remembered that at first the disciples felt fear in seeing Jesus. They thought Jesus was a ghost or evil spirit upon the waters of the sea when they saw him through the mist hearing him say these words. Yet it was the living Christ they saw, bringing peace and offering hope. It strikes me right now that my joblessness is giving me the opportunity to be here for some people close to me that are hurting. I feel for a moment God is telling me not to fear, for it is God with me, looking out for me, which I am experiencing in this time of waiting. The door I hope to see open is not coming yet not because God does not care. No, it is the opportunity for me to serve God and others in different ways, and when the right time comes, the way will be clear. Right now, the time I have without a job is a gift from God, not a curse, for I am able to help family and friends who might need me and grow in ways I won’t be able to when my new job comes.


On my second day of using this text for breath prayer, initially all it did was relax my body and calm me enough to face into some things happening around me. Then, as I meditated on the words with each breath, a realization came. It was as if I heard Christ with His voice of love whispering, “Which is more real in this moment, the storms and crises around you, or Me? What seems stronger and more able, the sources of fear, anxiety, and pain or Me, the Lord who comes in walking on the storm?” Jesus comes to me walking on these surrounding storms, whispering these words of peace. I need to put down my defenses so I can hear and trust Christ. Only then do I free myself so I may be fully present in my life storms.
Jesus-walking-on-Water-christianity-9568335-1024-768 On day three of using this text for breath prayer, first I felt a sense of peace. Saying these words was like leaning on a a good friend’s shoulder when they were worn and weary. Then a sense of enfolding presence surrounded me like the warmth when my mother would wrap me in a patchwork quilt when I lay at home feverish and sick as a child. In the words “take heart” I felt a rich feeling of encompassing embrace. This brought an encouragement to not just wait or rest but to a particular type of outlook and set of actions. In the midst of my uncertainty and stress I was reminded that I am carried by another, whose love is unswerving when the world may sway and twist. While others around me are not always be able to lift me up, I know Christ is present to lift me from the waters of fear.
On day four, what struck me was the phrase “it is”. So often I live my life fearing that next shoe will drop. Have you been there? I am reminded by these words that not only must I not live always expecting a shoe will drop, but I also need to embrace that some moments I cannot live just as if a shoe won’t drop. I can embrace those moments because I can remember “it is”. Sometimes, shoes will drop. And in the grand scheme of things, a shoe is just a shoe. Suffering, pain, or inconvenience are inevitable. Living in fear of them won’t prevent them, while embracing that they are just a part of the many threads woven into the afghan blanket of life allows me to experience them open to what they are. My Buddhist brothers and sisters remind me that true healing is not the removal of pain, but the changing of our relationship with it. Jesus calls me today to recognize pain will come, but a large part of my own suffering personally is how I respond to that pain. Christ comes to me in my pain, fear, doubt, and confusion as the one riding on the storm, hidden within it, walking on the water as if a fearful ghost. Yet the living Christ comes to me also as the one friend who can walk beside me on life’s long dark journey, always able to carry me through and lead me on.
On day five, the practice opened me to my mixed feelings of joy, anxiety, hope, and fear. It did this through the words “be” and “it is I”. Fear keeps us from truly “be”-ing real, truly being our authentic selves. My friend and ministry colleague, the Reverend Ted Warner, recently suggested that we think of Christian life as dance. This past week I’ve been blessed to spend a lot of time with my three year old nephew which has involved lots of dancing and singing. He asks me to dance with him and he dances like no one is watching. Or, rather, he dances as if there is One is watching, that One who finds every dance move he makes up to be great. He sings like no one would ever think to criticize his voice for style. He has not yet learned the fear that keeps folks from being true to themselves. I hear the call on morning five to open myself, to not let my own fears keep me from being true to myself. I am invited to trust that the heart of the universe and heart of my life is that One who looks at me with love, rejoicing at my dance and my song whenever it is heartfelt. I hear Jesus whispering to me, “take my hand. Just believe and let go.”


On day six, feelings began to bubble to the surface; feelings of disappointment and loss at some people in my life whom I’ve sadly learned I can’t lean on. These people often will present themselves as people I should trust with my heart, excusing painful actions by saying “it is I”, “I’m your—” relative, friend, etc., they say. Sometimes I know I struggle hearing Jesus, the Father, and the
Mothering Spirit as they whisper, “Take heart, it is; do not be afraid”. I struggle to realize their “it is I” is trustworthy. Others’ “It is me; trust me” have proven untrustworthy. When the Father, Son, and Mothering Holy Spirit say, “I’ve got you”, the ground will not fall beneath me. This day I’m hearing in my meditation a call to put down my defenses, and lay myself upon their mercy, letting their loving arms carry me. I’m hearing too to not always hear “It is I” as a promise that will be broken but to hear it also as a promise many will be faithful to answer.

jesus on water On day seven, the phrase “take heart” spoke to me like the words of an old friend, landing on my ears like the pat of my grandma’s hand on my shoulder when I was a little boy. Right now I feel really discouraged. Sometimes I’m trying to be there for some folks dear to me and it feels like no matter how hard I try, things get worse. Sometimes we do our best, care as best we can, things remain rocky, and we and those we care about get hurt. The breath meditation reminds me: “take heart”. Sometimes showing compassion is not about the outcome. Sometimes we face into things so much bigger than us that when we try to face into it it brings oh so much pain. This is when we have to remember — ultimately we are not the Savior, we are not the Liberator, we are not the Healer. We have to sometimes put our trials into the hands of Jesus, realizing that what we cannot do, Christ can. We have to sometimes hold the hand of the motherly Holy Spirit, leaning on her everlasting arms when it is hard to stand and our feet are uncertain. We have to trust those we love into the arms of the heavenly Father, knowing he can carry them through better than we can.

Beyond my breath prayer from this text, here are some reflections I gleaned from other New Testament texts this week:
pruning My view of Matthew 25:31-45 was forever changed when I learned Jesus’ word for “punishment” is the same word used for pruning trees. Pruning trees is certainly a painful process for the tree, but one that ensures its health and full growth. That understanding of the punishment which Jesus describes the Son of Man sending the goats to transforms my understanding of this whole story. In fact, it has changed how I view the Christian doctrine of judgment overall. God is not out to destroy a one of us like we are rubbish in the trash heap. The most far gone of us are of infinite worth to Christ. Nor is buddhist hellGod a child abuser sending God’s children to a torture chamber forever. Judgment instead is a pruning: God leading us through the fiery ordeal of facing those parts of ourselves which cause us to not live into our identity as children of God, to not reflect God’s image in our daily lives. God’s purpose, even for the goats in judgment, is for them to acknowledge that which is within them that stands in the way of loving God fully and their neighbors as themselves. So judgment is aimed not at destruction but at healing even the most hardened among us. God’s goal is to reconcile all creation to God’s self and all people to each other. The goal of judgment is transformation, not torture or destruction. I have great hope that God might just be able to pull this off.

 

passover meal Matthew 26:26-35. I notice two things: First, Jesus chooses to worship before his betrayal. The Passover meal he takes part in is an act of worship under Judaism, and though we often forget it, Jesus is Jewish. Also, the prayer he takes part in after passover is an act of worship. Jesus knows to have the strength to endure what lays
ahead of him in his betrayal and death, Jesus must reach up and out for strength from his jesus-restingFather and our Father, and the Mothering Holy Spirit who dwells in all things. Also, we begin to see his friends betray him. Sadly, having friends let us down is a part of life, one Jesus even experienced. Jesus is able later to model letting forgiveness color his friendship, allowing him to accept that even those closest to us, who love us the most, will let us down. With us as with Jesus, grounding ourselves in the One who never slumbers or sleeps, and will never let our feet slip, is the way to keep this openness to others through their frailties and failures.

 

friends Matthew 26:36-46 shows us the importance of simply sitting with and being present with another person in their time of trial. Very rarely do we let ourselves just be with one who is hurting, yet in our pain we know that such fellowship is what we need. Not answers, but companionship. Jesus cries out for this support his last night before his betrayal, but his friends are not able to offer it. How have you experienced people sitting by you in your pain? How have you experienced people not being able to sit another hour with you? How have you been there for others? How have you failed to sit another hour with them in their pain?

 

Matthew 26:47-56. Jesus confronts great powers of oppression in his last moments. He keys over powersconfronts what I believe is a mental illness that ultimately takes Judas’ life. He confronts the power of imperial oppression and systemic violence. He confronts religion turned into a tool of exclusion and oppression. Sometimes I feel at a loss in facing oppressive powers and systems around me : the power of family brokenness, the power of those I know facing illness, the power of homophobia and racism entrenched around me. Jesus shows a way forward. Right to the end, Jesus continues to love Judas, realizing the whole time that Judas is not an enemy, but one caught under the sway of these powers. Jesus loves those who kill him, praying for their forgiveness on the cross Devil_vs_Jesusand even extending an offer of hope of deliverance to one dying beside him. Yet Jesus also confronts head on the powers of oppression about him. He names them and — maybe most important! — chooses to respond in ways that don’t buy into them. No, we won’t return violence for violence. No, we won’t respond to their hatred with hatred. But no we won’t act like this system of oppression is ok either. I struggle to follow this path Jesus trail-blazes of loving unconditionally, while not also accepting as ok the ways illness, oppression, injustice, and violence catch people (and myself!) in self destructive patterns. But I believe the way Jesus paves is the way to liberation.

 

secondcoming So often we hear Jesus’ words to Caiphas and the Sanhedrin, “soon you will see the Chosen One seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven,” (Matthew 26:64) and think its either Jesus talking about his Deity or some second coming at the end of time. I’ve always read it that way, and I’m sure some of these ideas may be a part of what Jesus is saying. But I wonder, with what I read in Matthew 25, if this might be less about Jesus’ Deity or about the end of time and more about how, whenever we face someone homeless in jesus armssuffering, Jesus tells us we see the Chosen One, the Child of the Father in the mothering Holy Spirit, with us through them. Because us of this truth on that day we face our Creator that will say to us, “Whatever you did to them, you did to me”. Could Jesus’ talk of them seeing the Chosen One be less an allusion to the end of time or Jesus’s Divinity and more a way of saying, “If you had eyes to see, you would see the Chosen One, the Child of the Creator, present in each person standing on trial, in each person being locked up, in each person you execute”? I begin to wonder at times if a better way to read the texts of judgment is not “Left Behind” films and preaching but a call in this present moment to see the ways in which Christ is coming through the hurting all around us, coming and in or through them shining a light on and putting a mirror to our own lives. I do believe if we have eyes to see, we can see the eyes of Christ shining back at us through everyone tried of a crime, taken into a police car, put in jail, thrown in prison, put in SHU, executed or set free. I wonder if I learn to do that, how it would change the way I look at and respond to so many people. Oh Lord, help me see your eyes shining out of the eyes of all those around me!

 

transfiguration 2 The message I get from Luke 9:28-36 is that though mountain top experiences of phenomenal spiritual vision are a real thing, you can’t live up there on the mountain. The air is too blasted thin. And you and I have work to do. The purpose of the mountain top experience is to expose you to the Shining One who lights your path known by so many names, but to Christians as the living Christ who we are told is “God’s own, God’s Chosen One, whom must listen to”. What we need to do is not try to live in this mind-blowing experience, but get our tails off the mountain and learn every day to listen for the voice of That One. As we hear that daily whisper of the Savior, He will guide us to choices that are different. They may be as simple as being a listening ear to a friend or family member, helping watch somebody’s kid who needs a break, or as amazing to others as building a homeless ministry like Love Wins Ministries. But what it looks like to others doesn’t matter. Any work done with that heart of listening to the Savior as Christ leads you, is taking the mountaintop and making it alive and real here in our valleys.

 

Until All God’s Children Are Free: A Week in the Hebrew Scriptures

Many of our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures this week connect with the downfall of Saul, the first king of Israel. As such, I think that these words from Walter Brueggemann are apropos:
brueggemann     “From biblical times, those in authority have claimed that their hold on power is legitimate and rational. The claim is hard to counter, especially in ‘good times.’ But the Bible directs that we look behind the slogans and the shibboleths to see whether the way things are is the way they ought to be. A single conviction fuses all forms of protest: It could be otherwise. From slavery in ancient Egypt to genocide in Nazi Germany, from segregation in the United States to exploitation in Asian sweatshops, people have stood up and said: It could be otherwise. The message still echoes in the streets of Seattle, Paris, Washington, and Quebec–proclaimed by voices, feet, signs, bodies. Those with a vested interest in ‘how it is’ do not want to hear this message. They point to the social givens of age-old institutions (‘the way we’ve always done it’), of current ideologies (‘the demands of the market economy’), of future developments (‘in an age of globalization’), and insist that all is inevitable. Those who benefit from the status quo are content to agree. Those who do not benefit are too busy surviving in spite of the social givens to have time for dreaming of a different way. But faith has never been about sluggish contentment or bare-bones survival. Faith is about sufficiency–shalom. And as long as some have too much and others not enough, faith must look the social givens squarely in the eye, publicly declaring that their structures, systems, ideologies, and policies are neither immutable nor unassailable. The Old Testament is a crucial resource for such a public expression of faith – specifically its depiction of the monarchy in ancient Jerusalem…
injustice     Today, in the midst of social givens that have come to believe their own press releases, the burden of faith is to publicly ‘expose and exhibit’ those givens–to expose their unvarnished impact and to exhibit their untried alternatives. This is no easy task; the power of social givens … is all-encompassing. Unmasking them requires a body of citizens who have not accepted as immutable the dominant ideology and its resulting power arrangements and distribution of goods, but rather who are determined to de-absolutize them and to refute their claims of inevitability. As in ancient Israel, so today, this crucial task of critique and alternative needs to be practiced in a variety of ways. I suggest three: liturgy, prophetic utterance, and direct political action.
In ancient Israel, high liturgical practice pertained to the Jerusalem temple. But taken more broadly, liturgy was any stylized scripting that imagined reality within the categories of faith. communionWhen done with intentionality and courage, any contemporary liturgy–from freewheeling prayer service to stately Eucharist, from silent waiting to pulsating vocalization–can provide an alternative scripting of social reality. We need a greater awareness of this, a greater sense that the way we worship is more than just an expression of our relationship with God. The way we worship is also an announcement–first to ourselves, then to the world–that our symbolic actions are calling into question the way social reality is carried out, and are expressing what, from a faith perspective, may in fact be more real…. Today’s prophetic voices need to sound the same call for a covenantal economy of justice for the marginalized. We need to raise again the shrill warning–subsequently vindicated in Israel–that a social given, when it is inattentive to the marginalized, cannot in the long run be sustained. The God of the covenant, who wills another kind of social power, finally will authorize that alternative, an authorization before which self-serving social givens are helpless.
Moral Monday 1    Finally, the practice of critique and alternative was carried on in ancient Israel through direct political action. … In our own day, bodily resistance to exploitation continues. We saw it in the civil rights movement; we see it in workers who opt for “nothing” instead of toiling for the “something” that their overlords are convinced should satisfy them. We see it in these daring young (and not-so-young) protestors who put their bodies at risk in defiance of the authority that is the product and the protector of the givens. We hear it in the voices that refuse to stop asking: “Who benefits?” “Who pays?” “Who suffers?” In the eyes of faith, our own social situation is a replication of the ancient givens–the same uncomprehending ideologies; the same pain that goes unheeded; the same attentive, destabilizing God. The enactment of liturgy, the utterance of prophetic dissent, and the bodies put at risk, are all of a piece; they reinforce each other. And together they insist: It could be otherwise.”
( Taken from Walter Brueggemann, “Unmasking the Inevitable”, The Other Side Online, , July-August 2001, Vol. 37, No. 4.)

I hope as you crack open your Bibles and read these words together with me, these reflections help you consider the ways in which Christ is calling you to not just go along with the status quo, but to work to change it.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here.
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Micah

amendment one protest 2

Exodus 34:29-35’s line, “Moses…was not aware that the skin on his face was radiant from speaking with God” says it all, doesn’t it? I think of the mothers and fathers of the faith, as well as big brothers & sisters of the faith, whose life touched, healed, and guided me along the way. How true these words were of them, too! The ways in which their life had radiance that shined out to me revealing my path, who I am, and who God is, are exactly in ways they were often not aware. The ways in which they shined were simply them, being themselves in genuine ways, as people transformed by the living, loving God.
Moses-shining-face    I think sometimes we beat ourselves up thinking we have to be super-Christians, living perfect lives with perfect doctrine. Balderdash! We have to speak with God and let God speak with and in us, in our own bumbling stumbling ways, and trust. We have to trust that God’s presence will cause us to radiate, our lives to shine, knowing the sun doesn’t see its own light, but boy howdy how to makes all around it bright. We have to realize everyday that Christianity is simply about being ourselves, as we are, while being transformed daily by God. Who you are, as you are led in your everyday ordinary life, lights a fire others can see. That alone is often your greatest work and ministry.

 

1 Samuel 13:5-18. Saul’s downfall is to rush in rather than wait on God. Often we feel being busy doing this or that is superior to waiting and being present in the moment. Saul’s example, though, shows rushing ahead of God, desperate because you feel its all up to you, is like rushing your car forward without watching street lights and road signs. It’s a recipe for a crash. Lets learn when to not just hurry up and do something, but just sit there waiting on God.

 

honeycomb     1 Samuel 14:16-45 is a powerful message to all who lead: Don’t be a tyrant. Don’t, like Saul, put burdens on people they cannot bear. Saul lays the burden of not eating on people waging a battle, and it nearly causes the death of his own son. As a leader, your job is to be servant of all, to empower people to find their own strength. Your job is not to crush their spirit and instill fear in them.
I think this story also brings up something else really challenging when we dig beneath the surface. Saul brings out the ephod, a way of divining God’s will, seeking a sign of who sinned. Two options emerge — either Saul himself or his son who broke his heart-crushing edict. Saul assumes he’s guiltless as the creator of the unjust edict, and his son guilty for breaking it. I wonder. We set up rules, laws, and systems that crush the souls of others. They make it difficult to live and thrive under them. Yet we call breaking them “sins”, “crime”, and “immorality”. What is the real evil? Is it breaking the unjust law, or writing it? Who was the sinner, the man who put a man in chains as a slave, or the slave who ran and fled for his life from slavery? In our blindness we, like Saul, condemn as “sinner” our own blood, fellow children of God who are in our midst. Many of these we condemn have only the “sin” of living under weights of burdens we vote into place at the ballot box or congregational meeting, burdens we could not bear under if placed on us. Let us not be Sauls. Let us work to build a society where fewer people face the choice between various soul-crushing evils, but instead are given the freedom to live with respect and hope in this world.

roman military at war     I never really understood 1 Samuel 15. (In all honesty, I still don’t get all of this story). Why punish Saul for NOT killing someone or destroying things? Isn’t compassion better than genocide? I still have trouble ethically justifying the “holy wars” laws in the Hebrew Scriptures that undergird this story. I do not believe that a loving God commands genocide. However, reading it today I am struck that Saul does not seem to have really been moved by compassion. He and his troops save the things useful to them (food, gold, etc) , and the people they deem “worthy” (likely ones they can use as slaves, concubines, or prostitutes). They destroy everything else and everyone else. True compassion would not be motivated by a “strings-attached, what can I get from you?” approach. I think so often that we mistake compassion for just such a self interest. Because of this mistake, we get upset when people we “help” don’t appreciate it, resent our actions, or tell us they need something different than we offer. I think we often mistake love for this quid pro quo type Love without conditions Mertonrelationship. Because of this, we end up either in manipulative relationships where folks take advantage of us or we end up saying we love others in order to get things from them. Saul and the holy war laws are really not the place to start with this. For Christians, Christ is. Christ embodies limitless love and unconditional regard for all. I think too, in the Hebrew Scriptures, you do see examples of this type unconditional love. To me, Ruth and Naomi are a good example of figures in the Hebrew Scriptures with a deep unconditional love. Ruth tells Naomi, “I will go where you will go”, not expecting anything in return, simply out of a heart full of love.

SupperIsReady1     1 Samuel 15:24-35 shows that seeking forgiveness requires more than just saying the words “I’m sorry”. It seems Saul says I’m sorry not from a place of true contrition, but simply from his sense of “I’m sorry that I’m in trouble”. True repentance is your heart being moved so that you are motivated to change your attitudes and actions. This text reminds me of what Desmond Tutu used to say about reconciliation: It is hard to be reconciled to someone who says “I’m sorry I stole your pen”, while continuing to keep your pen in their own pocket.

 It is hard to be reconciled to someone who says "I'm sorry I stole your pen", while continuing to keep your pen in their own pocket.

It is hard to be reconciled to someone who says “I’m sorry I stole your pen”, while continuing to keep your pen in their own pocket.

This principle is true about our relationship with God: though forgiveness is there, we have to make steps to change in order not to put up barriers to a full experience of God. A picture of this comes from my own marriage. I cannot, for instance, hug my wife while I have my hands full of objects I’ve picked up. I have to lay them down to hold her tightly. Likewise, holding on to certain attitudes and actions keeps us from embracing God as fully as we are meant to do. This is true, though God’s love for us never wavers, even if we fail to fully let God in.
This principle is true for our relationships with others as well. You can’t reconcile with another while they are abusing you — you have to stand your ground against being used and abused. Not doing so is not reconciliation, it is being a doormat or a victim. God made you for more. Likewise, you cannot expect someone to simply accept you back in their life even though they forgive you, until you change the way you treat them, and sometimes make some amends to them or those you have hurt.
desmond_tutu_3_2     This is true in terms of our community life together as well. A part of why we have the conflict over race, gender, and sexuality is the fact that as a society we still have not fully owned up to the hurts we have historically caused others and continue to harm others. That is required for us to take the next step and more fully change our system. Changing our system to address injustice in it and making amends to groups we have harmed is required for a society as a whole if it hopes to help create a more fair world. Working toward such reconciliation is part of the call of people of faith. Let’s give back the pens, and work toward real reconciliation.

 

grief    1 Samuel 16:1-13. I have always focused on David’s call to be king in this passage before, but now I’m struck by God’s words to Samuel — “How long will you grieve for Saul…?” Even the
saints of old grieve! God recognizes Samuel needed to grieve. Sometimes we feel like grief is something we need to push through. I remember hearing a coach say to me as a kid, “suck it up”, and a relative tell me “big boys don’t cry”. Yet God seems to recognize Samuel needs to sit with and face his grief some. Samuel can’t just ignore the pain, nor just shut out the tears. Eventually, God sees that grief patternit is time for Saul to return to his work again as prophet active in the world, but it sounds like God recognizes a part of that work of prophet is to grieve. All the great prophets from Jeremiah to Jonah, from Micah to Moses, even to the One we call not just prophet but Word made flesh, our dear Jesus, grieved. They each wept salty tears of pain and loss. I need that reminder: to not forget grieving loss is a part of my task as a person of faith, and that also (like Samuel) it is only a part of my task. I must both make room to grieve and make room to be busy and active with God’s work in God’s world. How do you handle that balance in your times of loss or pain?

King Saul throwing a javelin at David     1 Samuel 16:14-17:11. I’m struck less by the story of David & Goliath in this section than that of Saul and David. We are told Saul had an “evil spirit” that came from time to time to afflict him, which led him to be angry, upset, depressed, and violent. My understanding is that most
of the times when the Bible uses that language of an evil spirit filling someone in this way, it is not (as in some rare accounts of possession in the Bible) talking about someone whose soul has been turned over to evil. I think it is generally a medical description: most of what we now call mental illness, as well as a number of neurological conditions people face that were called “having a foul spirit” by the wise end stigma 4men who filled the role of doctors in the ancient world. So I think we have an account of Saul in the throws of mental illness. A couple of interesting things come to me through this story as I face into the reality of mental illness in Saul’s life. David has compassion for Saul. Before I realized Saul had a mental illness, I always wondered why David did so. I mean after all, Saul tries to hurt and at times kill David. Then Saul will switch up and act like David’s a buddy. David treats Saul throughout like a father he loves, even though he has to hide from and defend himself from Saul’s behavior. I think David was able to understand on some level that Saul was not an evil man, but a very very sick man. I think David was able to see through Saul’s illness to see the same man that God had originally called to be king. I believe the fact that David could see this about Saul is why David could still love him like a father. This compassion may be a part of why David is called elsewhere in the Bible a “man after God’s own heart”. These elements of this story are instructive to me. The model it shows is of continuing to love and be there in what ways are safe for you for someone with such neurological and mental health concerns, while also not putting yourself in danger and clearly setting boundaries about what behaviors are hurtful for you and don’t work. Boy howdy, that’s hard! Boy howdy, that’s not straightforward! But I think it’s what compassion in such situations looks like. In truth, did Saul choose to be sick? Though the witness in Scripture is pretty ambiguous about it, from having known so many with mental illnesses my whole life, I can say: no, they don’t choose illness. Saul didn’t either. The person in your life with either a neurological condition or mental illness — or really any illness that causes them to have trouble acting in safe ways with others — has not chosen to be sick. Because of that, though you can’t allow yourself to be in a situation with them where you will be used, hurt, or abused, and there is a sense that you need to have compassion and realize this is a sickness they cannot control. They are suffering just as you are.

sunrise freedom     Another aspect of this story that speaks to me is David playing music to help soothe Saul’s mental health symptoms. This action of David’s is the first example I see in recorded literature of music therapy! There is something about music which is healing to our souls, helping us step out of our stress, our anxiety. This is true when our anxiety and stress are not symptoms of an illness and so much more so when they are connected with illness. To me, this is part of why I make listening to centering music a part of my spiritual practice. I’d be curious to hear how any of you deal with loving someone whose health condition makes it hard for them to chose safe behaviors for themselves and those around them; and also how you use music for emotional, mental, or spiritual health.

Jarrod Cochran & the Founding of a Southern Progressive Movement

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I had a recent dialogue with someone online about my blog. It went something like this:

“Progressive Redneck Preacher? You have got to be kidding.”

“I kind of am kidding, but why do you say that?”

“Well, you know, there aren’t any progressives down south.”

“Actually, there are several. I am one, after all. Let me tell you about some others.”

And then I began to share about some of the people I now am posting about in my Country Fried Chicken feature.

“Country Fried Chickens” are individuals who, like me, are children of the south. They were born to southern mamas, and grew up hearing the cry of the whip-poor-will. They grew up swimming and fishing in its rivers. Sweet tea runs through their veins and you can still see the shimmer of fried chicken grease sticking to their fingers. Yet like me they have seen the damage that approaches to the stranger, to the other, and to violence can produce and how ingrained they have become in our culture. These Country Fried Chickens are working to transform our culture to live out the best of our values, and truly be a place all are welcome at the family table as one.

One of the points I raised to this person that didn’t know there were southern progressives was that, not only do we have individual southerners raising their voice, but we also have movements for progressive values that have begun in the south and continue to spread like wildfire throughout our country. The Country Fried Chicken for today is the chair and co-founder of just such an organization, Rev. Jarrod Cochran. Cochran is a Georgia minister who helped co-found the Progressive Christian Alliance.

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The Progressive Christian Alliance began through conversations between Jarrod Cochran of Georgia, Roger and Melissa Mclellan of Alabama, and Terry McGuire of Florida. These southern ministers looked around and saw how the Christian faith in which they had encountered the living and liberating Jesus had become high-jacked by individuals using it to push extreme political agendas. They also so how many had begun to feel that the Christian faith was irrelevant in their day to day lives, joining the late Mahatma Gandhi in saying We love your Jesus, but not your Christianity.

Jarrod also wrote the book Finding Jesus Outside the Box, in which he writes a sort of manifesto for the progressive Christian, outlining key principles for progressive Christian ministry.  These principles become foundational in the work and vision of not just the Progressive Christian Alliance, but many progressive Christian movements.

Beginning in the southeast of the United States, the Progressive Christian Alliance burst forth, and now helps sponsor ministries the world over. Its website calls the Progressive Christian Alliance “post-denominational in that while we actively seek to build bridges between clergy and laity of existing churches and ministries regardless of denominational affiliation; we also seek to, as a community, affirm God’s calling on the lives of God’s children and establish new ministries.” As such it acts as both a network for progressive Christians in all denominational settings, and as an association that sponsors new church plants, new ministries, and new clergy that are committed to progressive expressions of the Christian faith.

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Pastor Heather Marie Janes, pastor of Loving Hands Fellowship, a Progressive Christian Alliance church-plant in Rochester, NY. Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the transgendered community.

Today you can see its work present in churches such as Loving Hands Fellowship of Rochester, New York, which has a thriving ministry and whose pastor Heather Marie Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the rights of transgendered persons in her community. You can see it in my congregation Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church for All People, which serve the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg area of NC, and is a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation that includes singles, straight couples, and same-gender couples. Diversity has been active in speaking out for the rights of GLBT people, those with disabilities, and the homeless in our community.

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Pastor Jowancka Mintz of Diversity in Faith joining her Progressive Christian Alliance church in reaching out at NC Gay Pride.

You can see it in Open Doors Community Church, pastored by Rev. Daniel Payne, the first English-speaking church in Seoul, Korea to be focused on affirming same-gender couples with the love of Christ. These three churches are examples of church-planting work of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and they consider the Progressive Christian Alliance their “home”.

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Rev. Daniel Payne, who planted Open Doors Community church in Korea.

Yet also the Progressive Christian Alliance acts as a network for leaders in existing denominations. In this role it has partnered with individuals such as Mark Sandlin of the God Article, a Presbyterian minister, and Roger Wolsey of Kissing Fish, a United Methodist minister.

In a previous interview with Patheos, Rev. Cochran summarizes the vision of the Progressive Christian Alliance well, saying “As I and my fellow brothers and sisters in the Progressive Christian Alliance have always advocated, the Church is not a four-walled institution, but but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything, everywhere we go. Church does not begin only when there is a pulpit or when the message of Jesus is conveyed through spoken word; it extends to all places and is conveyed by our actions.”

In this interview, Rev. Cochran shares his thoughts as he ends his term of service as Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and prepares for new leadership to be elected for the organization in its upcoming general conference in mid-July.

I think the story of Jarrod Cochran and the Progressive Christian Alliance is a powerful story of what we southern progressives can do when we move forward in faith, following the example and calling of Jesus.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Where do you live? Where does your ministry or progressive work happen?

I live in Atlanta, Georgia. My ministry is focused in “MetroAtlanta”, but I travel throughout the Southeast, occasionally, to guest preach.

Tell us a little about your ministry/work.

I wear several hats. I work at a food and clothing ministry for the needy in my community, I am starting a fledgling church/community in my neighborhood that feeds the homeless, I contribute to several religious publications, and I am currently the Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, an interdenominational organization I co-founded with Rev’s. Roger and Melissa McClellan, and Rev. Terry McGuire.

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What would you say is the focus of the ministry you do?

Attempting to live up to the lessons learned in the Sermon on the Mount.

How did you begin this ministry?

It started in talks over coffee, phone discussions, emails, and a desire in my heart to create something that would reach out to those in church who felt they were left in the margins.

How does your work promote progressive values?

We’re inclusive, so everyone has a seat at the table and no one is left behind. We stand up for justice, in private matters and in the public square.

What are some key lessons you’ve learned through this work?

When you attempt to truly live out the radical teachings and example of Jesus, you’re going to make people angry on both sides of the fence as well as receive the ire of fellow ministers and political leaders. But I’ve also found that to reach out and love radically, as Jesus did, is completely worth the price.

What are some key concerns progressives need to be aware of which your work has brought up?

We must be mindful and ever vigilant to never create a leftist version of the Religious Right. I’ve been a part of a few groups that eventually became just that, and as a result, they are either now defunct or irrelevant.

One of the things I focus on in Progressive Redneck Preacher is the relationship between Southern culture and progressive values.

Did you grow up in the South? If so, what are some of you most positive experiences of “the South”? What are parts of it that you struggle with or struggle against? Do you see in any particular connections with your work and southern culture?

The generosity of those in South has always been in the forefront anywhere I go. The struggles I have experienced in the South is the mindset of many people. Most appear to be extremely conservative in thinking and believe that the American flag and the Republican Party were baptized in the blood of Jesus. Linking God with any particular political faction disturbs me.

One thing I discuss a lot on the Progressive Redneck Preacher is the influence of what I call “slaveholder Christianity”, methods of interpreting Scripture bound up in prejudice which aim to exclude people. How have you experienced that legacy?

I was “run out” of my first Church for preaching a message of inclusion and active peacemaking.  This was my childhood church, too. My father was the minister and he had passed away. I felt  the call to be a minister and I imagine that the elders of that church thought they had a minister they could “mold”. Boy were they wrong. After preaching about social justice, poverty, and violence, I was told they didn’t want to hear me preach about those things ever again. I ignored this warning and continued until they eventually kicked me out.

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What are ways your ministry confronts this?

We attempt to focus on the message of Jesus, how his message and example echoes that of the prophets that came before him, and how we can display that radical love and grace to others today. We are also a public advocacy group for inclusion.

In addition to the influence of “slaveholder Christianity”, we discuss how positive movements that grew out of the South, such as the Civil Rights Movement, influence us today. Can you see ways this or another movement has shaped the work you do?

The Civil Rights Movement had a huge impact here in the MetroAtlanta Community. The King/Gandhian doctrine of nonviolence is one we attempt to embody when we are confronted with hostility.

Do you have any advice you’d give to young people sensing a call to do progressive work like yours?

Patience, compassion, and grace. We are not against people; we’re against mindsets. The only way we can truly change the world is through love.

Would you be willing to say a little about where you see your ministry going after the end of your work as chair? And what some of your hopes are personally, and for the Progressive Christian Alliance?

Sure thing! I see myself focusing on starting up “The Progressive Christian Worker”. A movement/church/communion where progressive Christians of all stripes can come and join in worship and advocacy in the style of Dorothy Day and Amon Hennacy’s Catholic Worker Movement. My personal hopes are to continue to grow in my faith, receive my phD in Theology by the end of the year, and maybe eventually be the pastor of a church. My hopes for the Progressive Christian Alliance are what they have always been: to continue to grow into a powerful force for change and goodness, to continue to listen to the Spirit, and to never forget the roots from which we came.