Tag Archives: Community

From Beyond the River

Joshua 24:1-28

God comes to Abram with no apparent reason, makes a promise that God will bring forth from Abram a great nation which will be blessed so that they can be a blessing to all the world. So without any recorded hesitation, Abram goes, as God told him, to the land which God will show to him. When he enters into the land of Canaan, he stops at Shechem, It is at this point that God promised to give all of this land to Abram’s descendants. Abram then builds an altar to God, a monument, marking this as a holy place, a place of worship, a sanctuary.

We find ourselves many generations later and at the same place, at the edge of the promised land, at the time known as the land of Canaan. This is a generation after the people had been liberated from Egypt.

When they were enslaved in Egypt, they were mistreated and they cried out and God listened and saw and called Moses to the task of serving as God’s envoy. Many signs were performed and Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew people, but shortly thereafter Pharaoh regretted this decision and he and his army pursued the ancient Israelites, who found themselves trapped between an advancing army and a sea. God reached out God’s hands and held back the waters so that God’s rag-tag group of people could cross to freedom.

Almost immediately, the people began grumbling, after all, they needed food, certainly a legitimate need and complaint. So each morning, God gave them food, enough for each day, but not only this, but God gave meat to them to eat in the evening. But not long after this, the people needed water, which is also a legitimate complaint. God told Moses to strike his staff upon a rock, and then water came forth.

God dwelt amongst them in the tabernacle so that wherever the people went, God journeyed with them.

The people get to the brink of the promised land, and they send a few spies to see the condition of the land, the people who lived there, the conditions of their cities, and anything else they could find. After forty days, the spies return and speak to the beauty and fertility of the land. They also said that the people were strong and the cities were well fortified. The people again began to complain and long for slavery in Egypt, continuing to suffer from the disease of nostalgia.

Throughout their time, thus far, they would often speak of how they wished they were in Egypt, forgetting that the good ol’ days were not all that great. But this time was different. They actually began to make work of returning to Egypt, and the selected captains and organized themselves into companies to go back. While they were packing up, God became angry, after all, God had freed God’s people, led them through the wilderness, fed them, gave them water, brought them to the edge of the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham, and after all this they begin to make work of returning to slavery in Egypt. God determines that not a single person that walked out of Egypt, not a single one, except Caleb, would see the promised land. God would not kill them, after all, God is merciful, but God would continue to teach them trust and faith in the classroom of the wilderness.

***

So here we stand, Moses has finally died, and the people have crossed the Jordan River and have taken hold of the land.

After the ancients entered the land, after the tribes have been given their portions of the land, after God had given rest to both the Israelites and the Canaanites, “a long time after” as scripture reads, Joshua is old and near death, and he gathers everyone, all the Israelites at Shechem. The place where Abram was promised the land, the place where Abram built an altar, the sanctuary that Abram built.

The significance of this place would not have been lost on all the ancient people. they did not, as of yet, have a book, but they did have stories, and these stories about God and God’s people were told over and over again. The assembly would have recognized this place, where the aged Joshua called them to gather for his farewell address.

So Joshua speaks to them and begins at the beginning. “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.”

Gods of a place, gods of prosperity, gods of fertility, gods of good health and fortune. These other gods were bound up with their identity and it was understood that to be a good citizen meant serving these other gods. Here the people are reminded that Abram was no different than all the others. Abram wasn’t particularly special in his faith and practice, Abram did not come to faith in this one God on his own, no, Abram lived far off beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. But God took him “from beyond the river.”

The people are reminded again, they are told, again, this “old, old story” of what happened. The people are reminded them of God’s great deeds to them throughout the journey throughout the wilderness. God speaks to them, “I took, I gave, I sent, I plagued, I did, i brought, I brought, I handed, I destroyed, I rescued, I handed, I send, I gave…” Here the people are reminded of the things that God had done for them. In light of all this, the people are called to fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The people could not be confused here, because Joshua does not speak of god in general, but rather, the specific God. Anytime you see the word “LORD” in caps or small caps, this is the divine name. God’s specific name. My name is Matthew, God’s name is often referred to as the tetragrammaton, the four letters, four letters which we translate into English as YHWH. It is not printed because of the long tradition that the average person is not fit to pronounce God’s name, we are not on a first name basis with God. So here, it is very clear that when Joshua tells them to serve the LORD, it is not to be confused exactly which god of which he was speaking, it was this particular one.

And so here, at Shechem, we have come full circle, the promise to Abram so long ago has been fulfilled. And so all the people stand, with the Euphrates behind them, the Promised Land ahead of them, standing at Shechem. The people stand, their past behind them, their future ahead of them, standing in the present, at the place, symbolically showing the promise to be fulfilled. Where once a man stood in a foreign land, now a nation stands in a land which is now theirs.

And Joshua says to the people, in the words of Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It is important that Joshua invites them to look over their shoulder at their past, look ahead to the future, and to remain in the present. Joshua is calling them to account, right now, they will have to determine whom they will serve, because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

But, Joshua tells them, if you will not serve the LORD, choose whom you will serve, because you have to serve somebody.

If you will not serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then serve the gods of your ancestors behind you, before the LORD took your ancestor from beyond the river. Or, serve the ancestral gods of their new home.

You have you choose who to serve, Joshua told them, the gods whence you came, or the gods here. Because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I, I am committed to the LORD.

But yet this is not even the climax of the story, the high point comes when the people proclaimed that they, too, will serve the LORD.

***

This is a riveting story, a story which is in our past, but is also a story in which we find ourselves. The Bible is not just a story, but it is the story in which we find ourselves.

So Joshua not only called the ancients to gather at Shechem, but also calls to us.

We gather and we, too, are told, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We don’t have named gods from across the river or from a place, in the same way. But we have things that serve that function. We, too, have various gods which we sometimes serve. Maybe it will be the nation, or maybe it will be money or ourselves. We have to serve somebody, and we, too, are called to make a commitment to whom we will serve, will we go back across the river? Will we adopt the gods of the place? Will we serve the gods that promise health, wealth, prosperity, safety, security?

We can adopt the gods where we find ourselves, gods which we can see, gods which are supposed to bring us good things, or we can serve the God who called us, chose us, and journeyed with us through the good times and the difficult times.

***

As we stand in the present between the future and the past, Joshua calls to us to choose whom we will serve. This isn’t about in whom to believe, this is not about whom to accept into one’s heart, this is not about some kind of personal savior. Joshua asks them whom they will serve. To whom or what will you dedicate your effort and energy? To whom or what will you make sacrifices? On what hill will you die?

So Joshua comes to us and asks us not to accept Jesus into our heart as our personal savior. This is not a biblical way to understand it. Instead Joshua asks us whom we will serve. Will it be the gods from across the river, or the gods from this place, or the God who has fulfilled God’s promise, the God who has nurtured us and journeyed with us.

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody”, so let us serve the God who brought us from across the river, from our former life. Let us serve the God who brought us from beyond the river.  Let us serve this God not just with our hearts, but with our minds and our actions, and our lives.

You can only serve one master, as Jesus reminded us. and “you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” so we must ask ourselves, whom will we serve? This is not just a question that comes once, but many times. Many situations come to us and we are given this opportunity. We cannot give lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then serve these other gods with our actions. We cannot simply get carried off in emotion and make inconsiderate promises. Will we choose the nation, or money, or our house or possessions, ourselves or the Packers?

Or will we serve the God who guides us and tabernacles among us?

We may not see the fulfillment of these promises in our incredibly short individual memory, or even with our lifetimes, but this is why, again and again, we tell this story of what God has done in the past, because it is only through the telling of this story we can remember that God had brought us from beyond the river.

 

When it All Comes Together

Half-way through my sermon, I saw about one third of the congregation sleeping, another third appeared to be present in body only (somewhere else in mind), and the final third appeared to be engaged.

After the service, I was told that the bathroom was out of toilet paper. It was full before the service.  This, of course, means that someone stole our toilet paper, again.  We go through quite a bit of toilet paper and most of it gets stolen.  Financially it adds up, but the larger concern is the principle behind it, that people steal from their church, particularly when we try to give it to people when they ask.

All of this after I spoke about not stealing.

* * *

I don’t need continual ego-stroking, but I do like to know that my work and my efforts make an impact. So many times it does not appear that my work makes the slightest of difference and I’m stuck wondering why I even try.

As we were all leaving, one of the children of our congregation, a seven year-old girl, came up to me.

“Pastor, I made this for you.”

It was a picture and it had some writing on it. I held it in my hands and began to decipher the seven year-old handwriting.

She said to me, “It says ‘We love God, and God loves us.'”

I looked over at her and she smiled. I smiled back, and she gave me a hug.

She gets it, I thought, she gets it in her own seven year-old way.  This is the essence of what I speak of every week.  “We love God, and God loves us.”

I won’t ever know the full impact that our church has on people.  So I keep working, keep telling people about God’s love and grace and I will keep looking at that picture, “We love God, and God loves us.

Sometimes grace comes from the least expected places.

Earnestly Praying for Peace

Dove of peace

By Mafleen on Flickr

“Pray for peace.”  This is a common thing to say.  I pray for peace.  Mostly, however, I’ve prayed for the idea of peace, I’ve never had to actually earnestly pray for peace before.  The Milwaukee area is still on edge from the massacre at the Sikh temple in one of the south suburbs.  We have not yet begun to recover from this, and just this week, we had seven shootings in 24 hours in the City of Milwaukee.  One of these shootings was three blocks from the church — the same place where a shooting occurred less than a month ago.

Where is God in the midst of all this violence?

There are multitudes of people pointing out what is wrong with our neighborhood.  There are plenty of people who are too afraid to come to our neighborhood.  People in our community are nervous about spending time out and about.  Whenever people have the means to move out of the neighborhood, they usually do.

We need peace.

We don’t just need for the violence to end, we actually need peace.  Peace is not just the absence of violence, it is the presence of wholeness.  It is the presence of love, it is the presence of community.  It is the ability to live with other humans in the way that God intended.

We need more than just safety.  We need a wholeness in our community, we need for people to care about one another, we need true peacemakers.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Grant us peace, O God. Make our community whole, and transform us so that we can live into the way that you desire us to be. Amen.

Home

by Jim VanMaastricht on Flickr

Recently, during a rather difficult day, my wife and I were driving back to our flat, and I looked at her and said, “I want to go home.”
“We’ll be there soon,” she said.
“No,” I said, “my real home.”

This, of course, referred to my desire to return to Michigan, the place whence I came, and the place which will always be “home.”  This causes me to think, what is “home,” how do we define it, and what is its function?

Merriam-Webster defines “home” in many ways, among them are as follows:

3  a: a familiar or usual setting : congenial environment; also: the focus of one’s domestic attention <home is where the heart is> b: habitat
4 a: a place of origin <salmon returning to their home to spawn>; also: one’s own country <having troubles at home and abroad>
–(Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., ad loc)

Simon & Garfunkel, in their song “Homeward Bound” give a different explanation of the concept of home:

Home, where my thought’s escaping
Home, where my music’s playing
Home, where my love lies waiting silently for me

There are also oft-repeated proverbs such as, “home is where the heart is” or “home is where you hang your hat.”

Throughout scripture, we are able to see the importance of home for the ancient Israelites. Their whole faith was grounded in their home, in the promised land, “See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them'” (Deuteronomy 1:8, NRSV). The worst thing that could happen to them, then, is to be taken away from their home.

When I think of my own life, I have lived at a handful of street addresses in a handful of cities in two states, but I only consider that I have one home.

The concept of home is deeper than simply the address, or even the city where one resides.

The ancient Israelites were so attached to the promised land as home, at least in part, because they connect it with God. The land in which they lived was given to them by God, God dwelt in the temple which was physically located in Jerusalem.  Being away from home meant being away from God.

Perhaps this was the root of my desire to return home. I felt, and continue to feel, like I could connect with God in a deeper and more real way when I was at home, in Michigan.  Of course, there was nothing particular about Michigan that aided me in my desire to connect with God, and there is no reason that I cannot connect with God here.

One of the lessons that we learn in the Old Testament about the exile is that God is not limited to a particular place, but even when we are away from home, even when we are away from the visible signs of God’s presence, even when we feel far from God’s presence, God remains there. God is present with us in exile just as God is present with us at home.

Similarly, rather than working and striving simply to return home, perhaps part of my purpose here is to understand that my home is in God, not any particular geographical location.  God is present here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin just as God is present in Holland, Michigan.  It is when I can recognize God’s presence here that I can actually live into God’s calling rather than pining for a particular location or municipality.

When the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon, this was included:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease (Jeremiah 29:5-6, NRSV).

Those in exile are called to thrive while they are in a foreign land and away from home.  The only reason they can thrive, however, is that God continues to be present. There is nothing wrong in desiring to return to one’s own land, but this cannot prevent us from truly living, even when we are away from home.

Perhaps home is where we can experience connection with God, and part of living is to be able to understand that this connection is possible not only in a particular locale, but in any locale.  Perhaps part of our journey to see glimpses of the coming reign of God is to understand that God is everywhere, and because of that, our understanding of home is also to be expanded beyond a particular geography.

The City and the Redemption of Creation

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

From AdamL212 on Flickr

I try not to talk or write about politics very often as a normal course of my ministry.  My congregation is composed of people of all political stripes, and I strongly believe that no one political ideology has a corner on the Gospel.  However, something has been disturbing me as of late about the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall campaigns. It appears that there is a new opposition in the race: the City of Milwaukee.  I have received mailings, at least twice a week, from the campaign of Governor Scott Walker.  I understand that politics is dirty business, and I understand that Mayor Tom Barrett (the mayor of Milwaukee) is the opposition candidate, and as such his record is up for criticism.  However, many of these mailings have criticized Barrett by criticizing Milwaukee.  Many of them have highlighted Milwaukee’s unemployment rate, Milwaukee’s school troubles, Milwaukee’s poverty rate.  In fact, in his primary victory speech, Walker said, “…we don’t want to be like Milwaukee, we want to be like Wisconsin…” (you can hear his speech here).  This anti-Milwaukee rhetoric is what bothers me most about the whole political climate in Wisconsin. Additionally, as an urban minister, this has served as a catalyst for my theological reflection on urban centers in general.

Right out of seminary, I was interested in urban ministry.  It was a pull that I cannot completely explain.  I grew up in a small town (no traffic lights, not even a blinking light), and a city was certainly not part of my upbringing.  It was a summer field practicum in an inner city ministry that I felt the internal urging to ministry in an urban setting.  I have found that among others, there is often a lot of fear about cities, particularly low income inner cities.  For some, it is the natural anxiety that accompanies the unknown; for others, they may have been taught that cities are dangerous places, bad places, even God-forsaken places.  I know the narratives that cities are riddled with crime, gangs, drugs, and debauchery of all sorts.

I am certainly not going to argue that cities are some kind of utopia, or a place where the Kingdom of God is more evident than in suburban or rural communities.  However, I grieve the fear and, at times, hostility to cities.  I do not feel called to urban ministry because cities are somehow more deserving or more important than other communities, but because I want to work against the history of churches moving out of urban communities into suburban communities which have tended (at least in the last fifty years) to be more homogenous and have a higher socio-economic level.

I believe that God is very present in cities, and that cities have played, and will continue to play, an important role in the church’s mission in the world.  Until recently cities have been the major centers for industry, business, living, and culture.  Every day as I walk the streets of Milwaukee, I see remnants of the thriving city that Milwaukee once was (and will hopefully become again).  Further, cities have been central to my denomination’s history.  It was in a city that our denomination was first established on this continent, and it is in cities that people continue to encounter Christ, and continue to be formed into disciples of Christ.  I think that there is something unique about a city and God’s work in cities.  In fact, in the vision of the redeemed and restored heaven and earth, we see the image of a city — the restoration of human relationships and the model of people living in harmony, peace, and wholeness together.

The cities that we know and experience are certainly no where near the ideal of people living together in peace and harmony, but this does not mean that they are completely lost.  Cities continue to hold great potential for the Gospel to be spread and for God’s redeeming work to be observed.  There is, to be sure, a great deal of suffering and brokenness in cities (as is the case everywhere), it just seems that in many ways, the brokenness of those in the inner-city is more visible.

This vivid description of a city, the ideal of what a city should be, in Revelation 21, tells us that God’s plan is not to abandon cities or to abolish cities, but God’s plan is to redeem cities.  I think this is something for us to learn from.  The church cannot abandon cities, the church cannot ignore cities, and the church cannot simply look the other way from cities and the challenges of cities.  As Christ’s body on earth, it is our job to follow God’s leading, and I think that, in part, God is calling us to work for the redemption of cities, to work for the restoration of cities, and to seek the peace and welfare of cities, because when our cities are thriving, we will thrive (Jeremiah 29:7).

Milwaukee is not the city of God, neither is any city here and now.  However, I still believe that in the new heaven and new earth, we will be living in a city, in the perfect city with perfect relationships.  Until that complete restoration happens, however, I will continue working in my neighborhood in my city, always looking toward the peace and harmony that we are created for.  If God’s work of redemption has already begun, then it stands to reason that we can see signs of it, even (or especially) in the midst of a big city.

Get up (or sit down) and eat!

190311_0190

Photo by Hilbert 1958

As I am sure is the case with many clergy-type folks, Sunday mornings are incredibly draining for me.  When I deliver a sermon, I am not just giving a lecture, or a talk. I am pouring my whole being, my whole spirit, my whole emotional self, often times my whole being into the preaching moment.  A sermon is far more than an intellectual experience, it is an emotional experience.  There is a secret (that’s not so secret any longer), but every sermon that I preach is one that I need to preach to myself first and foremost.  Thus, each sermon has a lot of me invested and intertwined in it.

After church I spend time talking with folks, as we move downstairs.  Every Sunday our church has a meal after the service, due in large part to many caring churches that provide meals for our folks.  When all is said and done, my Sunday mornings are about five hours long, provided nothing goes longer than usual.  Of course, five hours is not that long, but for an extreme introvert like myself, it feels like an eternity.

I love people, I care about people, and I like spending time with people.  Although I like to think that perhaps I was called to be a hermit, that is simply not the case — I would not be able to survive.  What makes me an introvert, however, is that people drain me.  After a few hours of people-intensive time I find that I am exhausted — physically, emotionally, spiritually.  This is exacerbated on days when there is something else going on.  Some days the pressures of ministry weigh too heavily on me, other times I feel as though God is distant.

While everyone else is eating, I am usually around talking with folks, and helping with people who show up at the church and need something — often food or clothing.  I have a few parishioners who do something like this, but there is one in particular who always checks up on me,

“Did you eat?”  she says.
“Not yet, but I will.” I say.
“Okay, just make sure that you eat.” She then gives me a look to let me know that she’s serious.

Often times I don’t eat, and she’ll check up with me again.  Sometimes she even brings me a plate of food and tells me to sit and eat.

This interaction which happens regularly brings to mind the story of when Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel:

Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:3-9, NRSV).

Now, there are many important differences.  First, I am not Elijah; secondly, I am not fleeing for my life; and thirdly, I am not going on a long journey on foot.  Some smaller differences are that Elijah sat down under a broom tree and fell asleep, whereas I am moving around here and there: talking with this person and that person, picking things up, and checking on things.

However, what is happening between the angel and Elijah and this parishioner and me is very similar.  My parishioner knows that I need to eat, that I need to take time from doing and I need to receive nourishment.  She knows that I need to take care of myself, and that ministry is a difficult calling.  She knows that I struggle sometimes, and I would guess that she knows that I cover up my struggles with busying myself.  She knows that I, too, need someone to care for me.

I find it interesting that the angel didn’t rebuke Elijah.  The angel didn’t tell him to “buck up”, nor did the angel tell him to “suck it up” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”  The angel simply said, “get up and eat” and brought him food.  It was with this angel that ministered to him that he was able to make it to Horeb, and that he was able to have that intimate experience with God that follows.

In the same way, this particular parishioner doesn’t do any of these things to me.  She simply asks if I’ve eaten, and she often brings me food.  I don’t know if she thinks of this passage, and I don’t know if she even realizes that she is ministering to me in her actions.  It is quite possible that she just wants to make sure that I eat, because she knows I’m hungry.  Regardless of whether she realizes what she’s doing or not, I am thankful to have someone to minister to me when I’m beneath a broom tree in the desert.

Why a Reformed Presence is Important in the City

I am a Reformed minister through-and-through, and I feel very strongly about the Reformed theology.  I do not think Reformed theology is the only way of being a Christian, I simply think that it is a good way.  I think that is Biblically sound, and I think that it speaks to our world in a way that other traditions do not.  Some people tell me that theology doesn’t really matter in the inner-city, particularly when educational attainment is not incredibly high.  This is, of course, something that I vehemently disagree with.

First, I think that it is wrong to assume that educational attainment alone dictates someone’s capacity for understanding is short sighted.  I have known many wise people that had a 9th grade education, and I have known many dull people with master’s degrees.  Secondly, it downplays what Reformed theology has to offer the world.

I don’t use the words sovereignty, providence, election, irresistable grace, or atonement in the regular course of my preaching and teaching.  These are all terms that are near and dear to Reformed theology.  However, I talk about them all the time.  These doctrines are prevalent in my preaching and teaching, they are what I stand on, and they are the avenues through which I communicate the faith.  Reformed theology is not important so that we can use big terms like this or be able to understand the finer points of the differentiation between orthodox Reformed theology and Arminianism.  Reformed theology is important because it stands on the bedrock of God and God’s grace.

Rather than starting with humans, the Reformed start with God.  The idea of starting with ourselves makes sense when we feel as though we can depend on ourselves, on our abilities, on our capacities.  However, if we feel (or better, when we finally realize) that we cannot depend on ourselves, suddenly relying upon a theology that begins with us is not as comforting and stabalizing.  We understand that it is a foundation which is not solid and will shift around a lot, causing the building of faith to fall.

When we feel as through we’re empowered and that we largely direct our own destiny, the idea of the sovereignty of God can offend our individualistic sensibilities.  When we feel as though we can provide for ourselves through employment, the providence of God doesn’t seem to be that relevant.  When we feel as though we are able to make the decisions for our lives and that our lives are under our own control, irresistable grace and election seem to contradict the respect for our own agency.

It is true that no one really cares about soverginty, providence, irresistable grace, election, etc… but people do care about the fact that God is in control and nothing is out of God’s reach, people do care that God provides for us, people do care that God pursues us even before we begin pursuing God, that graciously chooses us for God’s own. These are all benefits of a distinctively Reformed witness in the city.

In the midst of a community where people are told that they must speak in tounges, that they must be careful not to lose their salvation, that if they do something wrong God will leave them, that if they sin, they must turn back to God on their own…I am proud to be a witness that stands upon, first and foremost God’s action and then secondarily our response, and a witness that is founded upon God and God’s grace.  This is why I think and believe very strongly that a Reformed presence in the city is so very important.

Walking the Neighborhood

Each week, usually on a Wednesday afternoon, I go for a walk around the neighborhood.  I do it for several reasons.  The first of which is that it helps me to toss around the scripture text for Sunday’s sermon in my mind, and allows me to get some fresh air in the process.  Secondly, it helps me to get to know the neighborhood, and the neighbors.  I love it when I see one of my parishioners on my walks.  Thirdly, it allows me a chance to pray not only with my mind, but also with my body, as I pray for our neighborhood while I walk it.

Each week, I am overcome with the same incredibly overwhelming feeling of despair mixed with hope.  I despair because I see so many homes boarded up and posted as unfit for human habitation.  I despair because I see people who are desperately trying to scrape by, sometimes being able to do it, other times falling short.  I despair because I see the fallenness of our world.  I am so thankful, though, that despair is not my only feeling.

I also feel hope.  I feel hope because I believe that God can restore our neighborhood.  I feel hope because I believe that God can transform our neighborhood.  I feel hope because I believe that there is so much more going on than I can see with my eyes.

It is a very strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, mix of feelings.  It is the feeling of being at the middle of a cross road and not knowing exactly where it will take you.  I wish that I knew for sure that our neighborhood would be transformed and rejuvinated.  I wish I knew for certain when said transformation was going to happen.  But I don’t.

While I hope, I don’t know for certain that something miraculous is going to happen, and I don’t know when.  I suppose that is what hope is, as Paul writes in Romans “…we hope for what we do not see…”  This mixture of feelings is unsettling, and it burdens my heart.  However, I think that this mixture of feelings is something that we all experience in one way or another.

For me, I think that it is the feeling of despair that helps me live in the real world, and understand our need for redemption and restoration.  It is the feeling of despair that opens me up to something more, it is the feeling of despair that tills the soil of my heart to prepare it for new growth.  Moreover, it is hope that allows me to continue on: to continue preaching, to continue praying, to continue walking with people.  I do not think that true hope can exist without some feeling of despair, and despair without hope is, quite literally, hell.

This mixture of feelings, of despair and hope, I think, is the tention that we live in, the already but not yet, to use a well-worn phrase.  This is a tension that pushes us to live and pray earnestly, “Come, Lord Jesus.”