“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5
Angel and Prophet
The idea of God knowing me from before I was born is both comforting and scary. The idea of God calling me to do something is just as alarming! Why me? I’m nobody special. And yet, as these thoughts occur to me I also think, “Why not me?”
Last weekend I was deep into finishing up a sermon for this week. For weeks I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write about. But that was before last Saturday. As so often happens when we start to write one thing, something happens and we get a different idea of what the message should be. I couldn’t get the idea of prophets, prophetic voices, or the message I was getting out of my head.
I knew a lot of old testament prophets, but what makes them a prophet versus just a wise man? I decided I better get a definition of the word prophet rather than just reciting a list of names known to be prophets. I narrowed it down to two basic definitions: an authoritative person who divines the future and/or someone who speaks by divine inspiration; someone who is an interpreter of the will of God. Jeremiah was both of these. We can find hundreds of people who claim the gift of divination, but I would not consider them “authoritative persons,” and therefore not prophets. Frankly, I’m not interested in having someone look into my eyes and tell me what the future holds which, even I can predict by simply saying “it looks very bleak.” Nevertheless, I am interested in who are the prophets today. Who are those that dare open up and speak words that are divinely inspired?
I would count as prophet David Hilfiker; who for some time has been writing and lecturing about overcoming consumerism, resisting the empire, being authentic to self. This past week I read an article he wrote for inward/outward titled Called to Be a ‘Confessing Church’.In it he points out that,
“…despite a booming economy and unprecedented government surpluses, our society has done little to alleviate the suffering of the poorest among us. Over the last 40 years, vast segregated, inner-city areas have become wastelands, devoid of employment opportunities, racked by violence, splintered by a rate of single parenthood that approaches 90%, and aggravated by a lack of affordable housing. The children in these areas have been virtually ignored, their schools allowed to deteriorate, their development left to the vagaries of the environment.”
A week before I read David’s article, I read with some sadness a special article titled, "The War in West Philadelphia” by Dr. John P. Pryor who directs the trauma program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. While I do not elevate Dr. Pryor to the title of prophet just yet, I did see his article as an affirmation of what David is talking about. Dr. Pryor recounts an evening in his trauma ward when the lifeless body of a shooting victim with multiple shots was rolled and before he had a chance to begin resuscitation the doors flew open and three more victims in various stages of bleeding and pain were brought in. At that point he had little time to react if he was going to save lives and had to declare the first patient dead and then concentrate on the other injured patients. Dr. Pryor goes on to say,
“In the swirl of screams and moving figures, my mind drifted to my recent experience in Iraq as an Army surgeon. There we dealt regularly with “mascals,” or mass-casualty situations. In Iraq, ironically, I found myself drawing on my experience as a civilian trauma surgeon each time mascals would overrun the combat hospital. As nine, or 10 patients from a firefight rolled in, I sometimes caught myself saying, ‘just another Friday night in West Philadelphia.’ The wounds and nationalities of the patients are different, but the feelings of helplessness, despair and loss are the same. In Iraq, soldiers die for freedom, for honor, for their country and for their buddies. Here in Philadelphia, they die without honor, without purpose, for no country, for no one.”
Dr. Pryor is not only lamenting the senseless loss of life, he is trying to open the eyes of the city and the country to an injustice so great that left to its own devices will destroy an entire new generation of children in Philadelphia. He points out that “more young men are killed each day on the streets of America than on the worst days of carnage and loss in Iraq. There is a war at home raging every day, filling our trauma centers so that it sometimes makes Baghdad seem like a quiet city in Iowa.”
Deep down I knew there was truth in that statement, so I tried to find empirical evidence to substantiate it. I searched the Internet and found thousands of articles talking about murder and black youth. I cried, I mourned the loss of life so much I wanted to stop reading, but I had to finish this sermon. One study pointed out that in 1993 there were 27,000 deaths by gun shot and that number would have been closer to 67,000 had it not been for the advances in medical procedures in trauma centers and improved response times through 911 services. And yet, despite the thousands of lives saved, the number of casualties continue to increase. Homicide is the first leading cause of death for black male youths; and, according to the Violence Policy Center, firearms homicide is itself the second leading cause of death for black males 17 years of age and younger. So it would seems that Dr. Pryor is quite right in sounding an alarm over the war in Philadelphia. But this isn’t just a case of one city, it is a failure of our government, and our society it is full scale apathy, apathy towards the poor, apathy towards blacks, apathy towards the disenfranchised people that live in the margins of society.
When I read David’s article it told me that the government has basically abdicated its responsibilities to govern and in its place is letting a free market economy meander its way through our society. By letting consumerism dictate public policy, and free market economy replace governance the question I have is: What is the purpose of a government that no longer accepts the responsibilities for which it was elected? And along with that comes the question “what becomes our responsibilities as Christians when the essence of Jesus’ call is to help the poor, the hungry, the sick, the children?” David says that,
“From time to time in world history, the historical situation changes so that Christians – if they’re true to their faith – must respond to the particular evil manifesting itself by putting their entire lives on the line in opposition to the culture, much as Jesus did at Nazareth. Most recently, in Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa, the followers of Jesus were called to name the evil of their specific situations and put the full energy of the faith community against it.
At some significant cost, they were called to dissociate themselves from the rest of their society and work as small communities to change the historical reality. We’ve reached such a time in the United States now. We must come together as a community and discover how we can respond to this new historical situation. We must become the modern equivalent of the “Confessing Church.”
Am I ready to call our government the reincarnation of Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa? No, I don’t think so; but, I haven’t been looking at the data as long as David has been. I haven’t lived the life David has lived. He’s bared his soul in various books, he teaches at the Servant Leadership School and lectures throughout the country. I’ve been in two of his classes and attended Eighth Day Church with him. He is without a doubt an authoritative figure and speaks a truth most of us are most uncomfortable with. David concludes his article offering “a few beginning pictures” of a modern day “Confessing Church”. 1) Deep spiritual practices and commitment to community, 2) “reinvigorate our theological and political education” 3) “We must continue work in our missions in order to maintain solidarity with those who have been oppressed and stay in touch with day-to-day issues. At the same time, we need to find a greater place for advocacy.” In an age of having it all, in the fourth picture David asks: “How do we work together to separate ourselves more radically from the culture?” What does this separation look like? Even David is full of questions at this point. The fourth picture, calling for separation from culture sounds more radical than I am able or willing to participate in right now. But perhaps I’m wrong, I’d welcome your input and I encourage you all to read David’s article and reflect on it.
As for myself, it is the third point I wish to expand on. For some time I’ve been trying to figure out my path. In writing this sermon I’ve looked back at my journals and found some trails that make me realize there has been a road there, but as I often do when I’m figuring out a road trip using Google maps, I zoomed in to take a closer look and couldn’t see the rest of the path. I long to maintain solidarity with those who have been oppressed, but how? The first step I was opening myself to God, the next step is taking time to listen to people once I open myself up to God, and the third step is being with instead of doing for people.
This year I undertook two trips, or rather “pilgrimages” because in both cases I felt a strong pull to go. The first was going on a 1200 mile road trip to Pearlington, MS. Why did I feel this pull to an unincorporated, backwater town to which I had no connections? I guess you could say I heard a call from a prophetic voice, Richard Lawrence — now he will modestly say, “I am no prophet.” But I think he was speaking God’s wishes when he expressed the desire to return to Pearlington to help in reconstruction. While Richard gave his soft spoken report about his previous trip and finished up with “I’m thinking about going again”, I was hearing:
”Yes you, didn’t I ask you to be a pilgrim?”
”Well yes, I did that last year, but…”
”But what, did you think it ended with one trip? You’re not done yet.”
My conversation with God is a little tongue and cheek, but it is representative of the pull and push I felt when Richard spoke. I’ve worked hard to pay attention to this feeling. To what I call “being open to God.” Whenever I have a sense that I am strongly attracted to something I feel that I must go with it. Prayer has been a way to open myself up to God’s word. Like many of you, I’ve had lots of frustration with prayer, I’ll spend months trying to do mediation and feel nothing. But then something like the Pearlington trip happens and I know that I have to go. I know that I’ve been open to God and I’m being called.
And so I found myself planning to go out on a new adventure. I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t mean in terms of logistics, no, Richard did a great job in preparing us by describing what happened in his previous trip. And frankly, by the time I got to Pearlington I had a pretty good idea of what disaster is. But I wasn’t prepared for the attack on my senses. This community of 1900 people was virtually destroyed with several hundred people dieing during and shortly after the storm. Slowly it is coming back mostly with the help of volunteers. These are hard working people.
Our little group had an ambitious goal of working on four properties. We only got to three homes and finished several tasks; but in all honesty not one home was ready for move in when we left. I spent my time only on one home—Ms. Shirley’s. To meet Ms. Shirley is to meet joy personified. Her personality is absolutely infectious. Her smile lights up the room and she finds good in everything. I wanted to get in there and start to work, after all time’s a wasting. But it wasn’t that simple, I needed to learn to listen but I’ll tell you more about Ms. Shirley and Pearlington later.
I’ve just finished reading a book called “Three Cups of Tea”, by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin. The title alone made me reminisce of my own travels through the Muslim countries of Turkey and Egypt when I was in the Army. Every time I visited any shop in Turkey, or any Egyptian office, I was offered a cup of tea. It would have been rude not to accept and made for bad business. Mortenson’s book starts off as the story of his quest to build a school in a region Pakistan know as Karakoram in a village called Korphe that had offered him refuge when he was lost, sick, and exhausted from a failed attempt to climb the K2 mountain in Karakoram.
He describes his naiveté as he raises money for the project and returns to build the school at Korphe and his blundering through local customs after returning to Pakistan. In his mind he’s lost two years getting sidetracked, so he throws himself into the project as a self described “hard, but fair task master” constantly pulling out his plumb line, level, and ledger during the construction. One day the village leader, Haji Ali, invites him go for a walk that turns into an hour long climb until they reach a ledge overlooking the village and instructs him to sit and look out at the view. As Mortensen is recovering from the strenuous hike, Haji Ali says,“These mountains have been here a long time, and so have we. You can’t tell the mountains what to do,” he said, with an air of gravity that transfixed Mortenson as much as the view. “You must learn to listen to them. So now I am asking you to listen to me. By the mercy of Almighty Allah, you have done much for my people, and we appreciate it. But you must do one more thing for me.”
“Anything,” Mortensen said. “Sit down. And shut your mouth,” Haji Ali said, “You driving everyone crazy.”
They walked back to Korphe Haji Ali home and he asked Mortensen for the plum line, level and ledger and locked them up. Mortensen goes on to describe how Haji Ali gave him the greatest lesson of his life. “If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways,” Haji Ale spoke. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.”… “Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated, but we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.”
In Pearlington I learned the lesson Mortensen learned in Korphe, it is not enough to be open to God, we must also take time to listen. Ms. Shirley told us, “if it wasn’t for Katrinia I wouldn’t be alive today!” Sound’s funny right? But Ms. Shirley has good reason to say this odd statement. Four years earlier she’d had knee replacement surgery and she kept telling the doctors it didn’t feel right. They kept ignoring her complaints. But she wasn’t doing well and had gotten to the point where she could hardly walk and had to use a cane. When the hurricane hit, she had been already evacuated. At the temporary shelter, nurses came by to do evaluations and she told them about her complaints. They sent her to a wound care facility where the doctor ran some tests and confirmed what he suspected…a long standing staff infection that left untreated would eventually lead to amputation. But instead, she had immediate surgery and now she hardly has to use a cane.
As we descended on Ms. Shirley’s home, it took Deborah no time for to take measurements to calculate how much trim was needed for the house. Paul, a young man who was a friend of a friend of Richard’s, started on the widow treatments which made Ms. Shirley very, very happy. Were window treatments more important than getting the plumbing installed? In some ways the answer is yes. To Ms. Shirley they said, “I’m home” and that was critical. For the past 21 months Ms. Shirley and her husband, Hezekiah, have lived in a cramped one bedroom trailer outside of her new home. Even with having a pull out for the living room it is crammed with all their life’s needs. There is a three foot wide walkway that you can walk through to get to the bathroom then bedroom. She said, “I’m tired of living here, but it’s all I got.”
Glen and I got to do some plumbing work at Ms. Shirley’s, but I dare say that the time we spent listening to her was just as important as the time we spent installing faucets, cutting out a sink opening, cutting an access panel into a plumbing wall to put in a drain the previous crew forgot about or running the sewer lines. What did I learn from my little trip to Pearlington? I learned that I needed to take time to listen. People want to tell their stories and everyone had one. Ms Shirley is not bitter about her condition, she’d love to finish her place, but she says, “I’m so lucky, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There are other folks in town that still have nothing.” She moves through the village praising God. As a side note, she helps people file grant applications with Salvation Army to get a $10,000 grant for putting in a wheel chair ramp here, a handicapped bathroom there, or what ever need they have. She’d never filled out grants before, but she learned. She said, “Once I figured out how to fill out the forms, it seemed only right that use that knowledge to help others.”
You may be wondering what did Mortensen do when Haji Ali took away all his toys. He keep quiet, and when from foreman to observer, he learned “to be” with instead of “do for.” He had to overcome much obstruction to complete the school and has in fact finished many others. Learning to be with instead of do for was a difficult for Mortensen, after all, he was building schools for them, but he found that his time line was not their time line. I have one of those personalities that wants to fix things too. I empathize with Mortensen’s drive. I often find myself wanting to work, work, work. Lets get as much done as we can! But I know I miss out if I don’t stop and relax for a moment.
Every day I open myself up to experience this world and expose myself to it so I can figure out what to do. On an every day basis I go to work at Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place. Although my job is fundraising; it is going down and having a cup of coffee and sitting down talking to the men and women that come in for hospitality and services that I am most drawn to. The conversations aren’t always pleasant but I’m not there for me to feel good, I’m there to be with them. I had zoomed in so much to look at the trip to Pearlington and the trip to Guatemala (which I’ll leave to talk about another time) that I failed to see the bigger road. My work at CCHFP is call for me. I used to say I chose this work, but the truth is this work chose me. I opened myself up to God’s call, I learned to listen to those around me, and I’m still learning to be with instead of do for. The one thing I’m sure of is that I know I’m going to hear that little voice in my head telling me, “You’re not done yet.”