Friday, August 20, 2021

Good Trouble-Makers

 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. 

-Jesus, John 16:33 (NIV)

I’ve been thinking lately of a quote I heard sometime or the other by the late Congressman

John Lewis. Lewis, who served as a Representative from Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020, was a leading voice in the fight for civil rights for Black people in the 1960s. As chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helped organized the 1963 March on Washington and the first of the marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. There, Thomas suffered a fractured skull after the marchers were ordered to disperse by State Troopers and instead stopped to pray.

     Lewis continued to lead protests during his time as a Congressman, and was arrested at least three times: twice while protesting the Darfur genocide outside the Sudanese embassy, and once at a sit-in at the Capitol in support of immigration reform.

     The quote I’ve been thinking of is this one:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day a week, a month or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

     It’s hard to deny that there’s trouble in our world, our country, our city. You don’t need me to catalog all those troubles for you, I imagine. There are a lot of people in a lot of trouble. We’re all, I suppose, in some trouble. But the trouble I see in our world, most of it, is a product of our selfishness, our shortsightedness, our stubborn refusal to listen and see and care. It’s the result of corruption. It’s the result of the strong running roughshod over the weak. In my view, the trouble I see around us by and large is caused by a lack of love, a lack of grace, a lack of compassion, and a lack of will to see justice done. The trouble we have has come about because we’ve made essential things expendable and trivialized truth, honesty, kindness, peace, patience, faithfulness, and righteousness as unrealistic and unattainable. 

     It isn’t, in short, Good Trouble. 

     Good Trouble is the kind of trouble Jesus was in for when he spoke up at the house of Simon the Pharisee in defense of a woman everyone knew was “wicked.” Or when he told the religious folks of his day that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them. Or when he made them the bad guys in the parable of the tenants. Or when he drove the money-changers out of the Temple courts.

     It was Good Trouble when he ate with Zaccheaus, when he touched a leper, when he opened his mouth and said “Blessed are the poor….”

      And it was Good Trouble when he poked his nose out of his own tomb.

     Jesus made some noise. He was a troublemaker. A good troublemaker. A Good Trouble-maker.

     Maybe we forget that about him. Maybe that’s why, with exceptions here and there, the church doesn’t seem to be in the business of making Good Trouble anymore. More often we want to fit in. We become very chameleon-like, just copying the patterns and colorations of the world around us so that we don’t upset anyone. We must always own up to the fact of history that, in many of the worst atrocities our world has known, the church has been complicit, at least as the silent partner of those in power. And, still, the pressure is strong to toe the line and not make trouble. 

     Now, if when we’re opening our mouths all we’re saying are church-ified versions of the same words that have brought all this trouble on the world, then staying quiet is the right choice. But we have other words in our lexicons, Spirit-inspired words, gospel-colored words that bring healing and hope and grace. And Spirit-inspired, gospel-colored actions. And we ought to be speaking those words and doing those things and embracing the “necessary trouble” that it causes for us. 

     Good Trouble.

     The early church, I guess, hadn’t had the time we’ve had to forget that Jesus promised us trouble in this world. In Acts 17, Paul and his colleagues are in the city of Thessalonica, where they’re dragged before the city officials and accused of “caus(ing) trouble all over the world“ and “saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”

     Would that it could be said that the church was causing trouble all over the world: 

     In Afghanistan, where a two-decade war has apparently accomplished nothing and a humanitarian crisis looms.

     In every country, where a year and a half of pandemic has destroyed lives and wasted economies that will continue to destroy lives for years to come, while politicians grandstand and use the crisis to compete for votes.

     At our borders, where human beings continue to gather to take a shot in the dark to escape from the poverty and violence that threaten their families, while the loudest voices raised cast them as villains out to destroy “our” country.

     Within our own cities and towns, where we’re mortgaging future generations to pay for our own excesses in violence and corruption, and where people of color aren’t sure they can rely on the people sworn to protect them.

     We ought to be causing trouble in those places and many others as we tell everyone who’ll hear us about another King, Jesus, and show them what his kingdom is all about by creating among us communities of peace, service, compassion, grace, righteousness, and love. All things that will cause trouble in a world that runs on their opposites. Those who cling to power never want to hear about another king.

     If you’ve been with us on Wednesday nights, you’re familiar with Amos 5:13, where God says of the Northern kingdom of Israel, “the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” I don’t think the prophet was saying that’s what should happen, just that it was happening. It is tempting to keep quiet in evil times. I know I’ve been guilty of it. It’s just easier. Or maybe, as Rep. Lewis warned, it’s because we despair of making a difference.

     Instead of thinking how to make life easier for us and for ours, instead of being preoccupied with not making waves, what if we just accepted that being a follower of Jesus in such times will cause trouble? That, if we’re like him at all, we will be Good Trouble-makers.

     But never forget that the trouble he caused, he caused by giving himself: by serving the poor and marginalized, by loving his enemies, and even by giving his life to break the power of sin and open the door to another way, another Kingdom.

     Don’t be afraid of a little Good Trouble. Serve someone no one else is. And tell them Jesus sent you.

Friday, August 6, 2021

An Alternative to Living in Fear

 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (Jesus, John 16:33, NIV)

Fear is easy. Far too easy. 

     Let’s count the things we’re supposed to be afraid of. Violence in my city: over 1800 shootings in the first half of 2021. Maybe you’ve heard, there’s a virus going around, and misinformation about it that’s maybe even more deadly than the virus itself. Oh, and we don’t know what subsequent elections are going to bring, since a significant number of people seem to actually believe the last one was stolen (despite being one of the most scrutinized in history) and even invaded the Capitol to try to stop its approval by Congress. 

     Those are just the first three things to come to mind. In every life there are things to be afraid of. In every home, in every family, in every heart. Whether a medical issue or a lost job or a financial catastrophe or the loss of someone we love, we all feel our skin crawl and the pit in our stomachs from time to time.

     Jesus had a lot to say about fear:

“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”  

“Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” 

“Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

“Do not be afraid…for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”  

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you….Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Sorry, my mistake. Jesus really only had one thing to say about being afraid.


     I know, I know. Easier said than done, right? I don’t mean to come off as sounding dismissive of your fears. I don’t mean to trivialize what you might be going through in your life. And I certainly don’t mean to sit here and pretend that I’ve never felt fear. More importantly, I don’t think Jesus means to do any of that either. 

     Jesus was facing a cross when he said those things: a very public, very painful, very fatal ordeal. To manufacture some steely-eyed, fearless action hero who ain’t got time to bleed out of Jesus is to take away his humanity and, by the way, drift into heretical waters. Scripture is clear that Jesus was fully human, and that his humanity is the basis for our hope. 

     What I think Jesus was getting at, more or less, is that we can’t let fear drive the bus. Fear — that feeling of unease and dread in the face of the unpleasant, unexpected, and unknown, that fight or flight reflex — it’s baked into all of us as human beings. Like all of our feelings, fear is part of how we’re made. And, by the way, it can serve some very useful purposes. It can make us hyperaware of dangerous surroundings and immediate threats. It can increase our reaction times in potentially harmful situations, making us ready to lash out in self-defense or run away. It even keeps us out of some of those potentially harmful situations to begin with. Fear is a great servant. It’s just a terrible master.

     In telling us not to be afraid, he wasn’t giving us the impossible command to never feel fear. He was telling us that fear shouldn’t drive our values and priorities.

     Look again at what Jesus says about fear. He tells us not to be so afraid of those who can at the worst hurt us physically that we don’t obey God when push comes to shove. He encourages us not to be afraid by reminding us of how much we matter to God. He reassures us that God has given us a share in his Kingdom, and so we don’t have to be afraid and anxious over what and how much we have. He has left us peace, he says, and so we should anchor our lives in that peace instead of allowing fear to blow us around.

     The bottom line is this: We can choose to let fear lead us, or we can choose to live by faith in a God who loves us and is faithful to us and will bring us through whatever we might be afraid of.  

     A couple of things that doesn’t mean. First, it doesn’t mean that we should ignore dangers. It doesn’t mean that the threats and difficulties in our world are inconsequential. It isn’t fearful to wear a mask and get vaccinated or to try to improve the environment any more than it’s fearful to call 911 in a medical emergency or if you see a prowler in your neighborhood. Don’t act out of fear. But don’t ignore that there are fearful things that happen in our world, and don’t neglect to do what you can to help ease the fear around you.

     It doesn’t mean that we should judge others for acting out of fear. Every human being panics a little from time to time. When someone is living in fear and acting out of fear, they sometimes say and do things that they aren’t very proud of. Fight or flight, remember? If you’re honest with yourself, you can probably relate to that. What that person needs from you in that moment is not judgment, but a clear-eyed peace firmly grounded in Jesus. They need to see that there’s another way to respond to fearful moments. They’re sinking because they’re looking around at the storm too much. They need you to help them refocus on Jesus.    

     I remember my son’s first experience with the ocean. He was 3, I think, and though I think by then he had been in Lake Michigan, he had never seen the ocean. He was fearless. He went splashing right into the biggest body of water he’d ever seen. We were trying to keep him from going too far, but if we weren’t there I think he would have waded out until it was over his head and then doggy-paddled until he was exhausted. 

     Then a wave broke that was big enough to knock him down. We weren’t more than a few steps from the beach, but down he went, all the way under. For a second, I couldn’t see him, but I reached down and grabbed him and lifted him up. He came out of the water coughing, rubbing his eyes — and laughing. I thought that might end the ocean experiment, but it didn’t. He showed no fear, and I think the reason is obvious. His father was there to grab him.

     That’s how you keep from letting fear control you. When you feel it, acknowledge it. And then look around and find the hand of God reaching out for you. Let him lift you and hold you firm, and know that there is literally nothing you need to live in fear of. Rest in his peace, then face the dangers of life with the courage he gives you.