Category Archives: theological reflections

Well, frankly…

Your daily manna…take it and be fed.  Well…thanks I guess,  but frankly, I had a craving for chocolate.

We in the West are groomed in materialism, shaped by the the ‘more, bigger, better, climbing up the ladder’ jello molds until it’s hard to conceive of another shape or consistency of substance.

We can approach mission and development of poor communities that way as well, our thinking of what needs to happen shaped by those same molds.

“Yes, it is tough here in Osijek, ” the  Croatian police administrator told me as she filed some paperwork for me, “and many young people are seeking a better life in Germany or Ireland. But they will lose out on something as well—our pace of life, our families and relationships.  We actually have what we need.”

What do we actually need?

I like the way Walter Brueggemann, in Sabbath as Resistance, contrasts God’s invitation to life to a market ideology that leaves us with insatiable needs and desires “that will leave us endlessly “rest-less,” inadequate, unfulfilled…” requiring that we “want more, have more, own more, use more, eat and drink more”(xii).  Brueggemann’s point is that God’s invitation to Sabbath is both a resistance since it is a “visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods” and an alternative by resting in the provision and gifts of God (xiv).

Laely, I’ve been asking some questions to some Roma pastors for an article I’m working on.  So many sources—NGO’s, churches, European Union, Roma organizations— define ‘what needs to happen’ in Roma communities.  In other words, what the ‘good life’ should be.

“My people are not focused on God’s promises,” one Roma pastor told me recently.  “They are focused on what other people are promising them. God can take care of all families, all people, like he has taken care of me and my wife.  God changed my understanding of life—before, I was just concerned with accumulating material things.  Now I realize—our safety is with God.”

This is coming from a community that is rapidly losing ground with modernity.  Jobs and ways of earning money, often on the edges and corners of the economy, will continue to get more challenging in this global economy.  Because Serbia is not yet part of the EU, many people still collect and sell metal—but this occupation has been virtually shut down for the Roma in Croatia (because of EU regulations) unless they have the money and know-with-all to open a firm.  I was shocked to find out that in this small town in Serbia, 8 hours of hard manual labor in the fields under the burning sun earn only 8 Euros a day…and according to the people, this is the same wage it was 20 years ago.

That is a zero-sum deal—exploiting others’ needs while filling your own basket. In such a context, need looks different as compared to someone who already seems to have plenty.

Trouble is, it’s hard to rest in a daily provision that shows up every dawn, yes, but not what you are actually craving.  Never have I had more sympathy for those Israelites who were just craving some meat.

“What was the big deal?” I used to wonder.  “Why did God get so angry when they were clamoring for meat?”

It’s really a clash of two different orientations toward life: I want to meet the needs in the way that I want vs. I am resting in God’s promise to provide for me in the way that He chooses. It’s a matter of either rejecting God or believing Him.

The first way breeds anxious restlessness…the second—restful expectation.

On Sunday, the pastor talked about Jesus waiting three days before coming to the place where Lazarus was sick.  “He always hears, always responds to our cries for help,” he said.  “But he comes in patience and in the right time. Do we have the faith to wait and believe He is coming?”

“God has complete confidence in the fruit-bearing, blessing-generating process of creation that have been instituted,”  Brueggemann says.  And therefore, “God rests, confident, serene, at peace.”

On motives and controlling narratives

“Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor but because he was a thief…”

It is a lot easier to discern someone’s motives if they are doing something blatantly evil or self-serving.  It’s a lot harder when actions look, smell, and feel noble and good.  Of course, it is not really our job to discern others’ motives, although wisdom is critical in terms of forming alliances and partnerships.

The story in John 12 showcases a lot of different motives: Mary’s, the chief priests, Judas’s, the people’s and Jesus’s.

It seems like motive is related to control or at least one’s perception of control. Who gets to tell the story and who gets to be in charge? Judas, of course, wanted to control the finances—motivated by greed.

But more fascinating to me are the chief priests in this story.

“But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also…”

The more I think about this, the crazier it seems.  Of course, their motives are outlined in the passage: “…because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.”

In the earlier chapter, we see that this does not seem to be motivated by a fear that they were going away from the true God, but rather from a political and national interest: “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

In essence, they wanted to control the narrative—and this motivated them even to consider the extraordinary act of “re-deathing” a man who had recently been resurrected.

But really, this impulse to control the narrative seems to be part of the human story.  In the 21st century, this impulse took on a bizarre twist since the narrative can be controlled by  any person’s video, story, or headline that goes viral. Political leaders attempt to ‘control the narrative,’ often by extreme means.

But what about the Church?  We are also guilty of this. Sometimes, like Lazarus’s resurrection, we are so afraid of something new and outside the limits of our current theological understanding that  we either silence that narrative or try to force it into submission using subtle spiritual manipulation.

Other times, our good deeds are masked with—shall I say—Judas’s motives.  In other words, holy rhetoric with unholy motives.

This can happen particularly when those of us who are coming from more financial, political, and/or social capital are serving those with less power.

I was just recently listening to a podcast from a woman who has taken sanctuary inside a church in the United States  out of fear of deportation.  She is very appreciative of her allies, those who are helping her and her family(from whom she is now separated).

“And yet,” she said, “and yet despite their help and their service to me, I still have the right to make my own decisions, because this is my life.” She was arguing for the right to control her own narrative, despite her current vulnerability.  In fact, she directly confronted a politician who was using her story to promote his own platform instead of her community.

Does this sound familiar?  Because I hear leaders from marginalized communities say this same thing—people who come to ‘help the powerless’ sometimes use their story to promote their own ministry. Or sometimes feel that they have the right to make decisions on their behalf regarding their needs or what they should do.  When we do that, we further violate a person’s dignity.

Helping the vulnerable does not give us the right to control the narrative.

This can be a very sensitive issue—like I commented earlier, who has the right to judge someone’s motives?  And yet, if we understand ourselves properly—the human tendency to want to control and dominate—maybe we can be more attuned to our own motives.

As a writer, and often writing about people in vulnerable situations, I take this deeply to heart. I must diligently search my own motives and also allow myself to be held accountable and be corrected by the vulnerable community itself. 

“But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also…”

Let the shock of this drastic intent to ‘control the narrative’ sink into you—and before writing it off as ‘impossibly extreme’ perhaps it can serve to illuminate the subtle or not-so-subtle ways in which we ourselves try to exert control.