In 2017, Rob Bell released his 10th book entitled What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel about Everything. In a conversational and informative way Bell gives the reader a culturally grounded view of several biblical stories, causing the most adept bible student to re-think and see another aspect of the scripture that they had not seen before. Bell describes reading scripture in this way as “turning the gem”, stating, “In the rabbinic tradition, they talk about scripture having seventy faces. So, when you read it, you keep turning it like a gem, letting the light refract through the various faces in new and unexpected ways” (78). And hopefully in our re-reading of the text, we too become changed.
This is what happened to the author, speaker, and co-founder of Austin New Church, Jen Hatmaker when God began to reveal to her that there was a new thing on the horizon for her and her husband in regards to life and ministry. In her book, Interrupted she chronicles the journey of God piercing through her life in a Kairos moment, and everything changing. She writes that in this season God began to illuminate certain passages of scripture that spoke of God’s concern for the impoverished, the disenfranchised, and the broken. These were scriptures she either heard and glossed over, or scriptures that had never really been touched on in the churches she was a part of. She states that up until this point she used “the Word to defend my life rather than define it” (5). She talks specifically of reading John 21 where Jesus fellowships with Peter and the other disciples on the beach, post-resurrection. After Peter had betrayed Jesus, he went back to what he knew how to do best (working as a fisherman) and the last thing he thought Jesus would do is invite him once again to co-labor with him. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him and to feed his sheep. Jen states that when she read this passage she always thought “feeding Jesus’ sheep” referred to meeting the spiritual needs of people, but in this season of her life where God was stirring her heart for something greater, she began to realize “feeding sheep” wasn’t just about preaching and teaching the good news, but also about meeting the physical needs of millions of people who go hungry every day around the world. This revelation started Jen and her husband on a journey where their comfortable Christianity was being torn down.
Re-Turning the Gem
In the climate we are currently living in here in the United States, where there seems to be a deepening divide within the body of Christ, specifically around issues of justice, racism, classism, and our responsibility as a church in caring for the impoverished and disenfranchised, I cannot help but wonder if we need to “turn the gem” of the scriptures once again. I wonder if the words of the prophet Amos: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God, have fallen on deaf ears? Or if in this season of Lent, where many are fasting from various foods and activities, we have forgotten that the fast God requires is “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7) Although it seems as if these words have been forgotten, some examples have me convinced the good news that Jesus said He was proclaiming to the poor, the captive, and the oppressed is not only being preached but lived out.
Word Made Flesh
In response to the new lens in which Jen and her husband began to read the scriptures, they planted Austin New Church which strives to take God’s concern and preferential treatment of the “least of these” very seriously. The church’s vision is to
LOVE God and to LEARN and LIVE the ways of Jesus.
We believe there are spiritual, relational, and physical needs in every community.
Our hope is to engage those needs in our neighborhoods, our city, and our world.
Another organization that is demonstrating the good news of Jesus are non-profit organizations like Repairers of the Breach (founded by the Rev. William Barber II) whose mission is to “advance a moral agenda that uplifts our deepest constitutional and moral values of love, justice, and mercy.” In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, spearheaded by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, the Repairer of the Breach organization has joined forces with other organizations to revitalize this campaign, mobilizing thousands of people throughout the United States, ” to end systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, environmental destruction, and other injustices“. The work of these faith leaders and organizations are encouraging and should challenge each of us to answer for ourselves: what part am I playing in carrying out God’s desire for justice and freedom for the oppressed? How am I using and reading the scriptures? Am I reading the scripture to defend my particular rights/beliefs/preferences or to extend God’s love, mercy, and justice to all.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain undeniable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is included in The Declaration of Independence (US 1776.)”
The truth is the world got it wrong. Something that God quickly began to teach me as I attempted to watch the well-known movie The Pursuit of Happiness. As we embark on what is easily the most hostile election year to date, it is evident we need to pursue what Jesus instructed from the first day of his ministry. We need to pursue the Kingdom of God.
As Christians, too often we associate ourselves and our circumstances with the pursuit of things that make us happy or feel good. This takes us away from the purpose of God in our lives. Happiness by definition comes from the root word, hap – which means luck, chance, or fortune. This sets the way to create an idol in our lives, one that causes us to focus on the pleasures of life and the circumstances that surround them. Take note this is something God clearly speaks about in Isaiah 65:8-12. This is even true when it comes to the election and voting for a person who makes you feel good, or even secure and happy, not necessarily what lines up with the will of God.
Does that mean that God’s will is for us to never be happy? By no means. Quite the opposite in fact. God wants us to be happy. Jesus preaches it very much so in Matt 5:3-12 commonly known as the beatitudes. Take note, however, this sermon is preached as characteristics for those who have entered into the Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). ‘Blessed’ in Greek means happy and in Aramaic means prosperous. What does that mean for us? It means that in order to be really happy (blessed), we need to pursue God and His Kingdom. Deeper than that, seeking God, staying in His will, produces joy, and that is something that is not dependent on circumstances, it is indwelling and solely dependent upon God.