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.
When I graduated from Messiah College in May of 2000, I was given a towel along with all other graduates that year, the years prior, and I believe, the years since. It is a tradition I have come to appreciate more in the years since graduation. At the time, I thought the towel only a memento of the day, too small for any functional use, and a symbol only to be kept in its pristine whiteness till kingdom come.
A few years ago, I found the towel while organizing my things. I almost got rid of it, but then I decided to use it. Why have something as decoration when it is functional? And who wants a towel from my graduation? The other day I looked at it when I dried my hands. It is no longer pristine white. The stains from the foundation I use have led me to question what I am willing to put on my face and my decision to use the towel at all.
My original inclination to save the towel as a symbolic representation and reminder to live a life of service seemed like the better decision. Then I wondered how damaged it would look if I would had been using it since 2000 instead of only using it since 2014. I thought of usefulness with the intrinsic caveat of damage. Nothing used will stay in its original condition. It’s physics.
What other things in my life have I tried to keep pristine, original, symbolic? What is meant to be useful that I have kept as show, afraid to get it dirty? If the towel was to spur me to a life of service and my towel is not very dirty, how might this metaphor be true in other areas of my life?
Have I really been serving, or have I been doing things that look like serving, but don’t get me very dirty? If my service is symbolic, then who is benefiting from it? If I’m going to serve those who need it, won’t the line be blurred between who is helping and who is being helped? If I have a towel and I’m present and there is an opportunity to use it, will I wait for someone else to use their towel, so I can save mine from whatever uncomely issue needs the cleaning?
My culture tells me to hide messes and anything used to clean up the mess, to use a filter to make better what is not great. It tells me to compare my towel with another’s towel instead of my own towel at different stages. In 2019, I’m taking the towels in my life out of their trophy cases. I’m using the proper tools at the proper time. I’m not waiting for the queen to visit to use the china, I’m not keeping the furniture covered in plastic. I’m not keeping that creepy green film on the brass fixtures, and I’m using that towel for whatever needs a towel. What tool of yours will you take from storage? I hope to see you out there serving, getting dirty, and loving every minute of it.