The Common Good
June 2006

Not Drunk, Just Not Sober

by Robert Roth | June 2006

At its best the church is an "innocence project" for ourselves and others.

Sometimes we Christians wind up a little too...sober! No, not concerning alcohol. We become too sober—as in serious, routine, predictable, and logical—for the spontaneity, creativity, and flexibility required for hearing (Acts 2), seeing (2 Corinthians 5), and understanding (John 3) what God is doing in our midst. This month’s passages require imagination, intuition, and most of all trust.

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Soberly, we want everything to make sense, in an orderly and sequential way. Then comes the windstorm. Or a creation “groaning in labor pains.” Worse yet: hardships, beatings, riots, and sleepless nights. Desiring a more linear chain of events, we find ourselves in the “right brain” land of the seemingly irrational.

When the Holy Spirit blows like a wind into our lives and through our moment in history, things are not left tidy and calm. In awe, we wonder where that wind “comes from and where it goes” (John 3:8). Yet if we go with it, we find a deeper understanding and hear one another beyond our contrasting languages and cultures. We might then appear odd enough to the dominant culture that someone will have to announce “these are not drunk, as you suppose” (Acts 2:15).

This windy journey might seem, to our very adult eyes, to include fun-house mirrors and kaleidoscope colors. Becoming childlike again (2 Corinthians 6:13, Romans 8:16) will help. Peculiar things await us on this biblical excursion. So pack some childlike trust, and get a little crazy.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

June 4

Birth or Control?

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Giving birth means giving up control, whether it involves the birth of a baby (see Christmas readings), the birth of the church (Acts 2), or when the “whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” (Romans 8:22). Surely these are wild situations, but the Holy Spirit is leading events integral to a divine design. Having faith is key.

Faith is tested when it comes to the messiness of birth. Ours is a culture where hyper-rationality can become irrational and control can balloon out of control. In the United States today, shackling prisoners while they are in labor is commonplace, according to Amnesty International USA. AI reports that while only California and Illinois clearly forbid the practice, 23 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons legally allow the use of restraints during labor. Controls upon controls. Sometimes doctors have to order or plead that the shackles be removed from women for the actual delivery.

The biblical good news is that we can give up control and trust God, joining that historic birthing event that is salvation and redemption. The church was born like a pre-emptive U.N. General Assembly where the only interpreter was the Holy Spirit. What about the “delegates” all speaking at once? No problem: “in our own language we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11). Like a press secretary doing a little spin control, Peter assured the normal people that “these are not drunk as you suppose” (2:15).

Note that no attempt was made to shackle the creation-in-labor in Romans 8. We might imagine our Creator empowering creation and history for the birth of endless varieties of life and unseen possibilities for humanity. May we join the groaning and sighing of creation, and all who would honor new life, from prison to pristine wilderness.

June 11

Get a Little Crazy

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Suggestion: First read a little poetry, listen to some music, sketch imaginatively with crayons, or let your mind drift as you watch an early summer sunrise or sunset. Then begin reading about the six-winged seraphs of Isaiah, the born-from-above and old-young types in John, the set-free creation in Romans, and the skipping-like-a-calf mountains of Psalm 29. There is a pattern to be seen in the prophet Isaiah: mystical encounter, ethical self-reflection (the sober part), and then a radical response to the call. It takes some letting go to get to “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

If you use commentaries, get to them a little later this time. Start with this week’s wild’n’crazy scriptures on their own terms. You might be comfortable with the notion of God on a throne in Isaiah or even Daddy God in Romans (“Abba” is personal and affectionate), but the psalmist’s God of the thunderstorm might call for a different state of mind. By gospel time, avoid the too sober and literal approach of Nicodemus the Pharisee. Otherwise you, too, will ask in befuddlement: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (John 3:4).

Because truth can be wonderfully stranger than fiction, something beyond reason and rationality is also needed to recognize what has been going on in the little town of Covert, Mich., since the mid-19th century. Black people and white people have lived together in harmony. Looking back into what historian Anna-Lisa Cox calls “a quiet radicalism,” one can witness black foreman Dawson Pompey overseeing a white work crew in 1868, seven interracial couples living peacefully in 1908, and integrated sock hops and classrooms in the 1950s. The 2000 census counted 1407 whites, 1095 African Americans, 478 Latinos, and 125 mixed race folks. Contemplate the strangely new.

“Covert” activities in the Old Testament temple, the New Testament church, and the rural backwater of southwestern Michigan! Through the eyes of those “born of the Spirit,” we allow ourselves to really see God blessing people with peace.

June 18

1.Scatter Seeds 2.Sleep

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

The psalmist: “May the Lord fulfill all your petitions” (Psalm 20:5). Paul to the church: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus on the kingdom of God: “It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31).

Those who plant the tiny seeds of God’s providential rule are invited to rest easy. Or at least with a sense of expectation. The seeds can barely be seen before they are planted. Once in the ground, hope must prevail. For now, those very small seeds are invisible.

May 13, 2006, marked 25 years since Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish assassin, lifted up his gun in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican and shot Pope John Paul II. In December 1983, the pope traveled to Agca’s prison cell and forgave him. Some may have said of the pope, echoing what was asked about those Pentecost Christians, “What is he, drunk?”

I believe Pope John Paul’s audacious act of forgiveness indicated he was a bit intoxicated by the Holy Spirit. His deed planted a seed of the kingdom in my life, leaving me at first weepy and soon recommitted to being a more forgiving person. Perhaps that act of forgiveness planted millions of seeds of God’s kingdom in the hearts of people who remember it around the world. Some of those seeds, I believe, have become “the greatest of all shrubs” where birds (peace doves?) land in the branches.

Pope John Paul II moved beyond concern for his own body and his own wounds or scars. We might recall Paul’s affirmation that people of faith “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Paul gets beyond seeing others merely from “a human point of view” (5:16), even as the Lord picks David for Samuel to anoint by looking at his heart and not his outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7).

Grant us the ability, O God, to walk by faith and not by sight, and to have hope when we can neither see nor understand.

June 25

Well Known

1 Samuel 17:32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

It takes some markedly flexible, inventive thinking to see potential innocence where the world sees only guilt. So goes the Innocence Project, a nonprofit collective of lawyers and law students using DNA evidence to free the wrongly imprisoned.

Nick Yarris survived 23 years on death row before becoming the 140th person saved from execution through post-conviction DNA testing. Though he now works to bring hope to others, he also sees himself as “a ghost in my old life.” As a society, how can we adequately recognize this person who spent years in solitary confinement, feeling utterly lost and abandoned?

This week’s passages address the unseen, the rejected, and those considered “imposters.” There is a moment in 2 Corinthians 6 when Paul names the universal experience of being treated “as unknown.” Yet he realizes that in God’s eyes, “we are well known.”

The God who is “a stronghold for the oppressed” and who desires that “the needy shall not always be forgotten” (Psalm 9:9,18) never lost sight of Nick Yarris. In human form, that God hears the disciples ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” and calms the wind and waves (Mark 4:38-39).

At its best the church is an “innocence project” for ourselves and others. It can be an oasis of recognition for the unrecognized if we can lighten up and loosen up from our stiff, world-imposed prejudgments of people. Shaking some of our sober-mindedness, our thinking can shift from the restraints of social propriety to seeing and knowing those invisible ones seen and known by God.

Though recently many have been liberated from death row, God also saw and knew those who died. Every day our lives brush past those, imprisoned or free, who wait upon God’s faithful for life-saving recognition. Just to be “well known.” Any moment we might hear Paul’s words: “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

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