by Daniel Harrell
If ever I’ve called you from my cell phone and you have Caller ID, you’ve likely seen my 617-Boston area code flash on your screen before letting it go to voice mail. Who’d be calling you from Boston? These days, with long distance being no distance, many still hold onto their hometown area codes for nostalgia’s sake. A woman who took my call on Thursday told me she’ll be a 612 girl for the rest of her life. And why not? Last month, in the midst of our one winter snowstorm, I was picking up a pizza when my smartphone accidentally slipped from my coat pocket and dropped into the snow accumulating in the street. Since it hit the snow, I didn’t hear it fall and therefore didn’t realize it missing until a few minutes later when I wanted to check the football scores while driving. The snow was deeper by then, so I decided to call myself from the pizza shop phone, and listen for my nifty Hawaii 5-0 ringtone in the snow. However when I explained my plan to the pizza people, and asked to use their landline, they said, sorry, but we can’t let customers make long distance calls. “But my phone is right out in front of your store!” I pleaded. I would have called Dawn and had her call my phone, but her area code is Boston too. And we don’t have a landline. So now I was stranded, helpless as I stood on the cold snowy street. How was I to make it without my smartphone? What if someone was trying to text me?
Life is tough when you have it easier than everybody else. Obviously I needed some perspective. The news this week reported that despite numerous public and private programs and millions of dollars spent, overall homelessness in Hennepin County increased. As I was out on the street ice fishing for my dumb smartphone, 1400 families were looking for a place to sleep. It’s the highest number in more than a decade. Advocates say homeless people still face fallout from the down economy, high foreclosure rates and a tight housing market that leaves no other options.
Martin Luther King, Jr. devoted the last years of his life to combating poverty, most evidently in his Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Motivated by the conviction that all people should have what they need to live, King shifted his focus from civil rights after observing gains had not improved the material conditions of life for many blacks in America. The Poor People’s Campaign aimed to end poverty in America regardless of race. In 1967, King wrote, “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out. There are twice as many white poor as [black] poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and [black] alike.” It’s a challenge we still take on as a society, and as a church, through our partnerships with Calvary Baptist, CES, Families Moving Forward and other organizations. A number of our Innové applicants have submitted ideas that address poverty too.
One government program that has enjoyed recent success is called “Rapid Re-Housing.” It’s managed to put a measurable dent in the numbers of chronic homelessness, those people who’ve been without housing for more than a year. Rapid Re-housing takes funds normally funneled into shelters and food services and rents apartments instead that are freely given to homeless people. A case worker simply walks up to her homeless client and hands him keys to a new home. Darrell Bandy, a 49-year-old man who’d been on the streets for several years, now has his own apartment. “Now I can wake up and make my own breakfast.,” he said “I can wash my own clothes. ... It’s a blessing to know you don't have to wake up in that jungle [outside].” Rapid Re-housing has worked in other cities and proven economical too, but it still has its drawbacks, the most obvious being that it is morally offensive. Hundreds of thousands of poor people work hard every day, barely make ends meet and are on the cusp of being homeless themselves, but nobody ever offers them a free apartment. Yet the ungrateful bum on the street swigging cheap vodka gets one for nothing?
That is morally offensive and extremely unfair—which makes Rapid Re-housing sound a lot like the gospel. After all, from God’s vantage point, who are sinners but an ungrateful lot of chronic indigents who’ve opted for all kinds of cheap vodka ourselves? At the end of our rope with no hope of redeeming ourselves, up walks Jesus who says, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions. I am your key to a free apartment.”
It is a little hard to swallow. Imagine walking up to some downtown panhandler, dropping a set of keys into his cup and saying, “Hey friend, here’s a house in Edina with your name on it. Enjoy.” You think he’d believe you? He’d probably tell you what you could do with your keys. No wonder the apostle Paul’s detractors in 2 Corinthians, along with so many others, found the gospel so hard to believe. And so offensive. Especially since when the apostle Paul tried to drop dropped keys in the Corinthians’ cups, theirs were still full of Starbuck’s dark roast. Paul treated law-abiding latte-drinkers as if they were drunken street people. How dare he presume that they needed salvation. Salvation from what? They were good people. They were already righteous enough.
Paul took their resistance as evidence they were possessed by the devil, blinded to the truth and unwilling to see the light. Not the most winsome evangelism strategy. But how else to make sense of anyone refusing abundant and eternal life? Who of their own free will would ever turn down keys to a free house? Could they not see that the gospel came from God himself? Did they not realize, that the same Lord who brought light to creation now shines new creation on anybody will to take it? Jesus was everything the Corinthians had been hoping for. “God has made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” Paul writes, piling on words that resonate throughout Scripture: “Let there be light,” said the Lord, and there was light. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” sang Isaiah, “on those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, light has shined.” “Though I sit in darkness,” said the prophet Micah, “the Lord will be my light.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In Jesus was life, and his life was the light of all people.”
The bright light of Christ had literally lit up Paul on that famous street to Damascus. More righteous in his own mind than any, drunk on the cheap vodka of his own accomplishments, Paul, as Saul, was a first rate Pharisee in need of nobody’s grace. On his way to Damascus to dispense with a few heretics, “a great light from heaven,” stopped him in his tracks. At first maybe Paul thought God was spotlighting him for being such a good person. But the spotlight was instead the hot light of Jesus, interrogating Paul for being so evil. “Why do persecute me?” came the voice from heaven. Blinded by the light, Paul was led to a Jewish Christian named Ananias, who made Paul see and understand that righteousness before the Lord was never anything he could attain on his own. All the housing in heaven is fully subsidized by grace. It is an offensive salvation; a glorious treasure.
A glorious treasure carried in “clay jars,” Paul writes in our passage, the ancient equivalent of brown paper bags; its purpose “…to make clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” This is not about us anymore. “We do not proclaim ourselves;” he writes, “we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for his sake.” Paul paid for the offensive salvation he preached. “We are afflicted in every way—perplexed, persecuted and struck down—always carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies.” To proclaim Christ as Lord is to proclaim Christ as crucified Lord—afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down himself—a morally offensive proclamation once you understand that Christ’s death is our fault, that he was struck down for our sin. “Death is at work,” Paul asserts, crucifying all of our blatant wrongdoing and bleating rationalizations, all of our fake piety and condescending righteousness. “Those who try to save their lifewill loseit,” Jesus warned, “only those who lose their life for my sake will findit.” “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The gospel gives you keys to a free house, but it often has to kick you out onto the streets to get you to take it.
I didn’t watch any of Lance Armstrong’s confession last week, though apparently 3.2 million viewers did. After being outted by former teammates and banished by the professional cycling community, Lance did what celebrities do when they’re up against a wall of scandalous shame—he turned to Oprah. While a lot of people watched, few had any sympathy. Lance strong-armed a lot of people into complying with his doping and lying, covering himself with a cancer charity while becoming like cancer to any who crossed him in order to keep his secrets safe.
Cyclist Tyler Hamilton, stripped of his own Tour de France title because of doping, wrote how “…secrets are poison. They suck the life out of you, they steal your ability to live in the present, they build walls between you and the people you love. Now that I’d told the truth, I was tuning into life again. I could talk to someone without have to worry or backtrack or figure out their motives, and it felt fantastic… One afternoon, I was doing some business research on the Internet, looking at training websites. As happened sometimes, an ad with a photo of Lance popped up. Usually, seeing his face made me wince, and I’d click the window closed. But this time, for some reason, I found myself staring at his face, noticing that Lance had a big smile, a nice smile. It made me remember how he used to be, how good he was at making people laugh… I found myself feeling sorry for Lance… I was sorry in the largest sense, sorry for him as a person, because he was trapped, imprisoned by all the secrets and lies. I thought: Lance would sooner die than admit it, but being forced to tell the truth might be the best thing that ever happened to him.”
It was the best thing that ever happened to Paul. The truth set him free. "He renounced the shameful things that one hides." In his defense before his detractors in Acts, Paul rolled out his what many would have thought to be a rich resume: proudly educated at all the best schools, commissioned by the high priest and zealous for God, a righteously hunter of heretics. For Paul his prestige was his poison, walling him off from the God he pretended to serve. Jesus kicked him onto the street to Damascus, exposing his spiritual poverty as a spiritual necessity. You have to lose your life to find it. For Paul, writing to the Philippians, this meant, “suffering the loss of all things and counting them as rubbish for the sake of gaining Christ.” Death has to work for resurrection to work. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;” he said. “Perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. We carry around in our body the death of Jesus always, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body.”
The light that blasted Paul did so at high noon—a detail designed to emphasize how Christ’s glory outshines the sun. It caused a complete turnaround in Paul’s life, the persecution he executed against Christ became the persecution he endured for Christ. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not even worth comparingwith the gloryto be revealed to us,” he wrote to the Romans.
Paul’s dramatic Damascus road conversion provides the template for a “come-to-Jesus experience,” the abrupt reversal from going the way you were going to going the way of the Lord. I’ve told you about my own reversal from a business and marketing path onto a pastoral ministry path. It happened at a fraternity party which may explain a lot. My fraternity brothers were horrified. Why toss away business savvy and bankable ability for a career of cultural irrelevance and pot luck suppers? I’ll admit there are days when I wonder if my fraternity brothers were right. Like any work, pastoral ministry has its share of frustration and trouble. I remember once bemoaning a particular spate of trouble to a seminary class, only to have an exasperated student demand to know whether I’d really been called to ministry, given my bad attitude. I responded, “You think I’d put up with the trouble if I hadn’t been called?”
Granted, you don’t have to go to seminary or work in a church to do the work of the Lord. If anything, the Kingdom of God could probably do more, missionally speaking, with fewer pastors and more Christians viewing themselves as “ministers” in their own vocations. This is part of the purpose of Innové, trying to “do church” in ways that don’t look like church has always looked. When our jobs are done for the Lord, they have their own integrity apart from anything else they might accomplish, for the work itself brings glory to God and therefore joy to us.
Maybe this is what that seminary student considered so exasperating. It’s one thing to suffer for Jesus. It’s another thing to whine about it. Not so for Paul. On the contrary, we rejoice in our sufferings, he wrote to the Romans, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, hope does not disappointus, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” A glorious treasure in brown paper bags. Death at work so that resurrection can work: the life of Jesus made visible in our bodies. Free keys to a home in glory land that outshines the sun.
I should add that Dawn found my phone. She took hers over to the snow bank and called mine, retrieving it from its frozen grave, run over, crunched and broken but still functional. There's an analogy there somewhere.