Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Responsive Prayer for Labor Day

Tomorrow is Labor Day here in the U.S. (that’s Labour Day to UK and Commonwealth readers).  This responsive prayer is written by my friend, Rev. Ken Sehested, one of the pastors of Circle of Mercy congregation in Asheville, NC. Ken, who for nearly 2 decades was Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, wrote this  prayer as part of his new book,  In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public.  We prayed it responsively in church  today.

Labor Day

Creator God, we give thanks this day for work:

for work that sustains; for work that fulfills;

for work which, however tiring, also satisfies

and resonates with Your labor in creation.


As part of our thanks we intercede

for those who  have  no work,

who have too much  or  too little work,

who work at jobs that demean or destroy,

work that profits the  few

at the expense of the many.


Blessed One, extend your redemptive purpose

in  the many and varied places of our work.

In factory or field, in shelterd office

or under open sky,  using technical knowledge

or physical strength,  working with machines

 or with people or with the  earth itself.


Together we promise:

To bring the full weight of our intelligence

and strength  to our work.

Together we promise:

To make our place of work a place of safety

and respect for all with whom we labor.

Together we refuse:

To engage in work that harms another,

that promotes injustice  or violence,

that damages the earth or otherwise

betrays the common good;

or to resign ourselves to economic

arrangements that widen  the gap

between rich and poor.

Together we affirm:

The rights of all to work that both

fulfills  and  sustains; to just wages

and to contentment.

Together we affirm:

That the redeeming and transforming

power of the Gospel, will  all its

demands for justice and its promises

of mercy, is as relevant to  the workplace

as  to the sanctuaries of faith and family.


We make these promises,

we speak these refusals

and we offer these affirmations

as offering to You,  O God–

who labors with purpose and

lingers in laughter–in response

to your ever-present grace, as

symbols of our ongoing repentance

and transformation, and in hope

that one day all the world

shall eat and be satisfied.


September 6, 2009 Posted by | faith, labor, liturgy | Comments Off on A Responsive Prayer for Labor Day

Pentecost Sunday: Different Christian Groups Emphasize Different Aspects

Today is Pentecost Sunday in the Western version of the ancient liturgical calendar in Christianity. (In Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecost is NEXT Sunday.) The Believers’ Church/Free Church tradition which includes my own Baptist heritage is not big on liturgical calendars, but I find that if Christians do not shape themselves by theological events as we move through time and space, then we will shape ourselves by secular ones (e.g., churches which celebrate nationalist or military-related holidays in their home countries–which have the effect of reducing the God of All Nations to a tribal deity).

When the Day of Pentecost came, they [i.e., the followers of Jesus] were all together in one place.  Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 

Now, there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment because each one heard them speaking in their own language.  Utterly amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?  Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?  Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia [probably meaning the Roman province called Asia–roughly today’s Asia Minor], Phrygia, and Pamphilia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism) ; Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  Amazed and perplexed, they asked each other, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them, saying, “They have had too much wine!”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem! Let me explain this to you–listen carefully to what I say.  These men are not drunk as you suppose!  It’s only nine in the morning!  No, this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams;

Even on my bond-slaves, both men and women,

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.

I will show wonders in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood

before the coming of the great and glorious Day of the Lord.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Men of Israel, listen to this:  Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.  This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowlege; and you, with the help of wicked men, did put him to death by nailing him to a cross.  But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.  . . . [Skipping the rest of Peter’s Semon]

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  And Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–all whom the Lord our God will call.” [Acts 2: 1-39 NIV]

Differing groups of Christians put the emphasis of this day (and Acts 2) in differing places–all with good basis in the text:

  • Evangelists and missionaries stress the global mission of Christianity that began at Pentecost.  From the approximately 3000 who were saved that day to the numbers added daily that followed.
  • Some emphasize Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church,” i.e., when the broken followers of Jesus of Nazareth became a distinct entity called the church–even though not yet called “Christians.”
  • Those who stress the rootedness of Christianity in Judaism point out that this came on Pentecost (the 50th day after Jesus’ resurrection) during the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot (“Festival of Weeks”) which celebrates the giving of the Torah from God to Moses and is commemorated 50 days after the Exodus.  (This is why Jews from throughout the Diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem.)
  • Those who put extra emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit (i.e., “Pentecostals and Charismatics”) focus on the speaking in tongues.
  • Eastern Orthodox and Holiness groups focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit as empowering to new lives of faithful discipleship.
  • Liberation theologians focus on the breakdown of barriers between various racial and ethnic groups and classes (bond and free) and even the healing of ageism and generation gaps.
  • Feminist theologians focus on the “sons and daughters” and “both men and women” –the equality in Spirit-guided service to God predicted by Joel and proclaimed by Peter as happening with this outpouring of the Spirit.
  • Trinitarians focus on the way the Spirit is given by God the Father and bears witness to the salvific work of Christ the Son.
  • Those who concentrate on small group formation for discipleship note that the empowerment of the Spirit came when the disciples were gathered all together and the continuing empowerment took place in continued daily breaking of bread together, prayer, and attention to the apostle’s teaching (today, Bible Study).

There are doubtless other emphases.  All that I have mentioned are legitimately rooted in this day.  I think any one emphasis without the others is unbalanced.

Happy Pentecost Sunday.  And, to Jewish friends, Happy Shavuot!

May 31, 2009 Posted by | Christian calendar, church, Holy Spirit, Jesus, liturgy, theology | 1 Comment

Advent, Week II: Love

day.jpgThe Second Week of Advent emphasizes Love. Therefore, this week I will profile Dorothy Day as my example of Christian peacemakers whose lives bear witness to the Word Made Flesh.  In my view, few Christians incarnated love as did Dorothy Day.  Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was the co-founder and guiding spirit behind the Catholic Worker movement.  Raised in a secular home, but early drawn to the Jesus of the gospels, as a young woman Day became an anarchistic socialist with Communist leanings out of her deep concern for the poor.  She worked as a journalist for several Leftist newspapers, hung around the New York intellectual scene (the playwrite Eugene O’Neill tried to make her one of his sexual conquests, but failedat least that’s the impression given by some of her biographers), marched against poverty and for women’s rights–including participating in a hunger strike of suffragists. (This despite the fact that Day distrusted electoral politics and never even registered to vote. She still wanted women to have the opportunity to do so.)

  In this early “bohemian” phase, Day became involved in a destructive love relationship in which she became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion in order to keep her paramour–who left her anyway.  The secular Day was ashamed of this act because she was horrified that would do such a thing for a man. Later, after her conversion to Catholicism, Day had even more guilt over this abortion–so much so that she only ever spoke of it in an autobiographical pre-conversion novel (The Eleventh Virgin) and tried to seek out and destroy all copies of the book.  She became convinced that she was barren as punishment for her sin.  But she fell in love again, much more healthily, and entered into a common law marriage with another anarchist. Unfortunately, he was an atheist and Dorothy was on her way to becoming a Christian and he hated and feared the institution of marriage.  So, after the birth of her daughter Tamar, Dorothy had her baptized and herself underwent catechism and baptism–and left her commonlaw husband.  She felt forced to choose between “natural happiness” and the “harsh and dreadful” love of the Gospels.

The newly Catholic Day scandalized her secular, Communist friends. To become Christian was bad enough, but they could think of no more regressive and oppressive institution than the Catholic Church (pre-Vatican II). But to Dorothy, although the Church’s sins were easy enough to see, it was the Church of the poor and the immigrant. She searched for a way to serve Christ, the Church, and the poor.

She found it when a French lay-brother and wandering prophet of sorts named Peter Maurin arrived on her doorstep to preach a form of Catholic anarchism which he called personalism.  Together they formed the Catholic Worker movement: opening “Houses of Charity” in which they would serve the poor unconditionally, and eventually forming similar rural houses or communal farms. To this was added a newspaper which Dorothy edited and wrote for, The Catholic Worker, which advocated pacifism and promoted a faith that was so radical that Communism looked tame next to it.

Day remained with the Worker houses her whole life, living in voluntary poverty, challenging the church and the world, and working for peace and justice. She remained a pacifist during WWII (which cost the movement many members) and led protests against the nuclear arms race after it.  She made connections with other Christian radicals like Clarence Jordan, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.[or, at least, went south to interview him for The Catholic Worker], and with Cesar Chavez and the California grape farmworkers.  Day’s grassroots Catholic personalism probably had an influence on Vatican II–at least at the point in which the Church recognized pacifism and conscientious objection as legitimate options for Catholics.  She certainly transformed the American Catholic Church from a mostly conservative social institution to a major force for peace and social justice.

But Day was conservative in her theological views: devoted to the saints, not liking the changes in liturgy after Vatican II, disapproving of priests and nuns who were laicized to marry (perhaps because she had given up such “natural” love herself?), and disapproving of the move by some Catholics to allow women to become priests.  She could be a tyrant in the Catholic Worker houses and when faced with younger folks who dissented from some Church teachings would remark, (according folks like Jim Forest)”This is the Catholic Worker; if you want to be part of a Quaker Worker movement–there’s the door.” But she washed the tired feet of the poor, clothed them, defended them and denounced their exploitation by either church or state.

Love, Dorothy Day teaches us, is not an easy thing in real life as in dreams. In real life, love can be “harsh and dreadful,” but also wonderful, challenging, gripping, powerful. It is that kind of love she discovered in Jesus.  To discover more about Day or the Catholic Worker movement, click here.  I am not Catholic. I am an (ana)Baptist, a Believers’ Church Protestant. But Dorothy Day is a personal “saint” of mine.  Reading her life and her works connects me back to Jesus and to gospel love.

“If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy Day.

December 9, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, discipleship, heroes, liturgy | 5 Comments

The Practice of Theology, 1

I began these reflections with the definition of theology given by the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.”  The particular convictional community we Christians are concerned with, of course, is the Christian Church, the universal Body of Christ, the People of God.  The convictions we are dealing with, unlike some whose convictions are about “girls, guns, and gold,” (to use a traditional and sexist motto from the Old West), are convictions about the Triune God, about Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, about the Holy Spirit, about creation, humanity, sin, and salvation, about discipleship, and the hope of new/re-newed heavens and earth.

The church’s primary instruction in these moral and doctrinal convictions we might call “primary theology” (unless some reader has a better term).  This is what we find in hymns, confessions of faith (e.g., the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), church covenants, catechisms, sermons, evangelistic presentations of the gospel, Sunday School lessons, liturgies, etc.  More formal or “academic” theology is a secondary practice of the Church–but just as necessary for that.  In this practice, theologians investigate these primary theological (i.e., moral and doctrinal) teachings–“discovering, and interpreting” the convictions of the Church (or a part of it, e.g., Orthodoxy in post-Communist Ukraine, Pentecostalism in South America, post-apartheid Reformed faith in South Africa, etc.).  But the (secondary/academic) theologian has a normative task, too.  S/he tests these convictions in their current form:  are they faithful? adequate? biblical?  The theologian’s task, as McClendon puts it, is to hold up a mirror to the community in which the community recognizes itself not just as it is, but as it should be, must strive to be, in order to be what God is calling it to be.

We see the practical nature of theology:  Rooted in basic Christian practices (worship, prayer–both individual and corporate, preaching, evangelism, the saints’ mutual service, hospitality to strangers and enemies, etc.), theology is also to serve those practices.  A biblical example may be in order:  When the apostle Paul writes to the church gathered at Corinth, they are celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, Holy Communion) with a full agape meal–but the rich are gorging themselves and the working poor, arriving later, are going hungry.  Paul leads them to see that their practice of the Supper is distorted, not just morally, but doctrinally–in so mistreating the poor, the Corinthian Christians “failed to discern the Body of Christ” not just in the meal but gathered in Corinth.  Their distorted liturgical practice was wrong morally and doctrinally–revealing flaws in the Corinthian Christians’ eucharistic doctrine, ecclesiology, soteriology, and even Christology.  Paul’s instruction in liturgical reform (from now on, skip the full agape meal, eat at home, do nothing to dishonor the poor made in God’s image–who are also your sisters and brothers for whom Christ died) is also doctrinal correction. In terms of our definition, this is the transformation of the community’s convictions, displayed in their practice.

Next: More on convictions; branches of theology

May 24, 2007 Posted by | liturgy, theology | 5 Comments

Peace Hymn

This was sung at my church, Jeff Street Baptist Community, yesterday for Peace Sunday/Hiroshima Day (06 August 2006). The music for ‘Til Wars on Earth Shall End is found on the website of Every Church a Peace Church, but it was intentionally written to also work with the tune of The Church’s One Foundation.

‘Til Wars on Earth Shall End
by Ken Medema

Let truth and mercy find here a joyful meeting place
And here let peace and justice be joined in warm embrace
And in this congregation let strangers now be friends
To do the gospel’s bidding ’til wars on earth shall end.

Let truth’s bright flame be blazing in all the darkest hours
Confronting schemes of darkness, exposing evil’s powers
Let mercy’s gentle manner so willing to forgive
Fill warring hearts with longing ’til in truth’s light we live.

So now let peace and justice be never far apart
But flowing like a river for every thirsty heart
These two shall be united, a mighty moving stream
Upon whose banks we gather to work and pray and dream.

August 7, 2006 Posted by | liturgy, peace | Comments Off on Peace Hymn