Truth to Power

Jim West pastors the First Baptist Church of Petros, Tennessee. We were at Carson-Newman together a few years ago. Jim sounds like an old timey preacher with his latest post .  It is refreshing to hear Baptist preachers advocating for the those on the margins of this current economy. Thanks Jim


in the Front Yard

Do you ever wonder why you feel the way you feel? Sometimes you find yourself feeling a certain way and you are just not sure why you feel like that. Something has happened in your life that was subtle and not so noticeable. That something has had an influence on how you are feeling. You find yourself wondering “Why do I feel this way?” Whatever that something was that caused you to feel the way you are feeling did so gradually with little fanfare.

Sometimes you don’t even think about how you are feeling because what you are feeling is so large that it takes all of your energy just to feel it. Analyzing what you are feeling when whatever it is that you are feeling is so overwhelming that it is not an easy thing to do. This is so because that feeling is often not just one feeling but a collection of emotions layered like clouds over the soul. Maybe the feeling is fear, but there is also anger and disgust in there. Perhaps the feeling is joy along with surprise and wonder. Sorting through what we are feeling, while we are feeling it, can be a complex endeavor.

Last Wednesday night, I was feeling in a rather large way. Before I left church, my wife called to inform me that a home in our neighborhood had gone into foreclosure. What she said did not register with me. It would not really sink in until I made my way home and drove by the house.

What I saw was shocking. The contents of my neighbor’s home had been moved to the front yard. Everything that was in the house had been removed. Some of it was in boxes. Much of it had been thrown into large trash bags. Just from looking, you could see that whoever did the removing was not terribly concerned about how things were packed. No, their priority had obviously been on getting the job done as quickly as possible.

Driving by what used to be their home, I felt terrible for my neighbors. For someone to have to go through such an experience is devastating. I can only imagine what it feels like to actually experience it. Like most everyone these days, who keeps up with the current events, I have heard and read about the trials and tribulations of the banking industry. As I heard and read, those problems seemed removed, somewhere else, not here. Maybe people in New York or Washington are wringing their hands — but not here.

A few days have passed since that Wednesday night and now I find myself drawn to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. I read their words again, not because I wanted to know the future. Hebrew prophets never saw themselves primarily as foretellers of the future, but as forth-tellers of the word of the Lord. I read their words to hear a word about where we are and how we got there.

  • Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. (Amos 2:6-7a)
  • Who oppress the poor who crush the needy (Amos 4:1)
  • Because you trample on the poor (Amos 5:11)
  • I know many of your transgressions and how great are your sins — you who…push the needy aside…(Amos 5:12)
  • You have turned justice into poison (Amos 6:12)
  • Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land. (Amos 8:4)
  • The time is surely coming, says the Lord god, when I shall send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord, (Amos 8:11)

These words from Amos make it clear that he was preaching in a time, and to a people consumed by self-interest. While other Hebrew prophets certainly preached similar messages, the preaching of Amos is particularly interesting because it is delivered to the people of Israel at a time when it looks like the nation is at the pinnacle of prosperity and power. When everything is going well, it is easy not to hear the word of the Lord. From the sound of Amos’ preaching, Israel had already stopped listening long before he announced the famine “of hearing the words of the Lord.”

Watching cartoons on Saturday morning as a boy was the thing to do. Those cartoons were made possible often times by the makers of breakfast cereals. The cereals that were advertised were naturally geared to children. Some of them were so focused on satisfying the taste buds of children that they did not always pay much attention to meeting nutritional requirements. To further entice children to get their parents to buy a certain cereal, prizes were often hidden inside the box.

Looking at the current state of our culture, I wonder if we have not patterned our religious diet after those enticing cereals from our childhood years. That is to say, we swallow lots of sweet tasting sugar, but little spiritual value. The people of Israel never stopped being religious. Even when rebelling against God, they went through the motions of being religious to the extent that it met their needs and satisfied their desires. So the prophet Micah speaks for God: With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? (Micah 6:6-7)

Here Micah is talking about worship and asking if this is what God wants. The oil, the rams and the calves seem odd to us because we have never offered those kinds of sacrifices or associated them with worship. What we do offer in worship are prayers, hymns, sermons, anthems, and tithes. Micah’s question applies just as well to what we offer in worship. His answer points us in a different direction: And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

The people of Israel had learned to worship without doing justice, without loving kindness, and without walking humbly with God. We seem to be living in similar times. We are very religious, yet our religion seems to have less and less to do with justice, kindness, or humility and more and more to do with satisfying our religious appetites with sweet sounding morsels that remind us of our goodness while doing nothing to feed our souls.

We live in complex and confusing times. So what is new about that? I suppose most people at most times have thought the same thing. To see events playing out right in front of us, that reveal the depth of the pain that some among us are experiencing, is disturbing and makes us more than a little uncomfortable. We are called to do justice and to stand with the needy. We are called to love kindness and lift up those who have been trampled. We are called to walk humbly with God and not push the afflicted out of the way. Ultimately, what we decide about God must be more than a feeling. It must be a commitment to live toward a world where we do not come home and find everything our neighbor owns sitting on her front lawn.