Worshipping Above the Slaves

img_1307-dIt was built in 1482 just a few years before our own Columbus story. It is a massive stone structure on the southern coast of West Africa, one of West Africa’s oldest standing structures. They call it Elmina, Portuguese for “The Mine.” They chose this name because this was where they stored all the gold brought from the mines.  They would collect the gold for months, and then the ships would come and transport it back to Europe.  But this is only the beginning of Elmina’s story. Over the centuries a more valuable commodity was discovered and stored in the lower chambers of Elmina’s walls. You see, Elmina Castle became a gathering station for the slave trade.

04_4228189-elmina-castle-0At the height of the trade 30,000 slaves a year passed through Elmina on their way to the Americas. This continued for nearly three hundred years. Even after slavery was outlawed, Elmina was a part of the illegal trade, and the dark windowless storage rooms that once held gold, now held people. Hundreds would be crammed into one small room. They couldn’t lie down, and they would live this way for months at a time. Separated husbands and wives would never see each other again.

Door-of-No-ReturnAs they waited for the ships, most of the people would die in their rooms and would not be removed. Those who survived were taken to a final holding room. I stood in it. Even centuries later it was dark and damp and smelled of mold and mildew. This room was called “the room of no return” because from it the slaves would pass through a very small slit in the side of the castle. It was only large enough for a single person to pass through directly onto the ships.

I have toured Elmina several times and I already knew that it contained an upstairs church. But on one visit, I noticed that the church was located directly above the room of no return. I immediately thought of Jesus’ answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?”  I thought of the position of these two rooms, the house of worship and the place of slavery. The vision statement of my own church is “Passion for God, Compassion for People,” because in addition to his answer to the first question, to love God, he volunteered a second commandment. He said it’s like the first – love people.

This is the irony of Elmina Castle.  In just one small section, on the northeast side, those who managed the castle tried to obey the first commandment while grossly violating the second. What happened on the first floor, in the room of no return, nullified the offering in the chapel on the second floor. As God said in Amos 5:

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies (v. 21)

Why did God say this?

“You trample on the poor … You oppress the righteous … You deprive the poor of justice” (vs. 11-12).

Elmina is a graphic illustration of why the first and second commandments go together. They need each other. They define each other. They express each other. Jesus put them together. Passion for God fuels compassion for people. I cannot walk with God without caring for people.

What Are You Against? …… What Are You For?

images-1Some time ago I was privileged to hear Art Linkletter speak.  Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, he is currently 97 years old. I remember as a child that I had enjoyed his fun, positive personality, and especially the stories he would tell on his television program, “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”  But I had never heard him in person.

In his presentation he told us the story of his daughter’s drug-related death, and his subsequent personal involvement in the anti-drug movement of the late 1960’s.  As I listened to him I was impressed with his speaking ability, even as a man in his 90’s. It was easy to see how, in the 1960’s, he quickly became an “in demand” speaker, traveling the country telling his story.

What Are you Against?

As he told us his story, he explained how he was completely convinced of his cause and how he passionately pursued his purpose.  And so, he was surprised to notice that his energy was beginning to wane.  His enthusiasm was dissipating.  He had trouble sleeping.  His drive was fading.

All medical tests showed that he was fine, but still he felt terrible.  And then one day, as he walked to the podium to once again make his anti-drug speech, it all became clear to him.  His life had lost its energy because it was all devoted to something he was against.  He had not even addressed his most important question – what was he living for?  He explained to us, how at that very moment, he changed what we was going to say, and never gave the other speech again.

What Are you For?

We really have no choice. We all give our lives for something.  But for what will it be?  What beliefs do you live with?  What vision do you live for?  What cause is worth your very best?

As Paul reveals his own heart, we see the balance in his vision …

“My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ.”

Colossians 2:1-2

As God’s representatives in our cities, towns, and schools, we are against the things that hurt people and relationships. Things like sin, selfishness, immorality, greed, arrogance, injustice, and cruelty, just to name a few.  But we must also be for the things that help people and relationships. Things like forgiveness, joy, reconciliation, love, obedience, worship, generosity, commitment, and service, just to begin the list.

And so, let’s admit it. We find it easy to think of what we are against.  But look at the second list.  What would you add?  What are you for? What is worthy of your most passionate devotion? The second list is where we offer an alternative.  The second list is where we begin to change our world.

The Love Exercise

heart8xlIf you were to ask a follower of Jesus for the clearest, most complete description of love, you would probably be directed to 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter.” It has found a place in wedding ceremonies, inside Valentine Day cards, and on counter-cross-stitch pillows. And while I am sure it is not best understood lifted out of its painful, real life setting, it is a powerful chapter all by itself.

Verses 4-8 describe love in terms of what it does, feels, plans, and desires. In fact, the description almost sounds like a living being.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Here are 16 direct statements about what love is and isn’t.  But does love really have to be thought of as an “It?” Is love inert, non-living, and inanimate? Does it make sense to say that love has no capacity for emotion? Could love be a living being?

Twice in 1 John 4 the text says, “God is love” (vs. 4, 16). And so, take a few minutes and go through this little exercise.

First, if God is love, then it is appropriate to exchange terms, so that the description in 1 Corinthians now reads, “God is patient, God is kind … God is not self-seeking, God is not easily angered, etc.”

Second, John 3:16 says that God loves the whole world. But his love is specific to each of us. He knows the number of hairs on my head (Luke 12:7). He knows the status of each bird (Matthew 6:26) but says that I am much more valuable. And so, since his love is so entirely specific to each of us, add your name to the end of each description so that it reads, “God is patient with Bob, God is kind to Bob … God is not easily angered by Bob, etc.”

And please don’t allow this exercise make you feel childish. Be honest with yourself. For most of us, it’s not difficult to picture an abstract concept of love. It’s easy to conceive of “It” with these glowing terms. “It” is patient and kind. For some of us, it’s more difficult to picture God in this way. We have to personalize the concepts. But, the life of Jesus, makes this much easier (John 1:14, Hebrews 2:14). But for many of us, it’s very difficult to put our own name down as the recipient of God’s love.

And so, third, make an honest note of the phrases that are the most difficult for you to believe or accept. You may find it easier to believe that “God is patient with you” than to believe that “God is not easily angered by you.” Do you believe that “God keeps no record of wrongs on you and that God always trusts you?” You see, our ability to accept a dimension of God’s love will affect our ability to extend it on to others.

Frederich Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking, has written,

“Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold which is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.” (53-54)

Do we believe that God loves us?  Until we give our consent, and open our hearts to his love, the deepest power of love will continue to elude us.

Test or Discussion?

test_sheetImagine a small group leader asking a group for their opinions.   Imagine the people giving their various answers.  And then, imagine the group leader reacting to their opinions by saying, “No … that’s not what I’m looking for … any other thoughts?” How many “other thoughts” do you think would be offered?  Not many.

In case you are wondering, I didn’t make up this scenario.  I actually saw a discussion leader ask a question, receive an answer and then say, “No … that’s not what I’m looking for.” He continued to give this response to several answers, and I watched the group become quieter and quieter.  In fact, after a while, only those with the courage to guess what he was “looking for” continued to respond until, finally, we all stopped, because it was clear to us that these were not really discussion questions.  They were test questions.

In a small group, turning our discussion questions into test questions usually shuts down participation.  Tests put people on the defensive.  They are afraid they might give the “wrong” answer and look foolish.  And so, they become silent.

How different is a relaxed, open environment, where people feel free to explore, to think out loud, to share their opinions, doubts and even their confusion.  This kind of atmosphere encourages people to consider new ideas, to examine their own lives, and even consider changes in their life-style.

And so, in addition to the factual questions from the biblical text, be sure to also ask the group members a completely different kind of question:

What do you think? (Only they know their thoughts)
How does this make you feel? (Only they know their emotions)
What would you do? (And you must really want to know)
With which part of the story do you identify?
What do you think this story teaches?

In all of these questions, you are asking for something you genuinely did not know before the group session began. And you ask these questions, not to pass or fail a “student,” but to hear and understand the thoughts, insights, and emotions of your fellow group members.

5 Moments

In his book, Peaceful living in a Stressful World, Ron Hutchcraft describes five moments scattered throughout our day. Some are exciting. Some are restful. Some are stressful while others are rather dull. But all of them present us with a choice. Who will rule that moment?

Five moments:

1waking

Psalm 119:18 — “When I awake, I am still with you.”

2running

Proverbs 3:6 — “In all you ways acknowledge him.”

3surprising

Ecclesiastes 9:12 — “Men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.”

4Nothing

Matthew 14:23 — “He went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.”

5fadingPsalm 63:6 — “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.”

And right now … I am “fading” — Goodnight.