Sunday, August 24, 2014

We Don't Know What to Do

When I'm not sure what to do, I sometimes look back on one of my favorite Old Testament accounts, the story of King Jehosophat, in 2 Chronicles 20.

Warned of a vast army gathering on the other side of the sea, Jeshosophat gathered his people to join him in asking God what to do. He described the ways God had led in the past, described the current overwhelming need, then confessed his own inadequacy, and willingness to do what God instructed: 
“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12) 
In my years of full-time youth ministry, I led a mission trip every summer to an inner city neighborhood where our task was to share the hope of God’s love in a community with the lowest per capita income and highest density of children in the state of Pennsylvania. Early in our week together we would read King Jehosophat’s prayer and talk together about our own inadequacy in the face of poverty, addiction, racial unrest.

I’d point out the way the people of Judah “stood there before the Lord,” and read this: 
“Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly.
 He said: “Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.”
  (2 Chronicle 20:14-15)
My goal was to have us look, not at what we were going to do, but at what God was going to do, while we were invited to watch. We were not bringing God to Kensington: he was there, already, inviting us to join him.

And we were not going to solve the problems we encountered: we were going to spread them out, together, in prayer, and watch for God to move.

And solutions, direction, answers, vision, were not my responsbilitiy alone, as the leader of our little group. Just as God spoke through Jahaziel, never mentioned before or after, he could, and did, speak through any member of our team.

Every evening, after our two hour program with the kids of the neighborhood, we’d gather to debrief. We’d write accomplishments and challenges on the big whiteboard in the room that served as meeting space, practice hall, women and girls’ sleep space, then we’d spend time in prayer, inviting God to show us his love for the kids who showed up at our gate: eager, disruptive, hostile, hungry.

The next morning, after the leaders had gathered again in prayer, after we’d read through a chapter of the gospels together, we’d listen for ideas for the day ahead.
 “Do the music and drama in the courtyard, with the building as a backdrop."
“Let’s go over early and worship and pray in every space.”
 “Let’s use tickets for face painting, so we know who’s next, and it feels like something special.”
 “Let’s move the big kids to the parish house, so they get used to coming inside here, and have somewhere comfortable to sit.”
“Serve snacks right from the start, so hungry kids can eat before they play. And snacks again for the big kids during small group time, so they can eat and talk. They’ll talk more.” 
I loved seeing our time together take shape in a way that made clear that God’s vision was greater than ours, his love deeper and wider than ours. That vision and love spoke to all of us, in little details that made our time smoother, and in larger ways that brought lasting fruit.

I thought of that time, and that passage, as I read Bethany Hoang’s Deepening the Soul for Justice. She describes a similar passage, a similar threat.

Sennacherib, king of Assyria, attacked and captured the fortified cities of Judah, then marched toward Jerusalem, where he hurled threats at King Hezekiah, and laughed at the idea that God would intervene: 
Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. And will you be delivered? Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my predecessors deliver them—the gods of Gozan, Harran, Rezeph and the people of Eden who were in Tel Assar? Where is the king of Hamath or the king of Arpad? Where are the kings of Lair, Sepharvaim, Hena and Ivvah? (Isaiah 37:11-13)
Hoang, as member of the staff of International JusticeMission, describes her own experience of the taunting threats that oppose the vision of justice and peace: 
When I hear the king of Assyria threaten violence with laughing hubris, I can’t help but see the face of a rice mill owner in south Asia, throwing his head back and smiling as he bragged in sinister delight about how he violently prevents his slaves from leaving the compound.
I see the faces of government officials who coldly considered a mother’s testimony, who unflinchingly skimmed over the crime scene photographs of her little daughter’s rape and murder. I can eel their limp hands, hands which had accepted bribes from the defendant, shaking my and my colleagues hands and glibly insisting that justice was likely impossible in this case.
I hear the words of officials throughout the world telling my colleagues that justice for the poor is not possible, trying to convince our tireless staff to go home rater than stay through the watches of the night waiting for these officials to make good on their own laws.
 Just as Jehosphat described the ways God had led in the past, described the current overwhelming need, then confessed his own inadequacy, and willingness to do what God instructed, Hezekiah took the letter from Sennacherib and spread it out before the Lord in prayer. 
“Every day, each one of us receives ‘letters,’ not unlike Hezekiah. Though perhaps not in written form, we encounter great discouragement in our lives that, in as little as one word or one image, threaten to lock down our hearts in deep burden. And as we pursue justice as integral to our daily lives, there will be times when we will be tempted to believe that our God does not hear, that our God does not see, that our God is not able to intervene. 
But as these ‘letters’ come our way, these discouragements that threaten our commitment to seeking justice, even our own disbelief in God’s power or willingness to act, we are invited like Hezekiah to spread all of this out before the Lord. 
When we spread out our discouragements before the Lord – the lies waged against the reality of God’s reign, the taunts hurled against our belief in God’s power to intervene and to heal and to redeem – this simple act of choosing to come before the Lord and seek his face is an act of proclaiming the truth that God is the good, the just, the sovereign Ruler of the ages over and against the brutality of the moment.” (33) 
Hoang describes the way the staff of IJM starts each day in stillness: setting the schedule, the challenges, the perplexities of the day before God and waiting for direction. Later in the day, together, the staff meets to pray, and in gatherings around the globe, staff, volunteers, whole churches wait on God together.

She insists that the global reach of IJM, “the tangible relief for those who suffer from violent injustices such as slavery, forced prostitutuion and illegal detention,” the accomplishments in transforming broken justice systems, holding perpetrators accountable, providing aftercare and support for survivors, are all made possible by the consistent discipline of spending time in prayer, listening in stillness, acknowledging our inadequacy and waiting for vision from the God whose desire for justice and love for the weak are greater than our own.

I wrote last week about the lure of disengagement, the struggle to connect what we know with what we do, what we believe with how we structure our days.

For me, this discipline of listening in prayer is the heart of any engagement.

With limited time, energy, resources, I struggle to know where to invest, when to draw back, how to make a difference. The needs of family, friends, community near and far are too many, too complex, too demanding. I am not wise enough to meet even the simplest.  

Yet, as I spread them out before God, like Hezekiah, or share them in prayer with others, like Jehosophat, as I confess, yet again, "I (we!) don't know what to do," opportunities become visible, next steps become clear, and I’m reminded: it’s not my plan I’m pursuing, but a greater plan I’m privileged to be part of.

Some next step applications:

Spend time in prayer about areas of need, asking God for insight and instruction.

Consider exploring The Essential Question: How You Can Make a Difference for God (a book by my husband, Whitney Kuniholm, just released by InterVarsity Press).

Read and reflect on Hoang’s Deepening the Soul for Justice, and think about ways to grow in spiritual disciplines that make engagement sustainable.

Gather to pray and share vision with others who would like to learn more about showing compassion and seeking justice.

Watch for unexpected opportunities to learn, grow, and serve. ( Here’s one opportunity I’ll be exploring: Bridges Out of Poverty Workshop, on October 18, at Church of the Good Samaritan, PaoliPA.)

This is also the last in a series exploring words and practices that help or hinder our ability to serve our communities in love while renewing a web of compassionate engagement. 

Next week I'll begin looking at specific issues and arenas for engagement, in preparation for the November elections, as an extension of last year's "What's Your Platform?"

Earlier posts:  
Wisdom, July 6, 2014
Liberty and Constraint, July 13, 2014
Justice for All, July 20, 2014  
Appalling Silence, August 3, 2014 
The Role of Rules, August 10, 2014 
Disengagement and Connection, August 17
 As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.