Mike Cope's blog

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

My life has been blessed by knowing Larry James. Larry graduated from Harding a little before I got there, but we connected in the mid-80s when I was preaching in Searcy and he was preaching in Dallas at the East Richardson Church of Christ. For the last several years Larry has been the Executive Director of Central Dallas Ministries. I know of no one . . . no one . . . who has inspired me more to follow the way of Christ in addressing the needs of those without a voice. It's so easy for me to be wrapped up into my white, middle-class world and to forget the suffering poor of the world who tend to be hidden all around me. Here's something Larry wrote that just won't leave me. If he seems a bit angry, you'll have to excuse him. I think it has something to do with the fact that he's pouring out his life in the trenches for the Lazaruses of the world who remain outside, ignored, stereotyped, and unfed. While it is certainly true that the particular issues associated with injustice in this culture may leave much room for debate, compromise and new agreements and partnerships leading to various solutions, the bedrock theological values clearly and consistently espoused by the witness of Scripture and a significant and influential slice of Christian history refuses to let one comfortably "off the hook" so to speak! Whether one turns to the Law of Moses, the wisdom literature of Israel, the books of history or the prophets, throughout the Hebrew bible one is confronted again and again with the clear outlines of what a just, compassionate and true community culture would look and function like. Approaching the life of Jesus, the message becomes even clearer. For the sake of this reflection there seems to be no need to rehearse the long list of texts that address this divine mandate. The Messiahship of Jesus is largely defined by a radical, demanding commitment to the values of the Jubilee Year (Luke 4:14ff). Whether one considers the basis of eternal judgment as defined by Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19ff) or the consistency of his rabbinic teaching (scan the entire book of Luke!), it is very clear that the issues of compassion, fairness, adequate provision and justice filled his agenda. The early church definitely got this point (Acts 2, 4; James; Paul's work on behalf of the poor in Jerusalem; et al). Taking its cue from these sacred texts the history of the church is replete with advocates, reformers and community developers who press hard against the various forces of injustice within society and at times within the church itself. God's messengers throughout history have understood the connections between the revelation of God and the reality of life for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. Two undeniable aspects of this struggle for me involve the opportunities presented by life in a post-modern democratic society and the drifting irrelevance of the church, as we know it. Freedom and the democratic opportunity to craft a truly compassionate community/societal response beyond sound bit rhetoric to pressing contemporary challenges (such as poverty, access to and disparities around health and wellness, livable wages and the results of inadequate skills for marketplace realities, child care, affordable housing and homelessness) hold out great hope and almost endless possibilities. Yet, we are failing miserably in each of these areas. The powerful engines of freedom, choice and democracy currently serve the rich, the healthy and those with access to wellness methodologies, the fully employed, the secure families and the well-housed to the obvious neglect of those left far, far behind. In a world of opportunity, now plagued by freedom's failures, the church is largely silent as it stands mute like a shallow wading pool reflecting the values of a democratic society that systematically crushes the poor and the marginalized while waving the flags of a rabid patriotism. Ironically, at a time when the church's influence appears to be growing in the public square (even if its membership is declining in real numbers), its prophetic, practical voice comes off muted and shrill. Where is the prophetic word today from the pulpits of Dallas? Who is there to speak a clear word of undeniable truth to power today in a state whose 78th legislature pillaged the poor of the few remaining benefits they could take advantage of? Is there a place for repentance, for fasting beyond the gimmicks of the latest spiritual growth regimen? Where is the biblical understanding that would drive a truly discipled people to their knees because of the suffering of the poor, the imprisoned, the naked, the sick and the stranger? Where are the prophets who would boldly challenge the court of American Royalty? Today democracy and religion engage in a bizarre dance. The dance hall is brightly lighted. Smoke and mirrors complement the environment to cover a reality that is just out of view by design. The clerics dance with the one who invited them in hopes of securing new funds while creating a truly Christian nation to the glory of God! All the while the numbers of the dispossessed grow. The suffering continues. Important subjects such as programmatic scale in the face of the overwhelming numbers or the efficiency of comprehensive public policy strategies never arises in any of the significant conversations and, thus, is never achieved. The night of celebration ends in prayer and everyone returns home full, honored and satisfied . . . except for Lazarus who remains unseen outside the gate.


  • Many churches choose the easy answer of planting a church--like an inner city church--that reaches the Lazaruses. I am embarrassed over the amount of energy that is poured into discussions about traditional, contemporary--and now, emergent--church cultures. I say forget it--there's a bigger kingdom issue. We need to be forming multi-cultural churches. Too hard? Impossible? Not at all.

    "What is impossible with man, is possible with God."

    By Blogger RPorche, at 11/02/2004 02:50:00 PM  

  • Very Challenging ... so few people are doing anything of much value to the Lazaruses of our world. A bag of green beans in the name of the Lord is better than nothing, but not much more. Solutions are hard to come by.

    By Blogger Mason McClain, at 11/02/2004 09:43:00 PM  

  • Good challenging stuff! I share Larry's feelings exactly and have seen firsthand the great work he leads at Central Dallas Ministries. I was recently asked to speak on my living experience in Uganda and how our culture complicates our ability to live Christian lives of compassion towards the world's poor. Not only are the solutions complicated but I have learned that it is extremely hard to preach such a countercultural message. It gave me empathy towards the tough job God gave Amos in the days of all the wealth of God's people at that time. We certainly need more of Larry James' message in our churches.

    Clint Davis

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/02/2004 11:46:00 PM  

  • I live in a mid sized city and have been working as a substitute teacher for the last 3 weeks. Yesterday, I went to the "alternative" school to sub for the high school social studies class. You know what an "alternative" school is: it's where the "bad" kids go when they don't play by the rules of the public schools. And they were "bad" kids; I was afraid of them and was on-edge all day. As I sat and watched them in class (I sat at the teacher's desk at the back of the room to stay out of their way) I thought, "How can God love them?" My head hurt by 3:00 from being so tense. When I left for the day I vowed never, never to go back.

    I can't go back. I don't want to go back. Why would I go back? I can think of a thousand reasons why certain other trained people should go, but none of them seem to fit me, because this situation is different. Right? I'm not trained for this kind of thing. But. . .perhaps. . .just maybe. . .I will go back.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/03/2004 06:33:00 AM  

  • Thank you so much for posting Larry James comments. May God have mercy on me.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/03/2004 06:33:00 AM  

  • Bizarre dance -- what a wonderful metaphor for the church's engagement . . . no, let's be honest, -my- engagement of the problems of society. Most of my life has been spent in this "bizarre dance," molding and parsing and cutting scripture to fit my personal needs. I can truth-text my way out of any argument; I can use the word of God as empty rhetoric; I can espouse a love for Jesus (and even evangelism) while ignoring the example of his life. Oh, I'm "in the world, but not of it," and I'm very good at the "leading a life of Christian example" thing, but sometimes I feel as if I don't do much. Enough. Anything. We . . . no, -I- tend to shroud the social gospel in a semantic cloak and engage in wall-building: I'm in here, behind the moat, safe. Should you need help, you should come to me and ask. But the dispossessed are Lazarus, exactly Lazarus: they are sick, afflicted, -dead-. Those who can speak are far to busy marshalling their energy to survive to reach out and beg for assistance.

    Did Jesus wait for them to ask for his help? Should I be waiting?

    Convicting post. I needed to hear it -- thank you.

    By Blogger B. S. Denton, at 11/03/2004 06:36:00 AM  

  • Strange... (not really) I've been reading through Peterson's "The Message", focusing on how Jesus treated people in the the gospel of Matthew. Just this morning I went back to chapter 8 where the leper says, "If you want to, you can make me clean." Jesus replies, "I want to...."

    This, too, in the same way as Larry James' frustration, is very convicting. If our master "wants to", then as disciples/apprentices, do we "want to" along with him? Just how much do we "want to"? And how much of our "ministry" reflects "wanting to" towards the same people Jesus "wanted to"?

    Our (multicultural) church is beginning a homeless food ministry soon. The people who are starting it are good-hearted people who want to be like Jesus, but who don't know all the questions to research about our community's homeless, nor finding the ways that others in town are doing the same thing. I've been looking at time commitments (volunteer worship minister), financial commitments (two kids in college), work commitments and family commitments and thinking, "I just don't have any more time. I'll just give a special contribution this next Sunday."

    I'm thinking I ought to rethink that. Exactly where would Jesus be in this scenario?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/03/2004 07:16:00 AM  

  • Larry James once told me that leaders in our churches must begin to realize that we are no longer a "blue collar society" and our churches will begin to die if we ignore those who "remain outside, ignored, stereotyped, and unfed."

    The only way the leaders in our churches will understand is to take them out into the trenches. Anyone willing....?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/03/2004 07:20:00 AM  

  • Hey Mike. The guy from Canada here. This is some of what struck me when I was at the tour of the church where the Impact conference was held. I remain appreciative of their ministry and what they are attempting to do, but I am struck by how segmented most ministry is. Up here we still have class and race distinctions that become obvious when you start to look at the churches and see who attends and who doesn't. I believe that if the church (whatever denomination or sect) is going to survive in Canada we are going to need to learn cross cultural minstries, and have places in our churches for those who do not have and are not like us. Thanks for your continuing thoughts that challenge me and my thinking.

    By Blogger Eric, at 11/03/2004 07:34:00 AM  

  • Ho Boy! This really hits where I 'live' and have just recently returned from a national Single Parent Family Ministry leaders' conference. Probably the largest segment of homeless, hungry, deficiently clothed and most often forgotten, is the single parented family.
    Some of the stats they gave us absolutely astounded me:
    25%-40% of our population are single parents; 60% of our kids will spend time in a single parent environment; 75% of single parents are primary home parents and 25% will be non-primary home parents; 28% will never have married; 31% will have divorced; 5% widowed [male & female]; 28% are separated from their kids'other parent; 40% of all weddings have one party that has been married before; 65% of those weddings will include kids from previous marriages; 30% of all weddings will give birth to single parents; ****60% of ALL families, by 2010**** will be step-families; 75% of second marriages fail & 85% of 3rd marriages fail; 95% of all single parents DO Not Attend Church. [They're not going to walk through the front door of our churches, so guess where we have to go to find them?]

    These families have three things in common. They are always short on time, energy and money. If we want to reach a large segment of the Lazarus' in our community, I truly believe we would do well to begin with the single parented families. I also am convinced that as we address the needs of these families, an integration of cultures, ethnics, languages in our churches will be a natural outcome of ministering to these very needy parents and their kids.

    Not only did Jesus go to great numbers of the poor, but He also has elevvated taking care of the poor, before we take care of ourselves, to a central part of our self-examination at the Lord's Supper. (I Corinitians 11)

    Mike, I'm holding up in prayer all involved in the transition of Highland from materialism to missional. I pray for your protection and for God's gracious guidance throughout this maturing process, as I'm convinced this could well be a rocky road for some.

    By Blogger Kathy, at 11/04/2004 10:11:00 AM  

  • Mike, you have a beautiful spirit. If all Christians were of the same spirit as you, you might have a chance of winning the hearts and minds of Blue Staters like myself.

    Sad, how a President elected on moral values decides to make his focus for the next four years changing the tax code to favor the rich and taking away the safety net of seniors by privatizing Social Security. Notice the lack of outcry from the clerics you wrote about. It really isn't about moral values, but self-enrichment isn't it?

    But does the real blame lie with the clergy OR the fusion of the idea of American nationalism and Christianity in the sheep’s minds (something your passage pointed directly to, but seemed lost by the other people commenting)?

    By Blogger Daniel D, at 11/05/2004 09:18:00 AM  

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