I guess I’m guilty of judging a book by its cover. A couple of months ago I decided to not attend to a conference on preaching because the grabber copy said that it was about preaching to a ‘sin hardened world’. Well, most of my preaching is done here and as a congregation I just can’t characterize you in that way. I don’t find the world as sin hardened as it is broken, bruised, mistreated (sometimes at the hands of really religious people) and naturally defensive. They’ve put up some pretty awesome defenses to protect their tender and vulnerable heart.
But I did it again this week. The mail brought a larger than normal envelop from a well known Christian organization that, I have to admit, carries on some notable ministries. I didn’t open it.
As the mail fell onto the floor through the slot in the office door, before I knew from whom the packet had come, I knew that these folks were blowing smoke. Most of us already know what ‘blowing smoke’ generally means. But in religious circles the implications are more explicit.
Let me explain. The Psalmist describes sacrifices this way (66:15): “I will offer thee fat beasts as sacrifices and burn rams as a savory offering…” It’s sort of like driving by a Burger King and seeing the smoke rise and smelling the grease on the grill. In 1st Samuel 15, Saul rationalizes having kept the good stuff that had belonged to the Amalekites against God’s direction by saying he intends to use them as burnt offerings, that is to make a pleasing smoke for God. He is told that obedience is better than sacrifice. One translation of the Prophet Isaiah’s critique of Israel’s iniquity reads: “the smoke of burning flesh is disgusting to me” another is “ the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me”. Amos says something of the same thing. But I think the derivation comes from much earlier Greek practices. The principle religious act in ancient Greece was the thusia or animal sacrifice. According to the 4th Homeric Hymn it was Hermes himself who instituted the practice of animal sacrifice. To offer an animal sacrifice was to burn it – to turn it into smoke because smoke was the vehicle on which prayers were carried to the gods.
Over time the Greek enthusia became “rapturous inspiration like that caused by a god” to “an overly confident or delusory belief that one is inspired by God,” to “ill-regulated religious fervor and religious extremism,” and eventually to the familiar sense of “crazed” or “excited” about almost anything from pro-football to hair styles, with religion never entering into it at all. Enthusiasts have a long history of promising beyond reason. The words on the face of that big enveloped were these: Overcoming Hunger 2012.
I like long term goals that challenge – you could call them a vision for the future, ideal outcomes that require thoughtful and clearly discerned steps toward fulfilling God’s call on us. And I like short term ‘hopes’—reasonable expectations commensurate with focused effort and then remind myself that ‘we’ aren’t going to achieve anything. The Biblical line is ‘and God gave the growth’. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t really get into the enthusiasm for the ‘A Purpose Driven’ series of books. I think that more often than not my purpose gets in the way of God’s. Our task isn’t to concoct some new program or project but to attempt to be obedient to God’s directions in the moment… and in that to not get all that attached to what looks like success or failure. So—to suggest that by our concerted effort through our most successful group event we will end hunger in 2012 is blowing smoke. It is setting out false expectations and integrity requires that we know that it so.
In 1651, as George Fox tells it in his Journal, he saw three spires while walking with a traveling companion. He asked his companion what they were and was told that it was the city of Lichfield. He reported that the sight ‘struck at his heart’ and he wrote that the word of the Lord came to him that he might go. And he did, climbing over hedge and ditch until he was a about a mile from Lichfield. He wrote that he was commanded of the Lord to pull off his shoes. He wrote: “ And I stood still, and the word of the Lord was like a fire in me”. Though it was winter he untied his shoes and entrusted them to some shepherds.
In stocking feet he walked the last mile into Lichfield and as he entered the city the word of the Lord came to him again telling him to cry “Woe unto the bloody city of Lichfield.” He said that down through the streets and in the market was what appeared to him to be a channel of blood. So he walked up and down the streets and through the market obediently crying what the Lord had told him to cry and as he continued to cry he reported that no one touched him or laid hands on him. Finally some friendly people came to him and ask “Alack George, where are your shoes?” He declared to them what was upon him and then felt cleared of the obligation. With a sense of peace he came out of the town and regained his shoes from the shepherds- but he couldn’t put them back on because, as he reported, the fire of the Lord was so in his feet and all over him that he didn’t put the shoes back on until he felt freedom from the Lord to do so.
It was only after the fact that he gave any thought to why he had cried against Lichfield and called it bloody. He said he recalled that recently both the King and Parliament had caused some blood shed there but those weren’t the town’s doings. The channel of all that blood flowing down the streets and through the market stayed with him. He wrote that it was like a pool of blood. It was afterward, Fox said, that he came to see that in the time of Emperor Diocletian there were a thousand British Christian martyrs in Lichfield. He determined that he had been called of the Lord to go in his stockings through the channel of blood in Lichfield to raise up the blood of those martyrs that had been shed a thousand years before. He wrote: “So the sense of this blood was upon me, for which I obeyed the word of the Lord.”
We could list all kinds of reasons for raising up awareness of the sacrifice of life and limb of faithful followers of Christ just as we could make a long list of martyrs for the faith. Where would you start? With John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen or maybe Quakers like Marmaduke Stephenson or Mary Dyer? History is replete with enthusiastic inquisitors who in the name of the church shed the blood of innocents simply because they were at odds with the powerful or were simple, ignorant common souls whose death wrought fear in the hearts of other wise stalwart people.
Fox wasn’t interested in stirring up a community to embrace some political cause. It was only after what we could call a prophetic act, walking obediently in stocking feet through Lichfield in the winter time that he made any historical connection to the event. Fox was simply being obedient—in the moment—no long term purpose, no short term expectations, no sense of success or failure. The only question he faced was his willingness to live and breath in obedience to the immediate call of Christ on his life.