A Theology as Big as the City

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The View from the Mountaintop Moses learned from his mistakes, and he lived with the consequences just read the book of Numbers. Finally we see him in his last photograph, standing on the mountain overlookingjericho and thejordan and looking west toward the Promised Land Deut On this mountaintop we gaze back toward Egypt with Moses to see his geographical and historical perspective. Henri Nouwen agrees in his beautiful little devotional book The Living Reminder. Urban leaders need to see the big picture.

Somewhere Augustine wrote that for the Christian "the past is a present memory, and the future is a present possibility. You can never know enough to be a leader of the urban poor, but my testimony is that you can never pay for the education they will give you if you let them. Moses would agree, I'm sure. He reminds us that you don't have to grow up in this wilderness to lead the people there, but you'd better include some of the indigenous folks on the leadership team.

Likewise, urban leaders need not and often do not originate in cities. Karl Barth reminds us that grace is an outside gift. Urban leaders are often, though not always, grace gifts from other environments. Moses was among the first, but not nearly the last, in redemptive history to demonstrate that God still calls people to crosscultural leadership with all the strengths and limitations implicit in this model.

The picture of Moses on Mount Nebo in Deuteronomy 34 is that of this larger-than-life leader doing theological reflection in solitude. Looking south, back toward Egypt, he can reflect on life's surprising journey and the grace of God in his life. Looking west across the Jordan valley; he can see the future where he is not privileged to go for he will die on the edge of the Promised Land. The purpose for "mountaintop" experiences is not escape but perspective.

Moses has trained his successors. They are standing by. New gifts will be needed, as they are for each generation of ministry in cities and everywhere. Moses has mirrored many of my anxieties and shared many of his coping strategies with me.

God’s Original Plan

The grace continues. In many of its communities, Chicago looks far worse than when I arrived more than thirty years ago.

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The profile of street people has cycled again, leaving mothers with children as the fastest growing group of the homeless. Last year in Chicago an eleven-year-old boy nicknamed "Yummy" killed a fourteen-year-old. Then Yummy was himself executed-and buried with his teddy bear. Governments are downsizing and privatizing services, yet the budgets of the not-for-profit ministries and service organizations can't possibly pick up all the slack. Many who used to help are not there.

When an apathy called "compassion fatigue" describes the outsiders and "burnout" describes the insiders, a kind of numbing hopelessness settles into the consciousness of urban churches. The "dark ages" described in judges can be characterized as seven eras in each ofwhich God delivered Israel, with the help of a leader called a judge, and then the people reverted to sinful ways and fell into oppression, only to need deliverance again. The author of judges closes his account by summarizing these seven eras-spanning nearly years-with the phrase "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" History for Israel was going nowhere but moving in vicious cycles, climaxing in the gruesome story of the Bethlehem concubine who was "gang-banged" all night and left for dead in the streets of Gibeah.

Her master then cut her into twelve parts and "mailed" one part of her butchered body to each of the twelve tribes ofIsrael. Talk about a wake-up call! That's the sobering context for the story of Ruth. All the domestic abuse and violence, the economic and political failure sound familiar to today's urban dwellers. Ruth gives us the clues for reading this awful history and making sense of it. Ruth is a story of hope for the meantime, which is a "mean time," between the great acts of God in the past and the great acts of God in the future.

The other is Esther. Surprisingly, perhaps, both tell the story of an interracial secorid marriage.

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Ruth, a Moabite and a descendant of Sodom, is choreographed into the early history of Israel by becoming the great-grandmother of Israel's greatest king and an ancestor ofjesus on his earthly side Mt The book of Ruth may best be described as a biblical soap opera with each chapter as an act in the drama. Let me sketch the story briefly.

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With quick brush strokes, the author sets the scene by telling us there was a famine in Bethlehem which means "house of bread" during the time of the judges. Elimelech "God is my king" took Naomi "pleasant" and their two sick kids, Mahlon and Kilion "sickly" and "dying" , to Moab for salvation from the famine. There in Moab, off the map of Bethlehem and judah, "God is my king" died along with his two sons. The situation fits with the whole tone of judges.

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God seems to be out of the picture, and so in this upside-down era, the godly go to Moab Sodoms ancestral land seeking hope. Act One, Scene One. As our drama opens, three women-Naomi no longer: pleasant , Ruth and Orpah, her Moabite daughters-inlaw-are weeping.

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I told you it is a soap opera! Naomi has decided to return to Bethlehem but wants her foreign daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. Perhaps she knew how difficult it would ultimately be to bury them in ajewish cemetery back home. Orpah listens and stays; Ruth does not. Her magnificent plea has become a familiar wedding song in our own day. And so, as Scene One closes, two women head north from Moab into modem jordan, down through jericho and up the road to jerusalem, then south to Bethlehem-a journey no women should have taken alone, because "it was the time of the judges.

Bethlehem, days later. Two women straggle into town. Seeing them from afar, the village women gather in the streets and ask, "Can this be Naomi?

This first act portrays a vicious cycle. Ancient historians generally thought history moved in cycles. Their writing used the analogies of the life cycle-birth, growth, maturity, decline and death-or the seasons-spring, summer, fall and winter. Only Hereclitus the Greek is reported to have disagreed. Contrary to his contemporaries, his view, "You can't step into the same river twice," argued that history moves toward a goal. Ruth 1, like the Book ofJudges, raises the question: Is that all there is?

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  4. Is life just a vicious cycle? Not surprisingly, the experience of most city people leads them to ask these same questions. Act Two, Scene One. Harvest time in Bethlehem.

    Naomi instructs Ruth on Israel's welfare system. The poor and other undocumented aliens are permitted to glean around the edges of any field. Act Two, Scene Two. Ruth just "happens" to enter the field of Bethlehem's most eligible bachelor, Boaz, who also just "happens" to be there that day. IfAct One raises the question ofwhether history runs in cycles, Act Two presents the question of whether history is an accident, the result of chance.