I just finished a series of sermons with the theme of “light in the darkness.” The basic idea is that we can find light when there is darkness all around us, and we can also be  light for those who may feel they are stumbling in spiritual darkness.  The audio of those messages can be found at the iTunes Store (The Sanctuary Covenant Church), or at the audio archive on our church’s website. Also, most of the messages were accompanied by powerful personal stories, some of which were recorded and are archived here.

Maybe the messages and/or the personal stories will be a blessing to someone.

For Abimibola Shabi (February 19, 1967 — October 1, 2012)

A dear friend who was part of the first church I planted (New Community Church in Brooklyn, NY) passed away recently. She was a very sweet person and I was honored to offer the eulogy at her Homegoing Service. I thought I would honor her by sharing what I said:

I tried hard to think about what to share to encourage us all as we remember our dear daughter, sister, and friend, Bimbi. We all have different things that we could emphasize about her. I’ll not be long at all today, but having been her pastor at one point, I feel responsible to include at least some of what Bimbi believed because it was her faith that guided her in many decisions in her life.

One passage of Scripture that I think would honor Bimbi and also encourage us is found in Colossians 3. Please allow me to read a few verses for us:

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

I think the reason why this passage of Scripture makes me think of Bimbi is because it reminds me of what we tried to be like at New Community church, and Bimbi was such an integral part of that church as was several of the people here today.

I met Bimbi through Omar and I met Omar through Isabel. Bimbi jumped right into our church community and joined us as we all were learning the lessons of this passage of Scripture. We had small group Bible studies – often at Linda’s home a few blocks away. Bimbi eventually lived across the street from where our church met and stayed there for years and years.

We were people of different cultures and backgrounds who were trying to love each other and learn how to be a community. We had to learn things like this passage talks about: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness. I think it’s fair to say that we all learned some of those lessons from Bimbi and she learned some of them from others of us.

Bob tried to teach Bimbi to ride a bicycle. Some of us tried to teach Bimbi to drive. In fact, after she had an accident practicing, she was a little reluctant to try again, but I figured I would help and she passed her test using my car after working with me. I never told her this, but after the test, the DMV tester said to me privately, “She’s a horrible driver, but I passed her!” He figured he was doing me a favor!  Actually, I don’t know if Bimbi ever got behind the wheel of a car again, but she persevered in an area that did not come naturally to her and in the process we learned some things about being a community, about compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. We were learning to love each other and I can say that I loved Bimbi and she loved all my family and me. She always called me pastor, even 18 years after I left Brooklyn! She came to DC on several occasions and just 2 years ago came to Michigan to be at my son Jonathan’s wedding.

Bimbi was always encouraging to my children. She watched our kids many times for us and we still have a tape recording of a drama that she had the kids perform while we were away. There’s no question that we all benefited from Bimbi’s love, compassion, humility, and kindness – the very sorts of things that we see here in these verses.

This passage of Scripture also talks about thankfulness. Bimbi had some challenges from time and time, as we all know. Her health was one of the most recent ones, but not the only one. Despite challenges that Bimbi faced, I always heard her express some sort of hopefulness and even thankfulness. She was grateful to God for her life, for her family and for her friends. She didn’t give up easily on things. People who don’t give up easily – people who persevere – are often hopeful people; they believe that it is worth it to try hard and they are thankful for the blessings that come their way.

In addition to the virtues that I mentioned: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and thankfulness, the passage goes on to say, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” These verses get at our love for the Lord and how we show that love by learning God’s word and sharing with others. Bimbi truly modeled that in our young church, and for years afterwards.

Bimbi worshiped the Lord. She was intent on learning what the word of God said. She was a faithful member of our church, active in our discipleship groups, served as a deacon, and really ran our children’s ministry as a volunteer. She lived a life devoted to the Lord and even when the days of New Community officially came to an end, she found another place where she could learn the Scriptures and grow in her faith.

Bimbi wasn’t just a churchgoer; she was a disciple. Her life reminds us all that the Lord isn’t just looking for people to fill pews, or for people just to show up. Our Lord is looking for disciples – for people who will love him, learn from him, and serve him by serving others.

Indeed, the last part of this section talks about serving others. It says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Bimbi was that kind of disciple, she didn’t shy away from serving the Lord with her life. On the contrary, she looked for opportunities to let the Lord use her. 

There is so much more I could say about how Bimbi allowed herself to be used. Some of you know that in addition to the things that Bimbi did for New Community that I’ve already mentioned, she was also our church’s historian, chronicling events in the life of the church by taking pictures. Of course that was back in the days of film and she gave us some of those pictures in the form of slides for those old carousel projectors; I’ll have to find a way to digitize them.

But there are even more things that we could share about Bimbi that don’t come directly out of these verses. For example, you know that Bimbi was on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? She called me to be one of her phone-a-friend lifelines, as I had been on the show several months earlier. She never had to call me during the show, but it was a common experience that we could share. She liked to learn and she liked to have fun. Bimbi could make us laugh – and sometimes unintentionally.

One time Bimbi housesat for us when we lived on 11th street but happened to be away for a few days. When we got back, we saw a teacup with the tea and the teabag still in it and other signs that someone had left in haste. When we called her, we found out that she had seen a mouse! She admitted that she had no desire to stay in the house with that mouse and she flew out of there!

I mentioned that Bimbi always called me pastor. She had genuine respect for Susan and me. But it was more than just respect, as I said; it was love. She loved all of us here. She loved her family. She often talked about her mother and you sisters, and she was concerned for you all and grateful for you all.

God shaped the way that Bimbi loved, and my encouragement today is that I know that if Bimbi could speak to us right now, not only would she tell us that she loved us, she would want us to know that God loved us. He loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten son, that whosever would believe in him would not perish, but would have everlasting life.

According to the Scriptures, Bimbi is at peace with God right now! To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. She is resting in the presence of our Lord Jesus and that is her desire for each of us. She wants us to have the assurance that one day we can be where she is. This life is not all that there is. She certainly would not mind that we shed some tears, but she would not want us to remain sorrowful. She would want us to put our faith in the Lord Jesus and be people of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and thankfulness. She would want us to be people of love. She would want us to keep learning from the Lord and to put our faith into action by serving others.

So please let me extend an invitation to all of us today. That invitation is two-fold. One: if we do not have faith in Jesus, if we are not following him as disciples, then that can change today. You can respond to the Spirit of God who is knocking on your heart right now. You can tell God that you want to follow Jesus like Bimbi did and know that in following Jesus you will have life even beyond this life. And even before you leave this earth, you will, like Bimbi, have made a positive impact on others through your love and service.

The other part of the invitation is for each of us to make sure that we take the time to show love to our friends and family in tangible ways. It wasn’t always easy for Bimbi to travel, but she made her way to DC, to Ann Arbor, MI just to be with my family at special times, and I know that others here can testify that Bimbi showed her love in tangible ways. So can’t we commit to do likewise? Maybe we are trying to do that already. That’s great! Bimbi would not even judge us if we weren’t doing it, but we know that we should be about telling our friends and family that we love them! Life is too short to hold grudges.

Some of you know that back in the beginning of New Community, we met in our little apartment at 5 Garfield Place, which later became the church’s office and children’s ministry space. After the apartment we worshiped for about a year in the Parish Hall of St. Paul Episcopal Church, the very place where we will have the repast this evening. I think Bimbi would find it very fitting – and maybe even a bit funny — that we will have an opportunity to have fellowship with each other and remember Bimbi’s life in a space where many of us used to worship the Lord together.

Sisters, brothers, friends, we who believe in the resurrection know that one day we will see our sister again. We can weep, we can be sad, but we never sorrow as if we are hopeless. We have a hope! We know that one day we will see our Lord Jesus and we will be with him forever. We will be reunited with our sister and as the old hymn says, “when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we will sing and shout the victory!”

 

I’ve just made it home from hanging with some smart and thoughtful people at the Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. I had the opportunity to respond to a paper, and my response may appear later in the journal Ex Auditu. I particularly enjoyed this gathering because the symposium is largely designed to foster conversation at the nexus of the Church and the Academy, encouraging that balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. This is important to me as I have a PhD in Biblical Studies, have been teaching seminary courses in Bible, Biblical Greek, and Theology, but have also been a pastor for nearly 25 years.

Recently I moved from a life of juggling teaching as an adjunct instructor at two institutions and serving as founding pastor of a church in the heart of Washington, DC to life as senior pastor of a wonderful church in Minneapolis, MN. I am happy not have my life divided up as much as it was, even though I miss very terribly the communities I left behind at Bethel Seminary of the East, The Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, and of course the church that started in my home: Peace Fellowship. I informed the Search Team of my current church, Sanctuary Covenant Church, as I was being considered for my new position, that I am invigorated through teaching and nurturing my “academic side,” and that I needed to be able to keep that part of me alive. This symposium reinforced my desire to keep balancing academics and practical application in the life of the church.

But despite my desire for “balance,” I have frequently felt pressure to pick “one thing.”  There is wisdom in that. I have no real track record of published work because being a pastor, husband, father, and teacher didn’t allow me much time for writing. Certainly working in one area (i.e., pastorate or a college/seminary) would allow me a chance to focus. In the past I turned down opportunities to teach full-time because of both life situations as well as my commitment to particular pastoral callings. Yet I hope, perhaps naively, to remain connected to both worlds.

When I was in high school, balance was appreciated. We did not have to choose between being in the band and playing sports: many of us did both! When I played football I didn’t have to choose between offense and defense; I played both. Even though growing up in NYC I attended a high school that specialized in science and mathematics, most of my peers and I developed a deep appreciation for arts and literature, and many excelled in those areas as well. I also refused to choose between serving God and being studious, even though some people saw those things as diametrically opposed!

I continue to value balance. I tried to model it for my children and still encourage them to live lives that are balanced. Yet I confess that having the kind of balance that I desire within this world that forces us to “specialize” and “pick one thing,” is not easy. I struggle. I am currently under contract to write a commentary on the New Testament letter called “1 Peter,” but that work is going slower than I had hoped. I am also presenting a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature in November, but most of the church people I serve would not have much interest in that. However, I feel a calling to keep working at this balance.

Well, I know what some may think, because I’ve been accused of it before: “Dennis is a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none.’” I’m an amateur musician; I’m as active as I can be cycling, playing racquetball and lifting weights; I’m interested in classical music but also many other genres; I like foreign and independent films more than mainstream ones; I’ll read a variety of literature (fiction as well as non), in my seminary teaching I’ve taught courses relate to the New Testament but also focusing on the Hebrew Bible — the list of my “balanced” interests goes on.

Yet I suppose that many people are just like me in this regard. So I hope we can encourage each other. I think we who try to live such a balanced life are the better for it. Although we might not know everything about one topic, I think it is good to know some things about lots of topics.  I appreciate the experts, who focus closely on one particular area, but I also want to celebrate those of us who try to balance many interests and hope to have some reasonable level of competence in them. I need your prayers! And if you similarly-minded folks care to share your concerns with me, I will pray for you too!

The Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) will be meeting this week here in the Twin Cities. This encourages me. As an urban pastor and educator, I am thrilled that Christians – many of them young – are interested in making their faith practical. Christian Social Justice has been a passion of mine for quite some time and I recently preached a message on the topic on September 23, 2012. I reflected on what has become a popular text: Isaiah 58.

In the mid 1980s I was a seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. I had expressed an interest in planting a church in New York City, but I had no idea what to do. Eventually, the Eastern District of the Evangelical Free Church of America, the denomination that I had become loosely connected to at the time, suggested that I devote the entire month of July 1988 to researching church planting prospects and also to preach in eight churches in four weeks. This was during a time when many churches had both morning and evening services. The district arranged the details, and our young family drove from Deerfield, IL to Brooklyn, NY.

I preached on Isaiah 58 in those prominent churches. I was a 27-year-old husband and father of three little children, talking about how Christians should be advocates of God’s justice in the world. It seemed that people were happy that I wanted to plant an urban church, but several seemed uncomfortable with Isaiah’s words and what they might mean for themselves.

Later in that very same year, I took a road trip with some African and African American brothers to Atlanta, GA – to a conference entitled “Atlanta 88.” It was a powerful time. In fact, John Perkins was featured at this event and led a field trip to various ministries in Atlanta that were doing Christian Community Development. They were invoking the spirit of Isaiah 58. I was encouraged by that conference and it was the next year that the CCDA was born.

But even with my enthusiasm during that time in Atlanta, there was a fringe of folks who were not comfortable with that Community Development model. I met with a group that wanted to plant churches, but stressed that we Black folks needed to plant churches in the suburbs among our growing middle class and that the idea of “relocation” that Dr. John Perkins was pushing wasn’t even in the Bible.

I had committed to urban ministry – with its concomitant call for racial and economic justice. I believed Christians should be embracing the kind of thing that Isaiah was preaching back in his day but I was not finding many Christians – at least not among so-called evangelicals, who thought this was an important thing. I felt pretty lonely in the call.

A few years later, in 1997, then President Bill Clinton, when delivering his State of the Union Address, quoted from Isaiah 58. In particular, he quoted the last part of verse 12 (Here is the entire verse in the NRSV):

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

            you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

            the restorer of streets to live in.

President Clinton got skewered. Even before he delivered the speech, his aide Elana Kagan, who would later become an associate justice of the supreme court, previewed the speech and sent a White House email that said, “That quote from Isaiah is the most preposterously presumptuous line I have ever seen. The president would deserve it if the press really came down on him for this.”

Sure enough. Judge Kagan proved to be prophetic. The president got blasted – particularly by evangelicals, and largely because he came off to some as hypocritical. In fact, in March of ’97, Ted Koppel devoted an entire Nightline program to Isaiah 58:12 and the president’s use of that verse.

More recently, in my former city of Washington, DC, a young Christian activist advocated fasting for DC statehood, and related the message of Isaiah 58 to the Occupy movement that we all heard about this past summer.

As I observe the growth of Christian Social Justice, it seems that Isaiah 58 has found a new life. I thought I was on to something in 1988, but I got little traction. But nowadays I see younger Christians turning to this passage with energy and vigor and a sense of righteous indignation. I get excited when I see someone now who was the age I was in 1988 – or even younger – flipping the pages of their Bibles – or actually sliding their fingers across the screens of their Smartphones – to locate Isaiah 58 and articulate the practical implications for our time. It makes me feel that I was ahead of my time!

But there has been much talk about social justice (or “biblical justice” as some evangelicals prefer to call it). There is, of course, some connection to politics, but only some. The call we Christians have transcends any country’s political system. Christians everywhere – not just in America or Western Europe – need to apply the teachings of Isaiah 58 and other related passages.

I am hoping that some Christians will be fired up by the CCDA conference this week, but even beyond the conference, will let prophetic words continue to move them to serve the world as Jesus served. Here are few other voices articulating the spirit of Isaiah 58:

But let justice roll down like waters

 and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:24)

 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

            and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

            and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:14-17).

 

I’m launching my new blog with my first post in my new ministry assignment as Senior Pastor of the Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN!

I will blog regularly here, and also occasionally on the church’s website.

Thanks for taking the time to read what I share.

Peace and blessings to you!