This post is the second in a series discussing the book Dangerous Presence: Following Jesus Into the City by Jason Butler.  You can read more about or purchase the book here

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What About Bob?

Butler begins his second chapter by introducing readers to his friend Bob.  “[Bob is] older than most of my friends.  At seventy-five, he has a passion for engaging in systematic issues of oppression in the city…Bob has made a lot of money in his life, working his way up to CEO for a retirement community.  He knows what success looks like in the business world.”

The insight Bob shares with Butler over breakfast one morning hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Bob told me, ‘I have spent my whole life doing what I wanted to do and asking God to bless it.  I’m tired of living that way.  I want to start doing what God wants me to do.'”

How often have I done this exact thing?

I go on a trip and I pray for God’s blessing and protection.

I plan an event and I ask for God to bring people to it.

I coordinate a program and ask God to bring the participants and the volunteers.

Bless me!  Bless me!  Bless me!

I think if we’re honest, many of us approach God in this way.  Attempting to serve and engage in what God is doing, but not within the context of God’s Lordship over our lives.  Rather than showing up as the beggars we are with open hands and hearts rendered, we show up with our list of strengths and talents, gifts and passions. Bullet pointed, spread sheeted, pie charted ideas on how we can best be utilized by our Creator and Sustainer

…or maybe that’s just me.

Butler writes about a similar experience of coming to God with all his plans and dreams, all his vision as he struggled to plant Transformation City Church in the inner city of Milwaukee.

“I remember the moment of epiphany for me.  I was driving.  I had been praying a mix of laments (‘Oh God, why is this happening to me? Where are you?’) and deal brokering (‘God, if you open up a door for another chance, I will serve you with all that I am.’)  Basically I was trying to make a deal with God to get me out of this terrible situation.”

We are often seduced by the lie of self-preservation, sometimes to the point of trying to wheel and deal with the One who knows our every thought before we dare to whisper it and our knows the root of our every need.  Yet it is only when we surrender ourselves, our wants, our dreams, our plans and our desires that we can truly identify the siren song of the Liar for what it is.

“God doesn’t really love you. God is withholding something from you. God doesn’t see or care. God doesn’t want you to be happy.”

This is the intoxicating, mind numbing, soul atrophying song of the Liar.  Listening to this song leads us to believe the most valuable thing we could do would be to protect, promote and make much of ourselves, because God certainly does not care nor is God at work.

But

When we identify the Liar’s song as what it is – a terrible lie from the pit of hell – we can begin to have our ears tuned to hear another voice.  The voice of God and the voices which God hears.

“In that moment, I started following Jesus.
For so many years, I had been listening to the voices promising personal success.  When those noises were finally silenced, things got very quiet.  I heard something new, something I had not heard before: the cry of my city, the cry of the oppressed, the marginalized, the enslaved.  And when I heard that cry, it overwhelmed me in such a way that I could not hear anything else.”

Scripture tells us over and over again that God hears the cry of the oppressed.  God sees the misery of people.

God hears. God sees. God responds.

And God uses us to do it.

For Butler, he heard the cry of the oppressed in Milwaukee.

According to the 2010 census, Milwaukee is the fourth poorest city in the U.S., it is the single most racially segregated, it has a 55% unemployment rate among African-American men, and the high school graduation rate is just scraping above 50%.

Stats like these are what brought me to Milwaukee.

Ben and I heard the cry clear in the mountains of West Virginia.

Since we moved here though, the cry has gotten closer.  It’s gotten personal.  It’s up in my business.  It sounds like my neighbors, my friends.

I’ve had single mom’s who work first and third shift and take classes in their “spare time” try to sell me food stamps so they could buy their child diapers.
…and I once would have called them “lazy.”

I’ve walked with fifth grade boys who are talented and passionate, but who cannot read.
…and I once would have written them off as “failures” and “drop outs.”

I’ve struggled with single mothers being evicted from their homes with three days notice, all because they refused to pay their rent until their landlord fixed the roof that was literally caving in on their infant child’s bedroom.
…and I would have once called her “irresponsible” and accused her of not caring for her children.

“Injustice begins to break down when someone chooses to move closer.”

But first it will break your heart, scare you half to death and make you angrier than a bull.

The write-offs become neighbors.  The drop-outs become friends.

The gang members tell their people to stay away from you, because in some weird way you’re their family too.

You get broken into, things get stolen, your space gets violated, but you realize it doesn’t matter.

Because you can’t preserve yourself, only God can do that.

You are called horrific names, the cops stop and frisk you on your morning walk for being a white person in a black neighborhood, men ask your husband if they can “borrow you.”

But you’re not scared.

You don’t stop.

Because you’ve stopped listening to the Liar.

And instead all you hear is the love song of Creator singing the high notes over you and the cry of the oppressed, a dissonant harmony that aches for resolution.

And that compels you.  That keeps you up at night.  That keeps you rooted when the world tells you to run away.  That “those people” aren’t even worth reaching.

“As everyone else flees from the pain in our cities we are being called into the city. We are saying softly, ‘God has heard your cry. Jesus is here. He’s been here all along. And because you are here and Jesus is here, we want to be here too.  We will not leave you. We will stand with you, no matter what. We don’t have all the answers, and we don’t know how this will turn out, but we stand with you against whatever oppressive force seeks to tear you down.’  We may lose something in this endeavor, but we may find something as well.”

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