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My Jubilee Birthday

The couple was growing old together. Routines were settled long ago. They knew each other like their favorite movie. One night she asked him to get her a piece of toast from the kitchen. He went to the kitchen, and brought her back a plate of bacon. She looked at him like he’d lost his mind and said, “you’re getting so old and forgetful, don’t you remember I asked you for a dish of ice cream?”

The old person jokes are getting more frequent at my expense. My students, I guess because of my ‘distinguished’ graying hair frequently think I’m in my 60’s, or even 70’s or 80’s! A friend today commented my age has caught up with my hair!

After an enjoyable day of reflection, old man jokes, just a youngun comments from my older friends, not to mention my free birthday sundae at Culvers, phone calls from family, and letting my family cater to my every need (Janice says this happens every day), I finally am sitting down to ponder a little bit of what turning 50 means to me.

I don’t take it for granted. Like everyone, I’ve known people who’ve died well before their normal lifespan would allow them to live. One of the realities of where I work is that I have more conversations than I’d like with students whose parent, or sometimes even parents are no longer living. The news is filled with stories of death worldwide from all sorts of causes. Why hasn’t this been a reality for me? I’d like to say it’s God’s love, or grace, or mercy, but his love, grace and mercy have been dispensed in equal amounts to dear brothers and sisters who had heartbreaking losses in their own lives or families. And yet it is very true that I am here today, my fiftieth birthday because of His love, and grace and mercy.

Israel used to have a law that was supposed to be practiced. It was called the jubilee. You’ve probably heard about it, and like me, never given it much thought. We have a different economy and culture than what the Jews practiced 4000 years ago. Yet, as part of scripture, we can’t brush it off as some sort of old law that Christ fulfilled (which He did by the way!). We have to apply this living and active word to our lives today.

So in my knowledge the jubilee is the only mention of 50 years in scripture. On my 50th birthday, I’m looking at it as a jubilee of sorts. The jubilee was a law of justice in Israel. You can read all about it in Leviticus 25. The key part of jubilee law was the return of property to people who had lost their property in settlements of debts. Since land was inherited and passed down, the ownership of this land was important to the Jews. The jubilee was designed to prohibit the accumulation of much wealth and also prevent the fall into intergenerational poverty that plagues our world today.

A second aspect of the jubilee was the freeing of servants, sometimes referred to as slaves. This was in no way an American style slavery system. God would never permit such an atrocity to happen. Instead, sometimes people, when becoming poor, would become servants, or slaves to pay off debts. At the jubilee, the slaves were to be freed.

When Jesus died on the cross, he performed the work that the jubilee accomplished. People in debt to sin, enslaved to sin, were set free by that singular act. Praise God for that!

So on my 50th, my jubilee birthday if you will, how do I make this a year of jubilee? Well, to start with, my debt has been paid. My eternal inheritance is secure (I Peter 1:4). So how can I be the one doing acts of jubilee for others?

I imagine, when/if the jubilee law was followed (and there’s some evidence it never really was practiced in Israel) that those receiving their land back, their property, their freedom must have had quite the celebration with their restoration. It must have been an emotional time as people realized what was rightfully there’s being returned. Slaves coming back freely to their families and friends had great reason to celebrate, much more than I celebrated today!

So in my 50th year, I can help bring about the thrill of debts settled by being a witness of Jesus to others. It’s a thrill to be with someone who is making a decision to accept the jubilee that Jesus represents and enter a new life as a eternally secure person. Note to self, pray for others who need Christ. Pray for spiritual sensitivity to the strangers I also meet along the way

In many ways the recipients of the jubilee were given fresh starts. Maybe some who were in poverty were there because of foolish decisions being made. How can I, as a school teacher, be in position to give others a fresh start? Forgiving others is one way. Encouraging others who have been burdened by some sort of struggle is another way. It’s going to mean being more intentional in the way I live.

Thanks to all of you who read this and have made the first 50 years of my life truly wonderful!

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A Bruised Reed, A Smoldering Wick

April 21, 2013 Leave a comment

The other day one of my students missed a few days of school.  I didn’t think much of it as this particular girl misses school frequently.  One of our staff told me that she was in jail.  She had been caught dealing drugs.  I teach 10th graders.  Since I’ve taught her, I’ve rarely seen her smile.  She has little motivation for school.  How does someone that age become someone in jail for dealing drugs?  She’s not the first student I’ve seen like her, and certainly won’t be the last.

There’s a fascinating verse in Isaiah 42, and repeated in Matthew 12 that reveals much about the character of God.  I learned this verse when I was training as a prison volunteer with Prison Fellowship back in the 1990’s.  It’s their theme verse and it reads like this:  “A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice.”  Isaiah 42:3.

I think if we even noticed a bruised reed we certainly wouldn’t think twice about ignoring it or trampling on it.  We probably wouldn’t try to nurse it back to strength.  But God would because first, He does notice it.  Think of this, He notices those who are the equivalent of a bruised reed.  Nothing sounds more pitiful and hopeless than that, but to God, they’re not pitiful, hopeless.  And second, He restores.  A smoldering wick?  We’d give up on it, hopeless.  It’s out, no more light from it.  Get out your cell phone maybe it’ll provide the light you need, but that wick, it’s out.  But Jesus, the light of the world, will make it shine again!

You’ve all met or seen people who are bruised reeds or smoldering wicks.  God will bring them into your life with an opportunity to do His work here on earth.  And when we are instruments of His restoration, His justice, His light will shine, His light will shine more and more brightly on this earth.

Just a few words to encourage you to be on the lookout for those around you who could use some help, some encouragement, some grace, some love and some mercy.

This is just (?) a test

March 18, 2013 Leave a comment

There’s a generation gap when it comes to tests. If you’re getting up into the age when you start to joke on your birthday that you’re 39, and you’re not, you’ve never had to take a high stakes test, at least during your pre college days. If you’re young enough to have never used a typewriter you don’t know what it’s like to not have the pressure of tests to graduate.

For many these tests are a source of great stress. I watched kids who had completed their credit work years earlier coming back to campus to retake their graduation tests again because they’ve failed them in their past.  In one infamous case a girl was class valedictorian yet was incapable of passing the graduation tests.  Although I give the kids credit for coming back so they can hopefully pass the test, I felt for these 20 and sometimes 21 year olds still trying to earn a valid High School diploma. The burden for passing these tests falls more on the poor and disenfranchised than among the rest of the population.

Enter 2013. Louisiana passes a law which requires all juniors to take the ACT test. The law also expects a junior in Louisiana to score an 18 on the test. While the student will not be required to make this score to graduate, the school will be held responsible for students who don’t score an 18.  In Louisiana the average score for an African American (the large majority in my school) taking the ACT is 17.5.  Until now, those taking the ACT and scoring 17.5 were willing to take the test, in other words trying their best.  Tomorrow when juniors all over the state take this test many will take it with the attitude that they don’t plan to go to college.  Now if you weren’t planning to go to college, how much effort would you put into taking a test like this?

So in a few months when the school performance score for the ACT comes out it will undoubtedly show many schools, particularly in underserved communities as being lacking in educating students.  There are hardworking teachers in these schools, I even know some!  The result will be more scrutiny for the school, staff being removed, administration being ‘reassigned’, etc.  Many of the schools in my district have different principals  each year, sometimes, more than one in a year.  Morale sinks among the staff and even the student body as the news reports of a school given a grade of ‘F’.

Here’s where the just part of things works into the equation.  Justice is a theme in the Bible that hasn’t always been stressed in our churches.  It’s been said King James didn’t like the term too much, so it appears 28 times in his famous version.  The New Revised Standard Version uses the word justice 173 times.  In something called the Common English version it’s used 220 times.  I would lean towards the NRSV in terms of its’ treatment of the word justice.  We are to work for justice.  Christians are supposed to be agents of justice.  Justice for the poor, disenfranchised, underserved, for the widows, orphans and others who are being denied opportunities for any number of reasons.

What can you do to be agents for justice?  Some can work to change unjust laws.   Letters can be written to papers, politicians, and school boards.  Volunteer in schools.  Volunteer to sit with a kid to read with him or her.  Become a teacher!  And if you do, consider teaching in the schools that need good teachers the most.  Give a word of encouragement to a teacher. (I know this sounds self serving!)  Pray for our schools.  Pray tonight for students that the unmotivated will find it within themselves to put in an honest effort tomorrow.  These are all actions that will bring about justice.

Proverbs 21:3  Acting with righteousness and justice is more valued by the Lord than sacrifice.

Voting Justly

What is justice? To a Chicagoan, it’s a southwest suburb of the city, to a baseball fan he’s a superstar of the 90’s. To a Superman fan it’s what he’s all about. To most Americans it’s something that’s supposed to take place in court. To a Christian it’s an attribute of God that He desires for mankind.

Take a poll out on a street corner and ask this question. What is the book of Proverbs about? Even to the non churchgoer out there, they probably know that it’s a book about wisdom for living. It’s a bunch of really good advice so that you can get along with others, not get fired, and generally live a contented life. Certainly this is true about Proverbs. However a recent re-reading of the book revealed many verses about the way in which we should work for justice for the poor.

“I walk in the way of righteousness, In the midst of the paths of justice” Proverbs 8:10
“To do righteousness and justice Is desired by the LORD more than sacrifice.” 21:3
“The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous.” 21:15

How do you exercise justice?  Let me describe two examples here that involve our political system. 

Example 1.  Baton Rouge has a public transit system called Capitol Area Transit System (CATS)  CATS is a vital lifeline to thousands of poor here in Baton Rouge and its’ suburbs.  CATS has not done the best job in running the system.  They need more money, and so it appeared on our ballots for a vote recently.  A vote against the CATS tax would threaten to shut it down permanently.  Obviously this is a gut-wrenching decision.  A vote for it will, if city leaders are to be believed, would lead to an improved system.  The people who depend on CATS (mainly the poor) won’t have to endure hour waits at bus stops (did I mention Baton Rouge is very hot, and very rainy?).

The CATS tax is a hefty one to pay for property owners.  On a house like ours we’d have about 200 bucks added to our taxes.  (Our property taxes are extremely low here in Louisiana so it really isn’t that big of a deal).   A vote against CATS is a vote against an infefficient city ‘business’ that will probably squander the money we pay them in taxes.

Vote for the poor, or vote for taxes to stay low for us?  Doing justice, a mandate for Christ followers helps inform our choice. 

The second issue involves the schools of Baton Rouge.  Louisiana schools are organized by Parish.  There are not city school districts or town districts like in many parts of the country.  For example, there are Chicago Public Schools.  In a system like Louisiana there’d be Cook County Public Schools.  There is a procedure that allows the people of town to secede from the parish school system.  This has happened several times in the Baton Rouge area.  

There is a new attempt to secede from the Parish school system.  The state legislature is in the process of putting it on the ballot for the people of Louisiana to vote to allow for the new school district to form.  Baton Rouge schools are a large city system (I happen to be employed by them).  They’ve got quite a few failing schools.  It experienced a desegregation/bussing controversy that lasted 40 some years.  Ironically bussing led to white flight (and middle class flight) and the parish school system became overwhelmingly African American.

The new school system will undergo an interesting demographic change.  According to preliminary estimates, it will be about 75% white.  Currently there is a large poor community in south Baton Rouge that attend the schools in the area that will secede.  Those seceding will not include students from the large poor community who will then be absorbed into other schools which aren’t as successful as the ones they will be forced to leave.  We will be given the opportunity to vote to allow this part of Baton Rouge to secede.   A vote to allow it is a vote to doom poor students to low performing schools. 

Two votes for justice for the poor.  One vote occurred already.  The CATS tax passed in Baton Rouge.  1 for 1 thus far.  The vote breakdown revealed that it was widely voted against in middle class areas and widely supported in poor areas.  Another vote for the school issue is forthcoming.  Let’s hope that voters in Louisiana will vote with justice in mind regarding the schools. 

These are justice issues that Christians are expected to be concerned about.  Too often I have thought of my own well being when voting.  But these issues prove that voting can be a simple but effective way to act justly.