I spent yesterday in the company of the good folk of First Baptist Church, Dayton, Ohio. A historic downtown church, it exudes intentional welcome, thoughtful worship, and hopeful imagination. Pastor-theologian Kent Berghuis is leading with excellence, wisdom, and warmth, and new signs of life are emerging.
In the past year, the threat of a KKK rally, a series of tornadoes, and a shooting in one of the neighborhoods have buffeted the city. Church members have moved outside the building to be present in their community in remarkable ways. If a marker of a vibrant church is a deep love for its city, this congregation is surely in the right direction.
One of the lectionary readings for yesterday came from Habakkuk, the prophet who really had only one sermon in him: his concern for justice, especially within his city. Whereas most prophetic books offer a “word from the Lord,” this slight text is an extended dialogue between Habakkuk and the Divine.
He believes that rampant injustice will ultimately implode, yet he wonders why God permits it to linger. He struggles to maintain belief in God’s just rule when all he can see is the real-world politics, full of corruption and arrogant power. This text is hardly only relevant in the 7thcentury BCE! The prophet ponders whether he could continue to trust in God when all seems chaotic and the forces of evil seem to have the upper hand.
Actually, it is more than a dialogue; it is a certifiable case of “holy whining.” I think it is a practice we need to emulate. Habakkuk does not mince words with the Holy One of Israel. Rather than obsequious protest, he just puts it out there. “Can you not do better than this?” “Why should we continue to trust you?”
I believe God welcomes this kind of forthright speech, for it represents intimacy and a sense of what ought to be occurring. It also awakens those who protest to what their own responsibility is. Rather than waiting on God, perhaps God is waiting on them to enact God’s dream of justice.
In his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry expresses an insight that echoes our lesson from the Hebrew Bible: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Like Habakkuk, Berry knows that neither personal piety nor corporate worship alone can fix things, but together they can move the faithful to work toward the “vision that awaits its time.”
The righteous—those who long and work for justice—will receive strength to go on. They are the ones who possess a larger vision of the way things should be. Indeed, the final verse of the lesson, “the just shall live by faith,” (Habakkuk 2:4) prompted the Protestant Reformation. And the church is ever reforming, as we know.
I met some of the righteous at First Baptist Dayton, and I trust they will be active participants in pursuing the vision that is not yet fully realized. They are well equipped to do so.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping Church, and serving humanity and all creation.