Traveling to New Jersey through Philly is normally an easy task for me. I have done it dozens of times and taken lots of routes. This weekend, I decided to take what I thought was a familiar route to the Tacony-Palmyra bridge. As I approached a critical intersection, I got in the correct lane to turn, but then began to question my judgment. Was I really going in the right direction after all? It had been a long time since I had gone this way. At the last minute, I dangerously crossed several lanes of traffic and began going south. Sure enough I should have been going north and might have even stayed in the correct turning lane if I had simply read the signs.
Recently, I have been reading the book of Isaiah in my devotions and have been fascinated by the many warnings that this prophet gave the people of Israel and Judah. There are so many warnings in this lengthy book of the Bible that Isaiah hardly spares anyone. Most, if not all of the nation’s surrounding God’s people are included in his prophecies and all are warned to turn from their wicked ways. This week, I became so annoyed by all of these warnings that I began to look for the uplifting parts of the book and places where he had some comforting words to share. While there is plenty of messianic prophesy in the book of Isaiah and looking towards the day when Jesus will make all things new, he does not ever let the people of Israel or Judah off the hook. In fact he is quite specific about the kind of devastation and exile they are about to face at the hands of their conquerors. I wonder how often the people of Isaiah’s time got annoyed at these prophecies and just like me kept waiting to hear the good news and some words of comfort that seemed far and few between.
We may not have the prophet Isaiah alive today, but there sure are warning signs of God’s displeasure if we look hard enough and listen carefully. Like the people of Isaiah’s time, though, I am far too easily lulled into a false sense of security and can quickly turn a deaf ear to the plight of the poor and needy just as the people of Israel and Judah were doing on a daily basis. One of God’s primary accusations against His people is that they had turned to idols for worship and stopped caring for the orphan, the widow, the stranger and the poor. Instead, they had become obsessed with keeping rules and even inventing new ones to make them think that this was what actually pleased God.
This past week, two very interesting news items came out at almost exactly the same time. For the first time since the financial crisis began in 2008, the stock market surpassed its original peak and all of the wealth that had been destroyed was now restored. On the same day, the school reform commission in Philadelphia was voting to close over twenty public schools in the city. These school closures were not really a surprise and some even said the decision was long overdue as many of the school had declining enrollment and the buildings were in bad shape. As the media began covering the story and activists were being arrested, one young man was interviewed who spoke for many of his classmates. When asked how he felt about having to go to a new school next year, he said that he was scared. He would now have to go to a place that had been an arch rival in years past and he wondered about his physical safety. In a city that barely graduates 35% of the entering freshman class each year, you have to wonder how many of these kids will simply drop out rather than making this move to a frightening new location.
While all of this was going on I could not help but wonder about the role of the church in the city and the suburbs in all of this. There is no question that the education system in Philadelphia is broken and getting worse. The poorest and neediest places in our city and nearby Camden are continuing a long steady decline into chaos and despair and now they will have a few less places for the children to go to school. This comes on the heels of layoffs of the police and others designed to protect the innocent and vulnerable among us in these impoverished areas. What will we do?
- Will we simply write off these areas as too hard to deal with and ignore the signs of God’s displeasure with the treatment of the needy and vulnerable in our city?
- Will we breathe a sigh of relief as we open our 401(k) reports and choose to stop reading the newspaper because it is simply too depressing and overwhelming?
- Will we praise God for our safe schools in the suburbs while blaming the problems of the city on “the least of these”?
Woe unto us if that is our response to this crisis. Instead, may we:
- Band together as the church of God and pursue solutions to even the hardest and most entrenched problems starting with honoring the valiant public teachers that chose to teach each day in what are almost “war zones” in certain parts of the city.
- Consider giving some of our hard earned wealth to programs like the Jubilee Fund that provide scholarships to poor families that want to send their kids to Christian schools in the city.
- Volunteer to help with after school programs, mentoring opportunities and reading programs that are often sorely lacking resources.
- Speak truth to power and write to those that make decisions about the most vulnerable among us. Graciously thanking them for tackling the hard issues, but also imploring them to find more resources to devote to education and safety for God’s precious children.
- Get on our knees and pray each day that we will not become so callous that we do not even hear the cries of our neighbors as they suffer.
Will we really be spared any more than the people of Israel or Judah if we follow the same patterns in our day?