Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 22, 2012

Justice in Ashes: _Generous Justice_ & God’s Compassion

Ashes to ashes, Dust Bowl to Dust Bowl ...a scene from the Great Depression

Because I do not hope…

Desiring this  man’s gift and that man’s scope

I no longer strive to strive toward such things

(Why should the agéd eagle eagle stretch its wings?)

Why should I mourn

The vanished power of the usual reign?”

T.S. Eliot – opening lines of Ash Wednesday (1930)

*   *   *

“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, paraphrase)

IN 1930 –on the threshold of the Great Depression– the American/British poet T.S. Eliot wrote Ash Wednesday, one of the most remarkable statements of faith in modern times (in the face of both economic and existential despair).

We may get back to Mr. Eliot and his times later, but our focus for the moment is on the “usual reign” here in 2012. For while the current economic and political crises in 2012 might not be as dire as in the Depression, nevertheless we do have a similar need for hope, and a call to do justice in order to inspire and sustain that hope in the midst of a very real struggle.

This, then, is my small battle cry in that struggle — a journal of faith and justice which I will endeavor to add to consistently (every few days at least) throughout Lent 2012.

Expect to see here not a Catholic Lent but a catholic one, an ecumenical one, a unifying and re-forming one. There may be some personal detours along the way, as I take up other subjects– some of them undoubtedly less serious (as is my penchant). Also, I will likely continue this theme beyond Lent, as I am led. But for the next forty days I will first do my best to respect, defend and understand how to work for justice on behalf of “the widows, the fatherless, immigrants, and the poor.” (Zechariah 7: 10-11)

This small spiritual discipline of mine is first of all intended as a gift to my brothers and sisters in my home church. Redeemer Lutheran (a two-site ELCA congregation in Park Ridge and northern Chicago, IL), has chosen to do another all-church book study during Lent, this time using Generous Justice by NYC Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller. Thus it is tempting to call this a study guide, but that’s not really what it is.

[Note: Keller’s Manhattan congregation is also coincidentally called Redeemer. Neither I nor Redeemer Chicago are tied to them, though I suspect that as I learn more about Keller’s City to City network, I will fully support their vision and mission. Also, full disclosure: within my home congregation in Chicago, I am not an official leader or on staff, merely an empowered and perhaps presumptuous layman.]

This is not an official study guide for Lent, nor for Generous Justice, because for one thing, the material at Marking Time is sanctioned neither by the book’s author nor by my home church’s leadership. Nor should it be.  Why’s that? Because it is likely to be opinionated, site-specific, occasionally but unashamedly partisan, theologically conjectural and risky, and probably more colorful than my diverse but ultimately centrist home church would be able to approve of, …officially.

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

Image via Wikipedia

On the other hand I do have permission — maybe even a responsibility — to speak my mind as a follower of Jesus, especially as one doing justice. Plus I believe I have relevant experience: a few stories to tell that may illustrate the book’s ideas for others.

So just consider this series to be one man’s response to what he is reading. As I ask how God is trying to enact that book’s message (and that of my other mentors and pastors), I ask you to join me. I will consider the socio-political context where I have been planted, but I will not be limited by that. I will also offer some discussion questions based upon the book, and/or some suggestions or activities for further prayer and action. But do not let mine be the last word on either Generous Justice itself, nor on what justice looks like in your own life.

Instead, read the book, approach your local mission/service field in whatever size or form it takes, and see what God has to say (or better yet, what God is already doing near you, maybe even through you!) And then maybe throw out a comment or a correction here at Marking Time, in the appropriate space below. I can’t always claim to be right. I just like to be in motion, stirring the pot so we can keep learning from each other.

*  *  *

Now that all the above introductory throat-clearing is out of the way, my  reflection for today upon Generous Justice (the book) is a simple one:

  • Walking humbly is harder than it looks, but it is a lesson best learned from the “broken”, from the poor, and from children — i.e. from those to whom humility comes most naturally, perhaps even by necessity.

Keller discusses negative cultural biases right away in the introduction to the book, particularly in the section entitled “You’re a Racist, You Know” (pgs. xvi to xix). And I am glad for his directness. It’s a mildly courageous thing for a respected evangelical to say, and it resonates for me, personally. In the twenty-first century, we can’t talk honestly about justice without touching upon the influence of race, political gamesmanship, violence and the economic second-class status of most of the global southern hemisphere (or certain neighborhoods in most of our major cities).

In the North, I suspect we are secretly scared that the kind of poverty of spirit that Jesus praises in the Sermon on the Mount automatically brings with it a poverty of wallet.

In a few cases, that’s true. But that’s okay, too, for Jesus repeatedly promised that he would never abandon his own. So what would going “the extra mile” look like in your own life?

In my  life, I have found that the times of greatest learning and growth –when I have been humbled and challenged the most– often involved accepting and being accepted by those whom Jesus considered “the least of these”. In my case, it was in working or living with the disabled, with children, with the elderly, with working class urban Latinos, with addicts, and with victims of abuse. Yes, it can be exhausting. But God always shows up.

Because there’s nothing like a hunger for bread, or safety, or love, to keep one from over-romanticizing a hunger and thirst for righteousness.


1) Keller writes “when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.” (pg. xiii) — Has there ever been a moment where your gratitude has been the opening God used to “break your heart” for someone else, perhaps someone who did not have the same opportunity? How did you respond, or how can you respond going forward?

2) Think SMALLER: Consider and even talk with young children about their hopes and fears as they grow up in the world. Take their concerns seriously, for Yahweh of the Old Testament did say “And a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6), and Jesus said “Of such as these is the kingdom of heaven made.”

3) Read and reflect upon the rest of Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. (Be forewarned, the language is not easy.) See if there is some part of the poem’s proud but broken-hearted beginning, its speaker’s gradual acknowledgement of weakness or neediness, or its hopeful conclusion that spurs you to serve or pray for others, or to reconcile some past hurt of your own.



  1. […] segues nicely to my tie-in with Tim Keller’s Generous Justice book (one that my church is now reading together). Today […]

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