“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[ with your God.” Micah 6:8
To start this message, let me tell you what I mean by “three-point navigation.” It comes from the days before GPS and Loran, when people got around on big waters, like the Great Lakes, with a compass and one eye on a map, the other on the sun, the stars and the horizon. Fishing can be quite good on Lake Erie, near where I grew up. But the bottom is not paved with fish from shore to shore. You had to explore to find out where the active schools of perch, walleye and white bass were, and they moved around a lot.
There’d be constant chatter on ship-to-shore radios among anglers along the lines of, “Anybody catching anything?….Nope, quiet as a cemetery out here by South Bass Island…..How ‘bout over by Turtle Island?….pickin’ up a few; pretty slow, though, not worth movin’ for.”
Then someone might say, “We’ve hit the mother lode; they’re goin’ crazy due East of the Monroe power stacks.”
That still describes a lot of water. So, someone would ask, “What are your coordinates, good buddy?”
Of course you’d say where you were; if you don’t tell others where the fish are, why should they tell you? So, the lucky anglers would say, “Lookin’ due north, the Monroe power stacks are off my left shoulder at 9 o’clock; the Toledo water intake is behind to my right at about 4:30, and the lighthouse front of Leamington is just visible to the northeast, at about 2 o’clock.”
For those who knew the west end of Lake Erie, those three coordinates would pinpoint the exact location of the active fish, and soon boats you didn’t know were out there would come swarming in over the horizon looking like it was the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
So, why did I just talk about fishing and three-point navigating on my childhood waters, other than because I like to fish? Because, in a similar way, the three points of Micah 6:8 have helped me navigate some rough and rocky waters and risked losing my bearings, spiritually speaking.
What? The pastor, lost and wandering? Spiritually? Yes, it has happened sometimes. For all the discussing and discerning and disagreeing we must do about matters of faith, let’s not forget just what an extravagant, powerful gift is anyone’s Christian faith, and yet also what a very fragile gift it is. Faith in Christ is a fragile gift because of all the challenges, struggle, questions, doubt, difficulty, hostility, mystery and misunderstanding arrayed against it. And yet, it is also a powerful and extravagant gift precisely because it can and does endure and overcome the challenges, struggles, questions, doubts, difficulty, hostility, mystery and misunderstanding arrayed against it.
Like sickness, injustice, betrayal and suffering. But one of the worst challenges to my faith came ironically through a well-meaning church and pastor. It happened during my sophomore year in college, on a Friday night, at a mostly young adult and college student gathering near the campus of my alma mater, Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, TX. This Friday night gathering was a place where the Jesus Movement met the Charismatic movement of the mid-1970’s. The Jesus Movement, for those not there, was a spiritual awakening mostly among young hippie types who realized that if they didn’t accept Jesus, they would either burn out or sell out. Burn out to sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, or sell out to “the man,” the establishment, and become corporate cogs in three-piece suits. The charismatic movement involved dramatic signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in unknown tongues, prophecies, healings and more.
To their credit, Christians in these two movements reached me in ways others could not. They also mentored me and provided me with big brothers and sisters in the faith. But their emphasis on dramatic, supernatural gifts went off the rails when the pastor of that Friday night group played for us a cassette tape with a prophecy by I-have-no-idea-who to the effect that God was very soon going to send a flood to wash over the whole state of Florida and wipe everyone out, because the place was so wicked. Therefore, he said, if we knew anyone in Florida, we had better call them and warn them to leave, soon; otherwise their blood will be on our heads.
So there I was, in a terrible dilemma. I had a beloved grandmother living in Miami, plus an aunt, some cousins and their children and grandchildren living there still. Do I wait to see if there’s any truth to this prophecy? Well then, it will be too late, to my shame and guilt. If I do warn them and nothing happens, what shame and disgrace does that bring upon Christ and his church?
That placed a terrible, unbearable burden on me, with no help, and no way out. I was left alone to struggle with this most basic and vital question: By what authority? By what authority does anyone claim to have special, unique revelation from God? By what authority does anyone dare to even speak for God? And by what authority does anyone say, “Yes, this person has heard from God,” and “Yes, we will share this revelation with others?” In that case, by what authority has anyone spoken for God in the past, like in church tradition? Or in the Bible? Ultimately, how can I trust anyone? Or anything?
Now, to be fair, a lot of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have grown up and become more discerning in response to that very question, By what authority? Whenever someone believes they have some kind of revelation, they “test the spirits” according to the Scriptures, under the counsel of wise and mature leaders. But that wasn’t happening during my crisis of faith and authority.
Relief for my doubts and dilemmas came from someone who had been dead for nearly 2600 years. The words of the prophet Micah in chapter 6: 8 came back to me and shed light upon that question, “By what authority?” No, my Bible did not fall open magically to that page, nor did I heard a supernatural word of prophecy. It was probably because I was humming or singing that simple Bible chorus from the time: “He has shown thee O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
And there, in Micah 6:8, I found a threefold scheme by which to navigate my little boat of faith, and to evaluate the authority of any voices claiming to speak for God. Although that’s not quite the reason for which Micah spoke these words. In chapter 6, Micah is speaking like a presiding judge in a courtroom. The defendant is Israel, and the plaintiff is God, who says,
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of bondage…:
In effect, “Why have you abandoned me and betrayed me with idolatry, immorality and injustice?” God asks.
In this spiritual courtroom procedure, Israel takes God’s charge to heart, repents and asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?”
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
What? Human sacrifice? Heaven forbid! That’s what got Israel on trial to begin with, things like sacrificing their children to the pagan god, Molech.
Now that Israel has effectively pled guilty and asked how to make things right, this is the sentence pronounced on Israel:
“He has showed you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
What a lenient, merciful sentence! What a perfect example of restorative justice that seeks not to punish the offender, but to restore the offender and set right the broken relationship with the offended One.
This became my three-point spiritual navigation: If anyone claims to speak for God, then, does the message help us “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?” Does the speaker’s life reflect justice, mercy and humility?
As for the first, “to do justice,” Why are we even looking for and running around after special revelations beyond what the Bible teaches? Will that help us do justice, or distract us from it? Why are we seeking elite prophetic mysteries and secrets when there are people around us who just need bread? And shelter? And the same simple gospel that is there for everyone to read in the Bible?
I stopped going to that young adult/college age ministry on Friday nights and instead joined some friends at the Baptist Student Union who went to downtown Fort Worth to the Union Gospel Mission and shared games, Bible lessons and snacks with children of poor families, substandard housing and under-performing schools.
There, with those friends and children, I did get some revelations: nothing arcane, no visions of heaven nor of the future coming like bolts out of the blue, but simple insights and educational experiences about poverty, discrimination, differences between cultures, how to relate in such settings, and the hunger we all have to love and to be loved, by others and by God.
As for the second matter, “to love mercy,” mercy is itself a stunning, show-stopping revelation, a bolt of divine, prophetic lightning out of the blue. In a world of so much grief and long-standing grudges, of perpetual cycles of rebellion, resentment, reaction and revenge, of dueling identity politics and bare-knuckle winner-take-all partisanship, for anyone to forgive, and for anyone to be forgiven, is more stunning and surprising than a freak flood washing over the whole of Florida. In fact, the water and the blood that flowed from Christ’s side on the cross, when a soldier speared him, has become a flood of mercy reconciling people to God and to each other all around the world.
Yet such mercy is no special secret that requires a uniquely prophetic gift. It’s the gospel itself!
Mercy is at the root of our Anabaptist/Mennonite nonviolence and peace position. That’s a wonderful contribution of ours to the world and the church: the importance of mercy for foes as well as for friends. But sometimes we need to be reminded how much we need to receive mercy, as much as we are called to extend mercy to others. It’s only mercy when we extend it to others as those who know how much they have needed mercy, and how much mercy we have received, when we’re like one beggar telling another where he found bread, rather than if we extend it from on high, downward to our alleged inferiors and offenders, from a position of supposed moral and spiritual superiority.
As for the third coordinate, walking humbly with God: humility is a tricky thing. Just when I think I have it, I have lost it. How easy it is to do like the Amish man who, as he drove his buggy home from church one Sunday afternoon, said to his family, “You know, I think that we were the plainest, most humble people at church today.”
I know that for some of us, the words, “humble” and “humility” can reawaken pain over arguments in our past about dress codes, neckties, bonnets and cape dresses, and the message that if we all dressed a certain way, and dressed alike, then we were showing humility. But true humility is the freedom that comes when the eyes of our hearts are on God, rather than on ourselves and each other.
When I applied the third criterion of humility to the prophecy of the big wave over Florida, it struck me: What entitles me to insider knowledge on the secret counsels of God? What entitles me to know anything more than what the Word of God already says about God and God’s work in the world? The Bible already gives us, extravagantly, life-changing, liberating, hope-filling perspective on our dignity, our destiny and our eternity. Isn’t that enough for navigating the rough waters of life? God has promised us a glorious eternity, and proven it through Christ’s resurrection. So, what entitles me to know anything more than anyone else would know about next Tuesday, or next year? What makes me think that my walk with Christ should clear away all the unknowns of life, rather than giving me a positive and constructive way of living with life’s unknowns? How humble would that be?
Furthermore, as a preacher of the Gospel, how humble would it be to preach and teach and enjoin upon others anything more than what the Word of God clearly teaches? By what authority would a preacher obligate anyone to something extra-biblical, like what we should wear, or like what’s going to happen next Tuesday? God forbid that I would add anything to the Word of God and pressure people to do more than it says, and God forbid that I might detract or subtract anything from the Word of God, and obligate us to doubting, discarding or disregarding anything therein. Neither of those actions would demonstrate humility.
In case you’re wondering, I did not call to warn my relatives in Florida about an oncoming tidal wave. It’s kind of ironic that, 40 years later, global warming might just make that prophecy finally come true. But we have that on the authority of many trustworthy, reliable scientific sources, and not from a cassette tape from who-knows-who?
There’s one more thing about spiritual navigation by the three coordinates that Micah gives: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. As in any navigation, there needs to be one fixed, unmoving reference point, a true north, to which the other points on the compass relate, for any other coordinates to make sense. That’s why any anglers out on Lake Erie would not only say what landmarks they were seeing and where: they would start by saying which way they were looking, usually due north, because their compasses looked that way, too.
For the Christian seeking to navigate life and faith by Micah’s three coordinates, the true north to which the needle of our faith points is Christ. He shows us what true justice, mercy and humility look like. He exerts a magnetic draw toward himself. All who seek safe harbor in his love will be fruitful, and find their way safely home.