On Mad Farmers and Mindless Scurrying, or Why I’m Not (So) Afraid Any More

HT to this site for the image.

The people that are Mill City Church have been talking about “What’s So Great About Easter.” We’ve been focusing on one of our “mission priorities” for 2017, “Gospel and Neighbor.” Specifically we’ve been working our way through a series of questions that might come up in a conversation with a neighbor about the gospel. Last week one of our pastors, Michael, wrestled with theodicy as he sought to answer the question, “Why Is There So Much Pain and Hurt in the World?” Something that stood out from that sermon which I live-streamed while sitting flu-ridden on the couch was his use of Hebrews 2:14-15:

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

If you read my last post, you’ll recognize the ongoing theme, slavery (and freedom). Michael went on to say something  very compelling about living “in slavery” because of the fear of death. He said:

“When we live our lives afraid of what might happen to us, afraid of what ultimately may come whether it’s today or next week or next month or next year or at the end of our lives, we live different lives than the lives God intended for us. So the Christian perspective on this is Jesus makes it possible for us to not be afraid all the time. Jesus makes it possible for us to not even be afraid of dying because we know that the God that we serve, that we love, that created us… will bring us back to life, and that means you can live your life way differently than you otherwise would. That means that today matters in a really different way than it otherwise would.”

Thinking about this today I was reminded of something Eugene Peterson said that I saw on the Twitter account dedicated to quoting him:

In this season of Lent, as we focus on following Jesus to the cross so that in some mystical sense we can participate with him in both his death and his resurrection, it’s fitting to focus on how we should “practice resurrection” now. Practicing resurrection is what Peterson was alluding to, and I think it’s what Michael from Mill City was talking about too. As he said, because “God…will bring us back to life…today matters in a really different way than it otherwise would.” Indeed, it matters precisely in a resurrected way. This too has been a theme running through many of my recent posts, because it has been a theme running through my life. Again as N.T. Wright alludes to, Jesus didn’t “have to die” so that we could secure our heavenly retirement plan and leave earth in order to get to heaven. What God promises is that in some way we can’t quite yet understand, heaven will come to earth. So the earth matters, and what we do each and every day on the earth matters.

That little phrase, practice resurrection, is one that is common among the likes of some of my heroes, Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. As far as I know, though, it comes from another hero, Wendell Berry, who wrote in his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

It goes on for a bit, and then concludes:

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Powerful, prophetic, and, frankly, damning, isn’t it? He starts by offering one way to live: “Love the quick profit…vacation with pay…Be afraid to know your neighbors, and to die.” This indeed has been the only way to live for those who have been “held in slavery by their fear of death” as Hebrews spoke of above. I’m afraid to admit that for much of my adult life, I have been just such a person. Kirsten and I talked about it recently. It’s hard to know just when it started. It may have been when Samuel was born, so premature, so fragile, so subject to death which could come at any moment, from the slightest fluttering of his fledgling heart, from the slightest infection that slipped past all the sterile precautions we religiously observed when visiting him in the NICU. It may have started when my Dad’s life ended, an event which I feared and expected to come for so very many years, and which finally did. However and whenever it began, for the better part of a decade, and maybe longer, I have in fact been quite afraid of dying. My first foray as an adult into a healthy lifestyle and running came in 2009 as the swine flu pandemic raged and I knew it seemed to have a worse impact on “fat people.” Some health issues along the way including a few bouts with various stomach bugs only moved this fear more deeply into the core of my being.

Whatever the cause, fear became a part of me. I experienced it as recently as with this latest bout with influenza, as I read about young, otherwise healthy people who lost their lives to flu this year. Thus, hearing Michael’s message and being reminded of that Scripture about being enslaved by the fear of death was a very timely word for me. It is indeed gospel, good news, to know that I have been set free from this fear, and need not live in subjugation to it. Of course, it’s never as simple as all that, and to my credit, I suppose, I sometimes make forays in quite the opposite direction. Take, for example, my recent post that explored the Rich Mullins song, Elijah. In that song, as I’ve said, Rich talks about just how he wants to “go” (like Elijah) and just how, in some sense, ready to do so he was (“my heart is aging, I can tell,” he wrote). I wrote in that post that I could tell how my heart was aging too, and I expressed my acceptance of this fact. It is a fact, no matter how fearful I sometimes feel. I only pray for the strength to more faithfully and consistently live into that truth.

Returning to Berry’s poem, he seems to have a lot to say to USAmerican consumer/war-making culture, doesn’t he? “Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know,” he writes. Against this possibility of how life can be, he offers another one:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

“Take all that you have and be poor.” This is a direction our family has felt called to move in as we’ve worked to “get small.” It’s unlikely, of course, that we will ever be truly materially poor given our education and status as people of European descent, but that is only all the more reason why we have been so terribly convicted about how faithfully we’ve been serving Mammon all these years, rather than God. As we’ve put our trust in banks and business and retirement plans and college savings funds, we have failed to put our trust in he who clothes the birds and the flowers of the field. All the while, we’ve cast our judging eyes on the conspicuous consumption of some…

HT to this site for the picture of the now “First” family.

…while somehow justifying our own conspicuous consumption…

Those are my feet. That used to be “my” TV. Thank God, I came to see it as one of the chains I continued to allow myself to be enslaved by, and I have since cast it off.

…because we were focused only on the orders-of-magnitude-more-conspicuous consumption of the very, very few (the Trumps, above). Meanwhile, our own consumption is just as conspicuous to the very, very many in the world who live like this:

This picture came from this article, which is probably worth a quick read.

Wendell Berry is sure a sage for our times, is he not? Meanwhile, having worked through all the “God’s Economy” related books that helped move us in the direction of “getting small” in January, I’ve moved on to peacemaking as a topic for Lent. I finished A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd, and am now well into Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf.

I knew Free of Charge wasn’t about peacemaking per se, but I also knew that radical forgiveness will be a necessary component to peacemaking as a way of life on the way with Jesus; so I’ve been glad to dive into this book. The book is divided into two parts, with the first three chapters having to do with giving and the last three having to do with forgiving. Ironically, I’m not even to the “forgiving” part of the book yet, and already I’ve been radically challenged, again. If I could sum up in a few words what I keep running into in the first half of the book, about God as giver and consequently how we were made to be givers too, with little eloquence or precision I would say that Volf argues that, like Israel, we are “blessed to be a blessing.” God gives to us because fundamentally it is in God’s nature to do so, and also because his gifts are meant for our benefit and flourishing. Crucially, though, God also gives to us because it is likewise fundamental to our nature, the nature God gifted us with, to be givers too. The people of Mill City Church touch on this whenever they say, “Generosity isn’t something God wants from you; it’s something God wants for you.”

Volf, for example, touches in passing on the problem of food scarcity and abject poverty in the world, and has this to say:

The relationship between God as giver and the growing poverty in the world is a complicated one that lies beyond the scope of this book. We should keep two things in mind, however. First, God doesn’t just give so that we can have and enjoy but so that we can pass gifts along to others. As we have seen in previous chapters, we are given to so we can be givers, not just recipients. Second, what’s primarily at issue is not why God doesn’t just give more, but why we don’t pass on to the needy what we already have. At the current levels of economic productivity, there is enough “stuff” around that no one need go hungry and everyone’s basic needs can be met. Yet they are not. We pass too little on. If Christians in the United States alone gave 10 percent of their income, the problem of world hunger could be solved. But those of us who have tend to squander or hoard, and what we do pass on is often misappropriated by middlemen. No, it’s not clear that increasing the amount of things given by God would actually help.

He goes on to challenge us to remember that everything belongs to God, and we must therefore fundamentally redefine our relationship with everything. All that we “earn” is a gift from God, who made our lungs and filled them with the breath of life. Thus we are to hold every single thing that comes across our path loosely, and pass it on as often as we can for the benefit of others. Instead, I’ve spent my adult life squandering and hoarding. God, forgive me.

Having recently read that bit from Volf, as you might imagine my ears were ready to hear when Pastor Michael from Mill City preached again this morning, this time talking about “why Jesus had to die.” He said a lot that was very helpful, but again what stood out was when he talked about Jesus’ work on the cross being less about saving me from the never-ending checklist of all my sins and moral failings, and being more about satisfying God’s original covenant(s) with Israel and thereby fulfilling Israel’s mandate to be a blessing for all the world. In failing to do so, in failing to receive God’s blessing for the sake of the world and then passing it on to the world, Israel became, borrowing a term from Volf, an “illegitimate taker” where it was supposed to be a giver. Do you see, again, the theme I keep running into at every turn? Would it surprise you to hear that it was reinforced from yet another direction today, again in a poem? Circle of Hope, our former and still very formative church in Philly, puts out a lot of great resources for following Jesus from “under, not over,” as I keep mentioning. One of them is one of their two (as far as I know) daily prayer blogs. In yesterday’s post, they included this poem:

Catch Me In My Scurrying, by Ted Loder

Catch me in my anxious scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my feet to the fire of your grace
and make me attentive to my mortality
that I may begin to die now
to those things that keep me
from living with you
and my neighbors on this Earth;
to grudges and indifference,
to certainties that smother possibilities,
to my fascination with false securities,
to my addiction to sweatless dreams
to my arrogant insistence on how it has to be;
to my corrosive fear of dying someday
which eats away the wonder of living this day,
and the adventure of losing my life
in order to find it in you.

Catch me in my aimless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my heart to the beat of your grace
and create in me a resting place,
a kneeling place,
a tip-toe place
where I can recover from the dis-ease of my grandiosities
which fill my mind and calendar with busy self-importance,
that I may become vulnerable enough
to dare intimacy with the familiar,
to listen cup-eared for your summons,
and to watch squint-eyed for your crooked finger
in the crying child,
in the hunger of the street people
in the fear of the contagion of terrorism in all people,
in the rage of those oppressed because of sex or race,
in the smoldering resentments of exploited third world nations,
in the sullen apathy of the poor and ghetto-strangled people,
in my lonely doubt and limping ambivalence;
and somehow,
during this season of sacrifice,
enable me to sacrifice time
and possessions
and securities,
to do something…
something about what I see,
something to turn the water of my words
into the wine of will and risk,
into the bread of blood and blisters,
into the blessedness of deed,
of a cross picked up,
a savior followed.

Catch me in my mindless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my spirit to the beacon of your grace
and grant me light enough to walk boldly,
to feel passionately,
to love aggressively;
grant me peace enough to want more,
to work for more
and to submit to nothing less,
and to fear only you…
only you!

Bequeath me not becalmed seas,
slack sails and premature benedictions,
but breathe into me a torment,
storm enough to make within myself
and from myself,
something…
something new,
something saving,
something true,
a gladness of heart,
a pitch for a song in the storm,
a word of praise lived,
a gratitude shared,
a cross dared,
a joy received.

I think I’m experiencing something like being “caught” and “held,” for I am beginning to die to those things that have kept me from living with Jesus and my neighbors on this earth. More than that, I’m beginning to recover from my dis-ease, and am listening “cup-eared” for Jesus’ summons, which I hear all around me, in every direction. Thankfully, “during this season of sacrifice” I have felt enabled to “sacrifice time and possessions and securities” and “to do something…something about what I see, something to turn the water of my words into the wine of will and risk, into the bread of blood and blisters, into the blessedness of deed, of a cross picked up, a savior followed.” Over the past two months we have purged probably thousands of dollars worth of “stuff” in our efforts to “get small,” and I couldn’t be more grateful. I perhaps have never felt more free. Thankfully, the “wine of will and risk” is becoming “the blessedness of deed” for us. Soon we’ll move into a smaller place in NE Minneapolis, the geographical community which Mill City Church is working so hard to love in Jesus’ name. This is an opportunity that we couldn’t have imagined just a while ago, and which is possible now only to the extent that we’re getting “small” enough to “fit” into this literal and metaphorical space. Thanks be to God for that.

The great Daniel Berrigan (a newly discovered hero and saint; God forgive my ignorance!) said, “If you want to follow Jesus….you better look good on wood.” As I dare to take up my cross and follow Jesus on his way to crucifixion in a few short weeks, I turn my mind again to just why Jesus “had” to die, to just what it is I need to be saved from. It was with those thoughts in mind that I wrote this:

Jesus save me from my fear of death; save me from clinging to your gift- life itself and every breath by which it continues- as if it were scarce, as if you, like me, were a stingy giver.

Jesus save me from my insatiable greed, which manufactures desire where there was none. Save me from thinking that the next trinket or shiny thing offered by the ad-man is finally that thing which will make me whole or complete.

Jesus save me from my own colonized mind, which is all too willing to do the work of the colonizers for them. Save me from the head games I play, from the elaborate justifications I concoct for why the thing which in principle I know is wrong is in practice okay, just for me, just this time.

Jesus save me from my captivated imagination, which refuses to consider that another world is possible.

Jesus save me from my blinded eyes which will not see when that other world draws near, as it is doing even now.

Jesus save me from my stopped up ears, which will not hear the cries of my oppressed neighbors far and near, let alone what your Spirit says to the churches.

Jesus save me from my tiny, selfish heart, ever hell-bent, literally, as I constantly seek to save my own life instead of losing it, which is the only way it can ever be found. Save me from thinking that salvation is primarily about me.

Amen.

On “Slavish Shoes” and Tired “Feets”

The other night we watched Amazing Grace again. It’s a powerful film about the Abolition movement in England, led in no small part by William Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s story is compelling, all the more so because his efforts to end the slave trade were very much rooted in his faith and desire to follow Jesus. Wilberforce began following Jesus in earnest after his political career began, and there’s a great scene in the movie between he and his butler that plays out like this:

William Wilberforce: It’s God. I have 10,000 engagements of state today but I would prefer to spend the day out here getting a wet arse, studying dandelions and marveling at… bloody spider’s webs.

Richard the Butler: You found God, sir?

William Wilberforce: I think He found me. You have any idea how inconvenient that is? How idiotic it will sound? I have a political career glittering ahead of me, and in my heart I want spider’s webs.

Richard the Butler: [sitting down next to WW] “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else and still unknown to himself.” Francis Bacon. I don’t just dust your books, sir.

Having been found by God, Wilberforce struggled with whether or not he should remain in politics, and in the movie version of his story, there were many voices in his life that came together to convince him to continue his political career in large measure so that he could work to end the slave trade. One of those voices was John Newton, a mentor of his, a pastor, and former slave ship captain who spent his days haunted by his former career. Newton, the reader may know, wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” from which the film takes its title. Knowing even just that much about Newton’s life puts the words of the hymn in a new light. Though Newton doesn’t have much screen time in the film, his scenes are powerful. For example, he is depicted in the film as saying: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Newton was haunted by the “20,000 ghosts” of the slaves he was responsible for transporting either to death or into bondage, and so fiercely urged Wilberforce to remain steadfast in his efforts to bring an end to the slave trade. He again is depicted as saying:

I can’t help you. But do it, Wilber. Do it. Take them on. Blow their dirty, filthy ships out of the water. The planters, sugar barons, Alderman “Sugar Cane”, the Lord Mayor of London. Liverpool, Boston, Bristol, New York. All their streets running with blood, dysentery, puke! You won’t come away from those streets clean, Wilber. You’ll get filthy with it, you’ll dream it, see it in broad daylight. But do it. For God’s sake.

So Newton urged Wilberforce to remain in government because Wilberforce “had work to do.” Likewise, Wilberforce’s friend and compatriot who would became Prime Minister, William Pitt, is depicted as arranging a dinner meeting with anti-slave trade activists who told him: “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist. We humbly suggest you can do both.” Here’s that scene from the movie:

 

And so he did. Thus began a long effort to pass legislation that would end the slave trade. In fact, it took 16 years for Wilberforce and his allies to get a bill passed, and even then it required a bit of political “trickery” to do so. The final vote to end the slave trade did not end slavery outright, but it was a momentous and long-awaited step in the right direction, one which Wilberforce had given his life and health to help bring about. As Wikipedia notes:

Sensing a breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey moved for a second reading in the Commons on 23 February 1807. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, whose face streamed with tears, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16.

 Of course, this was not the end of Wilberforce’s story. He continued to advocate for steady progress toward the ultimate goal of ending slavery in England altogether, but it would take another 26 years for that to occur. Again, Wikipedia picks up the tale:

On 26 July 1833, Wilberforce heard of government concessions that guaranteed the passing of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery.[224] The following day he grew much weaker, and he died early on the morning of 29 July at his cousin’s house in Cadogan Place, London.

Wikipedia adds that the bill passed a month after Wilberforce did. This steady, lifelong advocacy for the ending of slavery went hand-in-hand with Wilberforce’s faith. Such dedication over such a long time reminds me of the title of the Eugene Peterson book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, for surely that’s what Wilberforce’s life represented. Or, as Newton again is depicted as saying in the film: “God sometimes does His work with gentle drizzle, not storms. Drip. Drip. Drip.”

It’s interesting to revisit this pivotal moment in history amid the racial tensions of today and the disheartening realization that all the “progress” in the world over the past 50 years or so can’t come close to making right the injustice done over the 3+ centuries that came before. As important as bringing an end to the slave trade and then to slavery itself was, it is a decidedly unfinished business as people of color today represent a gravely disproportionate share of the economically and educationally disadvantaged and represent a gravely disproportionate share of the prison population, etc. Still, Wilberforce’s story is inspiring, and we were glad to have been reminded of it again.

 So it was with slavery on my mind that I was reviewing one of my recent posts about our efforts to get “small” and I again came across this language from Rod White that helped move us in this direction. He’s writing about Paul and encouraging us to remember that Paul was a person “on the margins” writing to other people “on the margins” of Empire (the Roman one, in Paul’s case, while today we live under the shadow of the “American” one). Rod says:

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

There’s that language of “becoming small” which has been so important in shaping the paradigm we’re working to live into. And obviously too there’s quite a paradigm shift in regard to thinking about slavery. Rod has a lot more to say about slavery than just what I’ve quoted above, and I would again encourage you to read the rest, which you can find here. For now, though, I should just add that Rod is careful to say that Paul “advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.” However, Rod’s point is that…

…there are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

Again I want to be very clear about what Rod isn’t saying, as far as I can tell. He’s not saying that because “a slave in the world is God’s free person” we ought not work tirelessly as Wilberforce did to end slavery wherever we find it. What I do hear him saying is that whatever state or social position we find ourselves in, as Bob Dylan put it, you “gotta serve somebody.” Rod says, speaking of Paul: “His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us.” I still love that “frosting on his hope cake” line.

The point, I think, is that salvation isn’t something we just look forward to after we die. Jesus offers us freedom now, whether you’re a rich male of European descent like myself or the lowliest refugee risking it all to get to this country which has (literally) afforded me so much. Having just watched Amazing Grace again I continued my reading for Lent. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve started reading Brian Zahnd’s important work, A Farewell to Mars:

Zahnd has something to say about slavery too, though it’s a side point in the larger argument he’s making for following the peacemaking way of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Zahnd says:

He’s drawing a direct line from life in the way of Jesus to efforts to end slavery wherever and whenever they’ve been found throughout the world. He adds:

And finally:

Indeed, precisely because we who not only follow Jesus but have been set free by him have therefore also “been freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to us,” we therefore are compelled to work against enslavement wherever we find it. I struggled with the word “compelled” in the line above, but it’s the right word, for I am a slave…of Christ. I gladly surrender my very body, mind, soul, and spirit to the One who has set me free. I am not just free, after all, from something, I am free for something. Zahnd above speaks prophetically against those who misunderstand Scripture, or worse, twist and misuse it for their own nefarious purposes, to “make” it mean that the big point of life with Jesus is to give us our heavenly retirement plan when we die while everything we leave behind here on earth burns. I’ve recently written about this too.

Zahnd says: “A secret (or not-so-secret) longing for the world’s violent destruction is grossly unbecoming to the followers of the Lamb. We are not hoping for Armageddon; we are helping build New Jerusalem.” I’m reminded again of N.T. Wright’s ever helpful work in calling us to remember that the point of the Christian life isn’t to escape the earth and get to heaven; rather, because of Jesus, heaven will come to earth some day and indeed is already coming, even now, wherever we who have been “saved” choose to live like Jesus is “already” our King.

All these thoughts were swimming in my head as we attended Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning. Today was the second in the sermon series for Lent: “What’s So Great About Easter?” We’re focusing during this series on one of our four “Mission Priorities” for 2017: “Gospel and Neighbor.” Today, one of our pastors, J.D., talked about what exactly it is we need to be saved “from.” He said that in part what we need to be saved from is a “cycle of captivity.” He gave some very vulnerable examples of this from his own life and then challenged us to be willing to be fully present with our neighbors, whoever they might be, as opportunities arise to discuss the things in our life that would have our allegiance, that in fact seek to enslave us and hold us captive. Do you see the theme running through my weekend, starting with our viewing of Amazing Grace on Friday night? At every turn God seems to be saying something to me about slavery.

For a long time I lamented that God seemed absent and hidden from me, that I could not find him in the places I expected to. There’s a lesson there that I’m still learning. Now, though, I seem to have entered a new season in my life in which I can’t help but find God everywhere I look. God seems to be waiting around every corner, lurking in every face, stowing away in the pages of every book, and leaping out at me from the melody of every song. I am grateful, to be sure, and will continue to treasure up all these things and ponder them in my heart. William Wilberforce, at least in the movie Amazing Grace, said he didn’t so much find God as was instead found by him. I believe this is something of what I’m experiencing now. In Wilberforce’s case, God found him and led him to see Jesus in his enslaved brothers and sisters from Africa, and therefore he was led to do everything within his power to overturn the laws that enabled their enslavement. Paul speaks of slavery and calls us to realize that even if we happen to find ourselves enslaved in the world, if Christ has set us free, we are free indeed. Likewise, if we happen to find ourselves in positions of power in the world, Christ has still set us free from the trappings of that power, and we are still free, indeed, to stand and work in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who find themselves in earthly chains.

We do indeed need to be saved from a cycle of captivity. Whatever keeps us from experiencing the freedom Jesus offers are chains no less constricting than the bonds that brought black bodies from Africa to work on plantations on the continent I call my (earthly) home. For many people who look like and have the privilege that I do, that which captivates us keeps us from knowing the freedom we have to fully love, serve, and learn from our brother and sisters of color. This must change. It is beginning to change in me, and I am grateful. But we must not only ask what it is we need to be saved from, but just what it is we need to be saved for. Moreover, we need to fully embrace the experience of being saved. It’s hard for a privileged person of European descent like myself, but I need to imagine how it must feel to have literal chains removed from my ankles, wrists, and neck. As I imagine those bonds being loosed, I do well to remember that this freedom comes at a price, but I do not have to pay it. As Rod again said, “In Philippians 2:7…Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not.” Jesus became a slave for us so that we could know freedom. Isn’t it indeed wrong-headed then to see him “serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not?”

We want it, don’t we?!

Having been set free, we follow the example of our Lord and choose to be slaves of and for Christ, for unlike that of those earthly impostor-“lords” that would enslave us if they could, Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and in him we will find rest for our souls. Mother Pollard knew something about both the legacy of slavery and finding rest in Jesus. Though Rosa Parks is much better known when one thinks of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mother Pollard played no less an important role. As this site notes:

Mother Pollard was part of the African-American community in Montgomery, Alabama, during the start of the historic 1950s bus boycotts. Despite her advanced years, she refused to take the bus and was adamant that she would walk to see change happen, making the statement, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” Pollard was also a valued source of love and inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.

We’re saved from cycles of captivity, and saved for the work of the “family business” of reconciliation that God calls us to. Having been indeed set free, our souls find rest not just in “Paul’s slavish shoes,” but in Jesus’. Our “feets” may get tired, but I for one wouldn’t miss a step along the way. Like William Wilberforce, we’ve got work to do, after all.

Obi Wan Kenobi is Not My Only Hope; “That Preacher of Peace” Is

A violent scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. HT to Digital Spy for the image.

My last Star Wars movie was my last Star Wars movie. I enjoyed Rogue One; I thought they did a great job with it and tied it in well with A New Hope. I suppose I should mention, lest it isn’t painfully obvious already, that I’m a “geek.” I’ve enjoyed sci-fi since I was a kid. As I grew up, I came to appreciate how the genre could be used prophetically even, telling the truth about the world we live in with stories about other worlds that if said plainly would fall on deaf ears. Think how relevant George Orwell’s 1984 has become for our current secular political climate, for example. Nonetheless, I won’t see any more Star Wars films. I won’t see any more Marvel or other “superhero” films either, a decision which comes at the unfortunate time just as the I understand generally well-received Logan has come out.

Also, having grown up in the D/FW Metroplex I’ve always been a huge Dallas Cowboys fan. I came of age as the original “triplets” were winning Super Bowls and have remained loyal ever since, which is as natural for a native north Texan as it is to believe that Texas is somehow better than other states because, after all, it was its own country once. Likewise it’s as “natural” for a native north Texan to be a loyal Cowboys fan as it is for a native north Texan (of European descent) to think that the Civil War was about “states’ rights,” but then again both claims- that TX is better than other states and that the Civil War was about “states’ rights-” are obviously demonstrably false and especially in the latter case downright sinful. So of course I really enjoyed this last NFL season for the Cowboys (right up until the very end), and couldn’t have guessed that it would be my last NFL season as a fan.

A violent NFL hit depicted in this YouTube video.

Why, you might wonder, am I giving up Star Wars and NFL/Dallas Cowboys fan-dom? In short, it’s simply because as captivated as I’ve been by sci-fi and the Cowboys for most of my life, they can both undoubtedly be categorized as violent entertainment, and these days I remain even more captivated by “that preacher of peace,” Jesus. As such, I can no longer participate in violence literally nor vicariously through my entertainment. I’ve long been sympathetic toward peacemaking as an ideal that seems to have a clear emphasis in Scripture, and I’ve been blessed to have participated in some churches that took peacemaking seriously, though some more so than others. Still, like most of Jesus’ ideas, I failed to see how the ideal of peacemaking could or should translate into my everyday life. I far too readily subscribed to the lie of “redemptive violence,” for example, a lie which is perpetuated in some of my favorite sci-fi stories, like Star Wars! Likewise I far too readily believed that not only were some wars “just” (with the fight against Hitler being the most commonly used example), but I believed it would likewise be “just-“ifiable if I were to ever “need” to employ violence to protect a child or a loved one. I mean, surely Jesus couldn’t have meant what he said about “turning the other cheek” and loving our enemies and not committing murder, etc.? After all, like so many things, the ideal of peace in the kingdom of God is a worthy aspiration, I’m sure, but in the meantime don’t we live in a “real world” full of “bad hombres” and violent jihadists?

The truth is that however wise I thought I was, however radically I may have thought I followed Jesus in the past by doing Kingdomworks and living in community and giving stuff away from time to time, I nonetheless refused to take Jesus seriously or at his Word. I didn’t believe Jesus meant it when he said to love our enemies and turn the other cheek when they strike us any more than I really believed he meant it when he talked about selling all of one’s possession to give to the poor or when he suggested that if we did give up the “stuff” of this world to follow him, we would be blessed in this present age and the age to come with more of such “stuff-” and relationships- than we could possibly know what to do with. I’ve recently written about my stunning realization that no, Jesus really did mean what he said about not storing up for ourselves treasures on earth and that indeed if we did give up “everything,” like the first disciples, to follow Jesus then we would find that by virtue of our admission into the family of God we would have access to more earthly resources than we could possibly ever accumulate on our own. Indeed, our Father has the “cattle on a thousand hills” and looks after the raven and the flowers in the field; so we can indeed rest assured that he will look after us, especially if we live like the brothers and sisters that we are and look after one another.

But violence? Could Jesus have really meant to preach peace to those who were “near” to God and to those who were “far” away? Could he have really meant for me to work proactively at peacemaking with those around me, giving up violence as a viable option for those who would follow him just as we are clearly called to give up the pursuit of worldly goods, worldly success and power? What about all the horrible “what-ifs” we’re supposed to imagine whenever we get close to actually wanting to live like we follow the Prince of Peace? I’ve long advocated for a “consistent pro-life” stance that not only seeks to limit abortion by investing in women’s healthcare and early education and the social safety net and other resources for those who feel trapped when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy but that also eschews other forms of violence and murder including war and the death penalty. This seemed to make sense simply for integrity’s and again consistency’s sake. It made sense because I came to see that Jesus is supposed to matter in the “real world” or he isn’t much of a savior. He’s supposed to matter when secular politics get tense and nations are tempted to take up arms against one another. He’s supposed to matter in scientific labs where research is being done into ever more inventive ways to blow each other up. After all, how many wars have been fought mostly by people who claimed to be Christian? There’s a beautiful story about violence ceasing long enough for soldiers who had just been trying to kill each other to come together momentarily to celebrate Christmas, for example. But this moment of beauty begs the question of how they could stop for a moment to celebrate God-with-us, the coming of the Prince of Peace, only to resume their worldly blood lust shortly thereafter? When truly considered, it just makes no sense.

So while I came to eschew violence in theory, I never bothered to do any work to become a peacemaker in practice, and it never occurred to me to consider for very long what I allowed to captivate my imagination. I never for very long considered the implications of peacemaking for how I chose to entertain myself. My family, for example, is committed as much as possible to a whole-food, plant-based diet. The more we learned about not only how much healthier such a diet is for our own bodies, but about how many resources that could be used to feed hungry people around the world have been diverted to raise livestock for meat-eaters, the more convinced we became that we could not participate in this injustice. Some readers may or may not know that in order to meet the demand for chicken and the eggs they produce, etc., the poultry industry simply discards baby male chickens. Sometimes they “just” discard them; in other cases baby male chickens ride a conveyor belt at the end of which is a grinder that chews them up, alive. This is (hopefully) obviously abhorrent and entirely inconsistent with the way of life we try to practice as a family; thus we don’t make popcorn on a Friday night and watch videos of chickens or any other living creatures being butchered. Why, then, has it been “okay” all these years to entertain ourselves with people– bearers of the image of God- being butchered, even if for some arguably justifiable reason?

The fact is that I am every day more convinced that this simply is not “okay.” Eyeballs=dollars for advertisers and content producers, after all, and for too long I’ve allowed mine to be seduced by the dark side (Star Wars pun intended). This realization has been dawning in my awareness for some time. Most recently, it occurred as I discovered the origin of Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’ve known about them for quite a while, since our early Circle of Hope days in 1996, but I never knew that they grew out of a talk given by Ron Sider in 1984, which I recently wrote about.  I’m including much of what I said then, because it’s so very relevant to this discussion. I said:

I’ve long been familiar with Ron Sider through his work with ESA and his seminal book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which was instrumental when I first read it so many years ago in helping me learn not only that God has a special concern for the poor, but that if I want to follow Jesus well and closely, I should too. What I was less familiar with was his work and advocacy in regard to peacemaking and that it was the talk he gave…that spurred the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams, whom I likewise have the utmost respect for.

One of the most remarkable, and heartbreaking, things about this speech is that Sider gave it over 30 years ago, but it’s as if it could have been written today. Some of the threats to peace may have changed, but the instability of the world order feels just as fragile these days and the likelihood of global conflict, even nuclear conflict, feels just as ominously possible. Indeed, it was a mere four days ago that the “Doomsday Clock” moved closer to, well, doomsday than it has not in 30 years but in 64.

Against this perilous backdrop, Sider reminds us not only that Jesus was a peacemaker, but that we are to be agents of God’s shalom too. Remember that the Biblical vision of “Shalom” is not one of mere peace. Instead, Sider reminds that “God desires that ‘justice and peace will kiss each other’ (Psalm 85:10). If we try to separate justice and peace, we tear asunder what God has joined together.” But this dynamic works both ways. We can not achieve true peace without justice; nor can we achieve true justice violently. Our current political leaders could take a lesson from this, but I don’t think they will. As Sider says in reference to Jesus’ command “not to resist the one who is evil:” “Apparently Jesus thought that protesting police brutality or engaging in civil disobedience in a nonviolent fashion was entirely consistent with his command not to resist the one who is evil.” Again, Sider wrote this 30 years ago. Sadly, police brutality still commands front page headlines, and nonviolent civil disobedience remains a potent tool in the (nonviolent) arsenal of those who would resist evil, and may be even more necessary in the days to come.

So often those who object to peacemaking as a viable strategy for resisting violence, oppression, and injustice raise hypothetical scenarios in which there are only two options (much as is the case with our polarized secular politics these days, but I digress). Brian Zahnd speaks of this in his important work, A Farewell to Mars. Likewise, Sider reminds us that:

“The most famous advocate of our time, Mahatma Gandhi, once said that if the only two choices are to kill or to stand quietly by doing nothing while the weak are oppressed and killed, then, of course, we must kill. I agree. But there is always a third option. We can always prayerfully and nonviolently place ourselves between the weak and the oppressor.”

Notice what Sider did? He agrees with Gandhi in suggesting that if the only choice were to kill or stand idly by while others are killed, then we must kill. Just as surely, though, those are not the only two choices. Another way, a third option (of perhaps many others) is to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed. This reminds me of a recent sermon Michael Binder of Mill City Church preached about how Jesus confronted others. He speculates that Jesus may have placed himself directly between the woman caught in adultery and those who would stone her when he challenged them to throw the first stone if they were without sin, so that if they did so, he would be directly in the line of fire. Indeed, as I keep learning, what we would-be Jesus followers these days lack perhaps more than anything else is a good “Christian” imagination. We can’t resign ourselves to accepting the choices the domination system gives us. We can’t accept the boxes or categories we keep getting placed in. More often than not, Jesus calls us down a different path.

There are many, many more gems to be mined below that I could go on about, but I want to let Sider speak for himself, after I highlight one final thing. Sider says:

“We must take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha. We must be prepared to die by the thousands. Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions. Why do we pacifists think that our way — Jesus’ way — to peace will be less costly?”

That bears repeating: We must be prepared to die by the thousands. How can we who would make peace nonviolently be less courageous than those who think they can do so violently? This is a hard teaching, but no less of a true one than that which caused so many would-be Jesus followers to leave his side in Scripture. In that passage from John, Jesus foreshadows his own willingness to stand in the path of violence for our sake as he tells his followers that his very flesh is the bread of life which alone can sustain and fully satisfy us. This is a hard teaching, indeed, but we can be no less courageous than our leader, Lord, and master, Jesus.

Then, as I was reading another Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove book which I would highly recommend, The Awakening of Hope

…I came across this page:

This actually came in a chapter about fasting. There’s a whole other chapter titled “Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill.” I don’t want to delve too deeply into atonement theories here, as they’re not the focus of this post. What was so startling about this little bit above though was the re-framing of Jesus’ work on the cross as the ultimate, even salvific, act of non-violence. Among the many things the cross no doubt represents, it also shows us how not only does the end of our story as Jesus-followers (when God’s shalom and his reign of love and justice finally and fully come) interrupt us in the middle of it, but also how God acts in Jesus to interrupt the cycle of violence that has been at work since the fall. Wilson-Hartgrove writes about our inability to stop the perpetuation of retributive violence (see: the Middle East from time immemorial through the present day, or the “war on terror,” or our system of capital punishment) and holds up Jesus as the model of God’s willingness to interrupt the cycle of retributive violence for us. Jesus absorbed the world’s violence on the cross without retaliating. We are called to do likewise.

So, given that Lent was just beginning, I realized what I needed to do. I needed to once and for all do my best to give up violence- and violent entertainment- not just for Lent, but for life. It was the next step in the many ways Jesus has been “interrupting” my life and that of my family over the last little while. So this became our family “focus” for Lent:

…and these are the books I’m reading in preparation for Easter:

Missing from this stack is Ron Sider’s “Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried,” which I will read too.

In the meantime the call of “that preacher of peace” in my life has given me the opportunity to get “smaller” and simplify my life even a bit more. The Star Wars and Dallas Cowboys memorabilia I had accumulated over the years is gone, and the time I would have spent consuming violent entertainment has been redeemed, along with a little more, I hope, of my own violent soul. Thanks be to God.

Rich Mullins Sings About the Secular Politics of Our Day

Hit play on the video above and give Rich a listen as he sings prophetically about the days we live in. All the words below are his, from his classic song While the Nations Rage, which draws from Psalm 2. Some of the pictures below show the church rising up in Jesus’ name to love and serve those around them. Some of them, sadly, juxtapose Rich’s words (“the church of God she will not bend her knees…”) with an image of the church doing just the opposite. I’ll let Rich take it from here…

 

"Why do the nations rage?  Why do they plot and scheme?"
“Why do the nations rage? 
Why do they plot and scheme?”

 

"Their bullets can't stop the prayers we pray  In the name of the Prince of Peace "
“Their bullets can’t stop the prayers we pray 
In the name of the Prince of Peace “

“We walk in faith and remember long ago
How they killed Him and then how on the third day He arose
Well, things may look bad
And things may look grim
But all these things must pass except the things that are of Him”

"Where are the nails that pierced His hands?  Well the nails have turned to rust  But behold the Man  He is risen  And He reigns  In the hearts of the children  Rising up in His name..."
“Where are the nails that pierced His hands? 
Well the nails have turned to rust 
But behold the Man 
He is risen 
And He reigns 
In the hearts of the children 
Rising up in His name…”

 

"Where are the thorns that drew His blood?  Well, the thorns have turned to dust  But not so the love  He has given  No, it remains  In the hearts of the children  Who will love while the nations rage"
“Where are the thorns that drew His blood? 
Well, the thorns have turned to dust 
But not so the love 
He has given 
No, it remains 
In the hearts of the children 
Who will love while the nations rage”

 

"The Lord in Heaven laughs  He knows what is to come  While all the chiefs of state plan their big attacks  Against His anointed One"
“The Lord in Heaven laughs 
He knows what is to come 
While all the chiefs of state plan their big attacks 
Against His anointed One”

 

"The Church of God she will not bend her knees"
“The Church of God she will not bend her knees

 

 

"To the gods of this world though they promise her peace"
“To the gods of this world though they promise her peace”

 

 

"She stands her ground  Stands firm on the Rock  Watch their walls tumble down when she lives out His love"
“She stands her ground 
Stands firm on the Rock 
Watch their walls tumble down when she lives out His love”

 

 

"Where are the nails that pierced His hands?  Well the nails have turned to rust  But not so the Man  He is risen  And He reigns  In the hearts of the children  Rising up in His name"
“Where are the nails that pierced His hands? 
Well the nails have turned to rust 
But not so the Man 
He is risen 
And He reigns 
In the hearts of the children 
Rising up in His name

 

 

"Where are the thorns that drew His blood?  Well, the thorns have turned to dust  But behold the love  He has given  It remains  In the hearts of the children  Who will love while the nations rage  While the nations rage"
“Where are the thorns that drew His blood? 
Well, the thorns have turned to dust 
But behold the love 
He has given 
It remains 
In the hearts of the children 
Who will love while the nations rage 
While the nations rage”

“Well, where are the nails that pierced His hands?
Well the nails have turned to rust
But behold the Man
He is risen
And He reigns
In the hearts of the children
Rising up in His name
Where are the thorns that drew His blood?
Well, the thorns have turned to dust
But not so the love
He has given
Oh, it remains
In the hearts of the children
Who will love”

 

"...while the nations rage..."
“…while the nations rage…”

 

Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

The Jordan River in Palestine (ht here)
The Jordan River in Palestine (picture courtesy of this site)

My typically 30 minute commute into work took 90 minutes today. I spent the first part of it listening to MPR as the pledge drive winds down toward its conclusion tomorrow. I tuned in to hear a little about the weather and traffic since there was just enough snow overnight to make for a rough drive this morning. I also wanted to hear just a little about Trump’s speech last night, which I did. As time, and my commute, wore on, I decided to redeem both by listening to a podcast. I had downloaded some speeches, talks, and interviews given by a hero of mine, N.T. Wright. This was a 30 minute or so interview he gave several years back in which he discussed a number of topics, including creation care, which was how the conversation started. It’s interesting that the questioner began by posing a question that went something like this (this is a very rough paraphrase): “since the gospel is mostly about (individual) people getting saved, what links then can we make between this and how we care for creation?” Tom (Wright, as he seems to prefer to be called), immediately gave a corrective, that again in a very rough paraphrase went something like this: “The gospel is about the kingdom of God. While this has to do with (individual) people being ‘saved,’ those people are connected to others…” in a complex web of relationships that extend not to just to other people but to the places they occupy and the very earth itself. Wright asserts that a “theology of place” has been lost in Western Christianity and is only just now being recovered. This echoes so much of what I’ve been reading of late from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and others, who reminds us that the gospel is very particular (but not strictly individualistic). The good news of and about Jesus is a story about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their physical and spiritual descendants. It’s good news for Israel first, and then by extension it’s good news for the rest of us too, for Israel was “blessed to be a blessing,” (and so are we).

This particularity, I think, is meant to root us both in a people, in a community, but also again to a nearly forgotten extent in a place, for, as Wright reminds in that podcast, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and creation itself “groans” anticipating its own redemption along with the people of God. So place, and the earth itself, matters. These are reasons to care about creation, for starters, but this only takes us so far. He speaks of eschatology, and as I listened I was reminded of something else Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith that I read recently: “More than anything else, eschatology teaches us to see that the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added). I can think of no better way to get at the idea that we live “between the times,” when the kingdom of God is “already” upon us, but “not yet” fully realized. As Wright spoke of eschatology in the podcast, he said something else that I found very helpful. He said: “All our language about God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a fog.” He added that while the truth the signposts point to may indeed be very true, we just don’t see it very well yet, and, by implication, even our best and most well thought out language just can’t speak of it very well yet. We have clues, to be sure, but we should tread lightly and give equally good thought, I would add, to what such language is for. It may have been in that podcast or perhaps I’m conflating various things I’ve heard or read from Wright, but at some point he mentions the eschatological language regarding the sun “turning red” and the moon “being darkened” and says that this “is not a primitive weather forecast.” Rather, this is an effort to invest what may be very “real” concrete events with their theological significance. The overall thrust of Wright’s point in the podcast and elsewhere is that God doesn’t come from heaven to earth to take us back there. Instead, again in a very real sense God comes from heaven to earth to join the two.

Thus, to those who read Scripture and interpret some of its language to mean that “it’s all gonna burn” before the “new heaven” and the “new earth” are brought about- which they therefore take to mean that we don’t have to worry about what happens to the earth in the meantime- to those folks I think Wright would suggest they’ve seriously misread Scripture and therefore missed the point. While there is “fiery” eschatological language, I think Wright would say it’s more in keeping with the rest of what we find in Scripture to think of this is a “refiners fire” that burns away the dross to reveal what was already there, but hidden. Thus, again in a very real sense it is this earth to which Jesus will return and which will be revealed to be “new” at his coming, just as a “new” heaven is brought to this earth when Jesus returns, all of which means that, just as always, in him “all things” really do “hold together.” So then what we do to this earth matters, for eternity even. I, for one, find this to be very good news indeed.

I finished the podcast and was still sitting in traffic; so I listened to a little Rich Mullins. I’ve written before about why he remains important to me, why I keep talking about him. I listened to a couple of my favorite songs that he sings before “Elijah” came on shortly before I arrived at work. In that post I just linked to I talk about this song, but some of what I said bears repeating. First, here’s Rich himself again singing it:

 

The song is so incredibly poignant not only because it so clearly foreshadows Mullins’ own death, including the way in which he died, but because of the way it so clearly exemplifies what a (not devil, but) God-may-care attitude looks like. Various definitions of “devil-may-care” describe such an attitude as “carefree” or even “reckless,” and the faith Rich sings about in this song I think could be characterized as both carefree and reckless. Here are the lyrics again:

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

CHORUS:

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

CHORUS(2x)

 

I think this is a song for all times, but it’s especially a song for this time for myself and my family. In the video above of Rich performing the song, after questioning why anyone would listen to “contemporary Christian” music, he describes the song as being about one of his “weirdo heroes of the Bible,” Elijah:

The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)
The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)

The song touches on themes from Elijah’s life, but also certainly does so in regard to themes from Rich’s own life too, even in ways that Rich himself couldn’t have known, like when he says he wants to “go out” like Elijah “when he leaves” (dies), which he certainly did, having died in a fiery car crash. More than that, though, I think this song represents Rich at his vulnerable, truth-telling best. The song begins with Rich singing that “The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.” He’s referring of course to the Jordan River.

The Jordan River is an image rich with symbolism in Scripture and in Christian thought. It often symbolizes the boundary between life and death, between salvation and destruction, perhaps even between this life and the next. This site alludes to some of this in describing the very real role the Jordan has played in Israel’s history, including in the life of Rich’s “weird hero,” Elijah:

– The Israelites feared the people of Canaan. As punishment for their lack of faith, God did not allow any Israelite over twenty years old to enter the Promised Land, including Moses. The Israelites wandered for forty years, and despite begging God to allow him to enter, Moses only viewed the Promised Land from a distance. (Deuteronomy 1:21-32; 3:23-28; 34:1-4.)

– Elijah warned King Ahab of Israel that there would be a drought in the land because of Israel’s evil deeds. After Elijah gave his prophecy, God told him to cross to the east side of the Jordan and hide from the king. The river became a barrier of protection for Elijah. (1 Kings 16:29-33; 17:1-6.)

– Absalom, David’s rebellious son and the leader of Israel’s army, schemed to kill King David and everyone who was loyal to him. David was forewarned and crossed the Jordan with his people during the night. The river became a barrier of protection for David and his people. (2 Samuel 17:15-22.)

– Before being taken up to heaven, Elijah struck the Jordan River water with his cloak. The water parted so that he and Elisha could cross. After Elijah ascended, Elisha again parted the waters with Elijah’s cloak so he could return to Israel. (2 Kings 2:1-2, 5-15.)

 

What that site just quoted only alludes to is that after Moses died, the people did cross the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. Wikipedia discusses this and further details that the Jordan is the scene of several miracles in Scripture:

In biblical history, the Jordan appears as the scene of several miracles, the first taking place when the Jordan, near Jericho, was crossed by the Israelites under Joshua (Joshua 3:15–17). Later the two tribes and the half tribe that settled east of the Jordan built a large altar on its banks as “a witness” between them and the other tribes (Joshua 22:10, 22:26, et seq.). The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2 Kings 5:14; 6:6).

 

Wikipedia further describes the Jordan’s significance in the “New Testament:”

The New Testament states that John the Baptist baptised unto repentance[10] in the Jordan (Matthew 3:56; Mark1:5; Luke 3:3; John1:28). These acts of Baptism are also reported as having taken place at Bethabara (John 1:28).

Jesus came to be baptised by him there (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21, 4:1). The Jordan is also where John the Baptist bore record of Jesus as the Son of God and Lamb of God (John 1:29–36).

The prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Messiah which names the Jordan (Isaiah 9:1–2) is also reported in Matthew 4:15.

The New Testament speaks several times about Jesus crossing the Jordan during his ministry (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and of believers crossing the Jordan to come hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases (Matthew 4:25; Mark 3:7–8). When his enemies sought to capture him, Jesus took refuge at Jordan in the place John had first baptised (John 10:39–40).

 

What’s clear is that throughout Israel’s history and that of Jesus and his disciples, the Jordan very much did indeed mark this boundary between life and death, between salvation/rescue and devastation, between following God’s call and not doing so. It’s a powerful symbol.  So again Rich sings:

 

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

 

In these words I hear Rich saying that whatever troubles and cares have led him to this point, he’s now ready to cross that boundary that the Jordan represents. Perhaps he’s saying that he’s ready to follow Jesus whatever that may mean, whatever it may cost him, wherever Jesus might lead. Rich says that his “heart is aging,” and I can relate. I’ve seen so much and been through so much in my 40+ years that I have a very real sense that my time is short. I too am ready to follow Jesus perhaps in a way that I never have, to wherever he might lead. I’ve written about this of late as I’ve described our efforts to get “small,” to listen to and learn from and engage with those on the margins of society because that’s who the Bible was written by and to, because Jesus commands us to let those on the margins come to him and says that we must be like them to see his kingdom, and because when we draw near to them, we draw near to Jesus himself. With a few notable exceptions, I’ve largely failed to do this in my life, but no longer. My heart is aging, and I don’t have time to mess around any more. So I’m willing to offer it to Jesus and invite him to take it where he will.

 

 Rich continues in the song:

 

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

 

Rich, I think, is again probably writing a little about his own life while engaging with Elijah’s story, and maybe writing a little about my own life too. We’re mended and torn because life can be hard. Brokenness abounds. When he says his “ground was stony and sometimes covered up with thorns,” he’s hinting at the parable Jesus told of the sower in Matthew 13:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

 

Later, Jesus explained the parable to his disciples:

 

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

 

So the “stony” or “covered up with thorns” ground Rich spoke of alludes to a heart ready to hear the good news, but which lacks depth or in which the good news is crowded out by the cares of this world. Rich sings that while this may have been true, “only you can make it what it had to be.” Kirsten and I had new friends over the other night, and we were talking about the new ways we’re learning to follow Jesus, all the ways we’re working to get “small” by simplifying our life and building capacity in our hearts, minds, and budget for what God is calling us to. I alluded to my life to this point and said that for whatever reason I just don’t think I was ready yet. Despite everything I’ve been through and all the hard lessons already allegedly learned, somehow I just wasn’t ready to follow Jesus like I’m trying to now, recklessly, with a carefree heart. Even the readiness I’m experiencing now is by no virtue of my own. Only Jesus could make my heart “what it had to be” too.  

 

Rich speaks of this, of this reckless, carefree faith, when he says that “if they dressed me like a pauper, if they dined me like a prince, if they lay with my fathers, if my ashes scatter on the wind I don’t care…” In Philippians 4 Paul says that he has:

 

…learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

 

Rich seems to be hinting at this. As a would-be “Christian music” star, Rich had access to fabulous wealth, but wrote into all his music contracts that he would receive whatever the average U.S. salary was for that year and the rest that he earned would be donated to charity. In part I suspect because he realized that even this act of generosity, given that the U.S. is the richest country in the history of the world, did not suffice to make him “small” enough (to use the language I’ve been using for myself and my family). So at some point Rich gave it all up and moved to a Native American reservation. I wrote about this again in my last post about Rich. My point now is that I too hope to move ever closer to a place of solidarity with those who are not the beneficiaries of all this fabulous wealth our country enjoys, and I hope to learn to be content “whether well fed,” as I obviously am now, “or hungry,” as so many will experience as they go to sleep tonight.  

 

After going through the chorus the first time Rich sings on:

 

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

 

I can relate to this too. I’ve known a lot of “friendly” people in my life who turned out not to be friends, certainly not a friend “who sticketh closer than a brother.” I’ve known more than my fair share, I’m sure, of broken, fractured relationships, and sometimes the ending of those relationships- or what felt like the ending at the time- has more than once “bent me to the ground.” Still, when I look back at them, usually I realize that I can probably place the blame for the lion’s share of what went wrong in those relationships at my own feet. I am the worst of sinners, and my own worst enemy. In any case, I sense in this that Rich feels the freedom to move on from his own brokenness and broken relationships in order to focus on what matters most. For Rich, music is both an end in itself and a means to end. God clearly gave him a gift for it, and he used it as best he could. All the while, Rich seems to recognize that he’s caught up in a song that is larger than his contribution to it. He sings on:

 

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

 

The Jordan, this boundary between death and life, between salvation/rescue and destruction, beckons on. He says he’s “never seen the other side,” but knows “you can’t take in the things you have here.” “You can’t take it with you when you die” is a truism rooted in Scripture, and has been a major theme in our life of late. We literally have been “storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal and moth and rust destroy.” So as a family we’ve been redoubling our efforts to “store up treasure in heaven” instead, for we well know that “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” Abandoning the ways of Empire and getting as “small” as we can despite our education and privilege is hard, subversive work. It’s reckless work too, perhaps something akin to hitchhiking along the road to salvation, along the way with Jesus, as Rich sings above. When we get moving along the way, we begin to hear “his music” as we too get caught up in a song that is larger than what we contribute to it.

 

“Elijah” builds to an end with this final bit before the chorus again:

 

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

…when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

 

Rich says “people have been talking,” that they’re “worried about his soul.” His unorthodox approach to a life in the “Christian” spotlight and his unwillingness to spend the decades amassing millions while churning out the cliched feel-good musical tropes that his record label may have liked sometimes landed Rich in “trouble.” His move to the Native American reservation only magnified these “concerns,” I’m sure. If you read my last couple of posts, I echoed Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in speaking of Mark 10 and the stories of Jesus and the little children and then Jesus and the “rich young ruler.” In that passage Jesus says that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” I spoke in my last post about how somehow I had always interpreted those verses individualistically, such that if I gave up something for Jesus I would always get something bigger and better in the end, even if only in a “spiritual” sense. I wrote then of my shock to suddenly realize that this too was directed at the community. Hence if Kirsten and I gave up a house to come to MN in part to serve her mother, this passage isn’t suggesting we’ll get a bigger, better house out of the deal. Rather, it’s telling us that we may not need to buy a house again, that as members of God’s family we have access to all the houses wherever our brothers and sisters in Christ can be found.

 

This is a dramatic reversal, I would argue, of the individualistic, consumer-driven “American dream.” As people struggling to better follow God’s dream for the world, we’re working to consume less, not more. We’re working to get small, not big. We’re working to give away power and privilege, not amass it. This flies in the face of the logic of the (U.S.) Empire, and I have no doubt that while our pursuit of God’s dream will bring us “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields” where we had none before, they will also bring persecutions. If so, we are in good company with all the saints and Jesus himself. Thus, Rich can conclude by saying that when he “leaves,” “it won’t break his heart to say goodbye.” His heart is aging, after all. Mine is too.

 

Thus it was that upon hearing “Elijah” just after hearing N.T. Wright talk about how what we do in the here-and-now matters in eternity because when Jesus returns it will be to join heaven and earth and reveal the new creation that is already present, even though we can “not yet” see it clearly,  I soon found myself weeping again in the car, the tears streaming down my face as I pulled in to work. Today is Ash Wednesday. Throughout history Christians have started the season of Lent in preparation for Easter with the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead and the words from Scripture, “(Remember that) your are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time of often solemn reflection on our own mortality, which is a way to find our place, literally to locate ourselves in God’s story. He is the creator; we are the creation. It’s a time to make space in our lives, often by forgoing some pleasure or even some necessity, like food, so that there is room for God to make himself known in a new way.

 

Remembering that we are dust and that we will return to it and looking forward with great anticipation to Easter, to our remembrance of the inauguration not of a new U.S. President but of the King of the Universe as he conquers death and defeats the powers that would keep us separated from God and one another, we are helped to see again how the end of our story interrupts us in the middle. We are helped to see how every act in this age has eternal repercussions. On the Rich Mullins Songs album that I began listening to after N.T. Wright’s podcast and on which “Elijah” is one of the songs, the one after “Elijah” is “Calling Out Your Name.” This is another all time favorite of mine by Rich, as it so clearly evokes the mystery and wonder of creation and you can almost feel Rich’s respect and reverence for the earth and especially its indigenous people here in the U.S. This amazing song speaks of being “wild with the hope” that “this thirst will not last long and it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain.”

 

Wouldn’t you like to be “wild” with hope? I would. I sure hope to be. The imagery of thirst drowning in a song not sung in vain is very moving. In the story of the “woman at the well” Jesus tells the woman that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Those who drink the “living water” Jesus offers find their thirst quenched once and for all. In fact, they find within themselves a “spring of water” that “wells up” to eternal life. This sounds a lot like a thirst that “drowns” in a “song not sung in vain.” Rich found himself caught up in a song that was larger than his part in it, and so are we. We who “drink” the living water Jesus offers can be wild with hope that our thirst will drown in a “sing not sung in vain.” It’s not in vain because despite the extent to which it seems that the peaceable kingdom of God is not yet fully realized, it is nonetheless true that the end of our story (which our language for is only like a set of signposts pointing into a fog) has interrupted us right in the middle of the story. Our actions today echo into eternity. They matter because we have clues about where this story is headed, how this song ends. It’s a love story, and always has been. Though we were made from dust and will return to it, we were made in and for love, and will return to that too. We’re already on our way, some of us more knowingly and willingly than others.

The Jordan has been waiting for my family and I in new ways recently. We’ve known ourselves to be crossing a boundary, moving from an old way of life into a new one. The more stuff we give away, the more we can extricate ourselves from our participation in the systems of the powers that be, the less we participate in the domination system that seeks to marginalize and control and disadvantage all of us in the end, the more we experience a spring of water welling up in us to eternal life. My heart may be aging, but it’s also wild with hope as I’m learning to follow Jesus in a new, carefree, even reckless way. Thanks be to God.