I’ve written a lot lately about “giving to whomever asks,” and have been convicted that I need to do so. Reading Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s God’s Economy had a lot to do with that. Thankfully, I also read Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace around the same time. Wilson-Hartgrove challenged me to give to whomever asks “so that I might be a child of my Father in Heaven.” Volf reminded me that my Father is “God the giver,” and that I was made to be a giver too. Still, somehow I managed to place myself right at the center of all this giving that should be happening, when in fact I suspect I’m more rightly seen as a link in a long chain of giving that starts and ends with God.
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
“‘Father,[a] hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.[b] 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.[c] And lead us not into temptation.[d]’”
5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity[e] he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead?12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
There’s probably a lot to unpack there, but for now I’ll just highlight a few things that stood out for me as I encountered this passage again. First, obviously this is one of the places where we find the Lord’s Prayer. I’ll just note what I mentioned in another recent post, that after four decades of repeating this prayer, perhaps for the first time I understood, or was ready to understand, just how important the word daily is in the prayer. In asking for our daily bread- and only our daily bread- we are invited to trust in God’s provision and goodness over and over again, each and every day. In doing so we’re invited to share, to be givers ourselves. If somehow we wind up with more than enough bread for today, it’s important that we share it with someone who might lack today’s bread. I think I always thought of that part of the Lord’s prayer as being about recognizing where bread comes from. That’s important, to be sure, but as much as it may be about acknowledging the source of bread, I know now that it’s also about enacting a ritual of trust. We could acknowledge God the giver of bread once, ask for and receive enough to last us as long as a lifetime, and be done with it all. Somehow that just doesn’t seem right, does it? To turn to God each and every day for just enough bread for that day feels and is wholly different. By necessity such an arrangement requires relationship, which is kind of the point, and again it creates capacity for generosity to not only be received along with today’s bread, but to be passed on should we again have more than enough bread for today.
Another thing I noticed in reading this passage yesterday was what appears to be the climax of it. After all that talk about how to pray and persistently ask God for what we need and after the reminder that even we know how to give our own children what they need, the writer of Luke says: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” To go through all that language about asking God for what we need and then talk about the Father giving the Holy Spirit to those who ask him, seems to imply that the gift of the Holy Spirit must be pretty important. In other words, when the writer of Luke wants to hold up an example of God the giver giving a good gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit is his go-to example. I, for one, am inspired (no Biblical language pun intended) to try to be more attuned to the Holy Spirit’s presence and leading in my life.
Common Prayer usually adds a prayer that is informed by the Scripture for that day. Yesterday’s prayer was as follows:
If you’ve been reading this blog of late, you may be able to guess that I was stunned by one little turn of phrase: “you promise to give to those who ask.” This wording may be no accident, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of God’s Economy, is a collaborator on Common Prayer. Still, it hit me hard. Over and over again, as I keep saying, I’ve been confronted of late by the notion that Jesus’ command to give to those who ask us is one we should be taking seriously, along with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Here it is from Matthew:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a]39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
And here is the bit from God’s Economy that I keep coming back to:
Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.
It is indeed notable, as Wilson-Hartgrove points out in God’s Economy, that the command to give to the one who asks comes in the context of teaching about enemy love, which Jesus frames as a duty we perform “so that we might become children of our Father in heaven.” Isn’t it obvious that we “have’s” so often regard the “have-not’s” as our enemies out of fear that they might take what we think is ours? Loving them, and giving to them when and what they ask of us, enacts the reconciliation that we’re called to take part in; it tears down the wall of hostility between us. When we do so, we are indeed children of our Father in heaven, God the giver.
Yesterday morning I was reminded that it is not only we who are told to give to whomever asks, but that God himself is “wired” this way. In the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to ask God for our daily bread. In Jesus’ further teaching on prayer in that passage we are reminded that if even we, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, surely God the giver, who is good, will give good gifts (namely, the Holy Spirit) to us. When I give, I am indeed my Father’s son. For that, I am grateful. Now I just need to make sure I don’t live a life that is so isolated from anyone who might ask anything of me that I deprive myself of the opportunity to act like my Father’s son, to be who I’m called to be. If true solidarity with those in need requires proximity, giving may as well. We’re trying to literally and figuratively “move” in that direction, but I know we still have a long way to go. Lord, help us.
At the end of Mill City Church‘s worship gathering yesterday, we sang one of my all-time favorite hymns, Be Thou My Vision. We sang something close to the version I’ve posted above. Give it a listen as you read. Here are the lyrics, which are important as they will inform the rest of this post:
“Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, put first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory My soul’s satisfied
Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory My soul’s satisfied
My Jesus, You satisfy
My Jesus, You satisfy
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory my soul’s satisfied”
There’s a reason why this is an all time classic hymn with deeply resonant lyrics still today, and writing those words reminds me why I lament so much worship music being written today. How much of it has lyrics that will still matter a few decades from now, let alone a few centuries or even millenia? Yes, millenia. Wikipedia notes what became Be Thou My Vision began as a text that was part of a monastic tradition dating back to the 6th century. Like the Biblical text itself, it existed for centuries as an oral tradition before being written down. Wikipedia says:
The original Old Irish text, “Rop tú mo Baile” is often attributed to Saint Dallán Forgaill in the 6th century. The text had been a part of Irish monastic tradition for centuries before its setting to music. There are two manuscripts, one at the National Library of Ireland, and a second at the Royal Irish Academy. Both manuscripts date from about the 10th or 11th century.
The oral tradition was no doubt different from what was finally written down, and what was finally written down in the 10th or 11th century was different from English versions of the text recorded in the early 1900’s, and that too from the “English Methodist Version” that was produced in 1964, which is obviously still being adapted to this day. Nonetheless, at the heart of this song is something timeless, but I’ll have more to say on that later. So as I said, we sang this toward the end of our worship gathering yesterday. Towards the beginning of the worship gathering, as likely took place in thousands of worship gatherings across the country yesterday, a prayer was offered in honor of Memorial Day, to recognize those who have served in this nation’s military (or, more accurately according to the designated purpose of the holiday, to honor and recognize those who died while serving). In some such gatherings the conflation of following Jesus with following “American” civil religion was more over-than-top than in others. Here are a few examples from a cursory web search:
The image above begs a lot of questions. For starters, is the instrument of Jesus’ execution at the hands of the occupying empire of his day, operating in collusion with the church leaders of his day, to be understood here as a patriotic “American” symbol? The U.S.A. is the closest thing to the Roman Empire the world maybe has ever seen, complete with direct comparisons which can be made between the “Pax Romana” and the “Pax Americana.” Perhaps then this makes perfect sense. It is in the nature of empires to co-opt whatever symbols- not of their making- that are necessary to maintain and extend their control. Often this takes the form of wholesale cultural (mis-)appropriation (see Cinco de Mayo or the recent controversy surrounding the short-lived new piece of art the Walker Art Gallery here in Minneapolis tried to display). Beyond this, what is the relationship between the patriotic executioner’s tool above (the cross is so ubiquitous and has been so domesticated that it might be more helpful to replace it in your mind with an electric chair, guillotine, or hangman’s noose) and gun-toting soldier, aside from the obvious, that both are instruments of death, tools of the state to violently enforce its will?
What then, of this graphic? Clearly the folks who run the Southeast TX Church Guide want to bless folks on this “American” holiday, but then they include some Scripture for good measure. There’s probably some good hermeneutical work that should be done about that particular verse from Proverbs, but for now let’s take it at “face value” (understanding, as I do, that all reading is interpretation, especially when it comes to the Bible). Is the point that all fallen U.S. soldiers are necessarily and automatically “righteous?” In what way? Who says? For those with ears to hear, there is a litany of abuses and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers at the behest of our government, in the name of myself and every U.S. citizen, that could be recited, right up to and especially including the present day. Is this to be ignored? Does service and especially death while serving=righteousness, always and forever, no matter what?
Youth of First United Methodist Church, Koppel, Pa., raised money to buy an American flag for all 225 residences in the little town. “I’m a flag-waver,” admitted the Rev. Donald A. Anderson. Quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he expressed hope that the flags would “bring Koppel a sense of pride in participating in this great holiday honoring those who fought to protect our freedoms.”
Thankfully, “Idea #12” is to:
Glorify Jesus as the Prince of Peace and reach out to those whom others may forget. On Memorial Day – as he does throughout the year – John Alexander, a member of East Lake United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Ala., will be involved with Kairos Prison Ministries. A Christian, lay-led, ecumenical, volunteer, international prison ministry, Kairos brings Christ’s love and forgiveness to incarcerated individuals and their families.
Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most of the other ideas the United Methodist Church presents on the page, with a few notable exceptions, focus again on the conflation of following Jesus with following “American” civil religion. Under such an arrangement, the U.S. flag is a welcome partner to the “Christian” one, and in too many church buildings across the country the two are displayed in tandem, as if they belong together.
Lest there be any confusion about the point here, here’s another image, this one from a church in Georgia:
So here we have the cross again, used along with the flag, again, as the backdrop for what appears to be a veterans’ cemetery, and again we get some Scripture, this time from the gospel of John, in which we read: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Clearly the makers of the image above think this somehow applies to those who died as U.S. soldiers. In truth, nothing could be further from said truth. Here’s that verse in context, from John 15:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command.15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.17 This is my command: Love each other.
Do you really think what Jesus is saying here has anything to do with military belligerents dying sometimes to protect the “freedom” of U.S. citizens (lots to unpack there, but not now), but more often of late to protect U.S. “strategic interests” in the oil-rich Middle East? Take a look at the passage above again. Jesus is urging his followers to “remain in his love.” He says if they keep his commands they will do so; they will remain in his love. Then he tells them just what he wants them to do, what his command is: Love each other- as he has loved them. Then comes the misappropriated verse in the image above: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Notice what comes next, though. After talking about the love involved in laying one’s life down for one’s friends, he doubles down on just how they can remain in his love. He says: “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Remember that he’s just told them what his command is, that they would love one another as he has. Then he makes the point even more clear. He tells them that he no longer calls them servants, but instead has called them friends. They are his friends because they remain in his love by doing what he’s told them to do- by loving one another. And just how great is that love of his they are to remain in? It’s so great that he would lay down his life for them, which this passage is clearly foreshadowing. Thus Jesus is the one laying down his life for his friends- we who love as he has loved us.
A call to give the “ultimate sacrifice” on the battlefield- or to honor those who have- this is not. In fact, such sacrifices are not even “ultimate.” Responding violently to the threat of violence and thereby suffering the consequences of violence may be the way of the world, but it is not Jesus’ way. Jesus on the cross broke the cycle of the world’s violence by absorbing it without retaliating. As those who do indeed follow the Prince of Peace, we are likewise called to be peacemakers. Ironically, what comes next in John 15 is an admonition by Jesus, who tells his followers that they have been chosen out of the world, and so will likely be persecuted and hated by it, depending, I suppose, on how closely we follow him, how faithfully we love as he has loved us and remain in his love. If, as much as we possibly can, we live into this ministry of reconciliation and follow Jesus down the path of peace rather than violence, those who prefer violence (even/especially those who have subscribed to the myth of redemptive violence) may very well hate and persecute us indeed.
Going back to our part of John 15 above, in the last bit of the passage Jesus again reminds his followers that he chose them, not the other way around. He chose them so that they might “go and bear fruit,” and so that “whatever they ask” in his name, the Father will give them. Then, just to be sure they’ve gotten the message, he repeats his command that they love one another. It’s interesting that God the giver includes a reminder in this passage that he has chosen his followers not only so that they can bear fruit, but also so that they can receive from him whatever they would ask for in Jesus’ name. By so doing he reminds them of who- and whose- they are. They are children of their Father in heaven; they are the beloved of the Creator God, the one in whom “all things hold together.” Those who remember this know that they really don’t need to store up treasure on earth. They really can trust God each and every day for their daily bread, without worrying about tomorrow or the bread they’ll need then. Their Father, after all, is the keeper of the “cattle on a thousand hills,” and he knows what they need before they would even ask him. So then, if they are remaining in his love by faithfully following his command to love one another, they can ask their Father for anything, and he will give it to them. This is economic language that stands in stark contrast to the language of the world’s economies.
The “freedom” that we “Americans” of European descent enjoy most of all involves some basic human rights that ought be enjoyed by all- freedom of speech and of movement, religious freedom and the like, but a well-defended argument can be made that the most essential “freedom” “America” has been exporting for quite some time is an economic one- the freedom to consume as much as one’s hard work, credit, or inheritance will allow. It is, after all, a freedom that even the Chinese enjoy. But it does come at a literal “price,” and it’s often a violent one. There is a direct relationship between capitalism (aka our “economic freedom”) and violence. Don’t believe me? Watch this:
In contrast with “America’s” violent capitalism, Jesus tells us that we have only to ask our Father for “anything,” and he will give it to us. Why? How can this be so? Don’t those who peddle the so-called “prosperity gospel” use verses like this to justify their cheap grace? That may be. Be that as it may, if we who would follow Jesus are loving those around us like Jesus loved us (remembering that his love was so great that he laid down his life for us), isn’t it true that our heart’s desire won’t be for our own health, wellness, and prosperity, but for that of our neighbor near and far? Isn’t this what we’ll want to ask our Father for, knowing that he’s already got our own needs taken care of?
This is what I’m learning, slowly but surely, after lo these many years being so very focused on my own needs and wants. This is the vision that I find so captivating these days. It’s a vision placed in my heart by its Lord. It’s a vision so very captivating that all else is “naught” (nothing) to me. “Be Thou My Vision” continues in the next verse:
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is our wisdom, our true Word, and because of the Holy Spirit we know that God is ever with us, and we with him. God’s Spirit within is the animating presence that continues to give us life from one moment to the next and enables us to remain in his love as we make our feeble efforts to love those around us like we’ve been loved by him. As true sons and daughters of the Father and those in whom his Spirit dwells, we experience unity with God, the most precious gift of all.
That’s what Mill City Church is “fighting” for these days in the current sermon series- unity. We’re being reminded that unity does not equal uniformity and that it’s okay to disagree so long as we do it well. We’re being reminded though that while uniformity is not required, unity is “non-negotiable.” As we sang that line from “Be Thou My Vision” yesterday morning, the one that goes, “Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one,” I was reminded that if we who would follow Jesus are indeed one with the Father, we are necessarily united with one another. We can’t be united with God and be separated from others who are also united with God. If we all are indeed united with the Father, it’s impossible to be separated from one another. This is convicting, as it means that to whatever extent we are experiencing disunity with one another, our unity with God is compromised.
Just what is it, then, that all too often divides us? The next verse of “Be Thou My Vision” offers our first clue:
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, put first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art
“Riches, I heed not,” this English version of the ancient hymn says, and shortly thereafter explains why, because “Thou” (are) mine inheritance, now and always.” This is what God has been calling I and my family to over and over an over again in 2017 (and no doubt before, if we had been paying attention). What does it mean to live in this culture as if these words were actually true? What does it mean to live as if our chief task on this earth is not to accumulate as much wealth as possible for myself and then leave it to my children as an inheritance, but rather to live as a conduit for God’s many good gifts, knowing that Jesus is our inheritance? What does it mean to live in this culture with the knowledge that our heart will be where our treasure is, and so as followers of Jesus that treasure must be in heaven, not on earth? I am convinced now more than ever that Jesus spends so much time talking about money (and that so much of that talk touches on the relationship between money and politics) because truly “the love of money is the root of all evil,” and it is that temptation- to love money and the economic and political systems that get us more of it- more than Jesus that we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent are faced with more than any other. A recent FB post I happened upon makes the point for me. It’s a video of “10 Rules You Will Never Learn in School.” It’s paired with a cartoon-ish picture of Bill Gates. There are layers upon layers of disingenuous misattribution that led to the video being produced and shared on FB (in other words, it’s “fake news”), but the bottom line is that it doesn’t come from Bill Gates, and the version I saw on FB isn’t even a thorough copy of the actual source, who definitely is NOT Bill Gates. Nonetheless, people, would be Jesus followers even, believe this stuff; so I’ll show you the last “rule:”
From “life isn’t fair” to (don’t expect to) “make $60,000 out of high school,” but do expect to “flip burgers” and do expect there to be “winners and losers” in life, and to have to “leave your coffee shop to go to work” (for a “nerd,” apparently), to the final coup de grace- “being born poor” is “not your mistake,” but “dying poor” is, apparently; every one of the “rules” or life lessons in the “fake” video have to do with our relationship to money, and every one of them, I would argue, encourages us to love and pursue it in place of loving and pursuing Jesus. No, life isn’t fair, but instead of investigating why and working to subvert whatever powers promote the injustice and unfairness of life, this video would have us accept this “fact” and use our good ol’ “American” ingenuity and Puritan work ethic to overcome it, perpetuating the myth that this country is the “land of opportunity” for those with the gumption to seize it. All the other “rules” play in to this narrative. The last one, though, is of course the one that really gets me. Being born “poor” is rightly understood to not be the “fault” of the one being born, but it is someone’s fault, and the makers of this video and those who would spread it around seem to have little interest in this.
Moreover, they double down on the injustice that leads to the inequality of some folks being born poor by telling the lie that it doesn’t matter, and that if they would just work hard enough they too, could get rich (by historical standards, as even the “poorest” of the U.S. “middle class” truly is). What, then, of generational poverty even here in the U.S.? What of the legacy of 4 centuries of slavery and Jim Crow era de facto slavery up to, including, and even after the Civil Rights era in the U.S.? When will rich males of European descent like myself stop pretending that there’s some other reason why people of color in this country remain disproportionately poor, uneducated, and incarcerated? And of course all of this says nothing about the rest of the world. Is it the fault of poor North Koreans that they die poor? What of the poorest child in the most desperate part of Africa, whose mother spends much of her day trudging to get dirty water for him, which may very well kill him anyway, thus greatly decreasing the time between that child’s poor birth and poor death?
Meanwhile, Jesus tells us to give to whomever asks of us, to lend without expecting repayment, and that the widow who gives her only mite gives far more than the one percent-er who gave a much greater amount, but much smaller percent- by orders of magnitude- of his available resources. I would argue again that it’s not your fault if you’re born poor, but it is someone’s. Likewise, there’s much to be said about dying poor. Remembering that you “can’t take it with you;” that there were no needy among the early church because they shared what they had; that likewise one of the chief lessons of Israel’s wilderness wanderings was that they had to trust God for their daily bread and share such that “he who gathered little did not gather too little” and “he who gathered much, not too much-” a lesson repeated and expanded on in Paul’s letters to the early church(es); remembering that Jesus challenged the “rich young ruler” to go and sell all he had and give it to the poor- in light of all of this and so much more, I would argue that as Jesus followers our goal actually should probably be to die poor. Doesn’t “every good gift come from the Lord?” If God the giver gives for our flourishing but just as much so that we too can be givers because we bear his image, then we are duty-bound to hold the resources we’re given access to lightly, even those we think we “earn” at a job, because we’re only able to “earn” them using the brain power, heart, will, and muscles- not to mention air, light, and raw materials- that God the giver gave us in the first place. If we hold those resources lightly, we will allow them to pass through our hands freely to those who need them, and if we do this well, we really ought not have any left when our first go-round on this earth is complete.
The last verse of “Be Thou My Vision” goes:
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
What does it mean to be subjects of the “High King of Heaven” and to acknowledge that he has won our “victory?” What victory could this be? Is it merely some “pie in the sky” triumph over “sin and death” that has nothing to do with our lives here and now? Quite the opposite, it seems to me more and more these days. Some will use the occasion of this day- “Memorial Day” here in the U.S.- to again conflate following Jesus with following “American” civil religion, and the fact that so many uncritically do so is a devastating testament to the seeming triumph of the “powers” over that very High King of Heaven. This, by the way, is as intentional as it is insidious. The Wikipedia Memorial Day page notes:
Scholars, following the lead of sociologist Robert Bellah, often make the argument that the United States has a secular “civil religion” – one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint – that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion, in contrast to that of France, was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain, it was not tied to a specific denomination, such as the Church of England. The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two, and deep levels of personal motivation were aligned with attaining national goals.
Memorial Day has been called a “modern cult of the dead“. It incorporates Christian themes of sacrifice while uniting citizens of various faiths.
Did you catch that? “American civil religion….was never anticlerical or militantly secular” and “was not tied to a specific denomination.” Here’s the kicker: “The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two.” In other words, the “average American” is blinded to the fact that there is, indeed, a conflict between following Jesus and following the president, whatever party is in power. There’s a conflict between unmitigated consumer capitalism and God’s economy. There’s a conflict between the use of violent military force by this or any other government and the peacemaking ways of Jesus. Many of us in this country sadly just don’t see it.
Being a subject of the High King of Heaven means you can swear no allegiance to any earthly king, or president, or flag. Following Jesus as your Lord, Savior, and Leader means no other leader ought hold sway over you. Participating in God’s economy marks you as being in rebellion to and only a reluctant participant in the economies of this world. What we are called to and what we must live into is alternativity. We’re supposed to be different, so different that we get persecuted and hated for it. While I’m grateful my church didn’t embrace the worst excesses of “American” civil religion in the passing allusion to Memorial Day yesterday, what I didn’t hear was anything that called me to alternativity. I didn’t feel challenged to acknowledge that the U.S.’ soldiers are probably honored best when the Church holds the government to account for its oil wars, for its military drift, for its exploitation of the poorest among us as canon fodder, and for its call not to sacrifice for the common good but to shop more. We can do better than this. Lord willing, we will.
So by all means, honor those who have died while serving as soldiers, but do so as a Christian. Maybe hug a soldier today, sure. Then call your congressperson and argue for more spending on healthcare for veterans and less spending on new guns, bombs, and missiles- tools which beg to be used. Lobby for the winding down of the many wars the U.S. is fighting right now and the ending of current deployments so no more soldiers on either side have to die, let alone the many civilians our soldiers keep killing as “collateral damage.” Then do something even more radical. Go find an enemy soldier, and hug him or her too. Honor the fallen sons and daughters in Iraq, or Vietnam, or Korea. Or, if that proves difficult, sign up for Christian Peacemaker Teams. Find a way to do your duty as a subject of the Prince of Peace and sojourner in the world’s latest empire, the U.S.A. March for peace. Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Consider engaging in war tax resistance. Don’t worry about your life, or the bread you’ll need tomorrow, or the danger of standing between two warring parties. Your Father has the cattle on a thousand hills, and the High King of Heaven has already won your victory. Live like it. I and my family are going to try to. Won’t you help us?
It’s been over a month since my last post, an uncharacteristic drought for me, at least of late. I’ll chalk it up to the incredible busy-ness surrounding our move from the ‘burbs into theBeltrami neighborhood in NE Mpls.
That’s an attribution I could get away with, but I’ll confess that there’s a little more to it. Forcing myself to be honest, I think I’ve experienced our arrival here and the aftermath as a bit anti-climactic. Of course, that’s only possible because clearly I had built this move up in my own head to entail something of a climax. In the space of a month I’ve found myself with a new place to live, a new job, and even a new bank, and with all that change has come all the disruption you might expect. I didn’t quite plan it this way, obviously.
As we began to, I hope and believe, really listen to what God might be saying to us in new ways and with a new willingness to literally follow where we were being led, we found ourselves open to new possibilities as they began to present themselves, and present themselves they did. While we knew we probably weren’t long for the ‘burbs, this move to Mpls. only came about because we were talking to some folks from our church about what we were learning and our sense that our calling toget “small,” coupled with our realization that solidarity (with the “least of these”) requires proximity, would likely mean moving. Out of that conversation the opportunity arose to move into the space we’re living in now. There was a little more intentionality behind my job change, though not in regard to the timing. As my former employer, a for-profit social service agency which had recently given its CEO job to a former investment banker/pharmaceutical industry type, began making ever more changes under that new CEO’s leadership that reflected the priorities of the Mammon-serving industries from which he came, it became ever more clear that I would need to find another job soon. It just so happened that the opportunity arose to work for a faith-based non-profit I’ve long respected and have some familiarity with, and it just so happened that this opportunity included working less than 2 miles from our new home. Thus, as I’ve been so grateful for of late, the “rare trifecta” has been achieved in which I live, work, and worship within the same community- all within a 2 mile radius of our new home.
We had been planning to change banks too, though again hadn’t quite planned to do it just yet. Our soon to be former bank began locally but now has a footprint in a number of states, and its former CEO infamously has a boat named “Overdraft” after all the $ collected from charging fees when overdrafts occur. When we learned that there was a much smaller, “certified B corp.” bank whose mission is to give financial access to under-served communities, we knew we had to bank with them as soon as we could. When it became clear that we were not only moving but I was changing jobs at the same time (and therefore our direct deposits would be disrupted due to the job change anyway), it made sense to just make all the changes all at once. So we did.
Still, we’re not just doing all this because we felt like it. We truly have experienced a profound sense of calling to again get as “small” as we can, and this move represents a significant step of faith in that direction. Though our place in the ‘burbs was not huge (by rich Western USAmerican standards) and represented downward movement (in terms of space) from what I still describe as our “modest” home in OH, we’ve now cut our space down by probably a third again with this latest move. We share a garage in our new space, and our side is relatively full, and sadly we do have some stuff in storage at Kirsten’s mom’s; nonetheless, we got rid of a lot of stuff as we moved here, and I’m grateful. As I keep saying, we shouldn’t have more stuff than can fit in our current space.
We went from a street on which the houses/townhomes were widely spaced out and one could really go a long while if one desired without interacting with or even hearing one’s neighbors, to a neighborhood in which the houses are tightly packed together with some so close to each other that you could literally pass items through open windows from one house to another. Many of the houses on our current street aren’t all that much smaller than those in the ‘burbs we came from, but many of them here in the city have been converted into multi-family homes with several rental units in each, including ours. That, plus the much greater density of the housing stock means that there is much greater density of people to go with it. Our street is busy with frequent foot and bicycle traffic, and we often interact with our neighbors (well, some of them anyway). There’s a real sense of community here- desired or not- that was designed away in the ‘burbs from which we came. We’re glad for that.
NE Mpls. is ahaven for artists and is the setting for the just completedArt-A-Whirl, an annual open house of all the local galleries packed into this part of the city that showcases local art. It’s the largest event of its kind in the country. One of those galleries is at the end of our street. Right across from that gallery, also at the end of our street, is what we already know to be a delicious Asian food restaurant from which we had take-out last weekend. Across the street from our house, a few houses up, is a house at which folks frequently come to the stoop to smoke. Whenever they do, they almost always sing- loudly, beautifully, and in harmony. I don’t know if all the singers live there or if they sing vocationally or if they just can’t help themselves, but they do it well, and I always appreciate it and try to listen. It’s less than a mile from our new place to the onlyvegan “butcher”in the country, which is very close to a taco chain from TX that has some good vegan options and one of our favorite running stores. While this particular section of Minneapolis is still fairly Caucasian, there’s much, much more diversity than there ever was in the neighborhood from which we came. Both of the new schools the boys go to are very diverse, and Samuel is in fact a minority at his. We can see some of the landmark skyscrapers of downtown Mpls. just over the tops of the trees from the windows on one side of our new place. The ‘burbs this is not.
Of course, it’s not exactly the “ghetto” either. Like many urban settings,NE Mpls. is gentrifying, and it gave us pause to consider that we would be contributing to that phenomenon by moving here. We only hope that on balance our presence does more good than harm. Obviously, it remains to be seen if that will be the case. Nonetheless, being here, especially taken with all the other changes in our lives, is a step in the direction of much more consistently and with integrity living into our values. Our rent here will be cheaper than in the ‘burbs, and as we moved here we made many, many changes to try to live more simply and more consistently act as if we really believe that everything belongs to God, that everything is a gift from God, including the money we “earn” using the gifts God has given us. As has been well documented on this blog, prior to moving here we gave up our smartphones and “cut the cord” again. We quit contributing to our retirement plans because of all the unjust ways in which those funds were being used and because we’re supposed to be storing up treasure in heaven, not on earth. We gave away a lot of the stuff we had accumulated and sold some other things, and we pray that this purge represents changes to our way of life that we will be able to sustain. Doing all this has freed up a lot of money in our budget, and with it we’re more rapidly paying down debt than we ever could have imagined just a few short months ago. We’re building capacity into our lives, both financial and otherwise, to much more faithfully be who we feel called to be.
We know we’re called to be generous, for starters, that this is somethingGod the giver wants for us, not from us. We know we’re called to tread lightly on God’s good earth and to be present to our neighbors, let alone to one another in our own immediate family. We know, as I’ve been saying, that we’re called to get as “small” as we can, tolive as citizens of God’s kingdom from “under,” not “over” the kingdom(s) of this world, especially the kingdom which is the U.S.A. and the unmitigated consumer capitalism and war-making empire for which it stands. All of this means that we’re more keenly aware perhaps than we ever have been of the degree to which we’re called to swim upstream in the culture(s) we’re immersed in. We’re immersed in the culture of consumer capitalism, for example, but we now know more clearly than ever before that we can’t follow Jesus and the dictates of that culture. We can’t serve Jesus and Mammon, and that actually means something. It means we have to act in contradistinction to what most consider to be wise and prudent financial behavior. Many think it wise if possible to not be in debt (though few seem to live this out). On this point, we agree, and we’re grateful that all the other financial choices we’ve made of late to help us get “small” have built up capacity in our budget to enable us to rapidly pay off some debt we’ve been accumulating for many years (not counting student loan debt, which we’ll continue to carry for quite some time, sadly).
That said, most would say it’s wise, prudent, and faithful to not only not carry debt but also to save- preferably up to three months’ worth of salary or more to help provide in the event of illness, injury, or job loss. Most say it’s wise to save for retirement and to plan for it someday. Most say it’s wise to own a home and take advantage of the chance to build equity and maximize tax savings. I could go on, but on these points we’re just not so sure anymore, and again we must consider: what if Jesus really meant what he said? He said, after all, that our hearts will be where our treasure is, and that we should store up for ourselves treasure in heaven, not on earth. The hard truth is that every savings account, IRA, and disability insurance policy is a tool meant to do just the opposite of what Jesus called us to. They’re tools meant for no other purpose than to literally store up treasure on earth, however virtuous one’s intentions might be regarding that earthly stored-up treasure. Though we’re still figuring (all) this out, we’re not even sure of the logic of home-ownership any more. I wouldn’t suggest that every home purchase represents something less than what God wants for us. Buying a house certainly helps one be rooted in a community, and that is a good thing. However, I’ll say again that when we gave up the home we had owned for 10 years to come here in part, but certainly not solely, to help Kirsten’s mom, we readily accepted the frequently used and seemingly Scriptural logic that “…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospelwill fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age.” I’ve written a lot about this passage from Mark 10 and the stunning realization I had about it as I heard it used in several Mill City Church sermons and especially inJonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’sseminal book, God’s Economy. I’ll give you the verse again, with a little morecontext. Just after Jesus has said to “let the little children come to him,” thereby radically giving prestige and status to those whose socioeconomic position in the household economy of the day was lower even than that of slaves, and then after the “rich young ruler” has “gone away sad” because Jesus has told him to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor because this is the “one thing he lacked,” after all this, this is what happens next:
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God!25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel30 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.31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
I’vewrittena fair bit already about my stunning realization that after learning, I thought, so well that so many of the “you’s” in the New Testament that talk about how to live the Christian life and follow Jesus were plural, addressed to you, the church; somehow I still managed to think this particular passage was about me (the individual). Of course it’s not. Jesus isn’t saying that I and my family will be rewarded handsomely with material goods if in fact we have given any up for his sake. He’s saying we don’t need them. He’s saying that we’re part of a community that collectively has so much more than any one of us or any one family among us could ever want or need. So, thanks be to God and still, Lord willing, I and my family are doubling down on our “downsizing” ways. Thus, we find ourselves here in our new space in the Beltrami neighborhood.
Interestingly, I had yet another of those stunning Scriptural revelations within the last couple of weeks. As someone who supposedly has been trying to follow Jesus for most of his life, I’ve probably said the Lord Prayer’s thousands of times- without ever fully realizing what I was really asking for. As I’ve alsowritten about recentlyrelated to all this, in the desert God rained down manna from heaven daily (except on the Sabbath), and he who gathered much never “gathered too much,” and he who gathered little “never too little,” because they shared. And those who tried to hoard and save some for the next day found it spoiled the next day (except on the Sabbath). Thus, each and every day they had to trust God for their “daily bread.” In the prayer Jesus taught us, he invokes this bit of Israel’s collective history and invites his followers to continue to trust God for their daily bread with the simple words: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Again after 41 years on this earth and 20 of them as an adult trying to follow Jesus, I realized that Jesus doesn’t say to ask God for our weekly bread, or our monthly or yearly bread, or enough bread to hide some away so that some day we can retire and stop collecting bread. Jesus doesn’t say any of that. He invites us to trust God every day for just what we need for that day. Capitalism and good, common sense financial wisdom- even what most consider good stewardship- this is not. This is utter nonsense, utter foolishness in the eyes of the world and I would argue in the eyes of most “Christians,” but this is the life Jesus invites us into.
And it kind of makes sense, if we’re also invited to “give to whomever asks.” Especially in this society and especially for people of my gender, location in history, and skin tone, I have access to more “bread” than I could ever possibly need. Thus a life of radical generosity is not only possible but clearly demanded of me. What other reason could there be for the unimaginable bounty I’ve been given? So then why am I still so rich?
That question- why am I still so rich?- has been haunting me of late in terms of my own life of course but also as I’ve wrestled with the ideas and thinking ofBob Luptonin his much talked about (at least in the circles I’m a part of these days) book, Toxic Charity. Let the reader of this post beware that I myself have not read Toxic Charity. Naturally, I’m not in the habit of commenting much on books I haven’t read, but obviously I’m about to. The book has generated enough “buzz” since it came out a few years back that there’s a lot of discussion of it to be found online. It also seems to be well-esteemed among the leadership of my faith community; so I’ve found myself repeatedly encountering some of the ideas Bob and his book(s) present, and am feeling more and more compelled to respond to them even as I continue to learn about them (learning which, I assure you, will include reading the book in the near future!). At first glance, Bob should be someone that I would be inclined to like, respect, and esteem myself. He’s a Christian Community Development practitioner and has spoken at theCCDAconference. He’s a Jesus-follower who was himself compelled to respond to the “good news for the poor” by moving his family from the ‘burbs to the “inner city” to live among, love, and serve his neighbors there, thus enacting one of the “three R’s” of Christian Community Development- “relocation.” As is often said about this principle, “Jesus didn’t commute from heaven every day when he walked the earth and loved and served us.” There’s a lesson there. Bob took it to heart and has lived in “inner city” Atlanta for 40 years, and for that I do indeed think well of him. Moreover, he’s calling the church to “do no harm” in its efforts to love the poor and wants to see all God’s children realize their full potential and not be dependent on government entitlement programs for their sustenance and well-being. This, I suppose, is what he says is often “toxic” about charity, that by indiscriminately giving “handouts” to the poor- apparently whether it’s the church doing so or the government- the “have’s” create dependency in and “destroy the work ethic of” the “have-not’s.” There’s a lot to be said about that, which I’ll get to shortly.
All that said, it’s precisely because of Lupton’s history and associations (with CCDA, with many church leaders who think well of his message, including the leaders of my own faith community) that should incline me to want to agree with him or at least give him the benefit of the doubt that I find myself struggling so mightily because I just can’t. The more I learn and reflect on what Lupton’s message seems to be, the more I discover that I simply don’t agree with him, and this has bugged me enough that I’ve been compelled to research, think, pray, and now write about it all. Lupton seems supremely interested in the results of charity work, while Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Miroslav Volf might say that the act of giving to whomever asks is as much about us as givers and therefore image-bearers of God the giver, as it is about those to whom we give or the “results” of said giving. Nevertheless, Lupton wants to center the conversation on “results-” what lifts people out of poverty- but is overly critical of the poor along the way. One reviewerwrote:
One criticism is that Lupton moves uncritically between uplifting the capacity and creativity of the poor and degrading them as lazy and dishonest. “Most [panhandlers] are scammers,” he states (45). Most poor people in the United States “assume that their subsistence is guaranteed” and so lack any kind of work ethic, he claims (121). I won’t dignify his words with the verb “argues” because Lupton doesn’t argue his points; he simply states them. I would be concerned that statements like this, when coupled with his criticisms of charity, would motivate more people to avoid service work in the first place than to engage in the community development he suggests.
Another reviewer of his follow-up book, Charity Detox, which builds on the ideas presented in Toxic Charity, said:
…the author seems unwilling to address (or even admit) that some of the root causes of and root solutions for poverty are related to social policy. It is hard not to sniff ideology. The author talks more about the rich than the poor, telling story after story of rich entrepreneurs whose faith and business acumen change impoverished communities. Meanwhile, too often “the poor” are mostly faceless, nameless, and never described as “low-income communities” or even “our sisters and brothers.” It makes for uncomfortable reading.
Interestingly, when Jesus tells stories, he seems to take the opposite approach. In the story of the “rich man and Lazarus,” for example, it’s the “rich man” who lacks a name while the poor man is named- Lazarus- and known. Indeed it is the poor man who is “carried to Abraham’s side” when he dies, while the rich man is “in torment” “in Hades.” This is a subject for another post, one I’ve already written. Meanwhile, Lupton seems to want to say to the rich two things, one of which I wholeheartedly agree with. On the one hand, he encourages rich folk to live alongside poor folk (he did it, and again I respect him greatly for it). He seems to think that by doing so rich folk will “see” (and hopefully “hear” through meaningful relationships with their neighbors) what poor folk “really need.” By virtue of proximity with poor folk, rich folk will then on the other hand be better able to invest in “good” charity. Meanwhile, the effective message he seems to have for the poor is essentially to ask, “why aren’t you less poor yet?” There’s a corollary question that goes unasked, that might be asked of the rich, “why aren’t you less rich yet?” Lupton seems silent on this subject, but it’s a question I can’t avoid, especially as I direct it at myself.
What bothers me most about Lupton’s “argument(s)” is just how firmly they seem to be rooted in the economy of this world- capitalism, specifically, and thus just how firmly they are out of place in God’s economy. Lupton’s ideas for helping poor folks pull themselves up by their own bootstraps so that they can better participate in consumer capitalism simply have no place in an economy where everyone shares everything because every good thing is an unearned gift from God the giver. They have no place in a world in which we give to whomever asks, without judgment. They have no place in a world that lacks only one thing- scarcity. In God’s economy, there is more than enough for all and since all share freely there finally “are no poor among us;” neither are there any rich. This is the world I want to live in, and as for me and my house, we will be living as if we do.
Our challenge is to find partners who want to live in such a world too. I suspect that may be why our move to our new place and everything it represents for us may feel a little anti-climactic now that we’re here. We’re excited to get to know our neighbors here, and some- though not all- of our new neighbors seem to feel likewise. Still, while we’re so very grateful to now be leaning into the life we feel called to much more than we have in a very long time, it still feels a little…lonely. We remain convinced we simply can’t live this life alone, and we believe that this is not what Jesus wants for us either. So then perhaps our biggest challenge is simply to be patient. It took us 20 years to finally be “ready” to follow Jesus like we should have all along. Lord willing, there are partners who will join us- or whom we can join- along this way with Jesus; I only pray they learn a little faster than we do.