No Rival

I’ve been spending my lunch break lately in Luther Seminary‘s (my alma mater) Chapel of the Cross, where this challenging-and-inspiring-all-at-once piece of art can be found.

Jesus’ rail thin body still hangs from a cross in Minneapolis, a discomfiting sight that begs a lot of questions. Among them are: Did this really happen? Are we capable of such violence? As I wrestle with these questions, I’m reminded of my privilege. Far too many around the world know such violence all too well, and all too often Jesus seems far away from them. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to write. I start posts, and don’t finish them, or scrap them and start over. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say; the torrent of observations, reflections, and new learning continues much as it has, especially over the past year or so, and I clearly have no deficit of words to offer in response to all that I’m learning. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to produce the volume of writing that I had been for a while. I think some of this has to do with the time, energy, and effort involved in putting into place all that we’ve been learning. In short order over the past few months we’ve moved, the kids have started new schools, I’ve started a new job, we switched banks, and more recently, we gave away the newest of our two vehicles and I’ve begun biking to work. Here’s “my” bike parked at work:

This bike was a gift from a fellow member of Mill City Church whose health prevents him from using it any more. Having it allows me to bike to work, and freed us up to give away the vehicle mentioned above. So I’m doing this all wrong if I’m not using my time spent on it every day to pray both for the person who gave me the bike and the family we gave the car to.

Meanwhile, truth be told, I’m tired.

I think some of my struggle to write also has to do with just what I’m learning, I suppose. The way that we’ve been talking about what God is teaching us and calling us to is to say that we feel called to “get small,” to give up some of our wealth, position, privilege, and power so that we can experience the generosity that God wants for us both as givers and receivers. We experience it as givers when we lean into God’s economy and give freely to those who ask for anything from us, remembering that everything belongs to God and nothing is truly ours, that God asks that we acknowledge our dependence on Him by asking for what we need for today and no more. When we do this, what once we would hold on to for tomorrow or in case of a rainy day or so that we can retire, etc., now becomes a blessing we’ve been made stewards of for the sake of others, making us conduits of God’s provision. Likewise, the “smaller” we get- the more money, privilege, and power we give away- the more ready we are to grapple with our own need and the more likely it is that we will be open to receiving through others God’s provision and blessing for us.

As I keep saying, we wasted two full decades as adults hoping God would see fit to give us a little more, to bless us with enough money to pay down our debt so that we could be more generous and faithful. Living within our means was thus to be achieved by hoping God would increase our means. When we did get a raise or a new job with more pay, our selfishness grew right with it, and still we found ourselves struggling to keep up as the debt kept growing. We’d go through cycles of  being a little more restrained and paying the debt down, only to find some circumstance or situation that provided a convenient excuse to revert to our more selfish ways, and thus the debt would accumulate anew. Sure, some of those situations involved outbursts of generosity on our part, but they were always the exception to the rule, and they usually gave us fodder for trying to bargain or negotiate with God, believing that our hospitality or generosity had somehow “earned” us the right to expect more from God.

Why is it different this time around? Maybe it won’t be, I will admit. The lure of Mammon is strong. It’s tempting to want to fall in line and be a good consumer. All I can say is that there is a depth to both our learning this time and our willingness to do the hard work of following Jesus instead of Mammon. Our minds have been renewed, and thus we are being transformed. Things we thought we really needed (smartphones, two cars, more than 1200 feet of living space, etc.) we’re learning that we don’t, and we’ve given them away. Forgoing those things, coupled with forsaking our retirement plans and savings accounts- which we came to see as “treasure stored up on earth” instead of in heaven- has opened our eyes anew to just how much God already has blessed us, just how much he’s been trusting us with all along. No longer willing to hoard God’s goodness, in probably less than four months we’ve wiped out much of our personal and consumer debt, and expect to have much of the rest of it eliminated in less than a year. All this capacity being created in our budget will very soon mean that we can give a large percentage of our income away, and/or have the capacity to work less so that we can give a large percentage of our time and energy away.

All of this represents our effort to live as participants in God’s economy rather than capitalism or any other system this world can dream up. In God’s economy there is always enough. The hand that guides God’s economy is visible, not invisible, and it has nail marks in it. God’s economy is one of giving and sharing, of blessing and being blessed. In God’s economy we give to those who ask from us so that we might be children of our Father in heaven, because whatever we have to give was already given to us in the first place by our good, good father, and it was meant for the blessing of all. Thus, if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we are called to give him (at least) one along with our apology for hoarding God’s provision that was meant for him. If we are so rich that we can poison our bodies with carbonated, caffeinated water while our neighbors around the world die because they lack access to clean water, or sometimes water at all, then we are most faithful when we skip the soda aisle and make a donation (at the very least) to a water relief agency.

Astoundingly, this is but one of the two big revelations over the past few months that we will likely spend the rest of our lives trying to respond to. In the first, we were broken to realize that we were wholehearted consumer capitalists but lousy lovers of God and neighbor. After all, the love of money really is the root of all evil, for the first part of the Great Commandment is to “love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” I can’t love God with my whole heart if part of it can’t stop thinking about my Amazon cart. And I can’t love my neighbor very well either if I won’t think about the modern-day enslaved persons that made the cheap clothes I got from Wal-Mart, or if I can’t come up with resources to bless my hungry and thirsty neighbor around the world while I throw away nearly half the food I buy, in part because I eat out three times a week.

The other big revelation that we’ll be trying to respond to probably for the rest of our lives is simply that Jesus really is the Prince of Peace. He really meant that we shouldn’t kill one another, and that we should turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. He really meant that we have not been given a spirit of fear and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love. And if it’s true that we not only shouldn’t commit adultery but shouldn’t lust after one another, isn’t it even more so that we not only shouldn’t kill one another but shouldn’t entertain ourselves with killing every time we watch TV, go to a movie, or play a video game? Isn’t it true then that we likewise shouldn’t participate in violence vicariously with our tax and gas dollars as our Mammon-loving economy and warmongering country trudges along, raining death from the sky around the world in the name of “freedom-“ to buy cheap gas?

If in the end capitalism is just another “–ism” Jesus wants to save us from, and violence is a way of life that was put to death with Jesus on the cross, then the way of Jesus insofar as it passes through the good ol’ U.S. of A. is a hard way, indeed. Some well-meaning would-be Jesus followers have the sense to wonder why they aren’t persecuted if Scripture promised they would be, and I was among them for most of my life, but no longer. If I and my family continue to lean in a direction that runs counter to the greedy (read: capitalistic), violent ways of our culture, I trust that our persecution, in one way or another, will come. Kirsten has been reluctant to explain to a member of her family of origin that we gave away a newer car we’re still paying $17,000+ for, while I wonder if I’m getting funny looks for showing up to work on a bicycle (full disclosure here: I’m not showing up drenched in sweat, but I may not smell like I’m fresh from the shower either). These obviously aren’t “persecutions,” though. What if we take the next step, however, and become war tax resisters? What if, as we plan to, we start joining with a few others to build up a mutual generosity fund out of which we’ll give away hundreds of dollars a month to those we meet around us who are in need? What if we start talking openly about our budget and finances, revealing how much we make and how we spend it, and asking others to hold us accountable to our ideals and perhaps risk such vulnerability themselves? What if the Spirit inspires us to ever more creatively subvert an economic system that keeps creating more “have-nots” than “haves?” What if we refuse to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but Jesus and his kingdom?

A line from Hillsong’s recent song “What A Beautiful Name” keeps playing in my head and heart: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” Here’s the requisite video:

I listened to this song repeatedly in the car today (my first time driving all week!) and every time through I heard a new allusion to- or direct quote from- Scripture. I should probably write a separate post breaking all that down (scratch that- Hillsong already did; you can find it here). But right now I want to focus on the line I quoted above: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” What does it mean to declare that Someone is without rival, without equal? Every time I hear that line I think of the two pretenders who keep vying- often violently- for the throne that only Jesus can or will occupy- Mammom, and “Uncle Sam.” Singing those words- declaring that Jesus has no rival, no equal, that now and forever he reigns- has to mean something. Remarkably, I know folks who can sing those words on Sunday and then can remove their cap and place their hand over their heart to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag on Monday.

 

I simply can’t anymore.

 

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers violently seized from its original inhabitants while decimating their population, then we descendants of those European settlers have much to repent of and many amends to make, and it all starts by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers built the world’s most powerful economy in, then we descendants of those European settlers must recognize that that economy was only possible through violence- because of slavery and its aftereffects-  and again we have much to repent of and many amends to make, and we must start by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

Living in such a way doesn’t mean attending every protest, though some protest attendance will probably be required. It doesn’t mean everyone has to quit their job, though some very well may. I did, and I can imagine it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to participate in an economy that will not only decimate your corporation’s bottom line, but even worse, may very well make it irrelevant. Likewise, I can see it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to give up violence forever because it was put to death on the cross with Jesus.

Living as if Jesus has no rival means that while all the external things out there- in the world- are in dire need of attention and there are many urgent causes to be taken up, even so the most profound change that has to occur is in our own minds, hearts, and souls. If we really do work at loving God with all of our mind, heart, soul, and strength- forsaking all others- then we begin to see with new eyes. We begin to be transformed. Things that weren’t possible before suddenly are. And none of it’s because we’ve successfully organized around all those urgent causes; none of it’s because we’ve finally achieved the social progress we were hoping for. It’s because to whatever extent Jesus has no rival, to whatever extent we forsake Mammon and violent “Uncle Sam” so that we can follow “that preacher of peace,” to just that extent we will find that we really can love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

I think of the anti-religious vitriol of the “new Atheists” and all the popular backlash in our culture against so-called “Christians” who are too busy pursuing secular political power to notice the neighbors they’re harming along the way. What if instead of trying so desperately hard to pass or repeal Obamacare or establish or reform “Entitlements,” what if the people for whom Jesus has no rival instead devoted all their energy to loving and serving those around them, to giving to those who would ask of them, to being people who practice a ministry of presence with profound sincerity, effort, and steadfastness? Wouldn’t people know we were really Christians then, because of our love?

Still, I remain tempted to want to be great. I like to be able to tell a splashy story about that big thing I did. I’m far too easily seduced by the proverbial search for significance. I keep hoping someone will discover my blog and offer me a book deal, or a pulpit to supply, or a writing gig. Yet that’s just the opposite of where Jesus is leading me these days. Jesus isn’t calling me to get big; he’s challenging me to get small. Jesus isn’t calling me to lead workshops and study groups; he’s calling me to love him like he has no rival, and not just to like my neighbor, but to really love them.

The great Henri Nouwen said it best:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.  It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.  Still, it is not as simple as it seems.  My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.  But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.”

Amen.


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