2020’s Top 10

I needed a picture to sum up my writing in 2020. This one, of one of the first cell groups my wife and I were ever a part of, seems to fit the bill.

I know people do this, compile a list at the end of the year of their top 10 posts from that year. Though I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years now, I don’t think I’ve ever compiled such a list, for at least a couple of related reasons. First, I still struggle with a paradoxical lack of confidence in and probably some false humility related to what I write, and second, I tend to post sporadically. So some years I seem to have a lot to say, while other years I’ve said nothing at all. Nonetheless, as we move well into the 2020’s, and I (I hope, anyway) move (“well” or not) into what Richard Rohr and others call the “second half of life,” it’s a time for new beginnings, for resolutions made, if not always kept, for hopeful starts. So you’re getting this a bit late, but here’s my “top 10” list for 2020. Please note that I didn’t write many more than 10 posts in 2020; so what I’m giving you now for what I think is my first ever top 10 list is the top 10 posts read in 2020, though not necessarily written in 2020.

Number #10 Post Read in 2020: A Chronic Would-Be Rescuer Confronts His False Self

This is some 2020 writing I did early in the pandemic, touching on one of my favorite Circle of Hope songs and how it resonated with how the Circle of Hope Daily Prayer blogs were leading us to pray at the time, and how all of that brought to mind a book I reference often, Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.

Number #9 Post Read in 2020: Better

This is another 2020 bit of writing I did relatively early in the pandemic, also touching on songs sung among Circle of Hope, some original to Circle of Hope, some not. In this post I say again how we were “surprised by (the) joy” that came as we reconnected with Circle during this terrible pandemic. I talk about my (still ongoing) journey doing EMDR and reflect on some writing done by Circle’s founding pastor, Rod White.

Number #8 Post Read in 2020: My Pandemic Playlist Drew Me Into the Silent Land, Where I Found My Life Again

You may begin to sense a theme from the writing I did do in 2020. This post also reflects on Circle of Hope music. It also touches on Laird’s Into the Silent Land, and it also alludes to the healing I’ve been reaching for of the trauma stored in my body, and the love I choose to believe is stored there too.

Number #7 Post Read in 2020: Capitalism Has Me Feeling Sad and Depressed Because of My Illicit Taking and Greedy Cheating

It took me a while to conclude that we could do better than capitalism, “or any -ism, for that matter,” as Ferris Bueller reminds us. Rod White and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (and yes, my own guilt) helped me get there in 2017.

Number #6 Post Read in 2020: Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

You get music again. I give what I have to give, I guess. Rich Mullins still inspires me, and I hope this song of his plays at my funeral.

Number #5 Post Read in 2020: It Is Enough that Jesus Is Lord

I wrote this just before Christmas of 2020, riffing off Brennan Manning, and yes, Laird’s Into the Silent Land again.

Number #4 Post Read in 2020: Why I (Still) Keep Talking About…Circle of Hope

This is another early in the pandemic post from 2020, explaining why the way I encounter Jesus among the Circle of Hope continues to inspire me and captivate my theological imagination.

Number #3 Post Read in 2020: In Memoriam

I’m not sure why people keep finding this 2020 post written on the anniversary of my dad’s death. It could be because of the pandemic and how many people are dying and seeking to remember their loved ones. I don’t know. I write about dependency, “co-” and otherwise, and rescuing and the impulse to “keep our hands clean.”

Number #2 Post Read in 2020: Why I Keep Talking About…Alternativity, the Bruderhof, and Church of All Nations

This was my #2 post read in 2020, but is far and away my most read post of all time. I wrote it in 2017 as we were trying out a local to the Twin Cities faith community, Church of All Nations (CAN). CAN has much to offer and we connected with them because so much of what they do seemed to resonate with the alternativity that Circle of Hope has been going for for so long. Still, as much as we respect CAN and have no ill feelings toward that community or any of its leaders and did not leave them, I hope and pray, in a bad way at all, there was something missing in our experience with them that has very little to do with them. I’ve written a fair bit now about being “surprised by joy” when we began to reconnect with Circle in 2020, even from a geographic distance. It surprised us, I think, because we suddenly realized that we didn’t feel much like we had it, though we hardly knew it. If I could name the source of this joy, I would have to say simply that it’s Jesus. Circle works so very hard to be Jesus-centered, not just honoring him as a respected ancestor or learning from him as a political agitator, but seeing all of that and incorporating it into loving him as Lord, the one “in whom all things hold together.” I think this is what generates the gravity that keeps connecting us in the Circle of Hope and which our dialogue protects. It is the love which is our belief. Anyway, I talk about the Bruderhof in this post, and someone made it a source on their Wikipedia entry (it wasn’t me, I promise). I’m sure this is why people keep finding this post of mine.

Number #1 Post Read in 2020: Buck Family 2020 Christmas Newsletter

I tried to write a 2020 Christmas letter for our family and instead my #5 post above came out. I tried again, and was successful, and I’m glad folks have read it. It’s a “protected” post; so if you’d like to read it, contact me for the password. Thanks for reading my writing in 2020, and here’s to 2021 being one of those years when I have more (good, helpful things) to say, not less.

It Is Enough that Jesus Is Lord

What follows was supposed to be our first family Christmas letter in a while, but read on and you’ll see that’s not exactly what this is. I just don’t know if I (Robert) can easily produce those customary Christmas letters any more. Of course I would love to tell you what we’ve been up to during the pandemic, how we’re all blessed to be working and attending school from home and how the pivot to widespread use of video technology for as much of life as possible has led to a deeply renewed connection with our “home” church in Philly, to the point that we’ve rejoined their covenant and daily consider what next steps we might take, but I find that I just don’t have very many words to spend on all that right now. Instead, I find my gaze shifting outward, to you, dear reader, and to Jesus, whose Advent we’re celebrating as I write.

This Advent I picked up a devotional I intended to use, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, by our (figurative) friends at the Bruderhof. I’ll confess I haven’t made time to read it every day as the usual Christmas doldrums set in some time ago, this year multiplied many times over by the global pandemic we’re all still suffering through. But I read it today, and since doing so this morning I can’t stop thinking about it. Today’s offering was from that old ragamuffin, Brennan Manning. I was privileged to actually hear Manning speak when I was in college many years ago. It probably was around that same time that I saw Rich Mullins in concert, and the two probably belong together in my imagination, as their lives were intertwined in the fabric of God’s grace. One writer’s take on their relationship as depicted in a 2014 Mullins biopic can be found here. A year earlier, another writer described Manning’s influence on Mullins this way:

The first time the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins heard former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning on tape as he drove through the edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, his eyes filled with tears. He steered the truck to the side of the road. There, as he later wrote, the message “broke the power of mere ‘moralistic religiosity’ in my life, and revived a deeper acceptance that had long ago withered in me.”

The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus

What is this acceptance that Manning helped Mullins recover? It likely has little to do with the usual niceties of a consumeristic Christmas. The piece from Manning I read this morning was titled Shipwrecked at the Stable and was originally published in his book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. In this piece, Manning writes:

The spirituality of Bethlehem is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are being used to sell us pain reliever, and the prayer of St. Francis is being used to sell us hair conditioner. The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and a prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers, and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.

Manning goes on:

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky but utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences—“Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!

I’ve been trying to move a bit more into contemplation this year. I’m finding more and more that meditation and silent, contemplative prayer are key to helping me calm my anxious body and traumatized mind and rediscover my own belovedness. Another Catholic priest, Father Martin Laird, has been a guide of sorts in this process. His book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, has been extremely helpful. In it he talks about the passage from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and Laird adds that “to the branch, it’s all vine.” To the branch, there is no point at which the vine has ended and the branch has begun. There is only oneness and unity. I wonder if it might not be this acceptance that Rich Mullins found revived when he heard Brennan Manning for the first time. Could it truly be that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and that in Christ therefore, “all things hold together?”

Here’s Manning again, talking about the shipwrecked:

All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.

The shipwrecked don’t seek peace because they aren’t disturbed by the lack of it. By that I mean the subjective feeling of peace. Circumstances can play havoc with our emotions, the day can be stormy or fair and our feelings will fluctuate accordingly; but if we are in Christ Jesus, we are in peace and there unflustered even when we feel no peace. Meister Eckhart’s equation, “In Christ equals in peace,” is always valid. When we accept the truth of ourselves- shipwrecked and saved- our lives are henceforth anchored in the Rock who is Christ, not in the shifting sands of fickle feelings.

This is a point of capital importance for those who would fully experience the grace of Christmas. When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the presence or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life.

Manning continues, invoking the passage from Colossians I alluded to above:

The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered that the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less. They cannot take seriously the demands that the world makes on them. During Advent they teach us that the more we try to tame and reduce desires, the more we deceive and distort ourselves. We are made for Christ and nothing less will ever satisfy us. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:16, “All things were created by him and for him.” And further on, “There is only Christ: he is everything” (3:11). It is only in Christ that the heart finds true joy in created things.

To the clotheshorse fretting about what to wear on Christmas Day, the shipwrecked say, “Put on Christ.” To the merchant whose Bible is the Wall Street Journal and who pants down the money-making street, the shipwrecked say, “You have only one Master; serving him is incompatible with any other servitude.” To the power-broker dealing strength to get things done, the shipwrecked say: “However powerful you are, the most you can do is change the décor of a world that is collapsing into its own death.”

The shipwrecked stand on firm ground. They live in truth and are rooted in reality. They do not allow the world to order them around. Kneeling at the crib they find the vanity of the world ridiculous, bloated, preposterous…

Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don’t order “just a piece of toast” when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don’t come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don’t be contented with a ‘nice’ Christmas when Jesus says, “It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.” Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Stripped and Filled

I’m 45 years old this Christmas, and so much of my life has been spent clinging to my paltry desires, somehow believing them to be the best that I might hope for. I fret about not just what I’ll wear, but about so much more. Far too many of my worries, of course, are sadly about myself, about whether or not I am okay in any number of ways. This is very much related to the complex trauma that I endured as a child, but this nagging self-concern is likely a temptation we all must face, in one way or another. Manning asks in this Advent reflection: “As Christmas approaches, an honest question is: do I want to be or merely appear to be a Christian?” And then Manning begins to answer the question by telling a story about a conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo about how to be pure of heart. Soon into the conversation, St. Francis says:

“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him.

The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled—stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”

After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.” “No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”

“Then how?” asked Leo. “Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”

This Christmas, I suppose I feel a little more shipwrecked this year as we approach the stable. I’ve long resented the emptiness I’ve felt inside, and have tried to fill it with Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions, not to mention with tinsel trees and religious experiences. Unsure of where I stand with God, which is to say nothing of where I stand with my long-deceased mother or even with my own self, I’ve settled for paltry desires and lowered expectations, desperately praying that the next city, the next job or church, or mentor or friend, will finally fill me and meet my needs. But of course they cannot, and thank God for those who will not. No, no longer will I settle, not if Christmas really does mean that “God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ.”

I will accept the emptiness inside me, and let it become the free space where God can make something new. I will remember that I am a branch on the vine, and that therefore the vine is always with me. I will put on Christ. I will serve no other master. I will pray and work and play and eat, give and receive and nourish and comfort, and I will do it all in Jesus’ name. Advent and Christmas mean God-with-us, and in the free space inside me I’ve known as my emptiness, something new is being born. God’s very self is being born, and his name is Jesus Christ. May Jesus find a home with you and yours this Christmas too. Amen.

Proximity Redux- Consumption or Community?

Note: I wrote this post almost four-and-a-half years ago. I was reminded of it the other day, and find that it’s as relevant as ever as Christmas in this pandemic year fast approaches. These days, I’m still choosing between consumption and community, between Mammon/Mars and Jesus. I’d like to think I’ll finally make my choice for good (no pun intended) and be done with it, but that may not be how it works. I suppose some days we’re more faithful, and some days less so. Thank God there’s very little, my own fate least of all, that’s really finally up to me. Meanwhile, beloved community beckons like a song, and a song rises in my heart in response. Together, may we join the heavenly chorus, the same chorus that greeted those shepherds so long ago to announce to the world that peace had finally come to earth. Peace be with you and yours this Christmas.

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We were out on a hike yesterday in our old N. Minneapolis neighborhood. There’s an amazing trail there through the North Mississipi Regional Park. As we entered the Webber Park portion of the trail, which is across from our old apartment building, we came across this bridge where local artists had obviously been encouraged to decorate the bridge with positive words and images. Here are some pictures of the bridge and those words/images:

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It’s a pretty cool bridge, encouraging us to “work to save planet earth” and to “imagine peace.” One panel, a larger view of which is at the top of this post, also has the words “community” and “one love.” Those who know me know that the pursuit of (meaningful and sometimes “intentional,” even occasionally “Christian”) community has been an enormous part of my adult life. I’ve written about this pursuit frequently on this blog before, but several formative experiences have served to root this ideal at the center of my yearnings for the kind of life I want to be a part of. I suppose my first experience of (something like) “real” community occurred as an undergraduate at Gordon College. This continued in a hyper intense setting during my Kingdomworks experience, and then, not much more than a year later, was cemented as I was immersed as a newlywed in the just started Circle of Hope.

It was through the teaching and more importantly, the experience of community through Circle of Hope that I first came to understand that the Christian life is a communal one, or it is no life at all. Shane Claiborne, peripherally connected to Circle of Hope in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly since its early days, would later pose the question in his seminal book, The Irresistible Revolution, “What if Jesus really meant what he said?” It’s a basic, but powerful query that distills much of what I now strive for as someone who purports to follow Jesus. At 41, I’ve come to believe that I no longer have time to “mess around.” If following Jesus won’t make much of a difference to me as I live my life, much less to anyone else, I’m not interested because it’s simply too hard. And the thing is, I want it to be hard. I wrote about this years ago in both my undergraduate and graduate thesis, but it’s hard to put the energy into doing something that isn’t perceived as being worthwhile, and part of the perception of worth is wrapped up in notions of difficulty. I would hope I’m not naive or reductive enough to think that any hard thing is a thing worth doing; obviously there’s a little more to it than that. But if Jesus “really meant what he said,” what a life we’ve been invited to participate in and help create!

Jesus inaugurated his ministry by declaring the fulfillment of the proclamation of “good news to the poor.. freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” of setting “the oppressed free” and of proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In this election year especially but in every year, who wouldn’t want good news for the poor to be a reality? Aside from the powerful corporations and politicians that benefit from the prison-industrial complex, who wouldn’t want prisoners and the oppressed in USAmerica and around the world to be set free? Who doesn’t want to see the blind recover their sight? This is a political platform and agenda for life that I can get behind. This is, of course, all about reconciliation. It’s about reconciling and pursuing right relationship not only with God but with one another and with the beautiful world God made. It’s about right relationship within our own broken hearts, with our own fractured selves. Thus, Jesus invites us to join him in his ministry of reconciliation, but this is a profoundly difficult task, and it was the experience of Christian community through Circle of Hope that taught me that in no small part because this is such a difficult task, it’s one that can only truly be undertaken together. As I came to learn, all those “you’s” in the Bible that address how we are to live as Jesus followers are largely plural; they’re addressed, to you, the community of Christ followers. If we are to have any hope of living a life devoted to delivering (tangible, practical) real good news for the poor and imprisoned and oppressed and blind in the world; if we are to have any real hope of living a reconciled life, we must attempt it together, because we need each other.

We need each other to resist the temptation to pursue the American dream. It’s an enticing dream, after all, one that has captivated the imagination of large swaths of the world. It’s tempting to think that hard work and determination can get you every(material)thing you want out of life. It’s tempting to think that material things are the best of what can be had in life, and even simply that having is what life is about. To the extent that the “American dream” (not to mention the USAmerican economy) whatever it once might have been or been about, has now been reduced to one centered on consumption and the acquisition of goods, it can rightly be said to be more of a nightmare. Don’t we all know by now that “money can’t buy you love,” after all, and isn’t love what we really want? Love requires work, though, and involves reconciliation. Thus, “stuff” can often be a tempting, if unsatisfying, substitute. The “American dream” is more of a nightmare, however, for many other reasons, including notably that it’s simply unsustainable. It’s not possible for all the world to live like middle class USAmericans, we who consume such disproportionate amounts of the world’s resources. The planet is already damaged, perhaps irreversibly so, now, in large part due to our exploitation of its resources so that we can afford our middle class lifestyle. If everyone lived as we do, there would be nothing left. I believe at some level the most powerful in our society know this, and care not a whit. So long as some can achieve this way of life, though largely as a result of the circumstances of their birth (too customarily as white USAmericans), then the allure of the “dream” can continue to be held out as a hope for all both here and abroad. Thus the system is perpetuated with a few (we white middle class USAmericans, largely) benefiting a little and fewer still (the much talked about “1%”) benefiting a lot, to the detriment of everyone else.

And yet even I find this “dream” all too captivating much of the time. Absent a community of like-minded (and “Spirited,” dare I say) Christ followers around me to help me live the life I know I’m called to- a life marked by the pursuit of good news for the poor, freedom for captives and the oppressed, in short, a reconciled life-  I fall too easily into the pursuit of that lesser “dream.” My Amazon cart is full of “saved for later” items I’m ready to purchase the moment I can, and for good measure I even have an Amazon “wish list” of (high-minded, how ironic) books I’d add to my cart and would buy if I could as well. The Ikea catalog adorns my bathroom shelf above the toilet, and I spent much of this past Sunday morning communing not with God and his church but with my own consumptive desires as I refined the list of items I want to buy when I can. This is the life the corporations that run our (consumption based) economy and largely our “democracy” want me to live. They even know I’m on to them and I suspect without a hint of irony play into this meager self-knowledge by subtitling that Ikea catalog with the words “designed for people, not consumers.” It’s only people-as-consumers that buy their products and keep them in business, however; so let’s be honest.

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In my heart of hearts, though, I know I don’t want to merely consume; I want to commune. I want to know and be known, to love and be loved. I want my life to matter to myself and, if it’s not too much to hope, to others, to the world. So we need each other to resist the promise of the lie that consumption brings happiness. We need each other too simply to do the work of a ministry of reconciliation. The U.S. is rife with racial strife that has bubbled to the surface of the consciousness of white America. As I understand it as a white person, for people of color, that strife has always been at the surface because they’re daily confronted with the stress of institutional racism and oppression. It is only my privilege that literally affords me the opportunity not to think about this injustice on a daily basis, if I choose (not) to. Racial reconciliation, then, and the hard work of deconstructing racism and my own white privilege, is obviously very, very hard work. As W.E.B. Dubois said at the outset of the last century, “The problem of the…century is the problem of the color-line.” It’s likely true that this is no less the case for the 21st century than it was for the 20th, despite whatever progress may have been made in the last century. Again, we need each other to do this work.

I could go on, but I think the basic point has been made. As someone who wants to follow Jesus I believe that I and that all of us were made in and for love. We were created to exist in loving, right relationship with God, with one another, and with God’s good created order, the world. We are our best selves, I believe, when we live life with and for those around us, when we choose to serve one another, to esteem the other as better than ourselves, to put “the needs of the many above the needs of the few.” My family and I have experienced this type of community (or at least the meaningful, dedicated pursuit of it) most fully when we’ve been part of a larger faith community that puts this idea of love and peace with justice at the center of its understanding of what it means to have Jesus at the center of its identity.  We hope to experience such community again soon, and will redouble our efforts to work at bringing it about.

Joy and Sorrow in the Circle of Hope

I write as Pandora’s algorithms serve up a bittersweet tune on my “Christmas Choral Classics” station. I wonder what previous likes or dislikes, my input to the algorithm, has led to this outcome. The tune is instrumental. Maybe I am too. How much of my writing on this blog, intermittent and streaky as it may be, is marked by music? If I could write music, I would. If someone would teach me to play the guitar that sits idly in my bedroom, I might never put it down. Writing is in my blood, but who’s to say what my best expression of it might be? If I live long enough, maybe I’ll discover that I’m a songwriter. Wouldn’t that be something?

Today, though, you get this writing, and so do I. Reading is to writing as hearing is to speaking, and today I finally started in earnest to read Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh’s Romans Disarmed.

The back cover says it’s about “Reading the Bible from the underside of empire.” It comes highly recommended from the venerable Byron Borger, proprietor of Hearts and Minds Books. He’s a friend of the authors, from what I can tell, and is credited with reading the entire manuscript and giving feedback on it. He wrote effusively about it in a not too long ago edition of his Booknotes newsletter, which I highly recommend you subscribe to. I asked for and received it as a gift last year, I think, but it has been among the many books I have lying about that I think will be important, but haven’t made time to read yet.

I heard somewhere once (I can’t remember where) that “deeper than the part of me that can’t, is the part of me that doesn’t want to.” Whatever the original context, I apply it to reading this book because while I may have felt too busy or undisciplined or scattered to finally give it a go, I have deep suspicion that underneath all that can’t is a won’t. I think some of my reluctance to finally pick it up and dive in comes from a judgmental place within me. I have always felt like my own worst critic, and honestly, I do not yet know if that critical self is my shadow or true self. My mother is all mixed up in this, and in me. Strange- as I write this I’m reminded that I’m just a few days removed from the 22nd anniversary of her death. If COVID doesn’t claim me before this time next year, then I will have lived half my life with, and half my life without her, and yet she’s always with me whether I want her to be or acknowledge it or not. In any case, my ongoing work to be differentiated from my mother includes sorting out just whose voice is so judgmental inside me. Is it really mine, or is it hers? Or doesn’t it really matter, if perhaps I am a proverbial chip off the old block?

Back to Romans Disarmed then, I think part of my “won’t” about reading it has been some expected self-judgment about Keesmat and Walsh’s admirable life vs. my own. They live in a solar-powered farm in Canada that is heated by a wood fire which they also cook by, if I have all that right. They also happen to be PhD’s who have long had what I would now call a proper understanding of the “empire” we live in and the Jesus-follower’s place in contradistinction to it. I don’t know if I could, or would even truly want to, live the kind of life they do, but I sure admire it and feel no small amount of guilt about how my own life stacks up to it.

All that said, I know they have something to teach me, and I’m eager to learn. Perhaps, then, if I both can and will make time to do so, I’ll do some writing as I read Romans Disarmed, which at this moment I’ve only just begun. It has ten chapters. If I really want to wrestle with what they say, maybe I’ll try to write one post per chapter over the next month or two.

Light In The Darkness

It may be fortuitous, serendipitous, even providential, dare I say, that I begin reading (and writing!) with Advent and Christmas on the horizon. Circle of Hope, my faith community mostly located in Philly, is looking forward to Advent this year as a season in which to experience lament in the midst of hope. Here is how they frame the Advent journey this year:

Advent is all about the drama of hope — light in the darkness, presence in the midst of brutality, trust in the face of fear. We are choosing to go through the suffering rather than around it. We can trust God to be with us because so many years ago God was born as a tiny baby. Can we rejoice in the Lord, Jesus, even now?

We are following this description of hope from Ugandan theologian, Emmanuel Katongole, “In the midst of suffering, hope takes the form of “arguing” and “wrestling” with God. Such  lament is not merely a cry of pain—it is a way of mourning, protesting, and appealing to God.”

“In the midst of suffering” We are, indeed, suffering. Collectively, we are suffering more consciously than we have in recent memory. There is a mutuality God desires with us. God hushes in our disconsolate ears, and we hush back in the ears of the vulnerable baby God was. We are caring for the fragile way God shows up by caring for the fragile way we are showing up right now.

“Not merely a cry of pain” Entering our pain is an invitation into something new—a call from the future—rather than only rumination on the past. 

“With God” God has been born into our lament already. The presence of the baby is already here. The STORY is already told. Advent tells our story in the light of God-with-us. This season, we will highlight the power of anticipation, and paint a picture of hope lived out in real life.

Somehow this framing of the Advent season seems especially appropriate this year. I write on the day after the U.S. earned yet another infamous record in its inexorable march toward the worst kind of exceptionalism, having passed 200,000 new coronavirus infections in a single day. Likewise, another day has passed without justice for Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and so many others. Today is another day in what is hopefully the waning days of the Trump administration, but even if the government of the U.S. follows the obvious will of the voters and inaugurates Biden in January, Trumpism seems entrenched in a large minority of the populace, and it is hopefully obvious that Joe Biden will not save us from this or much of anything else. U.S. presidential administrations come and go, but the unfettered consumer capitalism and the violence with which it is inextricably linked, both hallmarks of the U.S. empire, remain.

So hope and lament seem inextricably bound too, so long as we wait for Jesus to fully and finally set all things to right. Keesmaat and Walsh seem to have something to say about this in the little I’ve read so far. They begin Romans Disarmed by setting the stage for their work of really seeking to understand the Apostle’s letter to the church in Rome in a new, but paradoxically very old, way. In saying it’s a “new” way, I reveal of course where I stand in relation to Paul’s writing. I may not understand it very well because I don’t stand under it at all. As a cisgender straight male of European descent, firmly ensconced in middle-class life in the middle of U.S. empire, my position is one of standing “over” those to whom Paul wrote, and those like them today. That Paul lived and worked in the midst of empire should be obvious. We name his sociohistorical location as such today- the Roman Empire. Of course, Rome’s ancient empire was secured and maintained by that Roman “peace” which was anything but peaceful, the Pax Romana. It may be somewhat less obvious that we live in such an empire that is secured by such a peace today. Nonetheless, that we are now in what may be the waning days of a Pax Americana should be fairly clear to the careful observer.

That context for Paul’s writing and our reading matters greatly. As Keesmaat and Walsh write:

What happens if we read Paul’s letter to the Christian house churches in Rome as something akin to a call to disarm the empire? What happens if we read this letter written to the heart of the empire from the perspective of the margins of that empire?

Circle of Hope has been wrestling with this idea for at least a while now. As Rod White, Circle’s founding pastor wrote about Paul a few years ago:

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.

Those who wear “slavish shoes,” whether Paul’s and those to whom he writes on the margins of Roman empire, or their counterparts today on the margins of U.S. empire, know suffering and sorrow, and have reason to lament. Keesmaat and Walsh say:

Paul writes his epistle to the Romans from a place of “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2). We suspect that you can’t really understand what Paul is up to in this ancient letter if you don’t have access to such a place.

They add, recognizing their own privilege as highly educated Canadians, that “if we have any access to the margins” (where they argue Paul’s epistle is best understood)…”it can only be through deep listening and shared tears.” This deep listening by the powerful to the powerless and sharing that brings tears can perhaps only come through the work of solidarity, which in turn requires proximity. We who inherit unearned privilege and power must give it away as best we can and get close to those who were marginalized so that we could be centered. We may not have been born on the margins, but if we want to really understand Paul, let alone Jesus, we might need to get there. Keesmaat and Walsh again:

There is a pathos to Paul’s writing that gets lost when interpretation gets too focused on the nature of the theological argument Paul is mounting.

They add:

…the pathos that goes all the way down to the core of creation also goes all the way up the heart of God.

And:

Somehow we will have to find ourselves in the midst of this pathos, this sorrow and anguish, if we are to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans.

You Need a Great Capacity for Joy

So whether we were born on the margins or recognize our need to in some way get there so that we can better see Jesus in his slavish shoes, there is a question of how, then, to live. On the margins, resources can seem scarce. Healthcare can be hard to come by. Social distancing in the midst of a global pandemic may be impossible. There is, again, suffering and sorrow. Keesmaat and Walsh offer an answer, if not a solution:

You need a great capacity for joy if you are to sustain life in the midst of such sorrow. But any “joy” that averts its gaze from sorrow, any “joy” that will not embrace the grief and hurt at the heart of things, is cheap sentimentality at best, an emotional cover-up and lie at worst.

They add, reflecting Paul, that “We need joy…if we are to have hope.” I said above that Circle of Hope was “my faith community, mostly located in Philly.” I say “mostly,” because in the midst of the pandemic as Circle and so many other churches pivoted to offer everything they could online, my wife and I began to reconnect with them. We have deep roots among them, and I have written about those roots quite a bit on this blog. In any case, we began reconnecting with them during Lent and Easter, and it was with no great surprise that we found ourselves experiencing joy as we did so, for the first time in a long time. Since that time, that deepening connection has only grown and finally culminated in us rejoining their covenant at the recent quarterly Love Feast. Today, I even lead a Circle of Hope cell group of people dispersed all over the country.

We do not know what this means for us. Right now many Circle of Hope cell groups continue to meet online because of the pandemic. So mine is not much different. Right now Circle’s regular Sunday meeting(s) continue to happen online too. Of course, that will not always be so. So we have much discernment to engage in as we figure out what the new “normal” looks like in a world where it’s safer to meet in person again. That may mean that we need to move back to Philly again. The Circle of Hope pastors use a metaphor for their podcast that I keep coming back to. They say in the podcast that they’re “extending the table of their dialogue” through the podcast to wherever folks tune in to it. Right now that table comes all the way to Minneapolis and, through my cell, to Texas and Wisconsin and Illinois. I don’t yet know what the outcome of the dialogue will be, but I sure am glad to be part of the conversation.

Being a part of Circle again, even from a geographic distance, has helped me to find joy, and hope. It is, after all, a “circle of hope,” and I believe it will help me to sustain life in the midst of the sorrow of COVID, of racial oppression and economic disparity, and in the midst of endless war to maintain U.S. “homeland security.” Advent is about the drama of hope as we choose to go through suffering rather than around it. Jesus endured suffering on the cross of course, but in a larger way the promise of Christmas, of Immanuel, “God with us,” is a promise that God enters our suffering more broadly too. As Bono infamously said at that 2006 National Prayer Breakfast:

God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

I might quibble with some of what Bono said. There is an “us” and a “them” that he describes, and he could be seen as being somewhat condescending to “them.” Nonetheless, he was addressing the powerful in his speech, and I know that I occupy a place of power in this society. So I have much work to do to relinquish as much of it as I can so that I can get closer to the margins where Jesus and Paul are, in their “slavish shoes.”

All of this is why I’m so looking forward to Advent this year. I’m glad to be walking in the Circle of Hope as we recognize the suffering around us and lament it, even as our joy sustains us and moves us to hope. Likewise, I know that Keesmaat and Walsh will be wise guides as they help me to more fully get into Paul’s slavish shoes in order to understand his letter to the Romans from the underside of empire. Lord, let it be so.

Living as if Hostility Has Been Put To Death On the Cross with Jesus, Because It Has, or the Buck Family 2016 Christmas Newsletter

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This is the online version of our 2016 Christmas letter, which includes our Christmas picture this year, which looks something like the one above. The letter’s a bit long but I hope you’ll find it to be worth the read, and so I shared it here too. Here it is:

It happened again. In the midst of a worship experience that was deeply meaningful this morning among our family, the people of Mill City Church, I found myself repeatedly unable to sing. I was just too choked up. I knew this was likely to happen when I realized that Nathan, who would be joining the other elementary school kids on stage to sing with the band today, would be singing “All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons and Daughters. This song is frequently in the worship rotation among Mill City, as are many of All Sons and Daughters’ songs, and their live album is on heavy rotation whenever I’m in the car (my total commute is at least an hour every day) or at home, writing as I am now. I’ve written, in part anyway while talking about other things, about “All the Poor and Powerless” recently on my blog, but some of the lyrics are:

 

All the poor and powerless
And all the lost and lonely
All the thieves will come confess
And know that You are holy
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah

And all the hearts that are content
And all who feel unworthy
And all who hurt with nothing left
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah
[x2]

Shout it
Go on and scream it from the mountains
Go on and tell it to the masses
That He is God
[x5]

 

There’s a little more to the song as it repeats some of the words above, but you get the idea. Here’s Nathan practicing with the band today while singing this song:

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That’s him to the far right on the second row. This song has been something of an anthem of mine of late.

It’s had particular resonance because for some time continuing to declare that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed instead of a joyous cry. It’s also been resonant because of the context in which this song has gained its currency for me. As I’ve said, we’ve sung it quite a bit during Mill City Church worship gatherings and this song and All Sons and Daughters’ whole “Live” album has been the soundtrack for our entrance into a faith community that, for the first time in a long time, feels like the family we were meant to be a part of, the people with whom we were meant to be on a mission together. If you’re interested in knowing more about the long journey that led us to become covenant members of Mill City Church, there’s a 6 part(!) series on this blog that culminates with the post: “Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church.”

Speaking of my blog, lately I’ve been writing here about my summer in 1995 doing Kingdomworks, the life changing experience in which I and 8 other (relatively) rich white college students lived in an inner-city church building in SW Philly where we ran a day camp, Sunday School, and youth group for the neighborhood kids, hoping to empower that congregation to do ministry that it couldn’t do otherwise. Here are some pictures from Kingdomworks that maybe give you a little bit of the flavor of the experience:

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I’ve written a fair bit about Kingdomworks on my blog; so I won’t repeat it here other than to say what I usually say about it, that during that summer I was able to “build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” This realization I had about suffering was connected to the larger awakening that was occurring in me at the time during my Gordon College days as I also realized (as I’ve also long said) that “God isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male that lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, and spends his days pursuing the ‘American dream’ like most other people I knew at the time.” I’ve been writing again about Kingdomworks because of a recent sequence of events that included me learning something about one of my Kingdomworks’ teammates, someone that I was close to during that summer. This teammate, Holly, afterward wrote me that she longed to be back out there, “on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting, where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.” She knew that I felt called to be back in the city serving however I could (and indeed as soon as Kirsten and I got married that’s just where we went), and Holly wrote that she felt a similar calling and that when she and I both went back to serve in the city we’d do it “for them this time,” for the kids. This was a telling sentiment, as perhaps not surprisingly as an experience that was only about two months long Kingdomworks was far more effective at bringing lasting change for we (relatively) rich white college students than for the (relatively) poor, mostly black kids we had served in the inner-city. Perhaps this was the point. Anyway, I recently learned that while Holly is now doing amazing work that is very meaningful to her, it doesn’t have much to do with serving kids in the city, but more to the point she no longer calls herself a person who follows Jesus.

Bart Campolo, the son of Tony Campolo, started Kingdomworks all those years ago, and then not long after I did the program, he transitioned it from a summer program in one city to a year long program in multiple cities and renamed it Mission Year. Mission Year is still going strong today under new leadership. Like Holly, Bart no longer calls himself a Jesus follower these days and has some notoriety as the first humanist chaplain at USC. I love Bart and still consider him a friend (though I’m not claiming to be a close personal one). His impact on my life has been huge, and I think he’s doing great work at USC that’s not unlike the work he’s always done. He’s always been about building community and inspiring people to love and serve those around them. He’s just not doing it in Jesus’ name anymore, and his journey to reach that point is a story he’s told very publicly and continues to do so.

I bring all this up, though, in a Christmas letter no less, for a couple of reasons. I do so in the first place because the struggle to follow Jesus and the temptation not to, for lots of good reasons, is one that I can relate to. As I said above, for some time now declaring that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed rather than a joyous cry. There are lots of reasons for that which I’ve explored in depth again on my blog if you’re interested. The other reason I’m bringing all this up in this letter is because of a dream I recently had. I should mention that during my Kingdomworks experience I had a couple of opportunities to get away for a night over the weekend. During one such opportunity I took the train from SW Philly way out into the ‘burbs where I stayed at a Gordon College friend’s house. She and I weren’t particularly close but she knew that I was in the midst of an intense experience and she graciously offered me a momentary reprieve from it. I was grateful. So in my dream, I was back at her house, searching in her basement for something I had been storing there. I woke up before finding it, but when I recounted the dream to Kirsten I realized how symbolic it was.

Something happened to me during Kingdomworks that fundamentally changed me. That much is clear as I’ve spent the better part of 21 years trying myself to get back out there “where we belong,” as Holly put it, in the city, serving kids, but “for them this time.” I suspect that part of what my dream may be telling me is that I left something there in SW Philly in the hot summer of 1995, and I’ve spent a long time trying to go back and find it.

What exactly did I leave in Philly 21 years ago, perhaps in my college friend’s basement, at least metaphorically speaking? There were probably a number of things, to be sure, and some of them for the good. For example, I left behind, I hope, a childish faith that in its individualistic and consumeristic nature was likely as “American” as it might have been Christian. I left behind, I hope, a selfish faith that was all about me getting my “fire insurance” so that I could avoid hell and enjoy God’s heavenly retirement plan instead. I left behind, I hope, a narrow-minded worldview that only ever took into account myself and people who look and think like me. I left behind, I hope, selfish regard for my “own personal suffering” that I experienced in my abusive childhood home, and as I’ve said, in exchange I hope I gained empathy for the suffering that’s “out there, in the world.” In exchange for all those things I left behind during that summer, I hope I also gained an at least slightly more mature faith that is communal, not individualistic and consumeristic; that is about allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, not “America;” that is about living as if God’s kingdom of love, justice, and (especially) peace is already here, even when it so often feels so far away and not yet fully realized; and I hope I gained a faith that recognizes that if the inbreaking of such a good, loving, just, and peaceful kingdom into our troubled and tired world is to be good news, it must be good news for us all, especially those who suffer daily so that we rich white Westerners can enjoy our “great” way of life.

When I came back from Kingdomworks, I found myself experiencing culture shock as I went from a brief but intense experience in inner city Philly among folks who didn’t look much like I did and who lived very different lives than I had ever imagined possible, back to the serene, pastoral environment of Gordon College where I was again among (relatively) rich white young people like myself. I always said it was hard to be back there when I knew that “kids were dying on the streets of Philadelphia.” What I didn’t know then, but certainly do now and have for some time, is that however hard but beautiful the lives of black kids in SW Philly might be, it hardly compares to the lives far too many people, especially and including kids, still experience in the developing world in places like Africa and India, for example. And it’s again worth noting that, as I keep saying, there’s a direct relationship, a causal link, between the grinding poverty of the poorest of the poor, the 11% of the world that in 2013 lived on less than $2/day, and the “great” way of life we in the U.S. and other rich Western countries enjoy, where, for example, in the U.S. the average person lives on $140/day. Though some in this country are unwilling to face this fact, our comfort comes at their expense. The world simply cannot support everyone living like we do. If all of God’s children are to live sustainably, our way of life must change; our standard of living must come down so that theirs can rise.  

So back at Gordon College after Kingdomworks, I found myself questioning everything, starting with God and his alleged goodness. Thus began a project I’ve worked on for more than two decades, and will likely continue to do so. As a young person I had a deeply meaningful and vital relationship with Jesus as I learned to rely on God in the absence of reliable parents. The home of my youth was nominally “Christian,” but also terribly abusive. After Kingdomworks I found my childhood, child-like faith gone. I desperately wanted to trust and believe that Jesus loved me as I always had. I wanted to believe in a loving God that was actively loving the world just as I always had, despite the unloving home I had grown up in. Yet I found those beliefs impossible to reconcile with the brokenness I had witnessed in the inner-city and the abject poverty I came to know was the reality for far too many around the world. If I dared to believe that Jesus loved me and was looking out for me and even “working things out” for my good, what did that say about the lives of folks who seemed utterly abandoned, utterly bereft of such care and provision?

This is a question I still struggle to make sense of. Of course, underneath that question is another one: “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” One of the reasons I suspect Bart Campolo eventually decided not to follow Jesus anymore is because of the way he struggled with a similar question about evil in the world. He famously wrote a piece when he still called himself a Jesus-follower that got him into some trouble for reasons I’ve again explored on my blog, but in the piece he wrestles with a horrific act of evil that occurred and the question of why God didn’t intervene to stop it. Bart concluded then that the essential relationship between love and freedom required a world in which God would allow such an evil to occur, but because Bart could only believe in a god “at least as good as he was,” it therefore also had to be true that God would somehow redeem that act of evil and every other one throughout human history, a project which Bart said “apparently was a long and difficult task,” considering all the evil that keeps happening in the world. Such logic is cold comfort for those who face such evil in the here and now, and still we wonder why God doesn’t just fix everything. If God is good and loving and powerful, how long must we wait for a peaceable kingdom in which the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into ploughshares and enemies experience reconciliation and friendship at a common table?

Into this yearning, in the midst of this groaning and conflict, God gives us Jesus.  Jesus is the fullest and final revelation of who God is. He is the “lens” through which we must view the rest of scripture, and he is the answer to the question of if or when God will ever do anything. By putting on flesh and moving into the neighborhood, God chose to join us in our place of suffering and experience the worst of it himself all the way up to death, “even death on a cross.” As Michael Binder of Mill City Church said this past Sunday, Jesus not only offers us peace, but is our peace. Michael preached on Ephesians 2:14-18, which dealt with divisions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews were considered, or at least considered themselves, to be “near” to God because they were sons and daughters of Abraham, with whom God had first made a covenant and to whom God had first promised a blessing. It was to Israel that God had given the law “with its commands and regulations” that pointed the way toward right relationship with God, one another, and the world. Of course, this law was impossible to keep and broken relationships were the result. Meanwhile, Gentiles or non-Jewish people were considered (by Jews) to be “far” from God basically because they weren’t Jews. They weren’t natural sons and daughters of Abraham and so weren’t heirs to the promises given to him and his descendents. Sadly, these categories and the divisions that came from them ignored the fact that God originally blessed Abraham in order to be a blessing to all the world. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus addresses this and urges peace among the two camps, those Jews and Gentiles who had both decided to follow Jesus, because as we read in the text:

14 …he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Thus, as Michael reminded us, the cross acts to “level the playing field” not just between Jews and Gentiles but among all the groups we find ourselves categorized and divided into today. As I also said recently in a blog post, God didn’t kill his son on the cross in an act of “cosmic child abuse” in order to arbitrarily satisfy rules God established that we could never follow in the first place. Instead, God’s willingness to be “God with us” means that God was willing to be with us even in the place of our deepest conflict, where we experience the final separation from God and one another that our sin causes. Sin, after all, is “missing the mark.” It’s not living into and up to the ideal of right, loving relationship that we were made for. This failure to love each other as we ought (“sin”) causes brokenness in our relationships (separation), and the end result of that brokenness especially in our relationship with God is death, because it is in Jesus that “all things hold together,” and to be cut off from God is to be cut off from the very source of ongoing life itself. We cannot bridge this gap ourselves, but God can, and God did. In his willingness to be put to death on the cross in order to break into the place where we were ultimately separated from God and one another, Jesus put to death the brokenness in our relationship not only with God but with one another and with God’s good world.

Reflecting again on the Ephesians passage above, we obviously could not and cannot follow all the “commands and regulations” of the law that pointed us in the direction of the right relationships we were made for; so God again put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and “set the law aside” in that very skin, in his flesh that was pierced and bloodied and put to death on the cross. In so doing, God begins creating a new humanity, a unified humanity that no longer is bound to experience separation. In Christ then there not only is no longer Jew or Greek or male or female (inasmuch as we are divided from one another by these categories), but there is also no longer rich or poor, or white or black, or Republican or Democrat. Conservatives and liberals and Trump supporters and Clinton supporters no longer need to be separated from one another. Our hostility has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, and we all have access to the same Father through his Spirit.

If we who used to be Republicans or Democrats or “Americans” or Russians or Somalis instead lived solely as part of the new humanity God is making and citizens of God’s peaceable kingdom that is upon us, then we finally would be the ones we’ve been waiting for; we would be the change we hope to see in the world. God did do something about all the evil and injustice in the world. He put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and absorbed the worst violence, the worst evil, that we in our brokenness had set loose in the world. He allowed himself to be put to death to break into our place of separation and so put to death also the hostility between us. He began making a new humanity by preaching peace to those who were near to God and those who were far from God, and then he unleashed these redeemed and reconciled people to be a people who live as if that’s who they are, to be reconcilers and peace-makers in the world. God sent the world Jesus, and Jesus keeps sending himself into the world through us.

As I keep saying, I respect and love my friend Bart, but all the reasons I too might have for not following Jesus- all the brokenness and suffering and evil in the world- aren’t evidence that God has abandoned us and isn’t worth following or that there is no god after all. Rather, it turns out these are all reasons to follow Jesus. The world needs supporters of Black Lives Matter (and indeed black lives do!) and Trump voters to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Children in Aleppo desperately need those who support Assad and those who don’t to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Jews and Palestinians desperately need to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. By following Jesus, together, we become the new humanity God is making and thus the peace the world so desperately needs, which once seemed so far away, suddenly comes near.

It is true and lasting peace that in some ways I think I was metaphorically looking for in my friend’s basement in greater Philly in my dream, perhaps because I felt like maybe I lost it in the hot summer of ’95 as I did Kingdomworks. Certainly I “lost” something that summer, but I hope what I left behind was an immature faith that is even now giving way to a more mature one. That said, if it really is true and lasting peace that I yearn for both in the world and in my own broken heart, there is only one place to find it. True and lasting peace was born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. It is Immanuel, God with us. Thus as we wait in this season of Advent for Jesus to come to us again in a few days, I am filled with hope, and I pray that you will be too. I am filled with hope because for the first time in a long time I can joyously cry that “he is God,” especially for “all the poor and powerless.” For too long this was instead a painful duty, but no longer. Peace has come, and continues to do so. Let’s join Jesus in making it a lived reality for us all. Amen.

Family Update: Now, here’s a little update about each of us over the past year. Sam has a mentor through Mill City Church that he’s just about to start meeting with. He’s a middle schooler now and has been making that transition with a few bumps in the road here and there but mostly with great success. He’s on target developmentally to have the right level of teenage snark and angst ready to go when needed, but remains at heart an incredibly sweet, compassionate, and kind-hearted young man. We’re very grateful for him! Sam is in orchestra as a 6th grader this year and just had his first viola concert the other night. Here are some pictures from that:

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Nathan also had a big transition this year, into all-day Kindergarten. He’s a young Kindergartner but is doing great so far, and we’re also very, very proud of him. He remains the attention-seeking entertainer in the family and is always cracking us up with his witty zingers and antics. For example, it wasn’t long into his elementary school career that he got in trouble at school not once in a day, but twice, including having to go to the principal’s office, because he thought it would be funny to sit (clothed, thankfully) in the urinal in the boys’ room. We can get him to eat all of whatever healthy thing he’s being picky about at dinner by convincing him that he can beat me at arm-wrestling, but only if he eats it all. He always “wins” when he does, but I still beat him handily when he doesn’t. So he keeps asking when he’ll be the same age as I am, thinking once he “catches up” to me he’ll be able to defeat me. Also, noting their relative sizes and that he’s growing all the time, he assumed Kirsten is growing just like he is and asked her if she would be a giant some day. That’s Nathan, in a nutshell. Here he is for ya:
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Kirsten continues working at Gillette Children’s Hospital, though in March of 2016 she transitioned out of direct care and began working in their phone triage department. Telehealth has been an interesting transition for her that has brought new challenges each day. She’s enjoyed most importantly being off night shift and hopefully is adding back the years working overnight for so long had quite possibly taken from her life. Being in an office environment has also hopefully been a positive move. It remains challenging work, though, as the nursing shortage reaches all the way into her little office, which is chronically short-staffed, leaving she and her colleagues stressed and constantly risking burnout as a result. Kirsten says she dreams of opening a used bookstore/coffee shop with me some day. Maybe someone will magically pay off our debt and fund that. Meanwhile, the boys and I continue to be blessed beyond what we deserve by Kirsten’s other, more than full-time, around the clock work as a wife and mother. Here are some pictures of Kirsten being wonderful as usual:
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As for myself, I continue serving disabled individuals who choose to live in their own home rather than a nursing home through a case management role vocationally. That (sort of) pays the bills so that I can pursue my avocation, which is writing. I do that mostly on my blog, but I’ve also written a little for Mill City Church’s website and may do so again, if they’ll have me, and when I can make time I “blog for books” too. A former pastor once told me I might get “discovered” for my writing posthumously. I should be so lucky. In the meantime, if you know a good publisher and want to put in a good word for me this side of the grave, please do! Here I am recently with my “bundle of boys:”  

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Merry Christmas 2016 and Happy New Year 2017 from Robert, Kirsten, Sam, and Nathan

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Advent Hope for All the Poor and Powerless, Especially You and I

I want to start this post with one of the songs that started my morning, All the Poor and Powerless by All Sons and Daughters, which we sang as Mill City Church this morning, ending with Go Tell It On The Mountain as we marked the beginning of Advent. Below is All Sons and Daughters’ version of the song, along with the lyrics. Hit play and give it a listen as you read what I have to say below.

All the poor and powerless
And all the lost and lonely
All the thieves will come confess
And know that You are holy
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah

And all the hearts that are content
And all who feel unworthy
And all who hurt with nothing left
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah
[x2]

Shout it
Go on and scream it from the mountains
Go on and tell it to the masses
That He is God
[x5]

We will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah
We will sing out
Hallelujah

Shout it
Go on and scream it from the mountains
Go on and tell it to the masses
That He is God

This song marked the culmination of worship this morning at Sheridan Elementary School in NE Minneapolis, as Mill City Church gathered to begin the season of Advent. We lit the first of our Advent candles, symbolizing hope, and Pastor Michael Binder spoke about just that- hope. There’s a lot to unpack in what he had to say, but he started by recounting what he had heard in his various conversations throughout the week, including during Thanksgiving, sometimes while talking with folks he fundamentally disagrees with politically. No doubt this happened for many of us over the past week. He said that as he spoke to his friends and loved ones he asked them to say what they hoped for in the wake of the election. Some hoped for a better economy and more and better jobs. Some hoped for better schools and more peace in the world and so on, and so on. He reminded us of the hopes of many of the people alive when Jesus was born. Some were hoping for a Messiah, and so they got one, but he did not come as they expected and certainly didn’t do and live as they thought he would. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries hoped for a political messiah that would overthrow Rome and “make Israel great again.” They wanted a warrior king that would cast off Roman oppression and once again make Israel a power among the nations. Some simply hoped for better lives for themselves and especially their children. Some wanted to be healed, and many, in fact, were.

Perhaps many of us can relate today. Michael spoke of the now accepted idea that many generations of USAmericans grew up believing that their children would have it just a little better than they did, but this is no longer the case. Some of you think Trump will change that. You’ll likely be disappointed, but I digress. Meanwhile, there are whole generations of would-be Jesus followers who think the whole point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was to give us a ticket to a blissful life in heaven once we die. Remember that this sermon, the first in Advent, was about hope. Michael reminded us that what we hope for in the future shapes our actions today. If we hope for inexorable progress with just a little more justice perhaps, along with a slightly better standard of living for each successive generation, than events like the Great Recession and the apparent election of Trump can prove devastating because we’ve given them the power to rob us of our hope. If we think there will be less love and justice, not to mention less affluence for “the 99%” under a Trump administration, than we may have been devastated over the past couple of weeks. Similarly, if all we hope for from Jesus is an escape plan, some “fire insurance” for when we die, than we may not care much what happens in the here and now to our neighbors around the world, let alone what happens to the world itself in the meantime. Michael challenged us by reminding us that what Jesus had to say to his disciples then, and continues to say to us now, is that all those hopes are far too small.

 Michael said that some of Jesus’ followers hoped he would bless and restore Israel, failing to realize that Jesus came to bless and restore everyone. Jesus was not the political revolutionary some of his followers hoped for. He was something much bigger, and far more dangerous. By launching his ministry of reconciliation and inviting his followers to join him in it, Jesus set in motion the restoration of the entire world, even the very earth, which itself yearns for its own redemption and restoration. Michael referenced Romans 8:21-23, which tells us that:

“…creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to son(-and daughter-)ship, the redemption of our bodies.”

Jesus didn’t come, live, die, and be resurrected to make Israel great again. He certainly didn’t do so to make USAmerica great again. Neither did he do so merely to give us some heavenly hope while the world goes to hell in a hand-basket in the meantime. Look again at the lyrics to the song above. It’s for “all the poor and powerless” and “all the lost and lonely,” for all the “thieves,” like the one who died next to Jesus, who confess that “he is God.” The “he,” of course, is Jesus.

Jesus is God.

This isn’t some Sunday school slogan, some bumper sticker platitude. It’s a declaration of an inimitable truth. The baby born in the manger as a first century Palestinian commoner, who would soon be forced to flee as a refugee to another land because of a genocide committed to get rid of him, this same Jesus would grow up and would one day read from Isaiah’s scroll the famous passage about “the Spirit of the Lord” being upon him because he was anointed “to proclaim good news to the poor,” “freedom for…prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Astoundingly, he would then proclaim that this scripture was fulfilled in the hearing of those he read it to. 

The story of Jesus, the good news both of and about him, that is, the good news he himself proclaimed and that which has been proclaimed about him for over 2,000 years since he walked the earth among us, is good precisely because it is the news that God himself is among us.

God-is-with-us.

The very one by whom we and all things were made, the one in whom all things still hold together, has chosen not to end us all, all over again, because we can’t seem to stop hurting one another and destroying the good world God made for us. He didn’t come as a conquering king to overthrow us. He doesn’t look at outward appearances, choosing the best and brightest and strongest among us to set up a meritocracy. Haven’t we had enough of meritocracy on our own? No, Jesus came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. Recognizing that because of the many ways we fall short of the best of what we were made for, the many ways we sin and shame and hurt and oppress ourselves and one another, for all these reasons we could never bring ourselves to face our creator as our full and present and unashamed selves. For all these reasons we are seldom able to even face ourselves, to say nothing of God. For all these reasons, then, Jesus came to rescue us.

Sin is separation, and separation from the one in whom all things hold together is death. So Jesus not only came in the most vulnerable way possible, but while we were yet sinners, while we were separated from God and one another, Jesus not only came but endured the death that our separation from him brings about, thereby robbing it of its power, thereby setting us free. Because Jesus not only came, and not only died, but was also resurrected, we are now free to live into the fullness of who God made us to be. We can be reconciled with God and so reconciled with one another and with God’s good world. Because of this, we can hope for a future in which our own groaning and that of creation itself will come to an end because all has been restored, redeemed, and reconciled.

Jesus didn’t come to save some people. He didn’t come just to save Jews, or Christians, or men, or straight people, or white people. “It is God’s will that none should perish,” scripture declares, and so I declare that he is God.  “Shout it, go on and scream it from the mountains. Go on and tell it to the masses, that he is God.”

 

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As you can see from the mess in the picture above, I’ve been working with Kirsten to get our Christmas decorations out and then to get all the boxes put back away. As I did so, I found some things in some memorabilia boxes I consolidated. I found this, for example:

 

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These are note cards I made years and years ago, as a teenager if not before, of verses I wanted to memorize so that God’s word was not only written implicitly on my heart but also explicitly on my mind. I wanted to remember that a good God, because of Jesus, remembers me not according to my rebellious ways, but according to his love. I wanted to know that trials bring perseverance, and perseverance matures my faith. I wanted to know that I could see hardship as God’s discipline of me, and that by disciplining me God was teaching me, treating me as a son. I wanted to know that I could run this race, this life of faith, with perseverance in no small part because I’m surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses both living and long ago gone to be with Jesus. I also found these:

 

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These were given to me by my Kingdomworks team, which if you read this blog much you’ve heard me talk about before. These are words of encouragement from fellow college students that I spent two months in the hot summer of 1995 living and serving with in an inner-city Philly congregation. It was a tumultuous, life changing summer, and I’ve long remembered and recorded my teammate Holly’s words, part of which you can see above in the second note up from the bottom on the right, but I thought I had lost the rest of them. It was life-giving to find them, to hear how others saw me, to know that maybe they saw a little of Jesus in me as we hung out with and desperately tried to love kids like Nate, Braheem, and Willie:

 

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Then I found this:

 

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This was a note that Rod White, Circle of Hope‘s first pastor, sent Kirsten and I after we showed up for one of their first public meetings in their old space in the upstairs of a storefront in Center City Philadelphia:

 

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Again, if you follow this blog, you know well “Why I Keep Talking About Circle of Hope.” It was with no small measure of wistful sentimentality that I discovered again Rod’s note, which mentioned that Bart Campolo is the one who had recommended Circle of Hope to Kirsten and I as we started our life together in Philly. Bart, of course, was the founder of Kingdomworks and someone I still consider a friend, and his little nudge in Circle of Hope’s direction changed the course of our lives, just as my life had been changed by doing Kingdomworks the summer before.

I mention all this because there is a through-line in all these experiences. From the earliest time that I learned to depend on God in the absence of dependable parents, in part through memorizing scripture, to that momentous summer in Philadelphia when my heart broke again and again and again over the suffering of some of God’s people there- usually people who looked a lot different than I do- to our joyful discovery that the church is a people, not a place, as we were immersed in real Christian community for the first time among Circle of Hope in Philly, through it all I met Jesus over and over again among the poor and powerless, the lost and lonely. My heart broke time and again and breaks still today, but I meet Jesus in that broken place inside of me too, and there too I know that he is God.

I pray this Advent that you will know it too. Jesus is coming. God-with-us will soon be here. Won’t you wait for him with me?

Let’s Not Be Afraid of Refugees Because There Might Be Terrorists Among Them. Let’s Welcome Strangers Because There Might Be Angels Among Them.

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I’m so very grateful for Mill City Church today, for a variety of reasons. When the pastors charted out the current sermon series we’ve been working through, Going Public, they decided to end it this week and next with a service of Lament today, the first Sunday after the election, and a service of Thanksgiving next week (which just happens to the Sunday before Thanksgiving). As Pastor Stephanie described it on Instagram when she posted the photo above:

This has been a heavy week to be a human in America. It’s also a heavy week to be a leader and to figure out how we move forward and make changes. Many of the problems many face in our country I know I’ve contributed to. Every story I hear this week has been breaking my heart. For thousands of years, the followers of Yahweh have followed an ancient tradition in times like these… it’s called Lament-Todah. Lament is best translated as complaint and todah can be best translated as thanksgiving. So for the next two weeks at @millcitychurchmpls I am going to lead our church through Lament this weekend and Todah next weekend as we respond to the division, confusion and pain erupting in our country over the last few months. The Kingdom of God is our aim, but we must not neglect the need to stop and engage the pain and suffering and bring it to a God who loves us and who knows the deepest depths of human suffering. Jesus chose to know this first hand. Join us for worship at Sheridan School at 10am. #kingdomcome

Obviously, this was planned long before the election results were known, but long after the rhetoric in this election season had devolved in a way that few of us had ever seen. I was so very grateful when I found out that this was the plan, as my heart has been so very heavy of late, but especially since Tuesday. It should come as no surprise that I did not vote for Trump. His hateful rhetoric and actions made this a bit of a no-brainer, for me at least. Look, I know well-meaning Christians disagree about the proper role and size of government. Well-meaning Christians disagree about economic policy and even economic systems. Well-meaning Christians even disagree about political systems, as some of us suspect that something like democratic socialism might work a little better, and better serve the needs of all, than what we in the U.S. have now. Well-meaning Christians disagree about many things in the sphere of secular politics.

What we should not disagree about, though, is that the primary, fundamental responsibility in our public lives is to love and serve our neighbor, whether we find them on our street or in Syria, in our neighborhood mosque or desperately trying to cross the U.S.’ southern border. We ought not disagree that there are two kinds of people in the world, according to Jesus, and they’re not conservatives and liberals, not Republicans and Democrats, not globalists and nationalists. Rather, the two types of people in the world, according to Jesus, are our neighbors, whom we are to love, and our enemies, whom we are to love. These are Jesus’ actual words in Mark 12:31 and Mark 5:43-48. Sure, we can disagree about how to do this, but never that we should. We are not called to protect ourselves. We are not called to store up treasures for ourselves here on earth whether within our home or within our “country,” and then shut out, exclude, and marginalize anyone we think might possibly be a thief who could break in and steal our stuff. In fact, quite the opposite is true. So what has been most painful about this election season is the overwhelming number of self-identified “Christians” who seem to have forgotten this. It’s jarring to hear large crowds of mostly European descendants chant “build a wall” around land they have no right to control because their ancestors stole it from one people group and committed genocide against them while kidnapping another whole people group from another continent and enslaving them in their ill-gotten country. For those in such crowds who claim to be “Christian,” though, it’s especially jarring, for this runs so very counter to the clear thrust of the gospel. There are many, many verses in Scripture that tell us to love our neighbor and specifically to welcome strangers. Here’s one such passage from Hebrews 13:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.[a]

It’s almost as if someone in the Trump campaign leaked his platform to the writer of Hebrews!

Trump says we should either stop all Muslim immigration or engage in (even more) “extreme vetting” out of fear that there might be terrorists among the strangers. Scripture tells us to welcome strangers, because there might be angels among them.

For profit prison company stocks soared after Trump’s election because he “has called for increased deportation of undocumented immigrants. Implementing that plan would heighten prison demand by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).” But that’s not all, his call for a national “stop and frisk” policy would likely increase the disproportionate arrest and mass incarceration of people of color (if they survived increased interaction with law enforcement at all). Meanwhile, Scripture tells us to “remember those who are in prison” as if we were there with them.

Trump has said he wants to “bring back water-boarding,” and even worse! Scripture tells us to remember those who are being tortured as if we were.

I can’t help but think that somehow all of this was lost on all those “Christians” who voted for Trump. As Brian Zahnd said in the wake of the election:

It will, indeed. Don’t get me wrong, please. I can imagine a scenario in which I’m sitting here writing a post calling President-Elect Clinton to task for her lack of openness and accountability and for her lack of being consistently pro-life (to her credit, she wants to increase the social safety net and provide healthcare for all, factors which are known to reduce abortion; on the downside, she’s for war, and, to the best of my knowledge, has not called for a repeal of the death penalty). That said, for too long Christians have been more interested in their Christianity than in actually following Jesus. For too long white “Christians” in the U.S. have been more interested in a very comfortable civil religion that has much more to do with ‘Merica, Mom, and apple pie than with the good news of the gospel. As Rod White of Circle of Hope recently said, “we (would be Jesus-followers) need (to be) evangelized!

I see this tendency to settle for a “Christian” (civil) religion that is all too accommodating to/conflated with USAmerican (white) culture in ways too numerous to count, and I’ve written about this many times. Take, for example, this worship song by Rend Collective that I’ve previously written about. Here are the lyrics:

Come, set Your rule and reign
In our hearts again
Increase in us we pray
Unveil why we’re made
Come, set our hearts ablaze with hope
Like wildfire in our very souls
Holy Spirit come invade us now
We are Your church
We need Your power in us

We seek Your kingdom first
We hunger and we thirst
Refuse to waste our lives
For You’re our joy and prize
To see the captive hearts released
The hurt, the sick, the poor at peace
We lay down our lives for Heaven’s cause

We are Your church
We pray: revive this earth

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Win this nation back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

Unleash Your kingdoms power
Reaching the near and far
No force of Hell can stop
Your beauty changing hearts
You made us for much more than this
Awake the kingdom seed in us
Fill us with the strength and love of Christ

We are Your church
We are the hope on earth

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Win this nation back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Win this nation back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

As I said when I wrote about this song before:

Talking about winning the nation back sounds a lot like winning “our” country “back,” for starters. And when you say you’re winning it back, even if you mean for Jesus, you imply that somehow he once had it, and now doesn’t. Is this what we really mean?

Readers of this blog may recall that my family and I were part of a church plant in OH that I’ve alluded to before, the one that we were so very hopeful about at first, that seemed to really get that the church is a people, not a place, and that even was trying out some fledgling missional communities. I think in their first public worship service, they sang this song, and I couldn’t help but ask questions about it after the fact. I just knew in my heart, in my spirit, that while the overall gist of the song was good there was something amiss in “building God’s kingdom here” by “winning this nation back.” Perhaps if that church had launched in the midst of this election season with all the talk of “making America great again” and “taking our country back” the mixed message of winning “our nation” back would have been more obvious. I don’t know. At the time, in that OH church, my concern was shrugged off and the song stayed in the worship rotation as is. I don’t know what exactly I expected them to do; I just know I didn’t feel very heard or understood. As I’ve also said, our experience with that faith community ended badly, with much, much pain, and sadly quite similarly to another traumatic ending there not long before then as I left my long-time job under similarly painful circumstances. There’s no small degree to which I’ve been trying to figure out “what God is up to” in those circumstances ever since, even as they played no small part in our move back to MN.

You see my confusion about those lyrics, right? Not only do they imply that ‘Merica used to be “Christian” in a way that it isn’t now and that we need to get it back to being that way, but they also imply, I think, that the U.S. even can be “Christian” in the first place. Again, this is well-trod ground for me, but I do not believe this to be so. If we really pray, as the song suggests, that God’s kingdom is unleashed to the point that there is healing in the streets and in “the land,” there would be little room for the “American dream” in the hearts of our fellow citizens any longer. If folks were gettin’ healed in the street there’d be no need for Obamacare or for the profit hungry capitalist medical industry. If we started living like the Church is supposed to, and were known for our love in the transformative ways that we might be, many of the institutions of U.S. society would collapse not because of unrest and rioting in the streets but because there’d be no need for them. There’d be no need for our criminal justice system if we loved our enemies and turned the other cheek when confronted with violence (of course, there wouldn’t be much violence in the first place). Capitalism, so dependent on self-interest, whether “enlightened” or not, would collapse if we starting sharing all the possessions we had, knowing they were God’s, not ours. I could go on. The point is that to the extent that we really start living as if God’s kingdom has already come among us we represent a grave threat to the powers and principalities that be, including the U.S. and all other secular governments. That’s why I struggle with that line in that song.

So you might imagine my consternation when Mill City Church sang the same song not all that long into our experience with them. Gratefully, there was enough grace and goodness in what we were discovering in this faith community that I felt I had the capacity to overlook it. It grieved me, just a little, and as I already mentioned I couldn’t sing those words when they come up in the song, but I considered it adiaphora. I was able to do so hopefully because I’ve grown a little but mostly because of all the other clear evidence of God’s work in these people and this community. It was just so clear to me that they were working extra hard to discern what God might be already doing in the community they felt called to serve and then respond faithfully as best they could to join him in that work. And the ways that they were responding, the things that they were doing, deeply resonated with me. My spirit could wholeheartedly say “yes” to what I saw God up to in them.

So, in the wake of this terrible election season and the election itself, my spirit again said yes! when I learned that today’s worship service would be one of lament. We gathered for it today and Pastor Steph led us in a powerful exercise, following the pattern in most of the psalms of lament:

-The Address – usually directly to God

-The Lament Proper – a description of the occurrences for which the people are requesting assistance or rescue

-Confession of Trust – a statement showing belief that God will hear their prayers

-The Petition Proper and Motivation – a usually very specific statement of what the people want God to do

-Vow of Praise – portion of the lament where the people promise to offer thanksgiving once seeing God’s intervention

After each part, we sang. The liturgy was heartfelt and captured our collective yearning that God draw near, that he hear the cry of those suffering from oppression- that he see all the ways they are being oppressed and may be even more so in the days to come- that he hear our cry on their behalf, and that he act. The liturgy should be posted on her blog soon. I encourage you to check it out when that happens. During the “petition” part, I believe, we had a chance to come forward and place our own handwritten petitions in a glass jar:

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This was mine:

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I lament not just over the hateful rhetoric in this election season and the danger that a President Trump poses not just for the “least of these” here and around the world but in a host of many other ways. That is lamentable, to be sure. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, though. ‘Merica is not the Church, after all. It does not represent God’s kingdom come. ‘Merica, especially these days and in the days to come, is basically Rome in Jesus’ day. It is the empire that God’s actual kingdom of love and peace and justice stands in stark relief against. Why should I be surprised when Rome does “Roman” things? Why should I be surprised when a worldly empire pursues its own gain and good to the detriment of its people and those around the world? No, what is most lamentable is that we would-be Jesus followers who live in that empire look no different than its most selfish, power-hungry denizens. What is most lamentable is that our lives look so little like that of our leader, Jesus, who was executed as an enemy of the state for showing the state to be the sham that it is, for showing that God’s kingdom was worthy of our sole and true allegiance.

The service this morning was thus a very emotional experience for many of us, and many tears were shed throughout. Near the end of the service in the auditorium of that elementary school that Mill City Church has had such an amazing relationship with for all these years now, we stood to sing a few last songs:

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Can you guess what song we sang next? It was “Build Your Kingdom Here,” of course. I had been very moved throughout the service as I alluded to above. I felt like I had connected with God as I, as we, cried out to him on behalf of the least of these, on behalf of his children, and asked him to intervene, to move to save them. We had declared our trust that somehow, in spite of it all, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, he would act. Rightly, then, we were moved to praise him, to declare that he is our King, he is our President; it is to his kingdom that we pledge allegiance. Some of that sentiment is present in “Build Your Kingdom Here;” so we sang, but I braced myself for those words I knew I could not sing (“win this nation back”).

You know what?

They never came.

Here are the lyrics as we sang them this morning:

Come, set Your rule and reign
In our hearts again
Increase in us we pray
Unveil why we’re made
Come, set our hearts ablaze with hope
Like wildfire in our very souls
Holy Spirit come invade us now
We are Your church
We need Your power in us

We seek Your kingdom first
We hunger and we thirst
Refuse to waste our lives
For You’re our joy and prize
To see the captive hearts released
The hurt, the sick, the poor at peace
We lay down our lives for Heaven’s cause

We are Your church
We pray: revive this earth

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Bring revival back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

Unleash Your kingdoms power
Reaching the near and far
No force of Hell can stop
Your beauty changing hearts
You made us for much more than this
Awake the kingdom seed in us
Fill us with the strength and love of Christ

We are Your church
We are the hope on earth

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Bring revival back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Bring revival back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

We sang “Bring revival back,” not “win this nation back,” and in that moment I was broken yet again this morning. That’s a sentiment I can get behind. The spirit of God within me yearns for revival, not merely the Billy Sunday altar call variety, but the kind in which “Christians” give up their religion and start living like Jesus followers. If that happens, I have no doubt that we’ll see healing of many varieties in the streets. Lives will be changed. Swords will be beaten into plowshares. Racial reconciliation will occur. Lord, let it be so.

In that moment this morning when I realized the lyrics had been changed, not only did I feel broken, I felt healed. I don’t know why they changed the words. Maybe someone read my post that touched on those words and they heard me and agreed that the lyrics sent a mixed message. Maybe not. Maybe they changed them because they’re always working so hard to listen to God’s spirit anyway and as a result they discerned that the words could be better. I’d like to think at least in some small way it is God’s spirit in me that leads to my discomfort with those lyrics. Either way, I felt heard, and more importantly, I felt healed. I felt as if all that baggage I’ve been carrying around since leaving that OH church was suddenly gone. I was and am grateful.

Therefore it will be with a glad heart that I gather with my Mill City Church family next week for a worship service of Thanksgiving. Prior to that we’ll gather for Mill City Church’s annual “Thanks. Give. Serve” event. Then once the (vegan/faux) turkey is eaten on Thanksgiving, it will be with joyful expectation that I move into the season of Advent. I am hopeful that Christ will come. Again. I am hopeful that God-with-us will be born, that God’s “secret rescue plan” for his children will be started anew. I am hopeful that Jesus will be born, again, that we, his hands and feet, his body, will be made new as we redouble our efforts and rededicate ourselves to being the church in the most profound ways. I pray that we will gain notoriety not for our political power but for our willingness to give it up so that we can better serve those who don’t have it. I pray that our zealous pursuit of love, of God’s peace-with-justice, of God’s shalom, will quite simply make us dangerous. Jesus promised us persecution, and most white “Christians” in this country have never seen it, not really. We aren’t persecuted, after all, when we are criticized for refusing to serve a gay person in our place of business or government office. We might be, though, if we do serve them, if we refuse to see them in terms of their sexual identity but simply as fellow children of God. We aren’t persecuted when we get called out for harassing women entering abortion clinics. We might be, though, if we relentlessly pursued living wage ordinances and robust healthcare for all and more importantly if we so thoroughly and scandalously loved and mentored and supported all the vulnerable and at-risk young women in our lives (and if we actually had them in our lives!) that there was seldom any need for abortion.

Lord, let your kingdom come, in us. Bring revival back. As advent approaches, let us watch and wait expectantly for you to come. Be born into the world anew, through us. Amen.

Buck Family Christmas Letter 2015

For those who might not have gotten our Christmas letter this year, the first in many, many years, here it is:

Greetings to you all from snowy, cold Minnesota. After a near perfect summer here and then one of the warmest fall seasons on record, winter arrived with a wimper and was also unseasonably warm, until today. It’s about 12 degrees outside as I write and the temperature at kickoff for tomorrow’s outdoor Vikings-Seahawks game should be about 0. We embrace winter, here, though, such that with temps in the balmy 30’s over the past week a local news anchor, anticipating this “arctic plunge,” told local denizens that they had a few more days to wear shorts before it got “really” cold. The Winter Carnival is coming up, which is always a lot of fun. It features ice sculpting and lots of winter-themed family activities. We’re looking forward to it. I’ve been thinking of late about our arrival back to the Twin Cities in late April of last year, just as the most beautiful time of year began and that perfect summer we enjoyed. As overnight actual temps dip below zero over the next week I’ve been thinking that as much as we enjoyed the past spring, summer, and fall, we didn’t really earn them. This coming year we will have.

So, for those who didn’t know before now, we’ve obviously moved back to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul). We left here over 12 years ago to move back to Philly where Samuel would be born as most of you know. We spent 2+ years during our second stint in Philly before moving to Northeast Ohio, where we spent the better part of the past ten years (minus a year-and-a-half in Texas as my dad died and where Nathan was born).  We made the painful decision to sell our house north of Akron (losing quite a bit of money) and came here to be near Kirsten’s family of origin again. Her mom’s health is declining and we knew it was important to be here for whatever comes next in that process. Though we’ve said this before, we don’t anticipate relocating again. We’ve done this just a few too many times. We’re excited to settle here, though. The Twin Cities have much to offer and we continue to be amazed by what a truly progressive community that engages in regional planning and cooperation can do. The infrastructure here is remarkable from the burgeoning light and commuter rail system…

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to the many trails, parks, and lakes in this “cit(ies) of parks and lakes.”

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Over the summer we met up with an old college friend of Kirsten’s and her family who live here now and got a chance to take their kayak out on a lake:

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We also went to a Twins…

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…and St. Paul Saints game:  where we participated in setting the record according to the Guiness Book of World Records for the “world’s largest pillow fight.”

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We’ve also seen Lego sculptures

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at the beautiful Minnesota Landscape Arboretum .

The Twin Cities also have a thriving, unique arts scene and a host of amazing local museums, including an incredible Children’s Museum. Among the museum treasures is the Walker Arts Center. The first Saturday of every month they offer free admittance and lots of great kids’ activities. We’ve been to the Walker twice so far since coming back and have been treated to amazing experiences such as this:

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You can see Kirsten and the boys (Nathan next to Kirsten with their backs to the camera and Sam turned around with a blue Star Wars t-shirt on) in this amazing mural which highlights the Walker’s history and its relationship to the local community). Anyway, we’ve done all these things and so very much more. We’ve been to Ikea and the Mall of America multiple times. We’ve enjoyed local festivals and seasonal events. In short, we’re really trying to be present here both to loved ones and to our local community itself.

Speaking of community, we’ve re-engaged, though in limited fashion still, with House of Mercy (www.houseofmercy.org), the faith community we were a part of here for five years when we lived here before. House of Mercy is a church that focuses on “recovering the good news of the gospel” and that embraces the notion that “doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its partner.” Among the many ways we feel fortunate and blessed to be able to participate in this faith community, for example, is the simple fact that they give us resources (in this case, for Advent) like this:

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So we’re excited to be able to be part of this faith community again, and hope to deepen our relationships there in the new year.

These days Kirsten works for Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, a very small local children’s hospital (there are several in the cities) that is attached to Regions Hospital in downtown St. Paul. Kirsten says she likes Gillette and it’s good just to be established in a local hospital. She works on the “float” team and is still doing overnights, which is very, very hard and taxing on her body. Despite this, she still manages to be the most amazing wife to Robert and mom to our boys, whom she teaches to read

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…does art projects with…

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…and tromps through the snow with.

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She does all this while doing mountains of laundry and making the most amazing, homemade vegan food including…

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a vegan take on Hoppin’ John for New Year’s and…

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home-made cinnamon rolls, a favorite of the kids, of course.

In short, Kirsten remains amazing.

Speaking of food, after losing 100 pounds through running starting in 2009 and then gaining 67 of them back and then losing about 47 more while doing a couple of half-marathons along the way, I (Robert) broke two toes and tore my meniscus a few years ago and found running too painful to continue in the short term. The result is that I gained every bit of my original weight back and more, much to my shame and chagrin. The good news, though, is that since moving here I finally had surgery on my meniscus and have successfully recovered, thanks be to God. It’s not pain free, but I’ve accepted the pain I know I’ll just have to live with now, and am grateful I’m not doing any further damage to my knee. Kirsten and I got Fitbits for Christmas, and I’ve found this new wealth of data I now have about my weight, sleep, and activity to be just the jolt I needed. Since the Fitbits arrive November 29th, I’ve lost about 21 pounds and have been walking nearly 3 miles most days thanks to Kirsten’s unwavering support. I’m so grateful and am hopeful that once a little more of the weight comes off and I’m putting less strain on my knee, I may be able to run again, Lord willing. Time will tell. These days I work for Rescare, for whom I am a Case Manager for clients who are disabled but choose to live in their own homes rather than a nursing home. I help to manage the waiver by which their services are funded. It’s interesting work that seems to suit me, at least for now. I’m grateful.

Samuel is now 11 and in 5th grade, and Nathan 4 and will be entering Kindergarten next year. The boys are doing well. For those who don’t know, Samuel was diagnosed a few years back as being on the Autism Spectrum (Asperger’s was his official diagnosis while that diagnosis was still in use). This and some speech issues and the very mild Cerebral Palsy that makes his heel cords tight are the only lingering effects from his extremely early birth. We are very grateful. Samuel is very smart and is a precocious reader. He finishes many hundred page books in a day and loves legos and Star Wars. He’s kind and loving and has a gentle soul. He’s amazing. This is Sam on his birthday, holding his newly completed Star Wars First Order TIE Fighter and wearing his Flash-themed S.T.A.R. Labs hoodie:

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Nathan is doing well too. Nathan is a fearless adventurer who has mastered sarcasm and finds trouble wherever he can. He’s mischevious and hilarious and knows how to work his adorable charm. Here’s Nathan showing off some of his Christmas haul:

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This apparently is how Nathan rings in the new year:

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This is how he chills on Christmas morning:

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…and this is how he felt about being an angel in the House of Mercy Youngsters Christmas pageant:

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As you can see, he’s a ton of fun, and we delight in both our boys. We pray that 2016 finds you delighting in those you love, and most of all that you know that you are the object of God’s delight. Best wishes and love from Robert, Kirsten, Samuel, and Nathan. Merry Christmas!