Proximity Redux- Trampling the Flag on Palm Sunday: A Word to the Irrelevant “Powers-” Freedom Is Coming

HT to this site for this Palm Sunday art by Bill Hemmerling

 

Note: I wrote this post a year ago on Palm Sunday. I confess that I haven’t been feeling very free of late, and any dutiful reader of this blog is well aware that my writing has been sparse lately. I’m not a musician, but I can relate to the singer whose song has been taken from him. I will find my voice again soon, I pray. Meanwhile, this is as relevant as ever.

I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.

Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…

…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?

Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.

Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 5:38-42

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:

Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.

Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:

Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.

Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp.  He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister.  Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:

Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning.  While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church.  After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.

Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth.  The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis.  Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.”   He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.

Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943.  He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.

Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?

The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”

Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.

That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.

All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”

The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.IMG_0332.JPG (2)

The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.

Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…

(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”

 

Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political. kid_soccer_fan

 

I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.

In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.

We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!

Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.

 

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.

This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.

We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.

Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?

I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.

What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:

  • foreign occupation
  • injustice
  • politics of empire
  • economic policies

in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?

There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.

As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not.  Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.

Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.

 

“Sent, Not Stuck”

Acts 13:1-3

I’ve written recently of our struggle over the past little while to discern our place within Mill City Church as we continue trying to keep up with Jesus. We met with one of the pastors this evening and a member of the leadership team, and had what I would call a loving and truthful discussion about what our next steps can and should be. The result of that conversation is that we felt affirmed in being “sent, not stuck,” and we are grateful for that. As we move on, an offer was made to share any language with the covenant members of Mill City that would communicate directly from us what we are doing and why. Here’s the language I gave, which obviously I’m sharing here too:

Our family has been on a journey with Jesus over the past year that has resulted in our lives being radically transformed and turned upside down. Becoming a part of Mill City Church when we did has been an essential part of that process. As we keep trying to listen to and keep up with Jesus, we now hear him sending us into a new phase that will mean no longer being a regular part of this community. Please know that as we move on we do so with a keen sense of having been empowered and equipped while part of Mill City Church to do the work that is now laid out for us elsewhere. Thus, being a part of this church was an essential step down our path of discipleship, and we could not make these next steps without having done so. Please know, then, how grateful we are for our sojourn with you, and know that we will pray that you keep listening to Jesus for your next steps as a church as you continue to join God in what he’s already doing and seek to love your communities in his name.

Devolution and Getting In The (Right) Way

I like MPR’s caption for this photo from their story about Church of All Nations here in the Twin Cities: “Young Christians in the hallway.” Indeed, they’re not just young Christians; they’re young Christians who are part of a church with no dominant ethnic group.

It was this heartfelt talk (click the link) in the wake of the recent events in Charlottesville that did it for me, really. I mean it. You can just stop reading now and listen to this talk. If the only thing this post accomplishes is to get you to listen to this “sermon” (he says it’s not really a sermon) by Pastor Jin S. Kim of Church of All Nations here in the Twin Cities, my work here will be done.  I’ve known about Church of All Nations (CAN) for a little while. I don’t quite remember how it came across my radar. It may have been because CAN is one of the few churches here in the Twin Cities that has cell groups, and actually calls them cell groups, thus indicating, one would think, at least some familiarity with the concept. As I’ve mentioned many times, it was a cell group based church in Philly, Circle of Hope, that we were a part of in two stints from ’96-’98 and from ’03-’05 and which remains so very formative in terms of my imagination for what the church can and should be. It’s why I keep talking about it. Over the past year, though, I’ve come across CAN repeatedly.

I’ll say more about CAN in a moment, but first let’s talk about the central theme of what I and my family have been learning over the past year- “getting small.” Remember, we’re learning to give away privilege and power so that we can relate to the Empire of our day (the violent, capitalistic U.S. one) the way that Jesus and the first of his followers related to theirs (the violent, Mammon loving Roman one), from “under, not over.” We’re trying to get “small” and maybe even get into “Paul’s slavish shoes” a bit so that we can better be slaves for Jesus, just as he slaved for us. Here’s the post again that unpacks all this better than I ever could. On my break at work I often walk from the building I work in up to my alma mater, Luther Seminary. Yesterday as I was thinking on my walk back to work a word came to mind: devolution.

Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary online says about devolution.

I’m most interested in the first part of the first definition: “the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level.” This really gets at what I mean when I talk about “getting small.” Note that I don’t mean the “formal” sense of the word, “descent to a lower or worse state” because a lower state socioeconomically in U.S. empire is not “worse” than my more privileged one. If anything, I am in the “worse” state because my power and privilege insulates me from the reality of my need for a Savior. Indeed, if “getting small” has to do with decentering “whiteness” and relinquishing at least a few of the many privileges I enjoy because of my skin tone, if it has to do with recognizing that nothing belongs to me and that private property is a concept foreign to God’s economy and his kingdom- and therefore if I have two coats while my brother or sister have none it is incumbent upon me to give him one and apologize for keeping what God clearly gave me to give to him- if all this is true, then my aim is to transfer the worldly power that has accrued to me unjustly. My responsibility is to delegate the influence I’ve been given to my brothers or sisters who exist on a “lower level” in worldly society. I have to get small, and close, to those on the margins of secular society that I want to love and serve and be loved and served by and learn from, because solidarity requires proximity. Thus, this has been a year of devolution, and it’s far from over.

You may recall, then, that Ched Myers has been a big influence in our year of devolution in 2017. His book Sabbath Economics had a follow-up book written by Matthew Colwell, Sabbath Economics: Household Practices, which was one of the books we read in January that helped launch us down this path. It was in that book that we learned that “solidarity requires proximity,” and in regard to Jesus’ phrase  “the poor will always be with you,” it was Ched who said that this saying by Jesus “…is not about the inevitability of poverty but about the social location of the church.” Anyway, Ched does great work, including his recent book Watershed Discipleship, which I’m eager to read some day. Ched is part of Bartimeus Cooperative Ministries, and they help run this little site I discovered this year called Radical Discipleship. Among the great resources that site offers, one is a list of “Communities of Discontinuity.” These are communities around the country that are in some way trying to embody resistance to Empire in order to follow Jesus instead. On that page they quote Ched in one of his seminal works, Who Will Roll Away the Stone, in which he said that “…we are attempting to live in ways incongruous with and even defective from the expectations of our gender, race, and class.” Sounds a bit like devolution, doesn’t it? So among these communities of discontinuity are Circle of Hope, of course, and also South Street Ministries in Akron that we were also a part of at one time and whose pastor, Duane Crabbs, we have great affection for. Carnivale de Resistance and Christian Peacemaker Teams are listed. The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker is as well along with the Mennonite Worker here in the Twin Cities, which is run by Mark Van Steenwyk, whom we’ve been privileged to partner with of late. Rutba House, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s intentional community, is listed, as is The Simple Way, where Shane Claiborne got his start. And then there’s the Underground Seminary, also here in the Twin Cities.

When I clicked that Underground Seminary link for the first time, I discovered that it is run by CAN, and so I encountered them again. Incidentally, I also discovered that it was amazing and I wished that I could perhaps have gone there for seminary instead of where I did. Pastor Kim says that they started the Underground Seminary because in his work with pastoral interns at CAN he found that he kept getting “exasperated by the arduous task of deprogramming seminary grads” and so “thought it’d be better to equip them to be radical disciples from the start.” That said, when I went to seminary the Underground Seminary didn’t exist and I doubt I would have been ready for it if it had.

I mentioned Mark Van Steenwyk of the Mennonite Worker above. His is a radical voice that I appreciate, and it turns out that he and Pastor Kim are good friends. They’re both local, and Pastor Kim wrote the afterword for one of Mark’s books.  Mark also interviewed Pastor Kim for the amazing Iconocast podcast, which Mark used to be involved with. It’s another worthy listen. And then in this article, Mark quotes Dr. King, who spoke of a “mythical concept of time” by which “white” moderates “paternalistically believe” they “can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” by advising black folk to wait for a more “convenient” time to pursue civil rights. Regarding the myth alluded to above, Mark says:

But our myths weren’t born on the streets. They were forged in the pulpits of thousands of congregations. As my dear friend, Pastor Jin Kim of Church of All Nations, says: “The church provides the foot soldiers for the American Empire.”

If you’ve been reading this blog and know anything about me, can you see why I might like Pastor Kim? Here’s one more pearl of wisdom from him, just to drive home the point. In a two-part article for Sojourners, he wrote:

The meaning of evangelism is the proclamation of good news to the world. How can we continue to exclude and avoid those with whom we are not comfortable and live into our evangelical calling at the same time? If we do not shed this primitive tendency, and yet heed the call to be evangelical, do we not risk exporting our ecclesial tribalism far and wide? How can we say we are evangelical if the good news is not good for the whole world? If the gospel is proclaimed under the rubric of the homogeneous unit principle, I would argue that this is distorted news, even false news. The acid test of evangelism must be: Is this good news for the poor?

But the church has largely forgotten the poor, instead focusing on the perceived poverty of individual rights driven by debates over human sexuality and ordination. What about plain old poverty driven by the historic legacy of racism, a politics seemingly motivated by a preferential option for the rich, and the exploitation of the newly arrived on American shores?

A Local Community of Discontinuity

So Pastor Kim is pastor of Church of All Nations, which has kind of an amazing story. The people of Circle of Hope talk often about the “new humanity,” in which “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For example, among Circle of Hope’s proverbs, they say:

◉ We are always trying to stretch across barriers: across racial/ethnic, class and cultural divides.

◉ Racial reconciliation is a matter of demanding justice, not just peace.

◉ A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.

◉ We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represents the new humanity.

Such reconciliation is what CAN is all about, and about which they say: “Our central mission is to do the ministry of reconciliation.” This shows, as CAN is one of the most diverse congregations, I suspect, in the country. As Pastor Kim wrote about CAN in 2010:

This quote comes from this book.

Though according to this 2012 MPR story about CAN, there is a growing number of people of European descent that make up CAN, their commitment to embodying the new humanity is evident. As a Presbyterian congregation, they have deacons. There are 10 of them, and 8 of those ten are women. In most churches, it’s the other way around. There are 17 folks on staff (I don’t know how many are paid), and 9 of them are women, while 10 represent ethnic minorities. About all this diversity and the promise and potential pitfalls it represents, they say:

Many of us who began this journey assumed that we would be dealing with much more conflict as many cultures and worldviews add to the complexity of congregational dynamics. What we have discovered, to our delight, is the exact opposite. The very decision to join a church in which one chooses to be a minority seems to draw the kind of people who are willing to “lay down their sword” of power and privilege. The Korean American founders had to set the example first. Today, we all seem to be caught up in a virtuous cycle of who can lift up and value other individuals and cultures, to “consider others better than oneself.” The culture of public confession, corporate repentance, joyful celebration and vulnerable relationality that we have cultivated here is key to understanding the dynamism and eschatological hope evident in our life together.

This language of “laying down one’s sword of power and privilege” is obviously music to my ears, and as suggested above, I am indeed drawn to this church, but I’ll say more about that later. For now, just note that such language again is very much in keeping with “getting small,” with the year of devolution in 2017 that I’ve been describing.

Part of that devolution, though, indeed part of that giving up of power and privilege, has very much for us meant also quite really, if not literally, laying down one’s sword. As I’ve said, in the Sermon on the Mount, on the cross, and in our lives we’ve heard Jesus repeatedly calling us to renounce violence in all its forms, and so we’ve yearned to be part of a faith community that also understands this to be at the heart of the gospel. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered this bit of writing by Pastor Kim, in which, speaking of Jesus, he says:

He will not wage war to bring peace. He will not use violence to end violence. In Jesus Christ the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox, will break bread together. In Jesus Christ “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Our impulses of impatience, vengeance and violence will be changed, not by a violent inauguration of the last dispensation, but by the eschatological pull of God’s kingdom on all creation, old and new. When Jesus suffered violence on the cross without retaliating, he emptied violence of its power once and for all. Violence itself was crucified in Jesus.

Hearing the notion that violence itself was crucified on the cross with Jesus was somehow new to me in 2017. I heard it in Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove’s book The Awakening of Hope, in which a chapter is titled, “Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill.” Then, of course, I heard it in spades in both of the Brian Zahnd books I read this year, A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, as well as in Greg Boyd’s magnum opus which I’ve started reading and heard him speak about, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Meanwhile, Pastor Kim has been writing and talking about this at least since 2010.

So let’s review. 2017 has been our year of devolution as we’ve worked on “getting small” so that we can follow Jesus “from under, not over.” Inherent in that effort is a recognition of history and an awareness of our standing vis-a-vis the larger culture. That is, we live in the shadow of an Empire more powerful than the Roman one that loomed large in the culture of Jesus’ day and in the imaginations of many of the Biblical writers. Our relationship to that Empire, inasmuch as it makes claims and seeks power and control that properly belongs to Jesus and his kingdom, must be one of resistance. As Jesus followers we must resist not just consumerism but capitalism itself. We must resist not just “bad guys with guns” but violence itself, including that which is so frequently engaged in around the world with impunity by the U.S. government, not to mention in local police forces around the country. We must not accommodate Mammon and Empire- the powers and principalities- but by living into God’s economy, renouncing violence, and pledging allegiance to Christ and his kingdom alone, we must therefore subvert Mammon and Empire.

Another photo from MPR’s story. There are flags in CAN’s sanctuary, probably even a U.S. one in there somewhere, but including the U.S. flag as one of dozens rather than holding it up on par with the “Christian” one is a subversive act that puts Empire in its place.

Still Trying to Keep Up With Jesus

Church of All Nations (CAN) is a community that “gets” all this, and more. They’re organized, at least partially, in cell groups. They started an “underground seminary” to raise up radical disciples who don’t have to be deprogrammed of their imperial, capitalistic outlook. They have a staff person whose job, in part, is to help organize the intentional community houses that are connected to their church. In short, there is much, much to like about this faith community. I know it’s not perfect. It can’t be. But they embody a prophetic witness that is simply remarkable.

So why am I writing about all this? As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, Kirsten and I have struggled for some months now to find our place within Mill City Church. We have so appreciated that faith community over the past year that we’ve been a part of it. It was within Mill City Church, after all, that we heard the call to get small and renounce violence, to take seriously our responsibility to follow Jesus by renouncing any kingdom that is not his so that we can “give to God what is God’s” (our allegiance, our loyalty, our very lives; in short, everything). Of all the puzzle pieces God put together to lead us in our year of devolution so far, being part of Mill City Church was a crucial one.

That said, the more we’ve learned along the way, the more marginalized within Mill City Church we’ve felt. This is probably a good thing. We are, after all, trying to get closer to those “on the margins.” However, it seems the call to radical discipleship and the conclusions we’ve reached about what it means for us are not shared by, according to one of Mill City’s pastors, “anyone else” within the church. Nor, we were told, would that call be included overtly in any of the teaching of Mill City’s pastors any time soon. Thus, in a recent meeting with two of Mill City’s pastors, it was made clear to us that if we are to continue on the path we’re on and remain part of Mill City Church as we do so, it will, at the very least, be a very lonely journey. We know that the path we’re trying to walk is a “narrow one that few find.” So on the one hand this served as something of a confirmation that we were moving in the right direction, but it really put in stark relief what we would be up against as we tried to keep moving in that direction within this church. As I said in a sub-heading in another recent post, “we followed Jesus into Mill City Church. Jesus kept moving.”

So it is with mixed feelings that I write that we will be moving on too. It was made clear to us again that we would be alone within Mill City Church if we kept trying to follow Jesus the way we feel called to. We can live with that, but we don’t want to be a distraction, or worse, a divisive element within a church that may not be everything we thought or hoped it was. Thus, as I recently told someone in an email, “there are times when it has seemed that in order to follow Jesus we’d have to abandon the church altogether. We’re praying we’re wrong about that, because we know we can’t follow Jesus alone, especially if we’re trying to resist violent, capitalistic U.S. culture as we do so.”

And that just brings me back to all I said above about CAN. You can see, I hope, why it would be an attractive faith community to us. All the things we’ve been learning this year they’ve been living for more than a few. Still, none of that was sufficient to cause us to jump ship from Mill City and start over again among Church of All Nations. However, the talk I linked to at the very top of this post was sufficient, at least enough to cause us to want to give CAN a try. It’s that talk that I listened to, jaw slightly agape, and then got Kirsten and listened to again with her. This talk is remarkable, in no small part because of the fact that in it Pastor Kim tells the truth about history when he calls the U.S. a “racist” and “fascist” state, and does so right from the pulpit, fearlessly. Beyond that, though, I found as I listened to it that I had another epiphany.

The U.S. Is A Racist, Fascist State

I was reminded that one of Mill City’s pastors had a 5 minute “family meeting” before giving their regular sermon in the wake of the events in Charlottesville. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but an effort was made to call out the injustice occurring and call us as Jesus followers to renounce racism and resist it. It was good, but it was brief, and then the pastor moved on to the bulk, and arguably the substance, of their prepared remarks. Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing what happened at Mill City’s worship gathering that morning. At least the events in Charlottesville were mentioned and racism was called out, which is more than occurred after the Jeronimo Yanez verdict, for example (and the preacher on that Sunday has publicly apologized for saying nothing about it). I do, however, want to contrast what happened at Mill City’s gathering with what happened at CAN’s after the events of Charlottesville, because the difference is instructive. Pastor Kim had a “family meeting” in his talk too, but that meeting was the substance of his remarks. It’s all he talked about, and he spent not 5 minutes doing so, but 40. And he told the truth. He didn’t say something about “racism” generally as a factor that some individuals in Charlottesville allowed to motivate them to do hateful things. He said the U.S. was itself a racist, not to mention fascist, state. And he did this with authority that none of Mill City’s pastors could ever have, because they’re European American, while Pastor Kim is not, and neither are the majority of his staff. Nor is CAN itself dominated by any one ethnic group, while Mill City is far and away, from the looks of things on Sunday probably 95% or more, made up of people of European descent. In other words, save for some notable exceptions, Mill City is all “white.”

So as I listened to the urgency in Pastor Kim’s voice as he described what could happen if racist, fascist forces eventually “came for” people of color in this country and perhaps for “people of color- lovers” too- just as Nazis eventually “came for” Jews in Hitler’s Germany- it struck me that it was only in a context of proximity to people of color that the impetus to do more than just “stand in solidarity” with the oppressed in some metaphorical sense gains the traction that it needs. The pastor that gave that 5 minute talk about Charlottesville to all the “white” people who make up Mill City is to be praised for, and often speaks herself about, all her efforts over the years to cultivate relationships with people of color and build bridges, etc. That is indeed very praiseworthy. But when you’re sitting in an auditorium again full of “white” people, she could even have said everything Pastor Kim said about Charlottesville, and the words simply wouldn’t have held the power that they did when Pastor Kim said them. A “white” person preaching to “white” people about loving black folks and resisting racism is all very well and good, but I kind of doubt it will change much. On the other hand, a “white” person such as myself who hears those same words spoken by a non-“white” person who says them to a congregation that is filled with people of color from many nations around the globe is moved to act.

Our Place Is Not Between the Rescuer and Those In Need Of Rescue. Our Place Is Between the Oppressor and Those They Would Oppress.

Pastor Kim gave a great analogy in his talk about a loved one in need of rescue. If you’re separated from that loved one in grave danger by a crowd of people who may have the best intentions in the world, but who aren’t paying attention to your loved one’s cry, then they become a formidable barrier to any effort to get to and save your loved one. As Pastor Kim said, the crowd that is in the way might be very well-meaning, but if they’re not “woke,” if they’re not actively trying to save your loved one too or at least getting out of the way so that you can, they remain part of the problem. As I listened to this, I realized that my friend Jesse who’s pursuing his PhD at Temple, working largely on matters of race and the church, is right. For some time, as far as I know, he’s been convicted that he and his family as “white” folks follow Jesus best if they do so as part of a black church. Solidarity requires proximity, as I keep saying. If people of color in this country need “white” folks to not just build bridges and have good intentions, but to really be in solidarity with them, then proximity is necessary. We need to be close enough to be “in the way,” but not as a barrier between the rescuer and the oppressed. We need to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed. So long, then, as I and my family remained in the mostly “white” Mill City Church, we remained “in the way” in the worst kind of way. So we followed Jesus into Mill City Church, but Jesus kept moving.

Granted, CAN is not a mostly black church any more than it’s a mostly “white” one. But I don’t think there will be ethnic neighborhoods in the New Jerusalem. I know every congregation probably realistically can’t be as diverse as CAN, but if CAN is a microcosm of the new humanity, if it’s a “foretaste of the feast to come,” it’s a prophetic reality worth striving for. So where no truly diverse congregation like CAN is available, I think “white” folks ought to be “all in” in a local black church. Then at least the oppressed are not an abstract ideal to love metaphorically as you educate yourself and try to get “woke,” often from a distance; instead, they are your friends and neighbors, your brothers and sisters in Christ with whom you worship on Sunday and work at being the Church together, however hard that might be. That said, we are blessed to live now about 4 miles from where CAN has their building, and so for all the reasons above, we feel very called to keep following Jesus into their midst. Who knows what will happen? What I hope, though, is that instead of being “in the way” in the worst possible way as a well-intentioned “white” person standing between  the rescuer and those in need of rescue, we will instead find ourselves “in the way” in the “right” way, that is, on the way with Jesus, along the way of the cross. Lord, let it be so.

On a final note, I should add that I don’t regret our time among Mill City Church in the least. I think being a part of this church was a necessary step in our journey. It turns out it was just a step, but we couldn’t make this next one without having made that one. Thus, we are very grateful for our time among them, and hope to continue our relationships with those from Mill City that want to. After all, we’re all trying to follow Jesus. Sometimes this involves moving rapidly along the way. Sometimes it seems like no progress is made at all. Sometimes we move in the wrong direction. As I’ve repeatedly said, Kirsten and I spent the better part of 20 years hardly following at all in many ways. Still, Jesus keeps calling us. Lord willing, we’ll all keep trying to answer, and follow, and keep up with him. Again, Lord, let it be so.

Radical Discipleship Will Get You In Trouble

I love this depiction of a realistic looking Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount (image credit).

Not So Fast?

If you happen to be one of the very few who read my recent post “How Small, Exactly?”, you’ll find it’s been updated and may want to read it again, as it has bearing on what is to follow. In that post I alluded to the struggle we’ve had of late to put into practice what we’ve been learning in 2017 about getting “small,” about pursing God’s economy rather than the economies of this world, and about peacemaking. As we’ve tried to implement those lessons, we’ve encountered resistance, perhaps not surprisingly. What has been surprising is the struggle we’re now having to discern our place within the faith community in which we’ve learned so much over the past year. That struggle is real, and ongoing. Our prayer is that if we really have been following Jesus as we’ve made all the changes we’ve been making of late, we pray then that he will continue to lead us, and that we will trust him to do so. We pray for humility in what we do, as this must be an essential part of getting “small.” If we really did spend much of our adult lives trying- and failing- to serve both God and Mammon, if we’ve been trying- and failing- to be faithful citizens of both God’s peaceable kingdom and the violent, warlike USAmerican empire, but we now believe ourselves to be “woke” to this truth, then it’s likely that we’re missing the point if we mistake whatever progress we’ve made in our recent awakening over the past year for having finally “arrived.” We will always be in process. We will always be on the way. It is a “way,” after all, that we are to be people of, just like the first Jesus followers.

Again, What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said?

So much of what we’ve been learning has to do with the call to radical discipleship as outlined by Jesus in his words in the Sermon on the Mount. How many sermons, I wonder, have been preached about “building your house (of faith) on the rock,” and how many of those had anything to do with Jesus’ context for that teaching? The context was the Sermon on the Mount, and the wise builder whose house is built on the rock is like the one who hears Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and puts them into practice. So many of the clichés of cultural Christianity- “the wide and narrow path/gate,” the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule, “building your house on the rock”- literally ALL of these are found in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus has what every day look more and more to me like two big foci: peacemaking/renouncing violence as a means for empire building and radical generosity (and therefore renouncing not just consumerism but capitalism and every other worldly economic system). In fact, near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus explicitly links the two as the directive to “give to those who ask of us” and “not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from us” is rooted in his talk about enemy love.

So peacemaking for Jesus, as he taught it in the Sermon on the Mount, isn’t merely about conflict resolution. It’s a radical call to renounce violence. Regarding this call to nonviolence, Jesus says:

  • Blessed are the merciful

  • Blessed are the peacemakers

  • You have heard it was said, “don’t murder,” but I tell you, don’t be angry/be reconciled

  • You have heard it was said “eye for eye…” but I tell you, don’t resist an evil person/turn the other cheek

  • You have heard it was said “love your neighbor,” but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Regarding the call to radical generosity and renunciation of the world’s economies in favor of God’s, Jesus teaches:

  • If anyone wants to take your shirt, give your coat too

  • If anyone (a Roman soldier, likely) forces you to go one mile, go two

  • Give to the one who asks of you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

All of these directives about generosity so far are sandwiched between teaching about enemy love, suggesting for those of who are rich that we might think of the poor as our enemy because they want what we’ve been hoarding. Likewise, in telling his listeners to love their enemies, Jesus contrasts love for enemies with what “tax collectors” do, namely loving those who love them. “Tax collectors” in Jesus’ day were complicit in the economic control exerted on the people by the occupying imperial force (Rome). Often/usually they lined their own pockets by collecting more taxes even than were required; so not only were tax collectors complicit in the control exerted by a violent occupying force, perhaps even worse, they were greedy. Repeatedly Jesus seems to link violence and Mammon. We would do well to pay attention to this.

The Next Time You Are About to Pray the Lord’s Prayer, Maybe Think Twice?

Jesus’ call to radical generosity in the Sermon on the Mount continues when he says that when you give to the “needy” (he assumes you do), do it in secret. Then comes what is perhaps one of the most shocking calls to radical generosity in the many that are to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, and it comes in a very unexpected and familiar passage- the Lord’s Prayer. In the prayer Jesus taught us, he says to pray for our daily bread. Even two millennia later, the linking of “bread” and “daily” brings to mind God’s provision of manna from heaven for the Israelites as they were wandering in the desert for forty years. Daily, God sent bread from heaven for their sustenance. They were told to gather what they needed and not to try to store it overnight, because it would spoil, and it did. Thus each day they had to depend on God for just what they needed for that day. Each morning was an invitation to trust God anew for that day’s mercies, which were indeed “new every morning.” Remarkably, though, as the people gathered each day’s manna, it was said that “the one who gathered much did not have too much,” and “the one who gathered little did not have too little.” Later, Paul instructs the church in Corinth to share with the church in Macedonia, which was experiencing “extreme poverty.” Was the Macedonian church miserly in the midst of their poverty? NO! Instead, “in the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” The less they had, the more they gave. So in telling the Corinthian church to share, Paul says that equality is what is to be sought. At that time the Corinthian church had more and the Macedonian church less; so the Corinthian church should give to the Macedonian church. At another time, the Macedonian church might have more and the Corinthian church less, and then it would be incumbent upon the Macedonian church to give to the Corinthian one. Either way, resources were to redistributed so that all would have enough. Paul nails down his point by reminding the Corinthian church of the “bread from heaven,” and that “the one who gathered much did not have too much,” while “the one who gathered little did not have too little.” Why? Because they shared! SO, when Jesus tells us to pray for our “daily bread,” he’s reminding us to trust God each day for what we need. He’s reminding us to share what we’re given, and not keep more than what we need for today (more on that later). And to make it super clear, “give us this day our daily bread” gets linked with an “and” to “forgive us our sin.” Is the implication of this pairing that it’s sinful to keep more “bread” than you need for today?

Generous Eyes and a Firm Foundation

Jesus drives home the point with further instruction on radical sharing and generosity. He says:

  • Store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be

  • The “eye is the lamp of the body,” and if your eyes are “generous,” your whole body will be full of light, but if your eyes are “stingy,” the reverse is true (read the footnotes in your Bible)

  • Don’t worry about food or clothes, because if God provides for the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, he will do so for us. Therefore, we are not to worry about tomorrow. Almost always the preaching about this comes down to “don’t worry.” Rarely does it look at the implications of not worrying about food and clothes and trusting God for tomorrow’s bread. Jesus states them clearly though: seek first his kingdom. In other words, don’t be caught up in the pursuit of the “American dream” or any other dream for the world or your own life that isn’t consistent with God’s kingdom, with God’s dream for the world he made. In God’s kingdom, there is abundance, not scarcity, even now. Why? How? Because if we would but practice the radical generosity and sharing that Jesus is trying to teach us, then “he who gathers much would not gather too much,” nor “he who gathers little, too little.” Thus the rich will not be rich for long, nor the poor, poor for long, again because we share. We give to those who ask of us, not worrying if we give away the “bread” we think we need for tomorrow. We’re not to worry about tomorrow, for “each day has enough trouble of its own.”

  • In Jesus’ teaching about “asking” (“…and it will be given to you”), “seeking” (“…and you will find”), and “knocking” (“…and the door will be opened to you”), the point he seems to make is that if we imperfect folks know how to give good gifts to our children, won’t God do the same and more for us? “So in everything,” Jesus says (in other words, therefore), “do to others as we would have them do to us,” for “this is the Law and the Prophets.” In other words, this simple, golden “rule,” sums up Jesus’ whole Bible, the only one he knew, the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. So if we were hungry today and our brother had more than enough bread for today, wouldn’t we want him to share some with us? If our sister had two coats and we had none, wouldn’t we want her to give one to us? We should do likewise. Jesus’ very next words are about the “wide” and “narrow” gates. The implication seems to be that treating others as we want to be treated (peacefully and with radical generosity, I would argue) is the “narrow gate” that few find.

The Sermon on the Mount ends with talk of “building one’s house on the rock,” a firm foundation in the midst of storms. Jesus says the person who hears his words in the Sermon on the Mount and puts them into practice is like the wise builder who builds on rock rather than sand. How is it, then, that anyone who would follow Jesus does not devote all their time and energy to building such a house? How could I and my family do any less, and, crucially, who’s ready to join us?

How Small, Exactly?

Image Credit

Recently I’ve written about the call we’ve been experiencing in 2017 to get “small.” Over the past few days I’ve been experiencing the implications of that call in profoundly new ways, as I’ve been forced to consider just how “small,” exactly, we’re supposed to get. Remember, this is about getting “small” enough, first of all, to know what it’s like to need a Savior. As solidly “middle class” people of European descent in the U.S., our wealth, privilege, and power is so great that we seldom experience a moment in which the myth of independence and self-sufficiency is exposed for the lie that it is. So long as we follow the dictates of the USAmerican consumer capitalist culture we’re immersed in, we could go on being rooted in our identity as consumers and so could go on consuming (and being consumed) with little thought or fanfare for the rest of our lives. Of course, we know we must resist this so that our identity as beloved children of our father in heaven can be restored. Resist, and restore. This must be the rhythm of our life, a very different life indeed than would otherwise be in store for us, and a very different life indeed than most of our neighbors. To live such a life, alternativity is required.

Small(er) Debt

So we knew getting “small” meant beginning to give away some of our privilege and power. Since becoming convinced of this, we’ve been working to position ourselves so that we can. Initially we needed to free ourselves from the debt slavery we’ve allowed ourselves to be shackled with. The larger USAmerican consumer capitalist culture we’re immersed in would have us believe scarcity is true, but this is a lie. According to this lie, there’s never enough- resources, time, money, etc. So it doesn’t matter how much money you bring home in this culture, you always think you “need” a little more to be happy, and often it doesn’t matter how much money you actually have as you can just borrow what you “need” in order to make up the difference between the money you have and the money “necessary” to make you happy. Many years ago now the U.S. moved to a consumption based economy, and because the powers and principalities that currently shape U.S. society have convinced us that the secular economy should experience perpetual growth, therefore U.S. citizens must continue to consume more and more and more even as “real” wages stagnate or fall. So not only is this a consumption based secular economy, it’s a debt-based one. My family and I mostly went along with this for the the two decades of our adult life so far, somehow thinking we were still following Jesus as we did so. We mostly weren’t. Anyway, we’ve now been rapidly paying down debt as fast as we can, which suddenly became possible, thanks be to God, when we started consuming less. As I’ve said, we got rid of smartphones and “cut the cord” again and moved to a smaller, cheaper space and gave away a car (that we’re still paying for). We quit contributing to retirement and savings accounts (which I now call “exercises in functional atheism”), though we haven’t given up our life insurance accounts (maybe one day we’ll be trusting and faithful enough to do so). All of this made it possible for us to further reduce expenses by again paying down as much debt as we can as fast as we can.

Small(er) Space and a Small(er) Geographical Radius

So getting “small” so far has meant having less debt, fewer cars, less “stuff,” and less living space to put any “stuff” in. It’s meant, for me, biking to work and not having access to a car most of the time when Kirsten is gone with it and I’m home alone or home with the boys. Consequently, it’s meant having a smaller geographical radius in which to operate, a fact which was also true generally for me as since we moved to NE Minneapolis and I changed jobs I have been living, working, and worshipping within about a two mile radius. So as I said, when Kirsten is gone with the car and I want to go somewhere, I can’t go any further than I (and maybe the kids) can bike to. There’s a whole post someday to be written just about the theological implications of that “small” fact, but I digress.

Proximity

All of this still begs the question of why this is so important. I’ve alluded to some reasons above, but we’re not only getting “small” so that we can experience what it’s like to need a Savior from time to time. We’re also doing so in order to get closer to those we would feel called to be in solidarity with, the “least of these,” those “on the margins” of society, etc. We became convinced that “solidarity requires proximity” (hence the title of this blog), and we can’t be very close to those we can’t relate to. We can’t be very close to those that are routinely oppressed by the powers and the powerful in USAmerican society so long as we remain on the side of the oppressors, among the powerful. So we’re not just trying to “downsize.” We’re trying to keep up with Jesus as we keep finding him among the powerless. Our move to NE Minneapolis was a step in this direction, but likely only a halting first step. We’re now getting a better sense of what some of the next steps might look like, though in an admittedly painful, unexpected way.

We Followed Jesus into Mill City Church. Jesus Kept Moving.

In my 50 or so posts since about a year ago, I’ve written quite a bit about our discovery of, and involvement in, Mill City Church. At the moment that involvement is being severely tested. Without going into details here, what I will say is that the “short” of it is that as they listen to God and try to join what he’s already doing, they seem to be pulled in one direction. As we attempt to do the same, we sense that we’re being pulled in another. Does this mean that we must part ways with the faith community in which we’ve learned so much over the past year, in no small part because we’ve learned so much and want to put those lessons into practice? That remains to be seen.

A Small(er) Road and Gate on the Way That Leads to Life

Having said that, what now? As we’ve been working on getting “small” and realizing how much renouncing violence is an integral part of that, we’ve been drawn again and again to the Sermon on the Mount. It was in the Sermon on the Mount that we learned how to work on becoming “children of our Father in heaven.” It was there that we learned that the Lord’s Prayer was part of Jesus’ sermon series on generosity, that we are to pray only for today’s bread, the now obvious implication being that if we get more than today’s “bread,” it’s so that we can share with our neighbors in need. I now know that there is a reason why “give us this day our daily bread” is linked (at least in most of our English translations), with an “and,” to “forgive us our sin,” for it is sinful indeed to keep more bread than we need for today so long as our neighbor is hungry (and again, if we don’t know any hungry neighbors, it’s only because of how much proximity matters). It’s sinful to have two coats or more while our neighbors have none. To pray for God’s kingdom to come means to live as if it has, and in God’s kingdom economy, scarcity is not the norm; abundance is. God the giver made us to be givers too, and it’s high time we started living like it.

In any case, the ending of the Sermon on the Mount is just as important as the rest of it. In that ending Jesus tells us how to have a sure foundation for our faith, how to keep close to him in the midst of the many “storms” of life. He says:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” 28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Thus it seems clear that for Jesus, if not for many of us, living out his words in the Sermon on the Mount remains the best way to have a sure foundation for one’s faith. The “rock” upon which the “house” of our faith is to be built is not saying the “sinner’s prayer” or having “devotionals.” It has nothing to do with one’s theology about hell or who gets “saved” or who can marry. Instead, according to Jesus, if you want be like a wise person who builds their house on a rock, you simply have to hears his words in the Sermon on the Mount and put them into practice. What does this look like? What do these wise people do? They give to those who ask of them, and do not resist an evil person violently, so that they can be children of their father in heaven. They do not worry about tomorrow, about what they will eat or drink or wear, because they know that he who takes care of the birds and flowers will take care of them. Therefore they know to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and so they ask only for today’s bread and do not keep more than they need for today, especially while they have more than one coat and their neighbor has none. In short, they treat others like they would want to be treated, for this is the narrow gate, the narrow door that leads to life. Not only do these wise folks refrain from killing; they don’t hate. Not only do they keep from committing adultery; they don’t lust. These “rules,” of course, are for relationship. They point to that narrow path, that narrow door that leads to life.

So the answer to the question of “what now?” seems as plain as Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount. What’s happening to us right now feels a bit like a storm, but we know how to feel secure in the midst of it. We will redouble our efforts to love our neighbor, to get as “small” and close to our small, marginalized neighbors as we can so that we can love them from a position of solidarity. We didn’t imagine that getting small as we try to keep up with Jesus would challenge our ability to keep participating in the faith community we so recently followed him into, but so be it. I didn’t imagine that getting small would mean quitting not only Facebook but also Twitter and wavering back and forth between whether or not to make this blog private, but again, so be it. I do not want to be one of the many on the wide path that are out there promoting their “Christian” brand complete with logos and related web content in various formats. If my message is my life, I don’t need to promote it. It should be enough for me for the poor to know that I love them because I am their neighbor and friend, and perhaps someday am one of them. If I do manage to get small enough to be one of them, I’ll not only know what it’s like to need a Savior; with profound new depth, I’ll know what it’s like to have one.

Chariots and Horses

Image HT

Hit play above and give this song, another gift to the church from the folks that make up Circle of Hope in Philly, a listen as you read. It’s based on Psalm 20, in which David says:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

I discovered the song when I came across this post by Jonny Rashid, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors. If you don’t get anything from what I write below, hit the link in the line above and just read Jonny’s post. Maybe God’s Spirit will speak to you through him. It was written over a year ago, but remains timely, especially in light of the recently released “Nashville Statement,” because, as Jonny says, “Christians in this fight (the fight for the culture, or ‘culture wars’) are discerning what hills to die on. Excluding gay people seems to be an important hill for them.” In Jonny’s post he links to the song above, and includes these lyrics from it:

I won’t put my trust in chariots or horses
I won’t put my trust in them.
I won’t put my trust in that empty promise
I won’t put my trust in them.

My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ
Who takes the old and broke and makes it new
I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin,
And to love is what He shows us to do.

This song is an anthem for our time. Not putting our trust in chariots or horses- or guns or bombs or violence of any kind- is one of the primary challenges of our time, and every time. Likewise, if my ears serve me, verse 2 of the song goes:

I won’t put my trust in gold or earthly riches
I won’t put my trust in them.
I won’t put my trust in that empty promise
I won’t put my trust in them.

My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ
Who takes the old and broke and makes it new
I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin,
And to love is what He shows us to do.

Again, not putting our trust in treasure that we can store up here on earth in our checking and savings accounts, in our money market accounts and 401k’s, is (along with the call to renounce violence) probably the biggest barrier to following Jesus we “rich young rulers” in the U.S. face. So….what a song.

I bring up the song because it so obviously touches on the two big things we’ve been learning this year, both of which have to do with how very counter-cultural following Jesus really is because:

  1. Much of what Jesus seems to have to say to us has to do with recognizing that everything belongs to God the giver who made us to be givers too and calls us to participate in his economy rather than the economies of the world. In God’s economy, there is abundance, not scarcity. In God’s economy, we share; we don’t hoard and accumulate for ourselves. In God’s economy, we’re not mere consumers; we’re stewards. In God’s economy, we are blessed to be a blessing such that if our neighbor has no coat while we have two, we are to give him one, with our apology for hoarding what God gave us clearly for the express purpose of passing on to him. Thus, capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from. I could go on, and already have.
  2. We have been charged with being heralds of the gospel of peace. We are to be peacemakers and agents of shalom. Just as God calls us to reject Mammon in order to serve him, he calls us to reject violence in all its forms because the One we follow is the Prince of Peace. Thus, not only do we reject capitalism and all the economies of this world, we also are to reject war and capital punishment and violent entertainment and every other way that the principalities, powers, and empires of this world seek to ensnare us in the culture of violence, usually in service of the economy or so that we can protect our (rich) “way of life,” etc.

Rejecting capitalism/Mammon and giving up violence obviously puts one at odds with empire, and thus “narrow is the road that leads to life,” indeed, and indeed “only a few find it.” Though again few seem to find this narrow road, it seems to me that there is a preponderance of Scripture that makes it clear that we are to participate in God’s abundant economy by sharing the many good gifts God has given us. We read a lot in Scripture about peacemaking too, especially in the New Testament, but there’s also plenty that seems to paint God as a violent god that endorses violence and tells his followers to participate in it. Some of the most “troubling texts” in Scripture fall into this category. Thankfully, modern-day prophets like Brian Zahnd and Greg Boyd and many others are doing some great work these days to show us that God is not, after all, violent. I’ve read Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and I would highly recommend both. I’ve started reading Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and was blessed to be able to hear him speak about it to Third Way Church (a local faith community I have immense respect for). I even had the chance to talk to Greg personally at Third Way’s worship gathering, and so am confident that even without having yet finished the very lengthy, scholarly Crucifixion of the Warrior God (thankfully there’s a shorter, more accessible version, called Cross Vision), I know I will be able to highly recommend it too.

The gifts that both Zahnd and Boyd (and again, others) have to offer not just the church, but the world, include their work to show that many of those “troubling texts” are not in the end what they might seem to be at first reading with our modern, Western eyes. There’s a lot under the surface and behind the scenes of written Scripture that when illuminated help us to see that, as Zahnd says: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” This, then, brings me to the matter at hand. I was honored a few weeks ago to have been asked to teach some of the elementary age kids who gather as part of Mill City Church. I was supposed to talk about the “armor of God.” You might imagine that this presented a bit of a conundrum for me, given what I’ve said above and have been saying all year. I was glad for the opportunity, though, because it forced me to wrestle with the question of whether or not the warrior language of the “armor of God” passage is another example of those texts that (seem to) tell us how to be violent rather than shalom-makers. Let’s take a look at the passage from Ephesians:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Now, you probably know as well as I that you can’t start reading something that starts with “Finally.” The obvious question is: “Finally, what?” What is being summed up here? Before I go any further I should mention that in this, as in so many other things, I am indebted to the good people of Circle of Hope and the heavy theological lifting they’ve done in thinking of Paul “doing theology” in “two tiers.” As they put it:

Paul has a very useful approach to taking action on behalf of Jesus and in service to the poor and oppressed. He even has a great approach to advocating for rights, which seems way before its time. What I mean is that there is a general, universal, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it. In the Enlightenment period, theologians put the entire Bible into one big text and applied their systems of thinking to it in order to make sense of it. Protestants have been having Bible studies ever since trying to fit the Bible into some rational system. Paul, in particular, looks like he is a very unsystematic thinker at points. For instance, he will tell the Galatians that there is no male and female in Christ, we are all children of God in Christ. Then he tells the Corinthian women some very specific ways to behave in no uncertain terms that make them look completely unequal. Which one is it? I think it is both. His prophetic first tier is “There is no male or female hierarchy,” his practical tier is “Act in a way that makes the mission work and relationships of love flourish, and don’t get us in trouble with our persecutors.”

Later, they offer this very helpful hermeneutic for reading Paul which is related to the two tiers described above:

Head coverings, long hair for women, not men (although Jesus probably had long hair), women not speaking (elsewhere they are forbidden to teach men) although he encouraged them to keep their head covered while prophesying in the meeting – these are all inconsistent and specific applications. Paul was not trying to write the Bible as the modernists saw it. Surely he did not expect his writings to be collected. He is not a professor writing a book about a topic. He is working things out as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, “in Christ.” You can make your own discernment in Christ, but it looks like we should apply a principle of Bible interpretation that says the closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day, the more likely it is to be culturally bound, and the more counter-cultural it is the more likely it is to be universal in application. It’s not an ironclad principle, but a useful guide.

This guide is useful indeed. The closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day- the more in line it is with how things were for the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible- “the more likely it is to be culturally bound.” In other words, if Paul, inspired by God’s Spirit, were writing to us today, the teaching in such passages might be written very differently. Remember, it was Jesus who so often did this very thing with his Bible- the Old Testament- when he repeatedly said, “You have heard it said….but I tell you…” Likewise, if something that runs truly counter to the culture of the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible made it into that very Bible, it’s very likely to have a universal application, to be a timeless truth that is just as “true” for us as it was for its original hearers, and in much the same way.

So, going back to the “finally” that the “armor of God” passage above begins with, let’s see what’s being summarized. Paul begins in Ephesians 1 by giving thanks for those to whom he was writing and describing how Christ has been given authority “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” This is quite a claim in the midst of the Roman Empire of his day. As I’ve so often repeated, to say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Caesar is not. Shane Claiborne, I think, gets close to getting it right when he says that this is like saying “Jesus is President,” and Trump (or Obama or any other) is not. Paul’s assertion here is one that Christians in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world- richer and more powerful even than Rome in its heyday- should likewise be making today. The “leader of the free world,” and all the world indeed, is not the President of the U.S., and any power the President or Congress or Supreme Court or any other earthly ruler thinks he has pales in comparison to that of Jesus, but I digress.

In these first few chapters of Ephesians, Paul addresses himself to Jews first, and then turns his attention to the Gentiles, to whom he has a mission to preach the gospel. In chapter 2 he describes how those who have been “saved” have received this salvation as gift, through grace and faith, “so that no one can boast.” He’s making a case here. He declares that Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ, who has preached peace (shalom) to those who were thought to be far from God (Gentiles), and peace to those who were thought to be near to God (Jews). Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) at the time did not “naturally” associate with one another, and up to this point it would have been unthinkable to imagine that the Jewish Messiah, the would-be political liberator of his people, was not only not going to violently overthrow Rome, but to make matters far worse in the eyes of Jews at the time, was going to offer his salvation (whatever that meant) not only to Jews but to their Gentile oppressors too! This was a scandal of the worst kind. It’s no wonder Jesus was executed with approval from the Roman state and the Jewish religious leaders. So then, Paul in Ephesians is writing to persuade his Jewish hearers and readers who have begun to follow Jesus that (again, quite scandalously) they are no more worthy of salvation than Gentiles are, for God’s free gift is indeed free, and is available to all. Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 3. This is good news, but of a subversively revolutionary kind. Jews of the time had been hoping for a revolution, after all, but this is not the revolution they thought they were signing up for.

Paul spills a lot of ink in Ephesians 4 continuing to describe this gospel of peace and the unity that all who would follow Jesus are to share. He goes on to describe the new life that we who are united in and by Christ are to share. Paul tells us to live according to this new life we have been given, and to stop living like those who do not follow Jesus, who “are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things.” Isn’t it interesting how often in Scripture, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, we find instruction (not rules) for how we are to relate to one another economically? “The love of money is the root of all evil,” indeed. Paul in Ephesians 4 even gives examples of what the new life in Christ he’s been describing looks like by way of contrast with the old. Notable among them, and again related to God’s economy, is this gem: “If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need” (italics added). Sharing with those who ask of us is baked right in to the description of why we should work (and not steal) at all.

This theme runs into Ephesians 5, where Paul says:

Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. Let love be your guide. Christ loved us[a] and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. You are God’s people, so don’t let it be said that any of you are immoral or indecent or greedy (italics added).

Paul talks about living in the light of God’s love and “making every minute count” as we do so because “these are evil times,” and then begins to move into more instruction about how to relate to one another “in light” of all of the above. The “two tiers” of Paul’s theology again becomes helpful here. At the end of chapter 5 Paul discusses how to get along in marriage, and much damage over centuries has occurred because of Paul’s accommodation to patriarchy as he describes male “headship” in these verses. The two tiers are quite evident here, though. Paul goes along with (accommodates) the culture of his day in describing husbands as “the head of his wife,” (tier 2) but then he goes against the grain of his culture and maybe gets timeless as he moves to tier 1 and says that if men are going to be “head” of their wives they are to do so like Christ does for his church: they are to love their wives and lay their lives down for them, just as Jesus has done for all of us. In a world where men could give their wives a “certificate of divorce” on a whim, Jesus in the gospels tells men that this can no longer be the case, that only adultery is sufficient cause to even consider such a move. Now, Paul goes further and describes what marriage should look like, using the dressing (language) of his culture not to enshrine it for all time but to render it near meaningless. The point is NOT that male “headship” is God ordained. This should be more clear in the NIV version of chapter 5, in which before Paul says that wives should “submit” to their husbands, he says to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Again, the point is not that male “headship” is God ordained. The point is that suffering love is. This is subversive and radical, but again only for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

At last, then, we get to chapter 6. The two tiers of Paul’s theology have been evident in his description of how we are to live in light of God’s love, including/especially in marriage. Remember, Paul begins Ephesians by describing Jesus’ power and saying that all rule and authority and power and dominion belongs to Christ, the executed outcast, the poor wanderer of an occupied people who “had no place to lay his head.” This same Jesus is now the ultimate authority in the universe. To one powerless group in the society of Paul’s day, women, Paul describes how the powerful- men/their husbands- are to lay down their lives for them. Paul now in chapter 6 moves to another powerless group in the society of his day, children. Look for the two tiers again, and remember that of all the powerless groups in Paul’s day, including women, children, and slaves (all of whom are addressed here in what is surely not a coincidence), children were the least powerful of all in the household economy. I’ve written about this. To children, sure, Paul says they are to obey their parents (tier 2), but then he goes back to the Ten Commandments and reminds his readers that of all the commandments, “The commandment Honor your father and mother is the first one with a promise attached: so that things will go well for you, and you will live for a long time in the land.” This is tier 1 (the eternal, timeless tier that most fully reveals God’s intent for us) in spades, and Paul doubles down on it next when parents get a command too: “As for parents, don’t provoke your children to anger…”

Paul talks to slaves next, with the two tiers again very evident. You see Paul accommodating the culture of his day in his practical, tier 2 instructions as he tells slaves to “obey their human masters” and “serve their owners enthusiastically, as though they were serving the Lord and not human beings.” But then Paul moves to tier 1 as he reminds slaves and masters both that “…the Lord will reward every person who does what is right, whether that person is a slave or a free person.” And so, like husbands and parents, masters get instructions too: “As for masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Stop threatening them, because you know that both you and your slaves have a master in heaven. He doesn’t distinguish between people on the basis of status.” Revolutionary! Paul tells “masters” that they have a master too. All authority has been given to Jesus. These instructions render status differences between slaves and earthly masters (and parents and children, and husbands and wives) moot. All power is given to Jesus, who wields it by dying for those he loves.

Image Credit

At long last, finally indeed, we move to the armor of God. How are we to be strong? “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” To his readers who were all too familiar with the violent military garb of the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets they walked daily, keeping “law and order,” he says:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Remember, Paul has already declared that these same “rulers” and “authorities” and “power” are already subject to Jesus, the same Jesus who did not violently struggle against the “flesh and blood” of the Roman soldiers that crucified him at the behest of the empire- the Roman one and the Jewish religious one of his day. Jesus did not need to employ violence against the flesh and blood acting on behalf of the rulers and authorities because the freedom he offers is much deeper than any they could take away. As Rod White of Circle of Hope put it, as “slaves of Christ,” we are “being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you.” So in our struggle against the schemes of the devil, the Accuser who would blind us to the truth that his power is at an end, Paul reminds us of all the tools- not weapons- that God has given us. In place of a Roman soldier’s belt, we are to wear Truth. Where a Roman soldier’s breastplate would be, we put on Righteousness, the reality that all the wrong things are being made right, that justice is and will be done. Where the fittings for a Roman soldier’s feet would be, we are fitted with the “readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (which surely has nothing to do with flesh-and-blood war!). Where a Roman soldier would take up a shield, we are protected with faith, and in place of a helmet and sword, we are given God’s Spirit. We are given Jesus, the living word of God. And beyond all that, Paul says, we are to pray.

Upon further review, this text is indeed troubling, but not because a violent God is calling us to think and act violently. It’s troubling because it subversively reveals how no violence can stand against the Prince of Peace and those with feet ready to follow him in preaching with their lives the gospel of peace. This is what I would have said to the kids of Mill City, if I could have. May we all live like children of our Father in heaven, who calls us to just such a generous, peaceful life. May we put our trust in the name of Jesus Christ, not in chariots or horses, or gold or earthly riches. Amen.

P.S. I should note that in this post Circle of Hope recently wrestled with this text too, in their daily prayer blog for folks just starting to follow Jesus. It’s worth a read, and also has a link to the song above.

Watering Weeds

Kudzu (an invasive plant introduced from Asia) has completely enveloped a barn in Tennessee. (Image HT)

Congruity

Life in 2017 has been interesting, to say the least. Our efforts to “get small” so we can follow Jesus from “under,” not “over,” is well documented on this blog. A word I’ve been using to describe all this of late is congruent. I’m sure you know that congruent means “in agreement or harmony,” but I really like the geometric meaning: “(of figures) identical in form; coinciding exactly when superimposed.” I’m talking about integrity of course, about living a life in which one’s stated values, beliefs, goals, and desires match up with how one actually lives. In many ways, this has been lacking in our lives for far too long, and while we’re nowhere close to the way we live our life “coinciding exactly when superimposed” over the way we say we want live our life, I’m grateful that we’re probably closer to that being true than we’ve ever been. Remembering that we’re trying to “get small” so that we can better be in solidarity with those we’re called to love, serve, and learn from- those on the margins of U.S. empire- and remembering that solidarity requires proximity, this is then what we’ve been aiming for- proximity. We want to be close to those who again are “on the margins” of the dominant society. In all honesty of course we’re not there yet, but hopefully we’re on our way.

We moved from an outer ‘burb in Coon Rapids to northeast Minneapolis. It’s true that this area is gentrifying and you can see pockets where “trendy” shops, restaurants, and people with means are displacing whatever and whoever was there before. One anecdotal way to look at this is through the lens of educational attainment. For example, according to City Data, where we live now 90% of folks have a high school diploma and 43% have a bachelor’s degree vs. 94% with a high school diploma and only 28% with a bachelor’s degree in Coon Rapids. However, data for racial diversity tells another tale. Here’s a comparison of three zip codes courtesy of this very helpful site. Moving from right to left, the first column is our former zip code in Coon Rapids, the second is our current zip code in NE Mpls., and the far left is a nearby zip code in North Minneapolis:

Racial makeup of our former zip code in Coon Rapids (55448), our current one in NE Mpls. (55413), and a nearby one in North Minneapolis (55412)

What this tells us is that compared to our zip code in Coon Rapids, our little part of NE Mpls. is proportionally far more racially diverse, though not nearly as diverse yet as nearby north Minneapolis. Ironically, perhaps, unemployment in Coon Rapids is a little higher at 6.9% vs. 5.6% in NE Mpls., but there’s a fairly stark difference in household income:

Income data for the same zip codes as above

While a few more people might qualify as “middle class” according to USAmerican standards in our part of NE Mpls. vs. Coon Rapids, a lot more people are undoubtedly poor (again according to USAmerican standards- with household income of $30,000 or less), and a lot fewer are among the very wealthy ($100,000 or more). Taken together, where we came from in Coon Rapids about 30% of households earn $50,000 or less. Where we are now, it’s 53%. I could go on. There’s a wealth of super interesting data over at the sites I linked to above, but you get the point. Where we now live in NE Mpls. is not “the ‘hood” by any means, but if we desire to be proximate to those on the margins, we’ve taken a step in the right direction, considering where we came from. Lord willing, more such steps will follow.

We chose NE Mpls. because that’s where our faith community is rooted, and it was through our faith community that we had the opportunity to move here in the first place. Taking that leap of faith proved to be a key that has opened up a lot of other doors. It meant the kids changed schools, and I took a job just 2.6 miles away- by bike- meaning I could bike to work. I’ve been doing that for over a month now, which has meant we could give away one of the cars we had, which we did. Let me again be clear, I know that in no way have we “arrived.” We aren’t yet where Jesus is probably leading us, but we hope we’re a little further down the road, and we know the key again is proximity. We have to stay close to Jesus of course, and we know we do so much better when we stay close to those on the margins.

Incongruities

Despite all this, there are still incongruities in my life that trouble me. Two big ones come specifically to mind- my work for my employer, and my work to raise money for clean water in Africa through Team World Vision. Let’s talk about my job first. Again, let me be clear, I love my new employer. I now work for a non-profit social service agency operated by a larger faith-based organization. That larger organization does a ton of great work in the community. They’re a leader in institutional anti-racism efforts. They say their mission is to serve those “no one else will.” They work to promote healthy habits among their employees, and they strive to make sure their employees find meaning in the work they do to serve others. I’m thrilled to be a part of the organization. My particular case management type role now, though, is a little less “hands-on” than others I’ve had, which is to say that I don’t often see the folks I hopefully am helping, and most of what I do is behind the scenes of the services the people I serve receive. I do financial work, basically, in my new role, working to ensure that funds allocated to help people experiencing a disability to live independently in the community are properly channeled to where they need to go. I actually tend to like Excel spreadsheets; so in some ways this is a good fit, but larger questions remain.

Toxic Asset-Based Community Development

The largest question is posed to the entire social service “industry,” and it simply is this: to what degree do all of our efforts to help actually do harm? I chose those words intentionally, because as I’ve written previously I am not a proponent of the approach taken by Robert Lupton is his book Toxic Charity or by Corbett and Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts. I think I get what they’re trying to do/say- and I appreciate Lupton’s emphasis that helping should “do no harm.” However, I think in too many cases “do no harm” winds up becoming do no help, and I think the approach of these folks and others in the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) “movement” is only a half-step, and I fear it’s a half-step in the wrong direction. Before getting to that, however, I should simply say that I think ABCD is right to regard poor communities (by USAmerican standards) as having not just “deficits” in the form of needs that need to be met but also “assets” in the form of gifts, talent, and local associations and institutions that might be utilized to better contribute to their own development.

Even more, there is a critique of social service underneath what ABCD tries to accomplish that is spot on, and it’s one I’ve been aware of for a while. Lupton wants us to “do no harm” because there is a very real sense in which all of our efforts to address systemic racism and poverty with systemic social service only perpetuates the former and makes permanent the need for the latter. There’s a yin and a yang here. Systemic, generational poverty, driven in no small part by systemic racism, seems to require a systemic response, but the very real help that social service is able to give to very real, hurting people only serves to dull our collective awareness that profound change is needed.

Some would say that government, for example, should get out of the “business” of helping people and essentially leave them to fend for themselves, somehow believing that the causes of poverty lie in the motivations of individuals and that, if properly motivated- by starvation and deprivation presumably- they will “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” I would hope it’s obvious that this approach ignores the very real systems and institutions that actively work, violently if necessary, to keep some people poor so that others can be rich. There are reasons why people of European descent in the U.S. are far richer than people of color, and why the U.S. is the richest nation in the history of the world, and if you don’t think violence has anything to do with it, you’re not paying attention. Sure, choices that individuals make have a lot to do with their fortune, no pun intended, but people rarely make choices merely as individuals. We are connected to the systems that make our society possible, some of which we have little awareness of and littler still control over.

In any case, there is a line of thinking by some (not necessarily the ABCD folks) that would suggest that if social service was done away with, the suffering that would result would create mounting pressure underneath the fabric of our unjust society, so much so that the real change that is necessary might be forced to occur. A revolution might be born. Meanwhile, people would probably be dying (even more than they already are), and a cynical response would be to ask if even this would be enough to bring about real, lasting change. A related concern is that if violence is used to keep some people poor and others rich- and it is, even/especially here in the U.S.– would violence be the only means deemed sufficient to bring about the kind of “revolution” that might be needed? I fear it would be.

Jubilee

That said, I spoke above of ABCD being a half step “in the wrong direction” because I think it fails to connect the poverty of the poor with the wealth of the wealthy. I think what ABCD seeks to do is essentially to help people be better capitalists, and I believe that “capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from.” I’m a proponent of God’s economy, an economy that exposes the myth of private property as a lie that keeps us from living like everything belongs to God. God’s economy, unlike capitalism and socialism or any other ‘ism, is one in which there is abundance, and all is shared. It is an economy that responds to God the Giver by allowing each of us to live into our vocation as givers. We don’t need to harness the “assets” of under-privileged communities so that they can develop to the point where their members have a “decent” middle-class USAmerican standard of living without government help; we need to recognize that absolutely everything- including the air we breathe- is a gift from God, given for the good of all. We’re all playing with “house money.” What we really need, is Jubilee. We need Jubilee on a global scale. Most of us in developed nations need to give away much of our wealth, privilege, and power. Our standard of living needs to come way, way down, so that the standard of living of the poorest of the poor and everyone in between can come way, way up. After all, what if God doesn’t want us to “help” the poor, but rather wants us to become poor (by USAmerican standards)?

How do we do this? Of course I have no idea how to bring about global Jubilee, Biblical instructions to ancient Israel notwithstanding. However, I do have some clues about how to spread God’s economy. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that God’s Economy will grow like kudzu, a plant that only needs a small start to overtake a garden. Or maybe it grows like a mustard seed, another plant that begins humbly before reaching a strength and stature that wouldn’t have been thought possible. The point is, it starts small, and Jesus says it starts by giving to those who ask of you:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It’s worth noting again that the command to give to those who ask of you is nestled in the imperative to love one’s enemies. The poor become our enemies when we become rich by hoarding what God has given to all, for the benefit of all. It is Jesus here who makes a connection between giving to those who ask of us (presumably the poor or those who lack what we have) and violence. I’ll have to explore that in another post. Meanwhile, the critics of a government response to poverty and injustice are right to say that government can’t supply the answers we need. A big government initiative or program, even arguably good ones like the New Deal or the War on Poverty, can’t finally eliminate injustice. However, those same critics are wrong inasmuch as they think the answer lies in utilizing the assets of underprivileged communities to help develop said communities through capitalism, as if the world’s economy could ever be anything other than self-serving. Meanwhile, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests another way:

 

 

We need to end the poverty of the poor, to be sure, but also need to end the wealth of the rich. Jonathan reminds us that Jesus says it’s hard for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, and he says this is because “if a rich person gets in he won’t be rich anymore” and likewise “if a poor person gets in he won’t be poor anymore.” Why? Because “we’ll share with whoever has need,” like Jesus taught us. We simply have to give to those who ask of us. When we do, more and more we become children of our Father in heaven.

But I digress.

Small Steps

All of this is why I struggle with my current professional role, one which has me firmly entrenched in the social service “industry.” My challenge is to keep reminding myself that just like our move to NE Mpls. and relatedly our enrollment of the kids in new schools, moving to the job I’m at now is but a step in the right direction as I keep seeking proximity to Jesus and to those on the margins. I’m not “there” yet, and I know I never will be. Still, being at this job, so close to our new home, again meant after all that I could bike to work and we could therefore give away one of the cars we had to someone who asked, to a family that had need of it.

It’s a very similar struggle that has me wondering about my commitment to run for Team World Vision and raise money for clean water in Africa. Surely the need is real, and profound, and every time I succumb to temptation and drink anything but the abundant clean water I have access to I flaunt my great wealth and privilege. I would like to believe, too, that World Vision does what they say they do, that every $50 I raise does indeed provide clean water for life to a person that didn’t have it. I can’t help but wonder, though, along the lines of the above, if the “help” World Vision provides fosters dependency so long as the domination systems that have created the unjust world we live in continue unfettered. After all, I of course have clean water that flows from my tap in multiple places in my home, but I’m so rich I ignore it and instead spend hundreds of dollars per year on sugar-filled carbonated water that will eventually kill me if I let it. If we think there’s no connection between my conspicuous “water” consumption and the lack of clean water at all for too many around the world, we’re fooling ourselves. Let’s say I’ve embarked on a long fundracing career with World Vision and over the course of the rest of my life I help raise thousands of dollars for clean water in Africa so that some kids stop dying of thirst or diarrhea, that would be good, to be sure. But would I have done more good than harm if I otherwise lived in such a way that the domination systems that again created this unjust world were allowed to go on? So again the rub has to do with congruence. Yes, there is a very real, immediate, life-or-death need that I can help address, and I have been asked to do so, but this is only the beginning. This is only a step. What I do with Team World Vision must be part-and-parcel of a life spent working to bring about God’s economy, however, whenever, and wherever I can.

It’s true too that the problems I’m wrestling with are big (“global Jubilee,” anyone?), while if I am to live the most congruent, faithful life I can, if I am to live in proximity to Jesus and those on the margins, then I must become small. There’s nothing smaller than a step, even a step of faith. Lord willing, these steps I and my family have taken of late are steps taken in the right direction on a lifelong journey. Undoubtedly other such steps will come. Right now, though, I’m glad for the ones we’ve taken, and I’ll sure be keeping my eyes and ears open as we try to keep close to Jesus, ready for whatever step might be next. Until then, I’ve got some kudzu to water.

While Jesus Slept Outside on a Bench, We Went Inside to Ring Gongs and Clang Cymbals

A homeless camp being bulldozed (HT for the image)

Keep It Covered

She had one sock raised higher than the other, which I thought was a little strange. She came to the rear of the church building to the little room where I was passing out sample size toiletries and the like to people experiencing homelessness who were coming to use the showers. This is a great ministry an urban congregation offers to their downtrodden neighbors three Sunday mornings a month, along with access to a clothing closet and a free hot breakfast. The missional community I’m a part of from Mill City Church volunteers at this ministry once a month, and my job this past Sunday was to serve in the shower area. This brings me back to the woman I met whose socks were not at the same height. She asked me for the usual items she’d need if she were going to take a shower- soap and shampoo, etc., but she wasn’t taking a shower; she wanted to take them with her. We also had toothbrushes and toothpaste, some razors, etc. to give out, and lotion. She kept looking for a particular kind of lotion, which it turns out she had found to be most helpful with the very bad eczema on her leg. It was so bad she had been hospitalized for it recently, and the doctor told her to keep it covered or it would get infected and she’d be back in the hospital. It’s hard to keep your eczema covered when you live on the street, but she was trying- hence the raised sock. She was older than me, I’m guessing in her 50’s or 60’s, and naturally there’s a lot more to her story. We didn’t talk long as she was looking for the lotion that would help her most, but I did learn that she had been “staying” at an “artist’s camp” somewhere- obviously an outdoor encampment of people experiencing homelessness, but had left one day to visit her daughter. When she came back, the city of Minneapolis had come in and bulldozed the camp. All her stuff was gone or destroyed. She was most upset about the two sleeping bags she had recently been given that were now gone. She said a young man came around doing homeless outreach and gave them to her. She said he told her they were donated, but they were nice; so she thought he must have bought them and given them away. They were now gone along with any toiletries she might have had with her belongings. So she said she was “starting over,” and she wasn’t the only person I heard say that. Before she left she asked if she could keep one of the towels and a washcloth that are there to be used for the folks using the shower, and are not supposed to be given out. As she said, she was starting over.

I’ll Just Start Over

The church that offers this ministry three Sundays a month goes a step further and will wash whatever the people who use their shower are wearing. They can come back in subsequent weeks and pick up their washed clothing. The clothes are in plastic bags with the person’s name written on the bag with a Sharpie, hopefully. As I was working last Sunday, I had a few people ask me for their clean clothes; so I went through the bags a few times. Some didn’t have a name, or had “no name” written on them. Those will likely be donated to the clothes closet the church runs to then be given away to others. I was able to find the person’s bag I think two of the times I was asked; another time I could not. That gentleman- whose clothes I couldn’t find- explained it had been a few weeks since he left his clothes to be washed, and he hadn’t come back he said because “honestly last week I was high on meth and I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to come.” I couldn’t find a bag with his name on it. He said it was no big deal, that he too would “just start over.” He may have only had the clothes he was wearing; I don’t know. He wasn’t too attached to the clothes he had left to be laundered, though. He was willing to start from scratch, perhaps for the umpteenth time.

I saw an older couple come through. The woman in the couple seemed to be in poor health, with the guy doing some caregiving for her, even as both lived on the street. I saw a family come through- a mom with teen and tween boys, a younger girl, and a toddler. I thought I heard the girl call the woman “grandma;” so I can’t say for sure what all of their relationships with one another were. The young men played basketball for a while in the nearby gym. At one point the woman sent the toddler into the gym and as she walked away, over her shoulder she hollered for the boys to “watch him.” I don’t know if that message was ever received. Soon the toddler got in the way of their game, and the oldest (teen) boy bounced the basketball off the toddler’s head to get him to move. It wasn’t vicious, but it sent a message. Later in their game the younger (tween) boy fell, hitting his arm hard on the gym floor, hard enough he started to whimper, if not cry. I asked if he was alright, and he didn’t respond. The teen just looked at him. His attitude could have been interpreted as cold, but I suspect their life is such that the teen knows if the tween is to survive, he’d have to learn how to not let a little pain bother him, or at least not to expect anyone to rescue him if he gets hurt.

More happened that morning, of course, but those are the stories that stand out, now a week later. What, then, am I to make of all this? Am I to make anything at all, or is my role simply to show up when I can and love the people in front of me as best as I can, whatever their circumstances? I’m me, of course; so I can’t help but think about the implications of it all. One thing I was struck by was how willing the folks I served that morning were to simply “start over” with possessions as basic as having more than one set of clothes. Of course this may be a willingness born of necessity, but it was there nonetheless. This is one of the gifts the materially poor have to offer we who are materially rich. I and my family have been struggling to learn how to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and have therefore been working through what it looks like to hold possessions loosely, recognizing that everything belongs to God, not us. The materially poor do this as a matter of necessary habit. We do well when we do likewise. This is at the heart of our recent efforts to “get small.” We know that we follow Jesus more closely when we do so from “under,” not “over.” Those on the margins of society- the poor, the disenfranchised, the dominated- not the dominators- they are much more ready than we who are privileged to both receive the good gifts God the Giver wants to give his children, and to embrace, I think, a kingdom that is not of this world.

The Gospel Breaks Out

An old acquaintance of ours recently posted a link to an article and YouTube video featuring Jim Carrey talking to a group of formerly gang involved and incarcerated folks who are part of the amazing Homeboy Industries. In our acquaintance’s intro to the link/video, he said:

Throughout history, when God’s “official” messengers get off track and begin to seek power, spew condemnation, and set up walls of exclusivity, God gets his message of grace, truth and forgiveness out in unconventional ways. I think I see that happening more lately in this day and age.

Meet Jim Carrey, preacher of grace. This is powerful. Praise God.

Here’s Jim, in his own words:

 

If you’re short on time, just watch the first half of this 7-ish minute video; if you get nothing else from this post, but watch that, my “work” here is done. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, says: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Indeed, as I said above and keep learning, the poor have much to teach us. When I was a student at Luther Seminary, I had a great old prof.- Dr. James Nestingen- who always talked about the “gospel breaking out.” In Lutheran theology, there’s much talk of “law and gospel,” of sin and grace. The law serves to show us our sin- to highlight the condition in which we are caught in which we are unable to live and love as we should- and the gospel is the good news that God has already saved us, that we are set free from this entrapment. Too often this gospel word can get cloudy, muddled, and muddied, lost amidst all the other things would-be “Christians” dare to say on behalf of God. Too often the good news that we have been set free from a life enslaved to sin and death gets lost in the midst of the condemnation of others, and especially in the midst of our own self-condemnation. In such times, Dr. Nestingen would say, the gospel “breaks out.” Good news of God’s grace comes from unexpected places. When “professional” would-be Christians bless the greedy violence of empire and insure their place within the fold of worldly power….

 

Image HT

 ….rock stars remind us that while “God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill,” we can far more readily find him with the poor, with the sick and suffering, among the ravages of war, and therefore “God is with us, if we are with them:”

Image HT

Ironically, as we drove to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning, we passed a scene not entirely unlike the one above in our own NE Minneapolis neighborhood. A man was sleeping on a bus bench, kind of like this:

HT for the image. The irony in this picture defies words.

Instead of continuing on our way and attending the worship gathering, which we did, no doubt the best worship we might have given this morning to Jesus- that (homeless) “preach of peace-” would have been to be good Samaritans and stop and render whatever assistance we could to our bench-sleeping neighbor. Instead, it was more important to us to go hear a sermon that would in some way, I hope, touch on how to follow Jesus by loving our neighbor, never mind the one we passed by who, just like Jesus, had no place to lay his head. Thus, if the mission of the church is, like Jesus’ mission, in no small part to proclaim good news for the poor, the irony of a person experiencing homelessness sleeping on a bench festooned with an advertisement for the “new life” that comes through the covenant to be had among God and his people is no greater than that of I and my family this morning ignoring an opportunity to love an actual neighbor so that we could go hear about how to be in right relationship with God and our proverbial ones. Even worse, if we meet Jesus among “the least of these,” we skipped right by him this morning on that bench, preferring to meet him in a more comfortable setting, among other privileged people like us.

Give Away Your Shirt(s)

During that worship gathering we skipped out on loving our neighbor in order to attend, Jesus drove home the point. I didn’t get to hear all of Pastor Michael’s sermon due to an unruly 6 year old (mine :/), but the passage he opened with was in itself sermon enough for me, from Luke 3:

…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.

Just like a valley is exalted when it is filled in, again and again the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that exalts the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the sick and in prison- those on the margins. Just like a mountain or hill being made low, likewise the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that humbles the rich, the oppressors, those who can easily access worldly political systems, the well and those who can easily access healthcare, and those who leverage the language of “law and order” to maintain their systems of power and control. In case the point is missed, John makes it plain. To we rich (do you have more than one shirt? I do), he says:

“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none…”

To we well-fed he says:

“…anyone who has food should (share with the one who has none)…”

To tax collectors, he says:

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”

The importance of God’s economy is so very important that to soldiers, instead of addressing the violence of their occupation, he makes an economic appeal:

“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

I was able to be present toward the end of the worship gathering, when we sang the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace, which quotes this part of the original:

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

If you hear those words as I do, Jesus is still making his point. God the Giver has promised good to me. In other words, he who causes bread to rain from heaven and supplies enough for today, day after day after day, promises to continue to give us this day our daily bread; so we need not store away “bread” for tomorrow here on earth, where thieves break in and steal and “moths and vermin destroy.” The point is again reinforced in the lyric above with the reminder that the Lord “will my shield and portion be.” Jesus is our “portion;” he gives us enough, and we need not violently defend the good gifts of God the Giver, because Jesus is our “shield” too. He has defeated the power of violence by surrendering to it; thus, it was put to death with him on the cross. As a result, violence has no more power over us than death or sin does.

Again and again I see more and more every day the interlinking of violence and the world’s economy, and conversely how both are put to an end through Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we live as part of God’s economy in which there is more than enough for all; if we share freely and give to those who ask, what reason would anyone have to take up arms against us, and what reason do we have to take up arms ourselves?

Am I saying (repeatedly now) that following Jesus is mostly about how we order our economic lives and whether or not we reject or embrace violence? Yes…and no. To speak of the creator God is of course to speak about cosmic, spiritual truths that defy any words we might seek to ensnare them with. Who God is and what God does, and who we are and what we ought to do in response, is a sublime mystery. But if the gospel is true, God has chosen to reveal the fullness of who he is in Jesus, the one in whom all things hold together. It can be said, and I have often said, that God hides. We do not find him where we expect to. But that it not to say that he cannot be found. God, after all, can be found “in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.” He can be found “in the cries heard under the rubble of war.” He can be found lying defenseless in a manger, or on a cross.

God may very well be found in me, and in you.

Because God chooses to be with us, how we order our lives and live in relation to one another matters profoundly, and we ignore at our peril the fact that in John’s ministry and in that of Jesus himself, both lead with literal “good news” for the poor. Most of us spend the majority of our days pursuing economic activity. We work. We spend. We consume. We buy, and we sell. We barter. We support the bottom lines of multi-national corporations, or resist them. Likewise, most of us spend much of our days deciding whether or not to live peacefully together. We honk at the person who cut us off, or not. We return a smile, or we don’t. We respond to a harsh word with one of our own, or we swallow hard and forgive right then and there by choosing not to retaliate. We consume violent media, or try not to. Often, the two are inextricably intertwined. The cheap shirts we buy at Target and Wal-Mart may have been made by basically enslaved people half a world away who are prevented from leaving their workstations by violence or the threat of violence. The taxes we dutifully pay to our government support the ever-growing military-industrial complex, and are used to rain death from the sky around the world, all in the name of “keeping us safe” or “defending” (our) freedom.

Sure, God wants to heal our broken hearts, make us whole, and bring us into right relationship with God’s self and with one another, and with God’s good world. The good news is that God has done this, and still is. Just because this is so, we are entrusted with the family business of reconciliation. We are charged with the sacred task of practicing resurrection. We are to live as if God’s other-worldly kingdom really is upon us, already. We don’t have to serve Mammon anymore. We can freely give to those who ask of us. We can share with one another in radical, counter-cultural ways that can’t help but facilitate the gospel breaking out. Following Jesus means following him into such a life. Maybe we just need to be willing to start over. The poor can show us how. We just have to believe that another world is possible, but that’s not so hard to imagine, is it, especially if even in this world Bono is among our most truthful prophets and the good news of God’s grace keeps breaking out such that even Jim Carrey can be heard proclaiming it.

No Rival

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

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

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

Meanwhile, truth be told, I’m tired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I simply can’t anymore.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great Henri Nouwen said it best:

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

Amen.

God is With Us if We Are With Them, Especially When Your New Neighbor is Drunk and Lost

(Arguably the best part of this clip begins at the 4:47 mark; so skip ahead if you’re short on time.)

My new neighbor was drunk on a warm Sunday afternoon. It was just weeks after we moved into the Beltrami neighborhood of NE Minneapolis. Kirsten was gone loving and serving her mom in Coon Rapids; so the boys and I walked the few blocks from our new home down to the corner store (we have a neighborhood corner store!) to buy cheap candy (’cause that’s what you do at a corner store) and then we started walking about a block in the other direction toward the park. There were lots of people out on this bright, warm, late spring afternoon, including more than a few whizzing by on bikes (our home is located along one of Minneapolis’ many urban bike routes).

For some reason, she picked Sam and Nathan and I. She was maybe just out of her teens, though I doubt it. She was young, and looked younger. More than that, she was, as I said, drunk (I could smell it), and scared, and alone.

She came up to me and said she couldn’t find her way home. She didn’t know where she lived. No doubt the alcohol had something to do with it, but she had also apparently just moved into the neighborhood herself. We weren’t much help as she asked for directions, but she also wasn’t even sure of her own new address. We committed to help her, however. She said she had a phone that was dead that if she could just charge would enable her to look up her address. I suggested walking back to the corner store and asking if they would let her plug her phone in for a minute (she said she had her charger with her). Kirsten, the boys, and I had been in the corner store enough since moving in that we knew the folks who run the corner store “are really nice,” and indeed the guy who was working agreed to let her plug her phone in (I never caught my drunk neighbor’s name; things were a little awkward). She plugged it in, but that was useless as the screen was so cracked you couldn’t see anything on the screen. She had asked me to look up her address (somehow) on my phone, but I don’t have a smartphone any more, and so could not.

I had asked her who she lived with, if it was her parents, given how young she looked. She said they hate her, and she did not live with them. Maybe that’s where she moved from. Even so, given the situation, she borrowed my flip phone to call her dad, whom she spoke with, along with her mom. There was arguing and cursing, but someone agreed to text her new address to my phone, which they did, and we agreed to walk her there. It was a block away. We got to her new place, and with obvious relief but not a word to us, she disappeared around back.

Did I help her, I wonder? No doubt she left a bad situation with her parents, but did she leave it for a worse one? And what responsibility do I have now? I don’t know her name, but I know where she lives, and I have access to her parents, I suppose. Would she even remember what happened if we saw her again? Perhaps I assume too much to think I even have some responsibility to “help.” What help could I offer? Obviously she might be a little better off if her life wasn’t such that she found herself drunk and lost a block from her new home in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I can pray for her, to be sure. And perhaps as I and my family run, bike, and take walks in our new neighborhood we can be sure to go her way, just on the off-chance we might run into her again. This, I suppose, is part of the “art of neighboring.” It’s the next sermon series among the people of Mill City Church, and is based on the book of the same name. I’m praying it’s as useful as its promise portends.

I notice as I reflect and write about this experience that there’s something gratifying about it for me, and that troubles me. I wish that young woman hadn’t been drunk and lost, and therefore I wish I hadn’t had the opportunity to help her. I did, though, and I won’t deny that it brought a sense of confirmation that we were on the right path, the path my family and I have been on of late, as we try to follow Jesus more closely by getting “small” and hopefully getting just a little closer to being “under” vis-a-vis the powers that be rather than “over,” which is the position that our heritage and skin tone typically puts us in. I know this: while the ‘burb we came from likely has more than its fair share of drunk neighbors, there was something different about this experience in the city. I’ve written before, for example, about how much more densely populated our current neighborhood is compared to our old one. Thus, the streetscape here is simply much more conducive to precipitating the kind of interaction I write about above; whereas in our old suburban neighborhood the potential for such interaction is greatly diminished, if for no other reason than “white flight” motivated city planning.

My lack of altruism notwithstanding, I am glad that I was there to help her- however much “help” it really was- rather than someone else with less conflicted and more nefarious motives. And besides, if solidarity with the “least of these-” or in the case of this country- the “lesser of these” really does require proximity, as I keep learning it does, I’m glad to be just a little closer to the kind of folks Jesus spent most of his time with. That’s obviously a big part of why we made this move to NE Mpls. So here’s what we’re focusing on this summer:

Our Summer 2017 Family Focus: Trying to Go “Deep” as we “Get Small….”

If you can’t make it out very well, it says:

Phew! We’ve been learning about following Jesus, “that preacher of peace,” from “under,” not “over,” as we try to get “small.” Now it’s time to dig in and consolidate those gains. Let’s go deep and make these lessons ones that are learned and lived every day.

Learn: -Finish peacemaking books (I’ve read the first two of these: A Farewell to Mars, Free of Charge, The Politics of Jesus, & Nonviolent Action)  and complete the Mammon to Manna video series.

Pray: “God, you gave up your power and became small so that you could be close to the ‘least of these,’ our brothers and sisters. Help us to do the same so that we can meet you among them, and in ourselves as we become more like ‘them.’ Help us to decrease, so that you might increase. Amen.”

Do/Act: -Serve in the kitchen at Hope Ave. with our missional community and perfect “the art of neighboring.” Institute car sharing/biking to work.

Summer Family Memory Verse: “…Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” -John 3:29b-30. Background: Some thought John the Baptist was “the Christ.” John alluded to the Church being the bride of Christ and said he was a “friend of the bridegroom” who took joy at hearing the bridegroom’s voice. He then said the above, saying he (John) must get small so that Jesus could take center stage. We rich “white” people, denizens of the “American” empire, are trying to do the same.

Meanwhile we keep learning just how not only political, but economic, the way of Jesus is as we try ever more fully to live as citizens of God’s kingdom rather than the “little kingdoms of this world” and participants in God’s economy rather than unmitigated consumer (late) capitalism. Thus we’re dreaming up ways to share resources and looking for partners to join us, and we’re hopeful that God the giver is positioning us just where we need to be so that we can more fully live into our calling to be givers too. For my just passed 42nd birthday, I was glad to be able to give clean water to 1 person in Africa for life via Team World Vision, for whom I am- Lord willing- running the Twin Cities Marathon (more on that later). I tried to resist wanting any other presents in the form of material goods, but Kirsten and I did pick up a few very cheap secondhand books to continue our learning, which I’m excited about. They are:

We still have a lot to learn via The Powers That Be, Jesus and the Disinherited, God of the Oppressed, and “Say to This Mountain.”

If you’re reading this, whether near or far, might you consider joining our bit of rabble-rousing “foolishness?” We’re cashing in retirement plans to pay off debt and so to be sure not to “store up treasure on earth.” We’re giving stuff away and looking for neighbors to share cars and lives with as we try to take care of God’s good earth and limit the extent to which we live as consumers rather than Jesus-followers. We’re re-imagining savings accounts as generosity funds and conjuring up folks to be generous to. I know there must be others like us out there. After all, my old acquaintance Glenn, whom I know from youth and would call a friend in Jesus, posted this on FB tonight:

Screenshot 2017-06-12 at 11.22.08 PM
Occasionally something good comes from Facebook.

 

God is on the side of the oppressed, indeed. So often we want God to be with us in what we do, and He may well be, as Bono helpfully reminds at the end of the clip that starts this post. But whatever we believe, again as Bono says, we can be sure that:

God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums and 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.

Amen.