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:
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.
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.
Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. 2 Let love be your guide. Christ loved us[a] and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. 3 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.
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.
This post started as an email to the pastors of Mill City Church. I wrote to thank them for the many ways they help us discern what God’s up to and challenge us to join in. The first two sermons in the current series, on “Success and Security,” coming on the heels of the last few from the last series, about Mill City Church’s “Mission Priorities,” have been particularly helpful. They’ve been especially so because they so clearly resonate with what we’ve been hearing God say to us as a family already. I wrote about all that in my last post. The super short version is that as a family we’ve been feeling very called to make ourselves small. We’re learning that we’re not just called to help the poor; we’re called to learn from and be helped by them. We have so much more to learn about interdependence with one another and dependence on God, to which we’re called. Some of this has come from our decision to do the monthly recommended readings for January from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (again, see my post; it’s a resource we’ve been using for years but never in the way we are now). The four books recommended for January have been simply life-changing. We had read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger years ago; so we moved on to the other three. Economy of Love started things off, and was profoundly moving and challenging. Next came God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and I can’t even begin to describe how reading that book is changing us. It’s interesting because of some of the stuff in these books we’ve “known” for a while, but clearly just weren’t willing to do anything about. We were stuck on the “wide road.” Anyway, I’m just now finishing up Sabbath Economics: Household Practices by Matthew Colwell. It’s a follow-up to Sabbath Economics by Ched Myers, which comes from Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries and was one of the books recommended in Common Prayer, but is unfortunately out of print. Sabbath Economics recommends a “Sevenfold Household Covenant,” which looks like this:
Basically, the idea is that in God’s economy, Jesus has something to say about all the areas of our life or practices identified above. So, as I recently read in Sabbath Economics:
Solidarity is therefore not a form of disengagement with those who are not poor. It is instead an engagement with the whole world from the vantage point of a deep connection with those who have been excluded, confined to the margins of society, or made poor by the economic systems and structures of that world. It is the practice of aligning one’s hopes with the poor and marginalized by placing one’s self in proximity to those people. (Italics added)
I found this particularly insightful and challenging. I’ve known God has a “special concern for the poor” for a while (though I did little about it). And I’m learning that I understand the New Testament especially, but also Jesus, much better when I attempt to do so as a person on the margins, since it was written by folks on the margins to folks on the margins. It was written from “under,” not “over.” Rod White’s several post(s) about this were very helpful. Moreover, I’m learning again that poor folks have something to teach us, that they can help us just as much or more than we’ll ever “help” them. I’m learning especially that there ought not be a them and us. We must work much harder to make sure there is only an “us.” So our family has been working to get “small.” So far we’ve:
given the church the TV and sound bar that are in the Mill City Church Commons now
cut cable and just have local channels now, plus Netflix, etc.
got rid of our PS4 and a handful of games
gave up our smartphones for basic flip phones (this alone we’ve experienced as an incredibly counter-cultural, near revolutionary act)
canceled our credit cards and started (another, sadly) Debt Management Program
gotten as creative as we can with things we’re bound by contract not to let go of yet. For example, sadly we both have Massage Envy accounts. Kirsten has chronic neck pain that causes migraines (hear the justification?) and I got mine when I was running, which I desperately need to get back to (again, hear the justification?). We can’t cancel these contracts, but I’ve been talking to Mile In My Shoes about donating my remaining massages to them.
We’ve also ended our contributions to our retirement plans. In God’s Economy by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (one of the January books, again), which was and is incredibly and amazingly challenging, he makes a compelling case for following Jesus so closely that it’s hard to see how (for us, as far as we can tell, anyway) using those resources in that way is faithful. When we dug in and did the hard work of seeing how Kirsten’s retirement funds were being used by Lincoln Financial (and it was, interestingly, hard work just to follow the money), for example, it became incredibly easy to see that our participation in the plan Kirsten was in is sinful. The money God gave us to steward that we gave to Lincoln Financial is being used to build drones and missiles; to get teenagers to smoke; to oppress poor people with bad mortgages, debt, and financial products; to poison the earth, produce GMO’s, and insure generational poverty among subsistence farmers; and I could go on and on. This begs lots of questions about what it means to “retire” and what we would be “retiring” from or to. We have some ideas about this. It also obviously raises questions around stewardship and whether or not to have, for example, an “emergency fund.” Historically, our family has struggled to do this and has been largely unsuccessful, largely due to selfish financial choices in the midst of a few extravagantly generous ones. Still, our generosity has not been supported by a lifestyle that was consistent with following Jesus instead of Mammon.
We had another idea, too. Wilson-Hartgrove talks a little about basically using the world’s evil economic system from time to time to subvert that very system. So, we attempted to trade in Kirsten’s 2013 Ford Escape that we never should have bought. We owe something like $18,000 on it, with 9% interest. We were hoping to trade it for a much older, cheaper car. We explained a little bit of our motivation to the person we approached to do this, whom we know. He said he wasn’t able to help us, and he told me I should “educate myself” and quoted Mark 14:7 at me, where Jesus says: “The poor you will always have with you…”. However, there’s a second part to that verse: “…and you can help them any time you want.” The first part of the verse echoes Deut. 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land…”. There’s more to that verse too: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” This comes in the part of Deuteronomy that is dedicated to canceling all debts and freeing all slaves every seven years, and can be tied to the concept of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-13, in which debts were canceled, slaves were freed, land was returned to its original owner, and the land itself was to lie fallow, to give it a break from all its labor on our behalf. In the Deuteronomy chapter that Mark hearkens back to, the point is clear:
…there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,5 if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today…7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.
Moreover, when Jesus says in Mark that “you’ll always have the poor among you,” not only does he follow it up with “…and you can help them anytime you want…” (which perhaps should read: “you can help them anytime you want,” as you should have been doing all along), but he’s making a point. A jar of expensive perfume has just been poured over his head, and “some of those present,” likely including Judas, the betrayer, are upset because this is an act of gratuitous extravagance, and the year’s salary the perfume was worth could have been spent on the poor. Jesus isn’t making a normative statement for all time about poor people (like: “I, God, say there should always be poor people”); he’s making a descriptive statement about the faithlessness of God’s people (like: “you could help poor people any time you want; but you don’t, or don’t do it enough; so you’re likely to always have them around. Therefore don’t use your lack of love for the poor as an excuse for this woman not to do what she just did, which was to prepare me for burial.”)
The weight of Scripture is astoundingly clear: God has a “preferential option” for the poor. We are to help them, and to be helped by them, for they have something to teach us about holding possessions loosely, about being ready to receive God’s good gifts, about relying on God’s provision and not worrying about tomorrow. Moreover, there’s strong evidence for the idea that drawing near to the poor is to draw near to Jesus himself, and that standing in solidarity with the poor requires proximity to them (affluent suburbs notwithstanding).
So, I told the pastors in that email that this is what we’re learning, and what we’re doing. In the meantime, we’re encountering some resistance. I wouldn’t call it a “spiritual attack;” what I would say is that the resistance we’re experiencing helps confirm for us that we must be moving closer to, and perhaps even down, the “narrow path.” In addition to the response I talked about above from the person we approached in an attempt to “downsize” one of the cars we drive, we found that when we traded in my smartphone it had been reported stolen in TN (I bought it “new” here in MN). The police investigator that called me said, confirming an unfortunate stereotype, that the suspect was a “black male” and he knew I was not, but our decision to give up that bit of power and means of control by the Empire/Domination System/”World”/Call-It-What-You-Will got some attention, apparently.
Then, last week I took the other care we drive in for some repairs. As it was being worked on Kirsten called to say the 2013 Ford Escape we were trying to trade in, which she was driving, had a flat tire on I-35. I had no way to go help her. Our car insurance includes roadside assistance (one of the many perks of our power and privilege), but accessing this was made a little more difficult by Kirsten’s lack of a smartphone. She got help, but we eventually “had” to put 4 new tires on it. At the same time we learned that the work on the car that I had in for repairs, which was starting when Kirsten called me to say she was stuck with a flat tire, is going to run about $750 (again, plus the cost of the Escape’s tires). All told, this will run us over $1,100. We don’t exactly have that saved up, but all the work we’ve been doing to get “small” means that we can probably come up with the funds soon, right about when we might need them, I hope. We got the new tires on the Escape already, and the parts for the Focus aren’t in yet and won’t be until close to when we get paid again, when more funds will be there than would have been otherwise if we hadn’t made all the changes we’re making. Kirsten and I have also had a few little health scares recently too, but those seem to be mostly resolved and aren’t worth talking about more now. So, again, I’m not saying all this is any sort of “attack;” I’m just saying that following Jesus instead of the Empire is hard, even if only, so far, in the “white people’s problems”-y ways I’ve just described.
One thing we’ve been thinking about is how individualistically we’ve been (not) following Jesus in terms of money, despite our professed love for all things communal when it comes to everything else. This must change. Thus I’ve been thinking again a little more about Common Change. Common Change came out of Relational Tithe, and is a resource for sharing money to meet one another’s needs and the needs of those around them. We’re thinking that instead of Kirsten and I laboring to build up an emergency fund for the next time we need new tires or car repairs and also to build capacity in our “personal” budget for the kind of generosity we feel called to, if instead it’s not more faithful to join with others we know (including especially, we hope, from Mill City) in opening a Common Change account and committing to contributing to it. We’d have much more capacity together than we would alone, and could again, I suspect, be much more faithful in this way.
Finally, I have a co-worker with whom I largely agree about secular politics. He’s not someone who would say he’s following Jesus, not by a long shot. I have another co-worker with whom I largely disagree about secular politics. He is a professed Christian. I’ve found myself in a position of not having anything helpful, really, to say to either of them. I don’t know that my “evangelical” co-worker and I will ever agree about secular politics, and it has been a real challenge to put to death any hostility between us with Jesus on the cross. Likewise, it’s been hard to find a way to even talk about Jesus with my secular progressive co-worker….until the other day as I was telling the story of all the car issues and what we were trying to do with the car Kirsten drives and how that was connected to all the bigger changes we’re making in our life. As I told him how we got rid of our smartphones and a big TV and were ending our 401k contributions because they were supporting war and environmental degradation and the like and how we were switching banks and on and on; it only made sense to mention that we were doing those things because we were trying to follow Jesus. What I’m reminded of, again, is that we don’t have anything to share, at least in my experience, if we don’t have a story to tell about what following Jesus looks like in our lives as we swim upstream amidst the Empire we live in today. I didn’t have much of a story to tell to my co-workers anyway until recently. I actually have quite a story to tell about my life, but that doesn’t come up in every day conversation unless every day we’re living a life that’s worth talking about. I’m praying now that each day will lead us further into such a life. It’s what we’re here for, after all.
With such thoughts swimming around in my head, I found myself in downtown Minneapolis the other day. I went into the soon to be closed downtown Barnes and Noble. I like bookstores, sadly even the commodified, homogenized, big chain variety. From there I went through the skyway into the soon to be closed downtown anchor Macy’s store. As I reached the threshold of Macy’s and passed into the store, I saw her. It was hard to tell if she was a “her,” actually. What I saw was a person clearly experiencing homelessness, obviously world weary and weather beaten, curled up in a corner, leaning against the wall, asleep. She had a cardboard sign, but it had fallen over and I couldn’t make out what it said. I had Sam’s allowance cash in my wallet, a total of $30 ($20 for this month and $10 we owed him from last month). I walked into Macy’s, stood there for a moment, and then turned around and walked back out. I went to a sandwich shop I had passed in the skyway and bought her a hot sandwich and some chips. I went back and touched on the shoulder, waking her to offer her the food. She thanked me, said she was very grateful, but then explained she had arthritis, and showed me her hands. They were visibly swollen. She said what she really needed was $20 to pay for a room she rents in St. Paul, when she can, presumably. She said she had a bus pass which she would use to get there tonight, if she had the money. She said she had been cold and just “couldn’t take it any more,” and came in to try to sleep for a while. She said she didn’t want to bother anybody; so she put up her sign (which had fallen), and then fell asleep, hoping someone would help her. It wasn’t long before I pulled out the $20 I had and gave it to her. I was reminded, as I constantly am now, of this bit from God’s Economy:
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.
I asked her what her name was, and she told me. Sadly, I’ve forgotten it already; I’m not good with names. She asked me mine, and I told her. She exclaimed that Robert was her son’s name. She asked me for a hug, and I gave it. We parted, and I wandered back in to Barnes and Noble on my way back to the car. I had about $3 left. I bought a cookie for $2-something (just what I need, I know) and walked outside. There, I passed by another person potentially experiencing homelessness who was “signing.” I gave him the coins I had left, and the cookie I had just bought. I walked back to the car, pockets empty, and a little lighter, literally and metaphorically.
Look, I know I did nothing to solve the economic and housing insecurity either of those people I met are experiencing. I know I may very well have perpetuated their “problem” and the systems that create such insecurity. But then again, as Wilson-Hartgrove said, I’m not called to “fix” the poor. They are not problems to be solved. They are people made in God’s image, people God loves, and whom I am called to love. They are folks who have been marginalized, pushed to the sidelines of the economic and political systems of our day. In very real ways they are folks who have less because I have more. Maybe the woman I met has a son named Robert; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she used a bus pass and went to a room that night and slept in a warm bed. Maybe she didn’t. What I do know is that we exchanged names, and a hug. She got lunch, and she knew that a stranger stopped to love her, if only for a moment. Now, the real work begins. Now, my family and I, both my “nuclear” family and church family, must work to not just subvert the system that marginalized those folks, but to build a better one. We must work to live as if God’s kingdom is already here. We must work to build God’s economy, an economy of love. In such an economy, no one has more than they need, and therefore there is more than enough for all. God, help us.
Towards the end of my last post, part I in this little series, I said I often come back to something Bart Campolo said once in 1995 as he addressed a group of idealistic young college students doing Kingdomworks (KW), including myself. He said he wasn’t so much interested in why we decided to follow Jesus whenever we did. He said he cared more why we kept doing so. I wrote in that post that I know that this was probably something he was struggling with (why or if one should keep following Jesus) even then even if he didn’t realize it yet. I said that this question has stuck with me. Why do I keep following Jesus today, even with lots of good reasons not to? As I wrote in the last post:
How can I claim to be led in part by a holy book that describes the “holy” slaughter of entire people groups down to every man, woman, child, and animal? How do I reconcile the notion of a loving God exemplified best in Jesus with the idea that part of why Jesus came is because that same loving God would condemn us all to eternal torment if Jesus hadn’t died in our place? How do I make sense of the idea that God is at once a loving savior who died to rescue me and is at the same time the “cosmic child abuser” who killed his own son with the deadly punishment that was meant for me?
I should start by acknowledging the many “hard sayings” (teachings, stories) in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. An atheist site has helpfully compiled some of them, which I’ve included below:
1. God drowns the whole earth.
In Genesis 7:21-23, God drowns the entire population of the earth: men, women, children, fetuses, and perhaps unicorns. Only a single family survives.
2. God kills half a million people.
In 2 Chronicles 13:15-18, God helps the men of Judah kill 500,000 of their fellow Israelites.
3. God slaughters all Egyptian firstborn.
In Exodus 12:29, God the baby-killer slaughters all Egyptian firstborn children and cattle because their king was stubborn.
4. God kills 14,000 people for complaining that God keeps killing them.
In Numbers 16:41-49, the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them. So, God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more of them.
5. Genocide after genocide after genocide.
In Joshua 6:20-21, God helps the Israelites destroy Jericho, killing “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In Deuteronomy 2:32-35, God has the Israelites kill everyone in Heshbon, including children. In Deuteronomy 3:3-7, God has the Israelites do the same to the people of Bashan. In Numbers 31:7-18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they take as spoils of war. In 1 Samuel 15:1-9, God tells the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites – men, women, children, infants, and their cattle – for something the Amalekites’ ancestors had done 400 years earlier.
6. God kills 50,000 people for curiosity.
In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant. (Newer cosmetic translations count only 70 deaths, but their text notes admit that the best and earliest manuscripts put the number at 50,070.)
7. 3,000 Israelites killed for inventing a god.
In Exodus 32, Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. The Israelites are bored, so they invent a golden calf god. Moses comes back and God commands him: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” About 3,000 people died.
8. The Amorites destroyed by sword and by God’s rocks.
In Joshua 10:10-11, God helps the Israelites slaughter the Amorites by sword, then finishes them off with rocks from the sky.
9. God burns two cities to death.
In Genesis 19:24, God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from the sky. Then God kills Lot’s wife for looking back at her burning home.
10. God has 42 children mauled by bears.
In 2 Kings 2:23-24, some kids tease the prophet Elisha, and God sends bears to dismember them. (Newer cosmetic translations say the bears “maul” the children, but the original Hebrew, baqa, means “to tear apart.”)
11. A tribe slaughtered and their virgins raped for not showing up at roll call.
In Judges 21:1-23, a tribe of Israelites misses roll call, so the other Israelites kill them all except for the virgins, which they take for themselves. Still not happy, they hide in vineyards and pounce on dancing women from Shiloh to take them for themselves.
12. 3,000 crushed to death.
In Judges 16:27-30, God gives Samson strength to bring down a building to crush 3,000 members of a rival tribe.
13. A concubine raped and dismembered.
In Judges 19:22-29, a mob demands to rape a godly master’s guest. The master offers his daughter and a concubine to them instead. They take the concubine and gang-rape her all night. The master finds her on his doorstep in the morning, cuts her into 12 pieces, and ships the pieces around the country.
14. Child sacrifice.
In Judges 11:30-39, Jephthah burns his daughter alive as a sacrificial offering for God’s favor in killing the Ammonites.
15. God helps Samson kill 30 men because he lost a bet.
In Judges 14:11-19, Samson loses a bet for 30 sets of clothes. The spirit of God comes upon him and he kills 30 men to steal their clothes and pay off the debt.
16. God demands you kill your wife and children for worshiping other gods.
In Deuteronomy 13:6-10, God commands that you must kill your wife, children, brother, and friend if they worship other gods.
17. God incinerates 51 men to make a point.
In 2 Kings 1:9-10, Elijah gets God to burn 51 men with fire from heaven to prove he is God.
18. God kills a man for not impregnating his brother’s widow.
In Genesis 38:9-10, God kills a man for refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow.
19. God threatens forced cannibalism.
In Leviticus 26:27-29 and Jeremiah 19:9, God threatens to punish the Israelites by making them eat their own children.
20. The coming slaughter.
According to Revelation 9:7-19, God’s got more evil coming. God will make horse-like locusts with human heads and scorpion tails, who torture people for 5 months. Then some angels will kill a third of the earth’s population. If he came today, that would be 2 billion people.
The post on the site the list above comes from concludes by adding that “Christians have spent thousands of years coming up with excuses for a loving god that would allow or create such evil. In fact, they’ve come up with 12 basic responses, which are the subject of The Tale of the Twelve Officers.” The first link (“excuses”) in this last quote takes you to the Wikipedia page for Theodicy, which is an entire line of thought that “attempts to answer the question why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.” The second link, to “The Tale of the Twelve Officers,” takes you to a hyperbolic story about a terrible crime committed in full view of 12 police officers who did nothing to stop it. The bulk of the story is the 12 officers accounting for why they did nothing. Each of their justifications represent ones the author of that page finds Christians commonly using to explain evil and justify how God might allow it to go on. That author concludes by adding:
Religious readers, do not take offense. I have made this parable as brazen as I could, but my purpose is not to insult or blaspheme. I have found that religious believers are often conditioned to accept trite solutions to the problem of suffering, and that it is all but impossible to shake that conditioning through dry analysis. The temptation to offer to an entity a moral blank check simply because it sports a name tag with “God” written on it, is overwhelming in our theistic culture. Hence, this attempt to make the point through a medium as far removed from dry analysis as possible. But again, it is all to make a point, not to cause anyone harm. I have not written anything that I would not have wanted directed at me when I myself was a believer.
Were I to choose not to follow Jesus as some that I know have, including Bart, this would be one of the reasons why. Another reason has to do with the nature of truth as it relates to the Bible. In a postmodern age, this boils down to a simple question: why should we trust the Bible? How can we, really, when you know as I do that the written Bible we Protestants rely on is different from the Catholic version, for starters, and more importantly (leaving divine inspiration aside for a moment) is not a single book written at one time by one person in one language but is rather many, many books (at least 66; some would argue more) that at first weren’t written at all but were instead passed on as oral traditions and then were written down by many different people in a number of different languages over the course literally of thousands of years. Some of these original writings were lost in the dust of time, but fragments of copies of them were unearthed sometimes much later and eventually compiled, and then men (usually) sat in councils to decide which of these compilations to canonize (make official) as the “Bible” we can buy in a bookstore today. Surely this must be a matter for faith because it seems to me it takes a lot of faith to believe that a holy book with such an origin story could be, well, holy.
Problems with the Bible don’t end there, though. Not only is it of dubious origin. Not only does it recount horrific tales of murder and genocide seemingly ordered by God, but for quite some time Protestants have insisted that the Bible is inerrant. Usually there’s some qualification to go along with this like “in its original writings” or something of that sort, but the basic gist is as it sounds, I would suggest. The point is that the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes. There’s no error in it. As someone who’s done just a little study of Christian history, I like to point out that it’s perhaps not coincidental that this insistence on the part of Protestants seems strangely (or not) to have arisen around the same time that Catholics began insisting that the Pope was infallible. It’s as if one team needed an answer for the problem posed by the best player on the other team. Perhaps I digress, however. What’s troublesome about this and truly challenging if one is to continue to have faith is that the Bible seems to, well, have some errors. Depending on how one interprets it, one could make a case for all kinds of things the Bible seems to support which just don’t stand up under modern scientific, literary, or historical critical analysis. Questions like how old the earth is and whether dinosaurs and men walked the earth at the same time are ones that some find answers to in the Bible, but those answers sometimes directly contradict all other evidence that can be found outside the Bible using all the tools God has otherwise given us.
One more point should be made, again reflecting as we are in a postmodern (and, in the wake of the recent election, truly “post-truth”) age. Its worth noting as others much smarter than I have said, but which I keep echoing, that all reading is interpretation. I’ve posted and talked about this before, but a clip from the amazing film Waking Life deals with this most helpfully:
The dialogue in that scene goes:
Creation seems to come out of imperfection. It seems to come out of a striving and a frustration. And this is where I think language came from. I mean, it came from our desire to transcend our isolation and have some sort of connection with one another. And it had to be easy when it was just simple survival like, you know, “water.” We came up with a sound for that. Or “saber-toothed tiger right behind you.” We came up with a sound for that. But when it gets really interesting, I think is when we use that same system of symbols to communicate all the abstract and intangible things that we’re experiencing. What is, like frustration? Or what is anger? Or love? When I say “love,” the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain through their memories of love or lack of love and they register what I’m saying and say yes, they understand. But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed. It’s unspeakable. And yet, you know, when we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.
It’s terribly useful to remember that words are indeed symbols. They’re vehicles for conveying meaning. But the meaning in the mind of a speaker or writer that a word is meant to bear may or may not be the meaning that is made in the mind of the hearer or reader when that word is received. Certainly, some meanings are more easily transferred from the mind of the speaker/writer to that of the hearer/reader than others. Some symbols/words are so ubiquitous in a culture that the chances of effective communication are very high. But what if the writer and reader speak very different languages and come from very different cultures and lived thousands of years apart? So I’ll say it again, all reading is interpretation, and this is a useful concept when thinking especially about reading the Bible. Some Christians would like to say that their reading of the text is somehow “plain” or so evident as to be beyond dispute, but such a claim does not hold up. Every act of reading involves many, many decisions by the reader about what the symbols they’re presented with are meant to convey. Most of these decisions are made subconsciously or they’ve effectively been made for us by virtue of the time we’re born into, the language we speak and the abundance of words it has or doesn’t have to represent one thing or another; our socioeconomic status, who and how present our parents are, and on and on and on. For example, and I’ve talked about this before, in English “you” can be plural or singular. Many, many of the “you’s” in the New Testament that talk about how to follow Jesus are plural. They’re addressed to you all, the church, because following Jesus is so wonderful and so hard that you can’t just do it alone. Yet how many of us grew up reading them as if they were addressed to me, just me, the individual? How many sermons did we who grew up “going to church” hear that reinforced this way of being a “Christian” that in its individualism was probably more “American” than “Christian?”
So then, what are we to make of all this?
Usually in discussions like this I’ll talk about my Luther Seminary days and how one professor in one class was so very helpful. Of course, at first he was decidedly un-helpful as the faith of my youth was torn down time and again by questions like “Jonah- a story of a whale, or a whale of a story?” Incidentally, the Jonah story never mentions a whale; it was “a big fish,” but I digress again. In any case, after serving to deeply challenge and even deconstruct quite a bit the faith I grew up with, this prof. very helpfully provided some building blocks for constructing a very different, but hopefully more mature, faith. He suggested that when it comes to the Bible what’s most important are the questions we ask of it. So instead of asking about the Bible questions like “Is it true?” as in “was it factually observable?” or “could I have taken a video of it?” it’s far better to ask about the Bible “what is it for?” The authors of the Bible and especially the Hebrew Scriptures- with their ancient neareastern understanding and cosmology- did not set out, for example, to write a 21st century science textbook. So if some of the stories in the Bible don’t exactly jive with our modern scientific understanding, it’s because they weren’t meant to. That’s not what they’re for. No, what the Bible is for, taken as a whole, is to tell the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages, culminating and centered in the person and life of Jesus. Everything in the “big God story” that comes before Christmas is best seen as somehow pointing toward him, and everything that comes after the resurrection can only be understood in light of it. Thus, as Circle of Hope says, “Jesus is the lens through which we read the Bible” and “the Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.”
The notion of knowing and following the Bible being a group project is integral too. Because all reading is interpretation and language is fraught with so many ontological challenges, we best understand and receive guidance from Scripture when we do it together. One of my pastors, Michael Binder of Mill City Church, talks about this a bit when he discusses whether or not the Bible is trustworthy. He says: “I think the Bible can be trusted because it’s always being translated. In fact, I trust the Bible more because it’s always being translated.” Later, he says: “We have to do the hard work as a community to ask ‘What’s the most faithful interpretation and action based on what we know of God’s story and character and what’s said in the Bible in the midst of a constantly changing cultural setting?’ ” He goes on:
“Our engagement with the Bible becomes more important right now, not less important. One of the reactions to the question of ‘Can I trust the Bible?’ is to say, ‘Well I don’t know if I can so I’m just going to put it on the shelf.’ That’s the opposite reaction we need. We need a whole group of people who are digging into it more and asking better questions about how we faithfully translate that Scripture today. And we all have to do that together. You can’t just pick some experts and have them do it for you.”
“Community then becomes more important, not less important, because we need each other to interpret the Bible well. We have to decide what it is God is calling us to do. I can’t decide that for you. You can’t sit in a room by yourself and read the Bible and decide what you think it means. You can’t. You have to do it with other people because you need their perspective. You need to hear God through them. You have to build trust with people in community. That’s one of the reasons why we need more community in church, not less. We need to fight against the individualistic tendencies that say ‘Just go off and do it by yourself in your own spiritual journey.’ That doesn’t work. So the reasons why we can trust the Bible is 1) the Bible is the means to an end and the end is connecting us to Jesus, and secondly, because it’s already built to be translated, which means it can adapt and adjust and speak clearly truth into any cultural situation and if we know that then we can enter into discussions and questions about what that really means in any particular time and place and trust that as a community God will reveal it to us, because he always has.”
Thinking of the Bible as being “built” to be translated is helpful to me. Perhaps the crazy convoluted process in which Scripture came together in the form we receive it today is a testament (ha! no pun intended) to why it is trustworthy, not why it’s not. If we remember what the Bible is for- namely, it’s for telling the story of God’s wooing of humanity though the ages culminating in the person of Jesus- (a notion I think Michael affirms in saying “the Bible is a means to an end and the end is connecting us to Jesus”) then it also bears remembering that this storytelling has always been a group project. It was in the context of a community that the first oral traditions that later became written scripture first evolved. It was within a community that scriptures were copied, edited, and added to as the “big God story” continued on. Letters within Scripture were written to whole communities of believers in various cities, and the story continues to be told today, right at this second on a blog.
Thinking of the Bible as a means to an end also solves another problem. It rescues us from the temptation to resort to “Bibliolatry,” as unfortunately all too many would-be Jesus followers have done. Some Christians are so focused on being “Bible based” and “preaching the Word” that they lose sight of the One of whom the “word” speaks. They lose sight of the living Word, Jesus. They forgot that while the “law” in scripture is useful because it points in the direction of how to have the right relationships God made us for, what’s important are those relationships, not the rules that help us have them well. As I’ve long said using my own personal mantra, “rules are for relationship.” Or as Jesus put it, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Likewise, we’re reminded in scripture that the day will come when God “will put (his) laws in (our) hearts, and (he) will write them on (our) minds.” I’ve talked about this before. So if you ask me why I continue to trust the Bible, I can give you one crucial reason: because it reliably points to Jesus. I trust the Bible to do that. I trust it to point me in the direction of right relationship with Jesus, with those around me, and with God’s good earth. It’s a signpost along “the way” of following Jesus, but ultimately my trust does not fully and finally reside in any text. My trust finds its final home in Jesus himself. In the absence of right relationship with Jesus, the Bible has little value for me.
I’ll be honest. I still have lots of problems with the Bible, at least 20 or so, as noted above. Some of them are mitigated by remembering how the Bible came together and remembering too that what came together was not only a compilation of many different voices separated by language, culture, and time, but also many different genres. Some of what we read in scripture is narrative or prose. Some is poetry. Some is allegorical. Some is apocalyptic, a genre which many interpret as telling the future, but maybe is best understood as telling a hard truth about the present which couldn’t be heard unless it was couched in language that on its face had to with the future, much like the best science fiction today. Thus some of the stories in the Bible are clearly “stories” meant to make a point but not needing to be factually observable to be “true.” Others seem to be intended to be historical accounts, but sometimes it’s just hard to tell which is which.
Our challenges don’t end there, though. Even when it does seem somewhat clear what kind of story we’re reading in Scripture, we’re still faced with the question of what to do with that story. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve sin and a curse is pronounced. Included in that curse are the words “To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ ” Remember, those words were first spoken, then written, then fragmented and put back together, then translated many, many times and finally ripped from their historical and cultural context as they were brought to us. The question is still begged, however, does this description of what is (“he will rule over you”) means that it is what should be? Is patriarchy Christian? Many Christians over many years have basically said “yes” to this question and in all too many cases women were oppressed as a result. Some of us hopefully have been smart enough to move away from complementarianism and have taken more egalitarian stances in our marriages, workplaces, and churches. Still, does the Bible give us a “right” answer? What about slavery? Many Christians were on the wrong side of this too, and could quote chapter and verse from the Bible to justify their position. Were they again right to do so according to the text(s)? How about LGBTQ issues today? Or the death penalty? Or abortion? What about war? Or killing and eating animals (yes, you can defend your position on this using Scripture)? My point is that would-be Jesus followers have been all over the map on these issues throughout history, and in most if not all cases, they used the Bible to support their answers. Does this mean that everyone’s right? That no one is? And what do we do when passages seem to contradict themselves? And what weight do we give various passages within the Bible? Are some more important than others? How do we decide? Who gets to decide?
I think what Bart so brazenly and honestly declared he did with Scripture when he was still following Jesus- which I referenced in my last post- is something we all do. He said that he “will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that” didn’t comport with his “first article of faith,” namely “that God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing everything possible to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.” He also declares just what king of a god he can believe in (at the time), namely one that is “at least as moral as he is.” He starts from there and then moves to scripture to find affirmation of this view. Some would immediately assert that this is wrong, backwards. Are we really so different, though? Remembering that all reading is interpretation, we all bring our assumptions to the Bible, and most of us too often use it as a tool to justify our pre-conceived positions.
All of this only reinforces the need to remember what Scripture is for, namely again telling the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages. Of course it’s also useful for what it says it is useful for, which is: “…for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but this is only possible within a community that is willing to do the hard work of ongoing interpretation, together, as together that community does its best to follow Jesus, to ask “what is God up to?” and “how should we respond?” Some Christians will be deeply offended by the paragraph above about Bart’s “first article of faith” (which alludes to universalism) and his approach to Scripture (which some would call brazenly cavalier), and it reminds me of something Bart’s father, Tony Campolo, used to do when he would speak at Christian colleges. He usually said something like this, which I found recorded here:
I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
Obviously (hopefully it’s obvious, anyway) he was being hyperbolic, but his story does what good stories do. It got you to think. It raises questions about justice and rules and begs the questions: “what do we think God really cares about?” and “do we care about those things as much as He does?” So I wonder about those who would be offended by the paragraph above. Are you more offended because Bart believed, with some Scriptural support, that God’s love for humanity would be so, well, loving that it would eventually wear down our resistance to it down to every last man, woman, and child throughout history; or are you more offended that Bart would be honest about discounting some parts of the Bible or ignoring them altogether in favor of others? If the former, I’ll have more to say below. If the latter, is it possible that you’re offended because if you’re at all like me you know that deep down you’re no better? I can certainly agree with him regarding myself, and I have lots of evidence that almost every Christian does this. Many “conservative Christians,” for example, elevate some passages of scripture that touch on immoral habits like drunkenness or promiscuity to the point that they’re quick to judge those who engage in such acts while seeming to utterly ignore how Jesus seemed to interact with those who engaged in such acts. Some such would-be Jesus followers wouldn’t be caught dead with such “sinners,” while Jesus seemed to greatly prefer the company of “sinners” over that of the (self-)”righteous.” Similarly, some “single issue voters” will use abortion as the alleged metric for deciding who to vote for because murder is pretty clearly wrong and life seems to pretty clearly begin at some point in the womb (and as the father of a son born at 24 weeks and 3 days gestation I can unequivocally say my son wasn’t quite cooked enough when he was born but he was certainly my son already and he’s an amazing young man today!). Astoundingly, though, those same single issue “don’t murder” voters seem to have no difficulty supporting war and the death penalty and seem to be unwilling to lift a finger to support the social safety net and living wages and universal healthcare and early education/intervention opportunities, all of which can have a dramatic impact on continuing the already downward trend in abortion rates. And you know what? They can use scripture to defend some of those positions.
Speaking of scripture, or more accurately, some people’s interpretation of it, I started writing these two posts and spent much of the last one talking about Bart and his repudiation of faith for a reason. Actually, and importantly, my recent post with all the Kingdomworks pictures is related too. You see, there was an interesting, if not strange, confluence of events that happened lately. It started when I discovered that my old KW team-mate Holly is actually kind of famous.
Holly and I had been in touch a little in the year after KW and then again haltingly some time after that, but then we fell out of contact as was the case for all my other team members save for my friend Dean. It was a surprise to suddenly find Holly again and also find that she’s something of a star in the improv circuit, to the point where she made the main stage at Second City and even auditioned for Lorne Michaels at SNL. I’m super proud of her and gratified by her success, and because of it all and because of her presence on YouTube and other sites I was able to hear, in her own words, a little about her journey. Most poignantly, though, and part of how this all came to a head for me is that Bart interviewed her I think for over an hour on his podcast about humanism. Perhaps it goes without saying that like Bart, Holly no longer considers herself a Jesus-follower.
It’s probably worth noting that after doing KW Holly spent a long time, maybe as much as a decade, supporting her night-time work learning and training in improv by working during the day for Willow Creek, smack dab in the belly of the beast of modern-day Christendom (which, if you know me or have read this blog, you know that “Christendom” stands for everything the church should not). I don’t meant to judge (much). I’m sure there are many well-meaning would-be Jesus followers who form wonderful relationships and maybe even serve the poor in meaningful ways by virtue of their being a part of Willow Creek. But what do you have to give up to get that goodness? I can only imagine how mind-numbing and soul-sucking it was to produce dramatic experiences for rich white suburban Chicago Willow Creek kids and their parents, which I think is somewhat close to what Holly was doing for them. I can only guess it was especially soul-sucking for Holly, who famously wrote me after Kingdomworks and said this:
If you can’t make it out, it says: “…at present I desire to high tail it back the where we belong. Back on the street, where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”
I can’t help but suspect there was a lot of sweat involved in serving Willow Creek kids and their parents, but not a lot of purpose. I’m not mad at Holly. I have no right to be and no place in her life now, and I recognize that her journey is her journey. I don’t judge it, or her. I can’t say that I’m emotion-less about it all, though. I feel….wistful, a bit melancholy I suppose. If you know me, you know I’ve been “mildly depressed” for most of my life; so this is not something new for me. It is…different, though. I guess as I’ve spent the better part of 21+ years in many ways trying to recreate my KW experience by moving to Philly (twice!) and working in social service and in the foster care system for some years and then with disadvantaged kids in education for the better part of a decade, through all of that I felt like I was trying to get “back to where I belong,” and it was comforting to know I may not be the only one. Perhaps I digress.
So….that happened. Then, in spending a little more time on my dear friend Bart’s website than I had of late, I came across his podcast where he interviewed his very introverted wife Marty, whom I hardly know but had the pleasure to meet a few times and was welcomed into their home once. Anyway, the subject of their talk was them wrestling with the notion that they (atheists) have gone “too easy” on Christianity (they’re careful to say not too easy on Christians, but I suppose the “institution” of Christianity, to be sure), particularly in regard to the generally-accepted-by-many-Christians doctrine regarding hell as a place of conscious, eternal torment for much of humanity throughout history, including perhaps your friends, neighbors, and loved ones. So, first I realized Holly was semi-famous but not following Jesus anymore, then that Bart had recorded a conversation of over an hour with her that touched in part on the summer that Holly and I shared doing Bart’s program, KW; then I discovered Bart’s conversation with Marty that delved deeply into this question of whether or not Christianity as an institution in the world had done great harm by espousing and inculcating many young minds with this palpable fear that they will suffer eternal torment if they don’t “believe the things and say the things” about Jesus. Thus, Bart wondered if not only had Christianity done great harm but also could rightly be accused of literally abusing the children that grew up believing this. Marty talks a little about her experience growing up believing this. I can certainly relate, and I know my wife, Kirsten, can as well. I’ve often talked about “fire insurance” Christianity and rejected it wholesale for all the reasons I’ve already said, but hearing it put in these terms was perhaps appropriately challenging.
So let me be clear again. Much as Bart did with his embrace of universalism before deciding not to follow Jesus, I reject, outright, the idea that God will eternally torment in a pit of fire anyone that doesn’t “believe the things and say the things” for whatever reason. As I’ve said before, Bart can tell his own story far better than I and he has and continues to do so, but I would like to suggest that to whatever extent he rejected Jesus because of this notion that God would cause his children to suffer forever, whatever the justification; this need not have been so. I know many Christians over many years have supported this idea with words from the Bible and whole generations have grown up taking this idea of hell as “gospel truth.” I remain convinced that they’re wrong, for several reasons.
First of all, as I said here a couple of years ago while wrestling with some of these same questions (including conversing a bit with the same writings by Bart that I have continued to wrestle with in these more recent posts), I defer to Rod White of Circle of Hope, who writes the following here:
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of the age when the sheep are separated from the goats. This is the line that bothers people, even if they have just heard about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” This seems to be a reflection of Enoch 10:13 (which did not make it into the Protestant Bible) in which evil angels are locked forever in a prison at the bottom of the fire, the “pit of hell.”
I do not think that God, who absorbed the ultimate violence the world could offer on the cross in Jesus Christ, is waiting around to come again in order to send millions of people to unending judgment – to absorb the ultimate violence he can offer! Yet some people do not want to follow Jesus because they believe the Bible contradicts itself by calling on people to love their enemies, while showing plainly that, in the end, God will condemn his enemies to experience ever-burning fire. Maybe quoting Miroslav Volf again will help with this misunderstanding (I think Exclusion and Embrace is a great book, if you can take dense arguing).
“The evildoers who ‘eat up my people as they eat bread,’ says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put ‘in great terror’ (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better, why not reasoning together? Why not just display suffering love? Because evildoers ‘are corrupt’ and ‘they do abominable deeds’ (v. 1); they have ‘gone astray,’ they are ‘perverse’ (v. 3). God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah” (p. 298).
Those who do receive what no one deserves are welcomed into a renewed creation under God’s loving reign. That is the goal. The evildoers are not imprisoned, screaming in agony, in some eternal land of unrenewed creation. I think they get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.
I added in that post from a couple of years ago:
Thus, as Lewis said in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.” So God persistently, stubbornly, despite it being a “long and difficult task” in Bart’s words, works to overcome evil, respecting our freedom all along the way to choose to join him or not. When, in the end, whenever and however that comes, we finally choose not to join him in that task, God respects that choice too and in his mercy permits us to “get ourselves without God,” which is death/nonexistence.
To my theological imagination, this makes perfect sense. If it is in Christ that “all things hold together,” and sin is separation, then eventually those who resist to the end God’s goodness and grace and refuse to accept his invitation into right relationship with him, with one another, and with God’s good world will then experience final separation from God, which means no longer “holding together,” no longer being. This is a final end/death. Think of babies who die tragically from “failure to thrive,” from a lack of loving touch and of human kindness. We were so obviously made in and for love that it’s hard to imagine how we could go on existing in any place where there was fully and finally none of it. If it were possible, that place would be hellish indeed.
This is what Michael Binder suggests in another of his sermons to Mill City Church. If you go here and scroll all the way down you’ll eventually see a sermon titled “The Separation of Hell” by Michael Binder from 5/2/10. Before echoing many of the larger points I’ve just made, he starts by sharing a bit of pop theology on hell from Seinfeld:
Then he moves on to his sermon proper, using the story of the “rich man” and Lazarus from Luke 16:
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
His sermon is worth a listen, but some of what he gets at is that first of all this is not a story necessarily about hell. It’s a story about money. Just a few verses before Jesus had given his oft-quoted statement on money: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” The passage then adds: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.15 He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.’ “
In a culture where health and wealth were regarded as rewards from God and conversely sickness and poverty were seen as judgment, Michael says Jesus preached the coming of a kingdom that was radically different. He says: “In a place were God is king, no one gets to lie in the filth with untreated sores, hungry. That doesn’t happen in God’s kingdom. Jesus is saying, ‘You don’t understand; the wealth you were given, it’s meant to help that guy; it’s meant to bless this person who’s having a terrible time and needs someone to aid him’.” Thus Jesus was preaching something radically different from the accepted practice of the day, though this should not have been the case, as way back in Genesis 12, speaking to Abram, God had made clear that God’s people were “blessed to be a blessing:”
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.[a] 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Somehow the message hadn’t stuck; so Jesus uses this story from Luke to make the point. Michael adds, “This person (the nameless rich man, whom the Pharisees and teachers of the law are meant to identify with) is justifying their lifestyle, justifying their lack of action, lack of help for this person with their religious beliefs. Nothing makes Jesus more angry than the people who are in charge of religion saying that not only do I not acknowledge this (poor) person, but I have no obligation to help them.”
Michael says that one of the most remarkable things about this passage is that the rich man, when he can communicate with Lazarus, doesn’t ask to be rescued, to be taken from that hellish place as you or I might have thought to request. Instead, he asks that Lazarus, a man who when each of them were still alive was clearly in a much lower class than he, be sent essentially to serve him, to “increase his comfort level,” as Michael said. Thus, even in a hellish place, the rich man is so locked into his selfish ways that he seems unable to even conceive of the steps necessary to change. By this time in the rich man’s story he’s so trapped in his self-centered way of being that it doesn’t even occur to him to humbly ask for rescue. Thus, Michael says, it’s this text that have led C.S. Lewis and others to conclude that “hell is locked from the inside,” not the outside. I’m reminded again of the The Great Divorce.
That said, though this passage is much more about money than hell, Michael goes on a little to explore the two main words used in the New Testament for hell: Hades and Gehenna. Hades, Michael says, comes from the “Greco-Roman” world and just means “the underworld, the afterlife, the place of the dead; and it often means a place that you can’t escape, and it can be a place of punishment.” Michael adds that:
Gehenna was referring to a valley that was out behind Jerusalem, and this is where a lot of the imagery of fire, and burning, and torture (regarding hell) comes from. The south side of Jerusalem had this big valley and that’s where Jerusalem would dump all their trash…and they burned it…and so there was this constant burning in this valley going (on) behind Jerusalem and there would have been worms and maggots and things eating up all the trash that was in there.
Even worse, says Michael, in one of the worst periods of Israel’s history two of her kings sacrificed their sons there, in Gehenna, to the god Molech, and afterwards the valley was considered cursed. So this is known imagery. Michael then concludes: “At times I think people reject the idea of hell because they don’t like this caricature of a fiery burning place and like I said most scholars think this was a metaphorical piece, but what’s frustrating to me,” Michael goes on, “is that somehow when people hear that….that’s comforting to them; it’s consoling to think, ‘well, maybe there really isn’t a fiery hell’.” “No,” Michael says, “no there probably isn’t a fiery hell; there’s something much worse than that. There’s something far worse than burning for all eternity; there’s a place completely absent of God’s presence…completely absent of love…” I’m still not sure that we could exist in any place devoid fully and finally of love, but I pray I’ll never have to find out.
Either way, God isn’t a cosmic child abuser. He didn’t kill his son to satisfy some perverse system of justice that we could never adhere to. God is love. God loves us enough to make us free, and in our freedom we have fallen short of loving him and one another as we should. That leaves us isolated, alone, separated from God and one another. God still loves us, though, and so rescues us, even though bridging the gap between us requires him to traverse death itself, because any place without love, without God, is necessarily a place without life. We can choose to receive this free gift, this offer of rescue, of the restoration of the right, loving relationships we were made for. Or, I suppose, we can choose not to. If so, God doesn’t vindictively torment us forever. Instead, as Volf said above, those who continue to resist God’s love right to the very end, “…get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.”
I should begin to close with the words of another mentor in my life that I’ve mentioned before, Duane Crabbs. Duane once responded to an email thread I forwarded him that contained some theological arguments about some of the big questions I’ve been wrestling with above. He answered me by saying:
I have little or no interest in debating beliefs/opinions with anyone, even about ultimate matters like suffering. As someone who spends much time among the suffering (nursing homes, jail, inner city, hospitals, hospice) I have discovered that they are each one individually, a rich vein of incredible faith. The main people who I hear debating issues surrounding suffering and doubt tend to be well-educated, relatively young, materially comfortable people. To debate requires us to abstract principles and philosophical ideas form the particulars of actual suffering people. The suffering themselves do not seek life-meaning from philosophical debates. They want to touch and be touched, to care and matter to somebody. Instead of debating, let’s re-enact the incarnation and throw our lot in with the suffering and learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity. Now that is the good news, not just preached, but incarnated, dare I say re-incarnated. I don’t think God will give us the grace to intellectualy figure out suffering and its causes. I do know he offers every one of us the grace sufficient to bear our own suffering and to enter into the suffering of others!
Wow! As usual, I think Duane is right, and again I think the church has done the world a great disservice for quite some time now. We abstracted a personal (but communal and relational) faith and reduced it to “believing the (right) things and saying the (right) things” about Jesus. We made it about lending intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and checking all the right boxes on a list of behavioral do’s and dont’s. Thus, an intellectual, moralistic faith leads to intellectual problems that only a personal (but communal and relational) God can solve. As Bart said, it doesn’t matter quite as much why I started following Jesus; it matters why I’m still trying to. And so again I will echo Bart when he said:
I still do my best to convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want the kids I love to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe following Jesus is the best kind of life. Eternity aside, I want them to be transformed by the Gospel right here and right now, for their sakes and for the sakes of all the lost and broken people out there who need them to start living as Jesus’ disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Most of all, however, I evangelize people because, having discovered that they are the beloved children of my beloved God, I don’t want them to suffer one minute longer than they have to without knowing that most wonderful fact of life.
I too think following Jesus is the best kind of life. Though I am so very much a work in progress, I am being transformed by the gospel right here and right now. I’ve known love deep in my soul in a way that I can’t explain, but I’ve felt it well up inside me and overflow with love for those around me that simply defies any other explanation. My heart continues to break for “all the poor and powerless, for all the lost and lonely,” not because I’m a swell guy, but because the King of the universe reigns in my heart, and he won’t quit until the beloved community he dreams of, the new humanity he’s creating, is a reality for every last one of us, if we’ll have it.
I think Bart’s right, by the way. To whatever extent “Christianity” terrifies little kids into saying a magic prayer so that a vengeful god won’t torment them forever in a fiery pit, it is an evil in the world. I don’t think that has much to do with following Jesus, though, and I pray the day comes when enough of us follow Jesus closely enough that such a caricature loses its potency. In the meantime I’ll keep plumbing the depths of God’s love for me and doing my best to love those around me well enough that they want to jump in and experience it too. And who knows? Maybe Bart and Holly will join me again some day. After all, the arc of our lives may be long, but I suspect it bends towards Jesus, because Jesus is love, and love is what we were made for.
I don’t want my country back; I don’t think I want America to be great again; and I don’t even think I want to “win this nation back” for Jesus, either. There, I said it.
I suppose I should explain.
This theme seems to keep coming up, in various forms. We all know Donald wants to “make America great again.” It’s worth noting that what that phrase likely evokes for most people is nostalgia for the “good ol’ days,” usually in reference to the ’50’s, and it must be remembered that those days may have only seemed “great” because they were relatively better than what had come before, namely the Great Depression and two world wars. Nonetheless, there was progress in the 50’s, to be sure, and those who lived through that time may have experienced it as being “great,” but it again must be remembered that it was only “great” for some, and that “great-“ness came at the cost of the oppression of many others. The Daily Show recently tackled this issue:
Still, those who support Donald and others of their ilk often speak of wanting “their country” back, again hearkening back to a “great” time that exists in nostalgic memory much more so than it ever did in reality, and usually such comments go hand in hand with calls to secure the borders and keep “America” for “Americans.” This is wrong on many levels, but I’ll name two. For starters, it’s at best ignorant, perhaps willfully, as the “country” they want to secure only exists because the land was stolen from its original inhabitants, destroying their culture and way of life in the process while committing genocide against their population and repeatedly breaking treaty after treaty with indigenous peoples whenever it suited the new nation’s interests, as this TED talk attests to:
Secondly, and relatedly, calling the land “America” is itself objectionable. It’s only called this because a European map-maker chose the name in honor of one of the earliest European explorers of the “new world,” Amerigo Vespucci. Of course, Europeans did not “discover” the continent(s), as indigenous peoples (with forebears from Asia) had long been here, and likely had other names for the land, which they regarded reverently and treated with much more respect than we of European descent ever have. As one indigenous person said:
“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit
Still, even if you accept the usage of the European named continent(s), it’s likely that when most people hear “America” they think of the United States, thereby failing to remember that in North America alone there are three major countries- the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. This is to say nothing of the many countries that make us South America. Thus, most often when I speak of “America” or “Americans” and am referring to the U.S. or its citizens, I will call it “USAmerica” or “USAmericans.” It still invokes, for me at least, the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent(s) and destruction of their land and way of life, but at least it doesn’t double down by presuming that the U.S. is the only country that matters in “America.”
For all those reasons, I am not among those who want “my” country back. But again I’m also not sure I want USAmerica to be “great” again, because again, it seems to me that those who use this phrase are referring to a time when, if it was great, it was mostly so for (male) whites. To be sure, those who long for what they perceive to be better times also do so in recognition that, according to the Bloomberg article linked to above and here, “the past decade has witnessed stagnation and rising inequality.” The appeal of both Donald and Bernie Sanders as presidential candidates points to this reality, as does the Occupy movement. “Yet,” that Bloomberg article goes on to say, “by almost every other objective measure, life is simply much better now than it was in the ’50s for just about everyone.”
It’s also worth noting what the above analysis hasn’t yet, namely that the foundation for a growing postwar economy was laid many centuries before not only through the hard work of industrious USAmerican entrepreneurs, but much more so through the hard and terrible work exacted from a nation of slaves. As this article notes:
In the pre-Civil War United States, a…case can be made that slavery played a critical role in economic development. One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all US export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth. In addition, precisely because the South specialized in cotton production, the North developed a variety of businesses that provided services for the slave South, including textile factories, a meat processing industry, insurance companies, shippers, and cotton brokers.
All of this is is to say, then, that USAmerica must not become “great” in the way that Donald and his followers pine nostalgically for. I hope to be part of a country that moves forward, not backward, and that is resilient, courageous, and wise enough to recognize the need to make fundamental and painful changes.
So, again, I don’t want “my” country back. It’s not mine, and never was. I don’t want USAmerica to be great again, either. It wasn’t all that great for many USAmericans in the ’50’s, and sadly, it still isn’t. This country has had some fine moments, to be sure, and there may be finer ones yet to come, but if they are to come, they will do so because we build bridges, not walls; because we build an economy based on service to our common humanity and the planet we all share, not one based on unmitigated capitalistic self-interest. I pray that this occurs.
I also don’t want to “win this nation back” for Jesus, either. I’m sure Rend Collective didn’t mean much when they wrote that lyric, but it’s one I’ve never been able to sing. It’s the back part that bothers me most. As I’ve said recently, there’s a real dearth of modern worship music that both helps us really worship so we don’t shrink, but that also avoids simplistic tropes and can engage us at a deeply theological level. The song that speaks of winning the nation “back,” presumably for Jesus, has some good moments but when I get to that line I just can’t say it, because I just can’t mean it. Talking about winning the nation back sounds a lot like winning “our” country “back,” for starters. And when you say you’re winning it back, even if you mean for Jesus, you imply that somehow he once had it, and now doesn’t. Is this what we really mean?
I don’t think a country can be “Christian” any more than a college or a mint can. Can a thing be Christian? For me, there’s a direct through-line from a “Christian” nation to the many “Christian” colleges (of which I’ve attended several), straight on to Testamints, which I despise. I despise Testamints for what I hope are obvious reasons, but if they’re not, here’s one. For starters, Testamints are obnoxious, and not just because of the play on words in their name. If you want a mint you’re probably not much interested in being proselytized, and if you want to hear about Jesus, it’s insulting to be handed a mint and think maybe that’s done the job. Moreover, to say that a thing can be “Christian” whether it’s a mint or a bookstore or a college or a country begs the question of just what being Christian means. Most days I hesitate to say that I’m a Christian, not only because of the societal baggage involved, but because I hope I’m not quite so proud. The early “Christians” were called “followers of the way,” which implies that they were, perhaps obviously, followers. Jesus initiated the call to his first disciples as he does to every one since then, with the simple admonition to “come, follow me.” Being a Christ-follower is about following Jesus along the way that he leads. As my favorite writer Frederick Buechnersays:
Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong.
Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.
Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.
Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.
Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.
A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.
That’s it, right there. “A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it.” For that reason, I like to say that I’m not a Christian…yet, but I might be some day. I’m on the way, though not very far along. I’m trying every day to follow Jesus as best as I can, because I can do no other. I know he loves me, despite it all, and I want to love him back.
The point is that being “Christian” is about following Jesus, and things, including nations, just can’t do that. Only people can. Besides, the only “country” that could ever be truly Christian is the kingdom of God, and that’s where my true allegiance lies. I may hope that the people who inhabit the U.S. will see God’s love, maybe even in me, and likewise choose to work at following him. In that sense, I hope to “win” this nation for Jesus, but that’s the only sense.
I know some argue that this country was founded by Christians with Judeo-Christian principles underpinning our laws and system of government. This is debatable. The fact remains, however, that for those who would follow Jesus, he is our ruler, our lord, our king. We live as subjects in his good and gracious kingdom, and most of us believe that one day all of humanity will recognize this to be true. Short of that day, however, every effort to wed the church with any secular crown has been disastrous. Do I have to point out why? For starters, the Church is the bride of Christ according to Scripture; so any effort to settle for any other bridegroom/ruler is ill-advised. And history has borne this out. From Israel’s early clamoring for a king other than God to the Crusades and on throughout history, whenever the Church has been in bed with the state it has muddled her mission, at best, and compromised not only her virtue but her very purpose, at worst.
Again, the Church is the bride of Christ, after all, and it exists for those yet to become a part of it. We cannot serve two masters. We must give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s (our taxes), but to God what is God’s (our very lives). We ought not pursue worldly political power, but serve Jesus best when we focus on serving and loving our neighbor, as he did. In fact, historically the church seems to thrive most when it is most out of favor politically, as the situation in China has long made clear.
Yet the more the Chinese government tries to control and co-opt the “official” Chinese church, the more the underground church seems to grow. This is why the start of this post has a picture of the (in)famous “conversion of Constantine.” It’s worth noting that his conversion allegedly came during the heat of battle, after which he and his troops were victorious. The aftermath of his conversion has been no less bloody. With Constantine came Christendom, the long, slow slumber of the co-opted church who gave up her mission to follow Jesus and love the world, and instead pursued worldly power, conquest, wealth, and prestige. This treatment of the topic is particularly interesting. As the author notes:
…it all went downhill after Emperor Constantine, when ‘Christ, who had turned the Roman empire upside down, was turned into a lap-dog for the Roman emperor’ (Andrews 1999, p. 70). The early church had strived to enact Jesus’ teaching. But with Constantine’s ‘conversion’, what had begun as a voluntary, nonviolent movement, a conscious choice of love, forgiveness and sacrifice eventually became a compulsory and hence meaningless tag synonymous with the status quo.
One result was the bloody Crusades. Another was the conversion of Native Americans, sometimes forcibly. The Bible was used to justify slavery, and I could go on, but it should be clear that Jesus is not to be found in any of this. No, if the Chinese church has grown best underground, out of favor with the government, we should learn from this. Something seems right about this, after all, if we are really following a leader who always could be found on the margins of society, with the “least of these.” We follow him best when we follow him there. We follow him not at all when we find ourselves in the halls of earthly political power.
So let’s win the nation for Jesus, but not by trying to get “back” any political power we think we’ve lost. Let’s try to get back our love, our eyes to see where Jesus is. Let’s seek him where he may be found, among the outcasts, with the poor, the lost, the broken, the sick and in prison, among the refugees who would be teeming at our shores if only we’d let them. That’s where Jesus is, and so that’s where we must be. See you there?
Or, What If The Empire Sometimes Does Some Good? Or, Why I Hope I Don’t Have To Talk Much More About 3DM.
This series started out as one blog post that became a two-parter, and then a 3 part series, and now I can’t do it in 5 parts without breaking up the last part into “Part A” and “Part B.” So this is the first part of how I want to wrap up this bit of writing I’ve been doing. I’ve called the whole series “Striving No More” in reference to the Keith Green song that I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, “When I Hear The Praises Start.” I mentioned that this is probably my favorite song of his, and I said:
It’s the first line that gets me: “My son, my son, why are you striving?” The truth is, I spend much of my waking hours striving, always striving, always trying to do better, to do more, to work harder. “Resting in my faith” or in much of anything else is mostly a foreign concept. As Bill Mallonee put it, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence.” There’s more to be said, there, obviously, but my point now is that when I hear Jesus singing to me through Keith in this song, I’m invited to leave “Struggleville,” even if only temporarily, and be still, knowing that God is God, and I’m not, and this brings (momentary) peace. For this, I’m grateful.
I spoke in Part 1 of this series about Circle of Hope, about the central place it occupies in my formation as a young adult, newly married, trying to follow Jesus in the big city. I talked about all the things I learned about how to follow Jesus while immersed in that community, that first of all trying to follow the Bible(‘s teachings), let alone Jesus, is a group project. It was in that community that I learned that so many of the “you’s” in the Bible that talk about how to live the Christian life are not singular; they’re plural. They’re directed to you all, the church. It was in that community that I came to understand that Jesus ought to be the “lens” through which I read the Bible, and arguably most importantly, that the Church is a people, not a place, and so we must work at “being the Church.” I could go on, but that’s what Part 1 of this series is all about. Please read it, if you haven’t.
In Part 2 I found myself dedicating a whole post to Keith Green, whom I’ve already spoken of above. He lived a remarkable 28 years on this earth and his passion not only for loving Jesus but those around him remains an example to me today. His heartfelt music is so very earnest in the best sort of way, and was a soundtrack for my life probably from the age of 12-25, or something close to that. If I am to follow Jesus, I hope to do so from the heart, like Keith did. In Part 3 I then had to talk a little, again, about Rich Mullins. Keith and Rich represent the two (early) pillars of my connection to God through music, Keith carrying me through my teen years into early adulthood, and Rich picking me up just before and into college and then on into married life. Obviously, there was a little bit of overlap there. Like Keith, Rich loved Jesus and was compelled as a result to love those around him. Both struggled with aspects of the “institutional church,” and both were unafraid to speak or act prophetically when there was truth that needed to be spoken to power, even/especially if the “power” was supposedly “Christian.”
In part 4 I talked about House of Mercy and described why that faith community was so important to us for the five years we were here in the Twin Cities from ’98-’03, including all the major events that occurred in our life during that time. I spoke of our continued respect and appreciation for House of Mercy’s pastors and the debt of gratitude we owe them, and I alluded to our struggle to fully immerse ourselves in/commit to the congregation in the year+ that we’ve been back. I alluded to the reason for that struggle having to do with our felt need for community, for a commitment to “being the church” together in a way not dissimilar to what we experienced in our two stints in Philly with Circle of Hope. I tried to be careful to say that I didn’t want House of Mercy’s pastors or House of Mercy- to be anything other than what they are. I did conclude, though, that if honest, “I suppose I yearn to really work at ‘being the church’ with others who are just as ‘into it’ as I am,” which I know is not the case for House of Mercy and its pastors, though they recognize the value of it as a supplement to what they’re already trying to do, if I’m not putting words in the pastors’ mouths.
So where does that leave me and my family?
Obviously our time with House of Mercy and especially Circle of Hope mark the high points in our experience of (being the) church in our 20 years of adult, married life. Since leaving Circle of Hope and Philly the second time in 2005, we’ve had a string of ultimately failed efforts to fully connect with any other faith community. Naturally over the past 11 years, I’ve asked myself why. I think there are a lot of reasons, of course. Maybe those early adult church experiences were “mountaintop” ones, and everything else- every other congregation that we’ve tried to participate in since- has simply been unable to stand up (in our eyes) under the weight of our (unrealistic, inappropriate) expectations for them. That could very well be the case. I think there’s a similar dynamic for me personally in regard to Kingdomworks (hmmm….I probably need to write a post entitled “Why I Keep Talking About Kingdomworks”). That very intense few months in Philly during the hot summer of 1995 between my sophomore and junior years at Gordon was a mountaintop experience for me if ever there was one. When I recently marked 20 years since that summer, a year ago, I remember thinking, and may have written, that in many ways, especially in my career choices but also in our decision to move to Philly as newlyweds in 1996 in the first place, in all of that I was no doubt trying somehow to relive or recreate that Kingdomworks experience. In fact, seven years ago, writing about Kingdomworks, I quoted a letter I got shortly after completing that Kingdomworks summer in ’95 from a Kingdomworks teammate, Holly, who said:
“At present I desire to high-tail it back to where we belong. Back on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”
In that same post from seven years ago I added:
“She (Holly) also said that when we went back, we would do it ‘for them this time’- for those kids and people like them, rather than for us (to open our eyes to the need for such a life). In many, many ways I’ve been trying to high-tail it back to where I belong ever since. I despair to report that I have not made it yet..”
So all of that is to say that I know it’s legitimate to wonder if our disappointment with every church since Circle of Hope and early House of Mercy doesn’t have more to do with “us” than it does with “them” (all those subsequent churches). After all, I quoted in Part 1 of this series, about Circle of Hope, something one of my old (Circle of Hope) pastors said to me the other day via email. I had reached out to him in order to invite his comment about something I’ll describe below, and again he said:
“I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you. Stay in therapy and don’t project too much on others — they won’t match up to what you need. Jesus will save you, not some outer experience (you know that). If you came back here, we would likely look wrong, too, by this time. Jesus may have also had an idealization of what we ought to be, but, fortunately, he healed us instead of holding us to it and just being eternally disappointed in how human we were.”
My experience of “life together” in a faith community that was really working at being the Church was again transformational for me. But I do well to remember that the pursuit of community for its own sake can be just as idolatrous, not to mention selfish, as any other such pursuit. After all, it was the martyr who wrote the book on “life together,” after all, who said:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.”
I fear- and recognize- that this is what I’ve been doing. I must be careful precisely here, however, because recognizing that I’ve “loved my dream of a Christian community more than…the community itself” does not absolve me of the responsibility to carefully discern how I and my family might best connect with and serve the community that is (as opposed to the one that I wish to be). After all, if I and my family are to keep working at following Jesus, we do well to carry with us the lessons learned when we have perhaps done so most faithfully- usually in community- since, as I said above, following the Bible, let alone Jesus, “is a group project.”
So that brings me to 3DM, the organization calling itself a “movement” that has been the force behind the rise of “missional communities” in more than a few churches across the U.S. of late. Mike Breen is a pastor originally from England. He coined the phrase “missional community” as a descriptor for the form of church life that seemed to be working in his parish in Sheffield, England. He says:
A Missional Community is a group of 20 to 50 people who exist, in Christian community, to reach either a particular neighborhood or network of relationships. With a strong value on life together, the group has the expressed intention of seeing those they are in relationship with choose to start following Jesus through this more flexible and locally incarnated expression of the church.
A hallmark of missional communities is that they exist in a “rhythm of life” marked by movement “up” (toward God), “in” (Christian community), and “out” (toward those in need and/or who don’t know Jesus). As Breen says, “Each MC (missional community) attends to the three dimensions of life that Jesus himself attended to: Time with God (worship, prayer, scripture, teaching, giving thanks, etc), time with the body of believers building a vibrant and caring community, and time with those who don’t know Jesus yet.” As the missional communities in Sheffield began to grow and develop “exponentially,” Breen began advocating for the use of the phrase as a proper noun and took this model for church life “across the pond,” where 3DM was born. As 3DM says of themselves: “3DM was birthed out of a desire to train leaders in the US in the principles, vehicles, and tools that were empowering the movement in Europe.”
When I reached out to my former Circle of Hope pastor recently and got the response I quoted above and in Part 1 of this series, I did so in part to invite his comment on 3DM. I had expressed to him my reservations about them, and he was good enough to give me a few thoughts, while along the way telling the truth about what he saw in me, as I’ve noted. I came across 3DM for the first time in OH and even went to one of 3DM’s two-day trainings for church leaders while we were part of a short-lived church plant that began about a year and a half before we left OH. Our participation in that new church didn’t last, and neither did that church for reasons that do not need to be told here or now, but that context of learning about 3DM and going to that training while we were a part of that church is important, as I’ll describe in more detail momentarily.
For now, what I appreciate about missional communities as I was introduced to them through 3DM is that they’re, well, missional. The practitioners of this way of working at trying to be the church together seem to get that, as I keep saying, the church is a people, not a place. Missional communities seem to be focused on really trying to have a life together, which obviously I would say is good. I even like that they try to marry “life together” with being very service focused. I appreciate that missional communities have written into their “DNA” that instead of having “Jesus as the only agenda” as with a cell group (a la Circle of Hope), instead each missional community has to have some sort of “out”ward focus that serves to direct the group’s energy toward loving their neighbor, whether their neighbor is someone experiencing homelessness or refugees or people caught up in human trafficking, etc. I should add that while I struggle with the “up/in/out” language, I simultaneously appreciate it. Adding “up” (focusing on/listening to/following God) and “out” (responding to God’s love for us with love for neighbors, especially when they suffer or are in need) to “in” (the community that is so important to me) gives a balance to the effort to follow Jesus, together, that it might not otherwise have. This is a needed corrective to my tendency to “love my idea of Christian community more than the community itself.”
Other features of missional communities are that they are much larger (up to 40-50 people) than a cell group (about ten people). Likewise, there seems to be some capacity for missional communities to “multiply,” though this does not seem to be so essential that a group must multiply or it will end when its covenant period does, as with a (Circle of Hope style) cell group. Unlike cell groups, however, in which discipleship happens naturally within the cell as the leader teaches and prepares his or her apprentice to become a leader in their own right while likewise the apprentice develops a relationship with whomever will become their apprentice- unlike that- with missional communities there seems to be something of a “parallel track” in play as in addition to whatever missional communities may exist within a church there is something else called a “huddle.” In a “huddle,” as I understand it, leaders very intentionally disciple/prepare others to go out and be leaders in their own right, perhaps of a missional community.
I should note that this type of multiplication strategy for growing leaders-in which a leader trains a whole group that consists entirely of other leaders who will repeat the process- is not unheard of in the larger, worldwide cell church movement (go here and here for some U.S. based organizations that identify with the cell church model), and I should further note that the largest church in the world is cell group based, but I digress. In any case in the cell church model as I experienced it with Circle of Hope, everything is focused on and streamlined within cell groups. The gifts of the members of the group are identified and unleashed to serve the church and leaders are identified and trained as each cell multiplies, but all of this happens within cells. There are layers to this, though (at least in my experience with Circle of Hope), as cell leaders are part of their own “cell” of sorts within Circle of Hope as they meet in “coordinating groups” in which a cell leader coordinator- a leader of cell leaders- mentors, trains, and disciples the cell leaders so that they’re better equipped to lead their cells. Still, the focus is on cells. By way of contrast, with the missional community model it appears to me that there are two tracks- the missional community track in which anyone can join a missional community and experience the “up, in, and out” rhythm of church life- and almost separately, unless I’m mistaken- the “huddle” track in which leaders call out other future leaders and train and equip them to lead and repeat the process.
As you might imagine, then, it was with very mixed emotions that we first encountered that new church plant in OH that was working to get missional communities started (though it wasn’t clear at first that this is what they were going for, as they called them something else). There was a lot that we really liked about that church, including the amazing and prophetic “manifesto” that made up most of its website and the willingness of its lead pastor to speak prophetic truth to power in part by espousing peacemaking in a country at perpetual war, for example. However, as I said above and have said elsewhere our participation in that church didn’t last all that long and that church has since come to an end. Still, we were glad initially to find a church that really “got” that the church is a people, not a place, as it worked to “be the church” through that “up, in, and out” rhythm of life together. I was glad to feel again like we were a part of a “people on a mission together,” as I had long described what I hoped for from church, even if the phrase (extended) “family on mission” as used and spread by 3DM felt like a commodification of my lived experience.
So when I asked my former Circle of Hope pastor for his thoughts on 3DM, I did so because we’ve recently come across another church, here in the Twin Cities, that is using missional communities as the “vehicle” for their group life together. I should probably stop right here for a brief aside. When my former Circle of Hope pastor suggested that much of what bothers me (about 3DM, and no doubt many other things) is in me, he was, I’m sure, quite right. I know this is so because it will take a long time I fear before I can extricate my understanding of missional communities and 3DM from my relationship with the staff person at that church in OH that was their biggest proponent. I ought not say much more about that except to state that he and I didn’t always love each other very well, and the fact that he was so “into” missional communities makes it hard for me to ever be so. I know; that’s my issue, not anyone else’s. Anyway, we found this church here that has missional communities, and I was immediately, though reluctantly and warily, intrigued. I’ll say more about that in my conclusion to all this in Part 5b.
In the meantime, I should state that in all my yearning in all the years since leaving Circle of Hope for the last time, in all the years since then in which I’ve longed to be part of a faith community that really was a community, that really worked at being the church and trying to follow Jesus together, I’ve wondered if my hopes were in vain, and maybe my faith too. If the life together as the Church that I experienced so many years ago now really was of God, and really did represent some of the best of what He has in mind for us, I had to believe that it couldn’t only exist in one city. I came to believe that it was vitally important to understand that if God, and my faith in Him- if any of it was real- then I must also understand that surely God was at work in every culture, in every land and language and time, and if I would but listen and try to get on board with what God was already doing wherever I happened to be, I would no doubt soon find myself immersed in just the kind of community I longed for, so long as that yearning for community was a result of being drawn to follow Jesus and realizing that I can’t do so alone.
This is why as I’ve been working through all this that I’ve come to a place of reluctant acceptance of 3DM. This was not an easy place to come to. I’ve not only struggled with 3DM because of how much I associate them with the staff person at that OH church plant that was so very “into” them. No, I actually have what I believe to be some legitimate concerns. When I first heard of them and started doing a little research, I quickly learned that there were a lot of affiliated/related groups that sprang up in the wake of the “missional community movement” begun by 3DM in the U.S. One of them is the Soma “network of churches,” and that staff person at the OH church plant really liked them. What I quickly learned about Soma is that they’re affiliated with the Acts 29 Network, another church planting group, and Soma is committed to the Acts 29 “Distinctives,” including the strong conviction that there is no place for women pastors or elders in the church. I’m deeply committed in exactly the opposite direction. Here is the somewhat buried page where Soma says their “distinctives” came from Acts 29’s, and here is the page listing the Acts 29 “distinctives,” including that firm commitment to exclude women from pastoral leadership. In fairness, I don’t know that 3DM shares this commitment, but again my early exposure to 3DM was deeply conflated with Soma, which is itself based in part on the Acts 29 Network in all its ugliness.
More importantly, though, something about 3DM just bugged me. It took me a long time to put words to it, but I finally did. Part of what bugs me is simply base on my part. I know now that I struggle to like missional communities because they’re not cell groups, and I know quite a bit about and am very experienced in participating in and leading (if not very well) cell groups. This objection on my part to missional communities is itself objectionable, and I’m aware of this. Beyond that, though, what “bugs” me about 3DM, if not missional communities themselves, is the way that something good that at best can be described as being “of God” has been turned into a product/program that is being sold in the marketplace. For example, the second thing you see on Mike Breen’s website is an offer for a $10 monthly subscription plan for his “daily audio devotional;” and if you want to “better imitate the life and leadership of Jesus” by “develop(ing) the DNA for making disciples who make disciples,” you can purchase 3DM coaching for only $150 per person, per month. (Not very) arguably, closely imitating Jesus and making disciples who make their own should be the goal of every Christ-follower. 3DM will teach you how to do so…for a price. Am I right to feel angry? I know there’s some justification in Scripture for paying pastors, but that coaching that 3DM is selling isn’t necessarily for pastors; they say it’s for “anyone in any context” (“who wants to better imitate…Jesus” as described above).
Anyway, all this blatant (and literal) commodification of what Jesus gave freely is one issue. A related one, and my last big concern about 3DM is the way that following Jesus, which by definition is very relational and contextual, has been turned into a program. If you don’t know me, I think programs are great for many things. Following Jesus and being the church are not among them. Like Debbie Blue of House of Mercy wrote once and I recently quoted in this series, “Faith is relentlessly relational, thus unsystematizable.” Like my former Circle of Hope pastor said when I invited him to comment about 3DM: “Why don’t you steer away from national things that should be local? I don’t think you like them. Can’t you just steal their seed thought and great presentation and do something yourself? (Like buying strawberries and making your own ice cream?)” Following Jesus, however closely you may want to, and especially “making disciples,” can no more be accomplished by a program than believing (in) Jesus can be accomplished by lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about him. There are no (true) “checklist Christians” (that is, folks who “accomplish” being saved by ticking off items on a checklist detailing required beliefs and behavior).
After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Come understand me.” He didn’t say, “Come be enlightened by me.” He did talk about “believing in him” in the oft-quoted John 3:16, but read after that famous verse, and the argument’s a bit more nuanced. Usually when the concept of belief comes up in the gospels it’s in the context of a conversation about “eternal life.” Take this passage, where Jesus talks about where his authority comes from- God the Father- and makes it clear that whoever “hears Jesus’ word and believes (not “believes in”) him who sent me” (God the Father)”- whoever does so will have eternal life. Or take John 14:1-7. Jesus does talk about “believing in God,” at least in some translations, but no sooner has he done so than he says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The thief on the cross whom Jesus promised would be with him in paradise never said the “sinner’s prayer.” He didn’t have what many would-be “Christians” would call a conversion experience. The thief simply believed Jesus, and asked to be remembered when he came into his kingdom. No doubt the thief didn’t understand much about Jesus in any intellectually theological way, but he had a relationship with Jesus, and that relationship was enough. He surely came to the father through Jesus. And even in John 14, the Message translation makes clear that it’s about trusting Jesus, not thinking all the right thoughts:
Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”
5 Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?”
6-7 Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”
So being Jesus’ disciple, following Jesus, isn’t about intellectual assent; it’s about recognizing authority. It’s relational. Thus, in these and many other passages I think simply believing him is closer to what Jesus is often going for, and in any case when he was making disciples, what he did say was simply “Come follow me.” There is a proposition here, but again it’s very relational, and it’s made to each of us. Jesus is the one who makes disciples, after all, and they’re his disciples. We can help, to be sure, and do well when we again listen to him and get on board with the way he’s doing it.
So all of that is to say that while I have some significant concerns about 3DM, there was a time when I was so turned off by them that I would have considered involvement with them on the part of any future faith community that I would want to be a part of to be a “deal-breaker,” and that is now no longer the case. After all, in the most potent of ironies, the 3DM “missional community” program-for-sale-to-the-rich-who-can-afford-it is based on a relational, communal approach to following Jesus, one that I otherwise resonate with deeply. At some point along the way in this whole missional community “movement,” I suspect that God was up to something, and somebody was paying attention. They may have commodified and trademarked “the message,” but there’s some “good news” in there somewhere. I may have a deep distaste for what looks by all accounts like an empire that somebody’s building out of a kingdom that is surely not of this world, but I recognize that sometimes even the empire does a little good. I may not like the fecundity of Starbucks (or Wal-Mart, etc.), especially as they push local businesses out of business, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up coffee. In the next, final post in this series I get to talk about the “coffee” (or “strawberries” from my former Circle of Hope pastor’s question about 3DM above)- the good that I’m finding in what 3DM is selling and how it’s being expressed and lived out in a local church.
This is part 2 in a 5 part series. You can read part 1 here.
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read,17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. – Luke 4:14-30
This will be part 2 in a 3 part series. That means, among other things, that like part 1 in this series, this post started out differently, but along the way I realized that the overall story I’m telling- about how we hope to connect with a local faith community and the many reasons why including the road that brought us to this point- couldn’t fully be told without yet a little more background. So now I want to talk about Keith Green. That’s him, above, if you hadn’t guessed. If you don’t know anything about him, click the link in his name for his Wikipedia page. I highly encourage taking a little time to learn something about him. I’ll have something to say here about him, of course. If you want even more background on his life from the official bio on the website of the ministry he and his wife, Melody, started, go here.
Keith didn’t live very long. He died before his 29th birthday. He was a musical prodigy, having learned to play guitar and piano as a very young child, and was writing his own music by the age of 6. By the age of 11 he had written 40 original songs and signed a five year recording contract. As his Wikipedia entry says:
By the time Green was twelve, he had written ten more songs, and Time magazine ran a short piece about Green in an article about aspiring young rock-‘n’-roll singers, referring to him as Decca Records’ “prepubescent dreamboat”. However, after national attention envisioned by Decca Records failed to materialize for Green, Donny Osmond captured the attention of pre-teens and teenagers, eclipsing Green’s newfound stardom, and he was quickly forgotten by the public.
Keith was a spiritual “seeker,” and after experimenting with “drugs, eastern mysticism” and “free love,” Keith, who had a Jewish heritage which his family “hid from him” according to the bio on his ministry’s site, discovered Jesus. He had grown up reading the New Testament, but again according to that bio when he learned about his Jewish heritage suddenly something “clicked” for him that hadn’t before, and it’s said that he “proudly told the world, ‘I’m a Jewish Christian’.” He and Melody had been married shortly beforehand, and “As soon as Keith opened his heart to Jesus, he and Melody opened their home. Anyone with a need, or who wanted to kick drugs, or get off the street, was welcome. Of course, they always heard plenty about Jesus at what fondly became known as ‘The Greenhouse’.” Wikipedia adds:
The Greens continued to invite guests into their home. They eventually ran out of space and, purchasing the home next door to their own and renting an additional five in the same neighborhood, they provided an environment of Christian teaching for a group of young adults, the majority of whom were of college age. Much to the consternation of neighbors, there came to be 75 people living in the Green’s homes and traipsing down the suburban streets—including recovering drug addicts and prostitutes, bikers, the homeless, and many single pregnant girls needing shelter and safety. Some were referred to the Greens by other ministries and shelters, but most just crossed their path during their normal life at home and on the road. In 1977 the Greens personal outreach became a non-profit ministry they called Last Days Ministries.
So this newbie Jesus follower and newlywed, no less, immediately took the unquestionably good part of the “good news” that is the “Gospel” to heart and began living it out in ways that most would be Jesus followers do not. I come back to the passage from Luke 4 that this post begins with often, and for good reason. As always, it’s notable that Jesus inaugurated his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah and declaring “good news to the poor,” “freedom for…prisoners,” “recovery of sight for the blind,” and freedom for the oppressed and then stating that this scripture was fulfilled in the hearing of his listeners. Many people debate many things about Jesus including the most central of his claims and especially the claims made about him, but to my mind it’s inarguable that good news for the poor, et al, is just that- good. I believe that folks who want to follow Jesus do so most closely when they focus more on living their life and conducting their ministry the way Jesus began his, and less on all the other stuff that inexorably leads to division, partisanship, and the like. That certainly was a tremendous part of what Keith focused on, and I could end his story here having told a remarkable tale of a remarkable man.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Keith and Melody not only loved and served folks on the margins of society, but Keith did so while continuing to write and record music at a prolific pace. His ministry page bio says:
Not only did Keith’s life take a radical turn, but by then he was a highly skilled musician and songwriter, and so all of his songs changed too. His quest for stardom had ended. And now his songs reflected the absolute thrill of finding Jesus and seeing his own life radically changed. Keith’s spiritual intensity not only took him beyond most people’s comfort zones, but it constantly drove him even beyond his own places of content.
Keith was prophetic in the way he lived his life, and this was reflected no less in his voice as an artist. Keith was not afraid to speak truth to power, and like Jesus, his most incisive truth-telling was reserved for the religious types who said one thing with their mouths and something else entirely with their lives. All the while, he worked to be truthful about his own life and struggles, all of which was reflected in his songwriting. It’s most evident, though, when you see him sing live. You can’t watch him sing without noticing how heartfelt his songs are, how genuine he is. Take this recording of “Asleep in the Light,” for example. This is one of my favorite songs of his, as it perfectly captures his understanding of Jesus’ heart for reaching “the lost” and marries it with Keith’s prophetic truth-telling as he calls out the church, those who are supposed to be living out the ministry Jesus inaugurated of good news for the poor and marginalized and indeed for us all, and challenges them to simply do better.
Keith was unapologetic in his zeal not simply for “evangelism” to use a church-y word, but even more so in his zeal for Jesus. As Circle of Hope reminds us, “life in Christ is one whole cloth.” So because Keith had been so transformed by God’s love for him he spent his all too brief life from that point forward sharing that love with others whether he was inviting prostitutes and those experiencing homelessness or addiction to come live in his house(s) or giving an “altar call” at a concert with thousands of people in attendance. His invitation to all he met to enter into right relationship with Jesus necessarily meant proclaiming the “good news” not only about their souls but also and especially about their lives in the here-and-now. This is especially clear in another of my favorites of his, “The Sheep and the Goats.” Some of the references in this and much of his music may be anachronistic and theologically unsophisticated, but again his words, music, and life are provocative, genuine, heartfelt, and powerful, as is evident:
Keith could have been a darling of the “Christian” music industry, but Keith doubled down on his challenging words for the church to hew more closely to the One they were supposed to be following by upsetting the “Christian” music industry’s business model, as Wikipedia notes:
In 1979, after negotiating a release from his contract with Sparrow, Green initiated a new policy of refusing to charge money for concerts or albums. Keith and Melody mortgaged their home to privately finance Green’s next album, So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt. The album, which featured a guest appearance by Bob Dylan, was offered through mail-order and at concerts for a price determined by the purchaser. By May 1982, Green had shipped out more than 200,000 units of his album – 61,000 for free. Subsequent albums included The Keith Green Collection (1981) and Songs for the Shepherd (1982).
When his music was carried by Christian bookstores, a second cassette was included free of charge for every cassette purchased to give away to a friend to help spread the Gospel.
All of this begs the question, though, why am I spending all this time writing about Keith Green? Hopefully my deep respect and admiration for him is apparent, and I think his life deserves to be remembered. I suspect that a lot of folks today who want to follow Jesus may not know much about him or have little appreciation for his impact. Thus, his tale is worth telling in its own right, but this is also a deeply personal tale for me. I probably would have been one of those would be Jesus followers with little knowledge of or appreciation for Keith. He died, after all, in a plane crash- with two of his kids aboard and Melody at home with a toddler and another baby on the way- at the tender age of 28, when I was just seven years old. I have much older half-siblings, though, and though the church I grew up in probably would have struggled with the prophetic nature of Keith’s ministry and life (that is, the truth he had to tell the church about the way they were following Jesus- or not- would have been a painful truth, most likely, for the church of my youth), my siblings introduced me to him as a young kid, and I grew up spending hours upon hours listening to his music. It probably helped form my faith in such a way that when, as a sophomore at Gordon College, I heard the call to go spend a summer living and loving the marginalized in the inner city of Philly, I didn’t hesitate. I went for it. Sadly, perhaps, I’ve gone a long while in my adult life without connecting with Keith’s music, and therefore without connecting with God in the special way Keith’s music helps me to, but it remains a big part of me.
So yesterday I began listening to many of Keith’s songs again for the first time in a long time. It was like putting on an old, well-worn but favorite hoodie that fits just right, as only it could. I found I could sing every word to many of the songs I listened to, and I also found that many of Keith’s songs I listened to made me cry. You see, I remain a would be Jesus follower in no small part because of the way my faith was formed at a young age as I listened to Keith’s music. This formation continued through my Kingdomworks (the precursor of Mission Year, which I provided a link to above) experience and beyond as I struggled with the legacy of my abusive upbringing in my “Christian” home, and one of his songs over the years has taken on special significance. Keith says it’s a song Jesus wrote for him, but I always hear it spoken directly to me, and I’m broken by it every time:
It’s the first line that gets me: “My son, my son, why are you striving?” The truth is, I spend much of my waking hours striving, always striving, always trying to do better, to do more, to work harder. “Resting in my faith” or in much of anything else is mostly a foreign concept. As Bill Mallonee put it, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence.” There’s more to be said, there, obviously, but my point now is that when I hear Jesus singing to me through Keith in this song, I’m invited to leave “Struggleville,” even if only temporarily, and be still, knowing that God is God, and I’m not, and this brings (momentary) peace. For this, I’m grateful.
I’m grateful too for the invitation not only to be in right relationship with God, God’s good world, and my neigbor- that is, to live into the good news that Jesus proclaims and Keith too- but also for the invitation to worship a God who’s worthy of it. Again as Circle of Hope reminds us, “without worship, we shrink.” I can follow a Jesus who brings good news for those on the margins, who keeps surprising us by showing up where we’d least expect him and with those we’d least expect him to be with. More than that, though, I can worship a God who not only calls me to be my best self but who is the One who made that self, the one that is the author and “finisher” of my faith and in whom the entire cosmos holds together. I’m often skeptical. I want “good” theology that can live with all the tensions that I have to live with in real life. I want to know that doubt need not be the enemy of faith, but can be its partner. But if my faith, and more importantly Jesus, can’t engage my whole self and help me to live life as a fully formed person, than I want little to do with it, or him. Keith’s music functions as a delivery system for Jesus straight into my heart, not entirely bypassing my brain but engaging me in a much deeper way than mere intellectualism can afford. This gives me space to worship, and I shrink no more.
I leave you with one last song by Keith. He wrote it for his parents, whom he desperately wanted to see living in right relationship with God. In it he references Jesus’ reception by his hometown crowd as he inaugurated his ministry in the passage at the top of this post. That crowd just couldn’t accept that the Jesus they knew as a boy would dare to speak so prophetically to them because, as Keith puts it, “prophets don’t grow up from little boys; do they?” Keith did, and some day maybe I will too.
The following is a meditation on James 3:1-18, made by Brian Walsh over at Empire Remixed. For the full text, go here. Walsh is clearly a wordsmith, and we’re all, all the better for it.
We are a community of the word.
We are a community born,
and transformed by word.
Through words spoken and prayed,
recited and sung;
words carefully and lovingly crafted,
words that seek to bless and not curse,
that seek to set free and not bind,
words of love and prophecy,
of lament and wisdom,
words that confront and words that resonate …
through such words we have been born.
And through such words we are nourished.
It all begins with a word,
“Let there be.”
That word becomes flesh in Jesus,
and God gave us birth by that word.
James says that
the word of truth
has been conceived in us,
has given birth,
and we are children of that word.
And so be doers of that word,
live out of that word.
Like the Word who has given us birth,
bear the fruit of the word,
enflesh the word in all that you do.
Speak in a way that is faithful to that word,
and reflects that word.
A word of liberty that sets the captives free,
a healing word that binds up wounds,
a word of blessing and not curse,
a word of life, not death.
James is concerned about how we talk.
He knows that discourse shapes life.
He knows that how you talk about the world,
how you talk about your neighbour,
how you talk about your enemy,
how you talk about those who are different from you,
even how you talk about yourself to yourself,
forms, shapes and legitimates how you live,
for good or ill.
It is said that talk is cheap.
I’m not so sure.
In fact, I think that cheap talk can be very expensive.
Cheap talk will mouth platitudes that will cost you dearly
when you need a real word of truth and comfort.
Cheap talk will revert to a syrupy sentimentality
that cannot sustain you in the midst of real pain and crisis.
Cheap talk will make quick and easy promises
that will evaporate when the going gets tough.
Cheap talk can be very expensive in the long run.
But true speech already knows the cost.
True speech invariably is born in pain.
Such speech knows that truth is never cheap, but always very expensive.
A true word of liberty only emerges out of oppressive captivity.
Words that can heal are always crafted in the face of deep wounding.
Words can bless only when they are wrestled from the grip of curse.
Words bring life only when they have faced death with tear-filled eyes.
It is true that you can talk a lot and do very little.
I’ve seen the tee-shirt: “Less talk, more action.”
And it is true that some of the best things are said
without words at all.
There is more than one way to speak.
And yet, words matter.
Maybe we don’t need “less talk” and “more action”
so much as we need “better talk” that engenders “better action.”
Maybe we need to find richer ways of talking,
deeper ways to speak,
a speech with a deeper wisdom,
a language that gets to the heart of things,
a discourse that breaks some of the rules,
in order to set us free.
That is why we are so grateful to our wordsmiths in this community.
Those who craft our prayers,
choose the words that we will sing,
utter sacramental words over bread and wine,
and have a pastoral word (often surrounded by the silence of listening)
at the right time in the right place.
And so it is that we do not shrug off broken words and broken relationships.
When we pray words of blessing over those who are departing,
those who are about to be ordained to ministry,
those entering into the covenant of marriage,
those reaffirming their faith,
or receiving the waters of baptism,
when we make promises to each other,
when we bear witness to promises of covenant,
we know that these words have power and weight
and we dare to hold each other to our words.
Words that are life-giving are no one’s property.
Such words emerge out of community and are for community.
And so it is that we find ourselves drawn to those who have such words.
Many of you know some of the wordsmiths
who have helped to shape my vocabulary:
Ani Di Franco
And you also have your own list of wordsmiths.
We are drawn to wordsmiths who give us words
when we don’t have our own.
We are drawn to wordsmiths who employ language to
open up vistas that we have not seen.
We are drawn to wordsmiths who somehow engage the world
with such clarity,
we can see “beyond the range of normal sight,”
we can “rest in the grace of the world,”
we won’t be sold out on any cheap “optimism tonight,”
and we’ll have the imagination “to carry the fire and light the spark”
as we “stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”
When employed by the likes of
Cockburn, Berry, Di Franco and Springsteen
words can actually do the heavy lifting of setting free our imaginations.
Ephesians 5:1-2: “Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.” (MSG)
Boy, do I try. Help me, Lord, to love extravagantly, without caution. If doing so is the only thing I ever get good at it in life, what a life it will have been.
“Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you.” This is how the Message renders I Peter 5:7, which we may know better in the NIV: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Both are powerful messages of God’s care, but as is often the case, I like the way it reads in the Message. I suppose if I were to cast all my anxiety on God, I could live carefree and maybe even I would, but this is not usually how I live. Usually I am the careful one, the one who is literally full of care- for others, to be sure, but all too often simply for myself. What would it be like to live carefree? I can scarcely imagine it.
To be told to live carefree, because he is most careful with me, is to be challenged to radically reorient my entire way of being. It is to be reminded of who and whose I am. In Jesus all things hold together, not Robert. His care is necessary and most effective. To be told that he is careful with me is a tender word of love, one which stills my racing heart and creates the space in which I can lay down my burdens. Lord, let it be so.