This is the online version of our 2016 Christmas letter, which includes our Christmas picture this year, which looks something like the one above. The letter’s a bit long but I hope you’ll find it to be worth the read, and so I shared it here too. Here it is:
It happened again. In the midst of a worship experience that was deeply meaningful this morning among our family, the people of Mill City Church, I found myself repeatedly unable to sing. I was just too choked up. I knew this was likely to happen when I realized that Nathan, who would be joining the other elementary school kids on stage to sing with the band today, would be singing “All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons and Daughters. This song is frequently in the worship rotation among Mill City, as are many of All Sons and Daughters’ songs, and their live album is on heavy rotation whenever I’m in the car (my total commute is at least an hour every day) or at home, writing as I am now. I’ve written, in part anyway while talking about other things, about “All the Poor and Powerless” recently on my blog, but some of the lyrics are:
All the poor and powerless
And all the lost and lonely
All the thieves will come confess
And know that You are holy
Will know that You are holy
And all will sing out
And we will cry out
And all the hearts that are content
And all who feel unworthy
And all who hurt with nothing left
Will know that You are holy
And all will sing out
And we will cry out
Go on and scream it from the mountains
Go on and tell it to the masses
That He is God
There’s a little more to the song as it repeats some of the words above, but you get the idea. Here’s Nathan practicing with the band today while singing this song:
That’s him to the far right on the second row. This song has been something of an anthem of mine of late.
It’s had particular resonance because for some time continuing to declare that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed instead of a joyous cry. It’s also been resonant because of the context in which this song has gained its currency for me. As I’ve said, we’ve sung it quite a bit during Mill City Church worship gatherings and this song and All Sons and Daughters’ whole “Live” album has been the soundtrack for our entrance into a faith community that, for the first time in a long time, feels like the family we were meant to be a part of, the people with whom we were meant to be on a mission together. If you’re interested in knowing more about the long journey that led us to become covenant members of Mill City Church, there’s a 6 part(!) series on this blog that culminates with the post: “Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church.”
Speaking of my blog, lately I’ve been writing here about my summer in 1995 doing Kingdomworks, the life changing experience in which I and 8 other (relatively) rich white college students lived in an inner-city church building in SW Philly where we ran a day camp, Sunday School, and youth group for the neighborhood kids, hoping to empower that congregation to do ministry that it couldn’t do otherwise. Here are some pictures from Kingdomworks that maybe give you a little bit of the flavor of the experience:
I’ve written a fair bit about Kingdomworks on my blog; so I won’t repeat it here other than to say what I usually say about it, that during that summer I was able to “build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” This realization I had about suffering was connected to the larger awakening that was occurring in me at the time during my Gordon College days as I also realized (as I’ve also long said) that “God isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male that lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, and spends his days pursuing the ‘American dream’ like most other people I knew at the time.” I’ve been writing again about Kingdomworks because of a recent sequence of events that included me learning something about one of my Kingdomworks’ teammates, someone that I was close to during that summer. This teammate, Holly, afterward wrote me that she longed to be back out there, “on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting, where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.” She knew that I felt called to be back in the city serving however I could (and indeed as soon as Kirsten and I got married that’s just where we went), and Holly wrote that she felt a similar calling and that when she and I both went back to serve in the city we’d do it “for them this time,” for the kids. This was a telling sentiment, as perhaps not surprisingly as an experience that was only about two months long Kingdomworks was far more effective at bringing lasting change for we (relatively) rich white college students than for the (relatively) poor, mostly black kids we had served in the inner-city. Perhaps this was the point. Anyway, I recently learned that while Holly is now doing amazing work that is very meaningful to her, it doesn’t have much to do with serving kids in the city, but more to the point she no longer calls herself a person who follows Jesus.
Bart Campolo, the son of Tony Campolo, started Kingdomworks all those years ago, and then not long after I did the program, he transitioned it from a summer program in one city to a year long program in multiple cities and renamed it Mission Year. Mission Year is still going strong today under new leadership. Like Holly, Bart no longer calls himself a Jesus follower these days and has some notoriety as the first humanist chaplain at USC. I love Bart and still consider him a friend (though I’m not claiming to be a close personal one). His impact on my life has been huge, and I think he’s doing great work at USC that’s not unlike the work he’s always done. He’s always been about building community and inspiring people to love and serve those around them. He’s just not doing it in Jesus’ name anymore, and his journey to reach that point is a story he’s told very publicly and continues to do so.
I bring all this up, though, in a Christmas letter no less, for a couple of reasons. I do so in the first place because the struggle to follow Jesus and the temptation not to, for lots of good reasons, is one that I can relate to. As I said above, for some time now declaring that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed rather than a joyous cry. There are lots of reasons for that which I’ve explored in depth again on my blog if you’re interested. The other reason I’m bringing all this up in this letter is because of a dream I recently had. I should mention that during my Kingdomworks experience I had a couple of opportunities to get away for a night over the weekend. During one such opportunity I took the train from SW Philly way out into the ‘burbs where I stayed at a Gordon College friend’s house. She and I weren’t particularly close but she knew that I was in the midst of an intense experience and she graciously offered me a momentary reprieve from it. I was grateful. So in my dream, I was back at her house, searching in her basement for something I had been storing there. I woke up before finding it, but when I recounted the dream to Kirsten I realized how symbolic it was.
Something happened to me during Kingdomworks that fundamentally changed me. That much is clear as I’ve spent the better part of 21 years trying myself to get back out there “where we belong,” as Holly put it, in the city, serving kids, but “for them this time.” I suspect that part of what my dream may be telling me is that I left something there in SW Philly in the hot summer of 1995, and I’ve spent a long time trying to go back and find it.
What exactly did I leave in Philly 21 years ago, perhaps in my college friend’s basement, at least metaphorically speaking? There were probably a number of things, to be sure, and some of them for the good. For example, I left behind, I hope, a childish faith that in its individualistic and consumeristic nature was likely as “American” as it might have been Christian. I left behind, I hope, a selfish faith that was all about me getting my “fire insurance” so that I could avoid hell and enjoy God’s heavenly retirement plan instead. I left behind, I hope, a narrow-minded worldview that only ever took into account myself and people who look and think like me. I left behind, I hope, selfish regard for my “own personal suffering” that I experienced in my abusive childhood home, and as I’ve said, in exchange I hope I gained empathy for the suffering that’s “out there, in the world.” In exchange for all those things I left behind during that summer, I hope I also gained an at least slightly more mature faith that is communal, not individualistic and consumeristic; that is about allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, not “America;” that is about living as if God’s kingdom of love, justice, and (especially) peace is already here, even when it so often feels so far away and not yet fully realized; and I hope I gained a faith that recognizes that if the inbreaking of such a good, loving, just, and peaceful kingdom into our troubled and tired world is to be good news, it must be good news for us all, especially those who suffer daily so that we rich white Westerners can enjoy our “great” way of life.
When I came back from Kingdomworks, I found myself experiencing culture shock as I went from a brief but intense experience in inner city Philly among folks who didn’t look much like I did and who lived very different lives than I had ever imagined possible, back to the serene, pastoral environment of Gordon College where I was again among (relatively) rich white young people like myself. I always said it was hard to be back there when I knew that “kids were dying on the streets of Philadelphia.” What I didn’t know then, but certainly do now and have for some time, is that however hard but beautiful the lives of black kids in SW Philly might be, it hardly compares to the lives far too many people, especially and including kids, still experience in the developing world in places like Africa and India, for example. And it’s again worth noting that, as I keep saying, there’s a direct relationship, a causal link, between the grinding poverty of the poorest of the poor, the 11% of the world that in 2013 lived on less than $2/day, and the “great” way of life we in the U.S. and other rich Western countries enjoy, where, for example, in the U.S. the average person lives on $140/day. Though some in this country are unwilling to face this fact, our comfort comes at their expense. The world simply cannot support everyone living like we do. If all of God’s children are to live sustainably, our way of life must change; our standard of living must come down so that theirs can rise.
So back at Gordon College after Kingdomworks, I found myself questioning everything, starting with God and his alleged goodness. Thus began a project I’ve worked on for more than two decades, and will likely continue to do so. As a young person I had a deeply meaningful and vital relationship with Jesus as I learned to rely on God in the absence of reliable parents. The home of my youth was nominally “Christian,” but also terribly abusive. After Kingdomworks I found my childhood, child-like faith gone. I desperately wanted to trust and believe that Jesus loved me as I always had. I wanted to believe in a loving God that was actively loving the world just as I always had, despite the unloving home I had grown up in. Yet I found those beliefs impossible to reconcile with the brokenness I had witnessed in the inner-city and the abject poverty I came to know was the reality for far too many around the world. If I dared to believe that Jesus loved me and was looking out for me and even “working things out” for my good, what did that say about the lives of folks who seemed utterly abandoned, utterly bereft of such care and provision?
This is a question I still struggle to make sense of. Of course, underneath that question is another one: “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” One of the reasons I suspect Bart Campolo eventually decided not to follow Jesus anymore is because of the way he struggled with a similar question about evil in the world. He famously wrote a piece when he still called himself a Jesus-follower that got him into some trouble for reasons I’ve again explored on my blog, but in the piece he wrestles with a horrific act of evil that occurred and the question of why God didn’t intervene to stop it. Bart concluded then that the essential relationship between love and freedom required a world in which God would allow such an evil to occur, but because Bart could only believe in a god “at least as good as he was,” it therefore also had to be true that God would somehow redeem that act of evil and every other one throughout human history, a project which Bart said “apparently was a long and difficult task,” considering all the evil that keeps happening in the world. Such logic is cold comfort for those who face such evil in the here and now, and still we wonder why God doesn’t just fix everything. If God is good and loving and powerful, how long must we wait for a peaceable kingdom in which the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into ploughshares and enemies experience reconciliation and friendship at a common table?
Into this yearning, in the midst of this groaning and conflict, God gives us Jesus. Jesus is the fullest and final revelation of who God is. He is the “lens” through which we must view the rest of scripture, and he is the answer to the question of if or when God will ever do anything. By putting on flesh and moving into the neighborhood, God chose to join us in our place of suffering and experience the worst of it himself all the way up to death, “even death on a cross.” As Michael Binder of Mill City Church said this past Sunday, Jesus not only offers us peace, but is our peace. Michael preached on Ephesians 2:14-18, which dealt with divisions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews were considered, or at least considered themselves, to be “near” to God because they were sons and daughters of Abraham, with whom God had first made a covenant and to whom God had first promised a blessing. It was to Israel that God had given the law “with its commands and regulations” that pointed the way toward right relationship with God, one another, and the world. Of course, this law was impossible to keep and broken relationships were the result. Meanwhile, Gentiles or non-Jewish people were considered (by Jews) to be “far” from God basically because they weren’t Jews. They weren’t natural sons and daughters of Abraham and so weren’t heirs to the promises given to him and his descendents. Sadly, these categories and the divisions that came from them ignored the fact that God originally blessed Abraham in order to be a blessing to all the world. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus addresses this and urges peace among the two camps, those Jews and Gentiles who had both decided to follow Jesus, because as we read in the text:
14 …he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Thus, as Michael reminded us, the cross acts to “level the playing field” not just between Jews and Gentiles but among all the groups we find ourselves categorized and divided into today. As I also said recently in a blog post, God didn’t kill his son on the cross in an act of “cosmic child abuse” in order to arbitrarily satisfy rules God established that we could never follow in the first place. Instead, God’s willingness to be “God with us” means that God was willing to be with us even in the place of our deepest conflict, where we experience the final separation from God and one another that our sin causes. Sin, after all, is “missing the mark.” It’s not living into and up to the ideal of right, loving relationship that we were made for. This failure to love each other as we ought (“sin”) causes brokenness in our relationships (separation), and the end result of that brokenness especially in our relationship with God is death, because it is in Jesus that “all things hold together,” and to be cut off from God is to be cut off from the very source of ongoing life itself. We cannot bridge this gap ourselves, but God can, and God did. In his willingness to be put to death on the cross in order to break into the place where we were ultimately separated from God and one another, Jesus put to death the brokenness in our relationship not only with God but with one another and with God’s good world.
Reflecting again on the Ephesians passage above, we obviously could not and cannot follow all the “commands and regulations” of the law that pointed us in the direction of the right relationships we were made for; so God again put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and “set the law aside” in that very skin, in his flesh that was pierced and bloodied and put to death on the cross. In so doing, God begins creating a new humanity, a unified humanity that no longer is bound to experience separation. In Christ then there not only is no longer Jew or Greek or male or female (inasmuch as we are divided from one another by these categories), but there is also no longer rich or poor, or white or black, or Republican or Democrat. Conservatives and liberals and Trump supporters and Clinton supporters no longer need to be separated from one another. Our hostility has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, and we all have access to the same Father through his Spirit.
If we who used to be Republicans or Democrats or “Americans” or Russians or Somalis instead lived solely as part of the new humanity God is making and citizens of God’s peaceable kingdom that is upon us, then we finally would be the ones we’ve been waiting for; we would be the change we hope to see in the world. God did do something about all the evil and injustice in the world. He put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and absorbed the worst violence, the worst evil, that we in our brokenness had set loose in the world. He allowed himself to be put to death to break into our place of separation and so put to death also the hostility between us. He began making a new humanity by preaching peace to those who were near to God and those who were far from God, and then he unleashed these redeemed and reconciled people to be a people who live as if that’s who they are, to be reconcilers and peace-makers in the world. God sent the world Jesus, and Jesus keeps sending himself into the world through us.
As I keep saying, I respect and love my friend Bart, but all the reasons I too might have for not following Jesus- all the brokenness and suffering and evil in the world- aren’t evidence that God has abandoned us and isn’t worth following or that there is no god after all. Rather, it turns out these are all reasons to follow Jesus. The world needs supporters of Black Lives Matter (and indeed black lives do!) and Trump voters to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Children in Aleppo desperately need those who support Assad and those who don’t to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Jews and Palestinians desperately need to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. By following Jesus, together, we become the new humanity God is making and thus the peace the world so desperately needs, which once seemed so far away, suddenly comes near.
It is true and lasting peace that in some ways I think I was metaphorically looking for in my friend’s basement in greater Philly in my dream, perhaps because I felt like maybe I lost it in the hot summer of ’95 as I did Kingdomworks. Certainly I “lost” something that summer, but I hope what I left behind was an immature faith that is even now giving way to a more mature one. That said, if it really is true and lasting peace that I yearn for both in the world and in my own broken heart, there is only one place to find it. True and lasting peace was born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. It is Immanuel, God with us. Thus as we wait in this season of Advent for Jesus to come to us again in a few days, I am filled with hope, and I pray that you will be too. I am filled with hope because for the first time in a long time I can joyously cry that “he is God,” especially for “all the poor and powerless.” For too long this was instead a painful duty, but no longer. Peace has come, and continues to do so. Let’s join Jesus in making it a lived reality for us all. Amen.
Family Update: Now, here’s a little update about each of us over the past year. Sam has a mentor through Mill City Church that he’s just about to start meeting with. He’s a middle schooler now and has been making that transition with a few bumps in the road here and there but mostly with great success. He’s on target developmentally to have the right level of teenage snark and angst ready to go when needed, but remains at heart an incredibly sweet, compassionate, and kind-hearted young man. We’re very grateful for him! Sam is in orchestra as a 6th grader this year and just had his first viola concert the other night. Here are some pictures from that:
Nathan also had a big transition this year, into all-day Kindergarten. He’s a young Kindergartner but is doing great so far, and we’re also very, very proud of him. He remains the attention-seeking entertainer in the family and is always cracking us up with his witty zingers and antics. For example, it wasn’t long into his elementary school career that he got in trouble at school not once in a day, but twice, including having to go to the principal’s office, because he thought it would be funny to sit (clothed, thankfully) in the urinal in the boys’ room. We can get him to eat all of whatever healthy thing he’s being picky about at dinner by convincing him that he can beat me at arm-wrestling, but only if he eats it all. He always “wins” when he does, but I still beat him handily when he doesn’t. So he keeps asking when he’ll be the same age as I am, thinking once he “catches up” to me he’ll be able to defeat me. Also, noting their relative sizes and that he’s growing all the time, he assumed Kirsten is growing just like he is and asked her if she would be a giant some day. That’s Nathan, in a nutshell. Here he is for ya:
Kirsten continues working at Gillette Children’s Hospital, though in March of 2016 she transitioned out of direct care and began working in their phone triage department. Telehealth has been an interesting transition for her that has brought new challenges each day. She’s enjoyed most importantly being off night shift and hopefully is adding back the years working overnight for so long had quite possibly taken from her life. Being in an office environment has also hopefully been a positive move. It remains challenging work, though, as the nursing shortage reaches all the way into her little office, which is chronically short-staffed, leaving she and her colleagues stressed and constantly risking burnout as a result. Kirsten says she dreams of opening a used bookstore/coffee shop with me some day. Maybe someone will magically pay off our debt and fund that. Meanwhile, the boys and I continue to be blessed beyond what we deserve by Kirsten’s other, more than full-time, around the clock work as a wife and mother. Here are some pictures of Kirsten being wonderful as usual:
As for myself, I continue serving disabled individuals who choose to live in their own home rather than a nursing home through a case management role vocationally. That (sort of) pays the bills so that I can pursue my avocation, which is writing. I do that mostly on my blog, but I’ve also written a little for Mill City Church’s website and may do so again, if they’ll have me, and when I can make time I “blog for books” too. A former pastor once told me I might get “discovered” for my writing posthumously. I should be so lucky. In the meantime, if you know a good publisher and want to put in a good word for me this side of the grave, please do! Here I am recently with my “bundle of boys:”
Merry Christmas 2016 and Happy New Year 2017 from Robert, Kirsten, Sam, and Nathan