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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 5:38-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chariots and Horses

Image HT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This theme runs into Ephesians 5, where Paul says:

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

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

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

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

Image Credit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 5:38-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

The Jordan River in Palestine (ht here)
The Jordan River in Palestine (picture courtesy of this site)

My typically 30 minute commute into work took 90 minutes today. I spent the first part of it listening to MPR as the pledge drive winds down toward its conclusion tomorrow. I tuned in to hear a little about the weather and traffic since there was just enough snow overnight to make for a rough drive this morning. I also wanted to hear just a little about Trump’s speech last night, which I did. As time, and my commute, wore on, I decided to redeem both by listening to a podcast. I had downloaded some speeches, talks, and interviews given by a hero of mine, N.T. Wright. This was a 30 minute or so interview he gave several years back in which he discussed a number of topics, including creation care, which was how the conversation started. It’s interesting that the questioner began by posing a question that went something like this (this is a very rough paraphrase): “since the gospel is mostly about (individual) people getting saved, what links then can we make between this and how we care for creation?” Tom (Wright, as he seems to prefer to be called), immediately gave a corrective, that again in a very rough paraphrase went something like this: “The gospel is about the kingdom of God. While this has to do with (individual) people being ‘saved,’ those people are connected to others…” in a complex web of relationships that extend not to just to other people but to the places they occupy and the very earth itself. Wright asserts that a “theology of place” has been lost in Western Christianity and is only just now being recovered. This echoes so much of what I’ve been reading of late from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and others, who reminds us that the gospel is very particular (but not strictly individualistic). The good news of and about Jesus is a story about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their physical and spiritual descendants. It’s good news for Israel first, and then by extension it’s good news for the rest of us too, for Israel was “blessed to be a blessing,” (and so are we).

This particularity, I think, is meant to root us both in a people, in a community, but also again to a nearly forgotten extent in a place, for, as Wright reminds in that podcast, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and creation itself “groans” anticipating its own redemption along with the people of God. So place, and the earth itself, matters. These are reasons to care about creation, for starters, but this only takes us so far. He speaks of eschatology, and as I listened I was reminded of something else Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith that I read recently: “More than anything else, eschatology teaches us to see that the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added). I can think of no better way to get at the idea that we live “between the times,” when the kingdom of God is “already” upon us, but “not yet” fully realized. As Wright spoke of eschatology in the podcast, he said something else that I found very helpful. He said: “All our language about God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a fog.” He added that while the truth the signposts point to may indeed be very true, we just don’t see it very well yet, and, by implication, even our best and most well thought out language just can’t speak of it very well yet. We have clues, to be sure, but we should tread lightly and give equally good thought, I would add, to what such language is for. It may have been in that podcast or perhaps I’m conflating various things I’ve heard or read from Wright, but at some point he mentions the eschatological language regarding the sun “turning red” and the moon “being darkened” and says that this “is not a primitive weather forecast.” Rather, this is an effort to invest what may be very “real” concrete events with their theological significance. The overall thrust of Wright’s point in the podcast and elsewhere is that God doesn’t come from heaven to earth to take us back there. Instead, again in a very real sense God comes from heaven to earth to join the two.

Thus, to those who read Scripture and interpret some of its language to mean that “it’s all gonna burn” before the “new heaven” and the “new earth” are brought about- which they therefore take to mean that we don’t have to worry about what happens to the earth in the meantime- to those folks I think Wright would suggest they’ve seriously misread Scripture and therefore missed the point. While there is “fiery” eschatological language, I think Wright would say it’s more in keeping with the rest of what we find in Scripture to think of this is a “refiners fire” that burns away the dross to reveal what was already there, but hidden. Thus, again in a very real sense it is this earth to which Jesus will return and which will be revealed to be “new” at his coming, just as a “new” heaven is brought to this earth when Jesus returns, all of which means that, just as always, in him “all things” really do “hold together.” So then what we do to this earth matters, for eternity even. I, for one, find this to be very good news indeed.

I finished the podcast and was still sitting in traffic; so I listened to a little Rich Mullins. I’ve written before about why he remains important to me, why I keep talking about him. I listened to a couple of my favorite songs that he sings before “Elijah” came on shortly before I arrived at work. In that post I just linked to I talk about this song, but some of what I said bears repeating. First, here’s Rich himself again singing it:

 

The song is so incredibly poignant not only because it so clearly foreshadows Mullins’ own death, including the way in which he died, but because of the way it so clearly exemplifies what a (not devil, but) God-may-care attitude looks like. Various definitions of “devil-may-care” describe such an attitude as “carefree” or even “reckless,” and the faith Rich sings about in this song I think could be characterized as both carefree and reckless. Here are the lyrics again:

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

CHORUS:

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

CHORUS(2x)

 

I think this is a song for all times, but it’s especially a song for this time for myself and my family. In the video above of Rich performing the song, after questioning why anyone would listen to “contemporary Christian” music, he describes the song as being about one of his “weirdo heroes of the Bible,” Elijah:

The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)
The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)

The song touches on themes from Elijah’s life, but also certainly does so in regard to themes from Rich’s own life too, even in ways that Rich himself couldn’t have known, like when he says he wants to “go out” like Elijah “when he leaves” (dies), which he certainly did, having died in a fiery car crash. More than that, though, I think this song represents Rich at his vulnerable, truth-telling best. The song begins with Rich singing that “The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.” He’s referring of course to the Jordan River.

The Jordan River is an image rich with symbolism in Scripture and in Christian thought. It often symbolizes the boundary between life and death, between salvation and destruction, perhaps even between this life and the next. This site alludes to some of this in describing the very real role the Jordan has played in Israel’s history, including in the life of Rich’s “weird hero,” Elijah:

– The Israelites feared the people of Canaan. As punishment for their lack of faith, God did not allow any Israelite over twenty years old to enter the Promised Land, including Moses. The Israelites wandered for forty years, and despite begging God to allow him to enter, Moses only viewed the Promised Land from a distance. (Deuteronomy 1:21-32; 3:23-28; 34:1-4.)

– Elijah warned King Ahab of Israel that there would be a drought in the land because of Israel’s evil deeds. After Elijah gave his prophecy, God told him to cross to the east side of the Jordan and hide from the king. The river became a barrier of protection for Elijah. (1 Kings 16:29-33; 17:1-6.)

– Absalom, David’s rebellious son and the leader of Israel’s army, schemed to kill King David and everyone who was loyal to him. David was forewarned and crossed the Jordan with his people during the night. The river became a barrier of protection for David and his people. (2 Samuel 17:15-22.)

– Before being taken up to heaven, Elijah struck the Jordan River water with his cloak. The water parted so that he and Elisha could cross. After Elijah ascended, Elisha again parted the waters with Elijah’s cloak so he could return to Israel. (2 Kings 2:1-2, 5-15.)

 

What that site just quoted only alludes to is that after Moses died, the people did cross the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. Wikipedia discusses this and further details that the Jordan is the scene of several miracles in Scripture:

In biblical history, the Jordan appears as the scene of several miracles, the first taking place when the Jordan, near Jericho, was crossed by the Israelites under Joshua (Joshua 3:15–17). Later the two tribes and the half tribe that settled east of the Jordan built a large altar on its banks as “a witness” between them and the other tribes (Joshua 22:10, 22:26, et seq.). The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2 Kings 5:14; 6:6).

 

Wikipedia further describes the Jordan’s significance in the “New Testament:”

The New Testament states that John the Baptist baptised unto repentance[10] in the Jordan (Matthew 3:56; Mark1:5; Luke 3:3; John1:28). These acts of Baptism are also reported as having taken place at Bethabara (John 1:28).

Jesus came to be baptised by him there (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21, 4:1). The Jordan is also where John the Baptist bore record of Jesus as the Son of God and Lamb of God (John 1:29–36).

The prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Messiah which names the Jordan (Isaiah 9:1–2) is also reported in Matthew 4:15.

The New Testament speaks several times about Jesus crossing the Jordan during his ministry (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and of believers crossing the Jordan to come hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases (Matthew 4:25; Mark 3:7–8). When his enemies sought to capture him, Jesus took refuge at Jordan in the place John had first baptised (John 10:39–40).

 

What’s clear is that throughout Israel’s history and that of Jesus and his disciples, the Jordan very much did indeed mark this boundary between life and death, between salvation/rescue and devastation, between following God’s call and not doing so. It’s a powerful symbol.  So again Rich sings:

 

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

 

In these words I hear Rich saying that whatever troubles and cares have led him to this point, he’s now ready to cross that boundary that the Jordan represents. Perhaps he’s saying that he’s ready to follow Jesus whatever that may mean, whatever it may cost him, wherever Jesus might lead. Rich says that his “heart is aging,” and I can relate. I’ve seen so much and been through so much in my 40+ years that I have a very real sense that my time is short. I too am ready to follow Jesus perhaps in a way that I never have, to wherever he might lead. I’ve written about this of late as I’ve described our efforts to get “small,” to listen to and learn from and engage with those on the margins of society because that’s who the Bible was written by and to, because Jesus commands us to let those on the margins come to him and says that we must be like them to see his kingdom, and because when we draw near to them, we draw near to Jesus himself. With a few notable exceptions, I’ve largely failed to do this in my life, but no longer. My heart is aging, and I don’t have time to mess around any more. So I’m willing to offer it to Jesus and invite him to take it where he will.

 

 Rich continues in the song:

 

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

 

Rich, I think, is again probably writing a little about his own life while engaging with Elijah’s story, and maybe writing a little about my own life too. We’re mended and torn because life can be hard. Brokenness abounds. When he says his “ground was stony and sometimes covered up with thorns,” he’s hinting at the parable Jesus told of the sower in Matthew 13:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

 

Later, Jesus explained the parable to his disciples:

 

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

 

So the “stony” or “covered up with thorns” ground Rich spoke of alludes to a heart ready to hear the good news, but which lacks depth or in which the good news is crowded out by the cares of this world. Rich sings that while this may have been true, “only you can make it what it had to be.” Kirsten and I had new friends over the other night, and we were talking about the new ways we’re learning to follow Jesus, all the ways we’re working to get “small” by simplifying our life and building capacity in our hearts, minds, and budget for what God is calling us to. I alluded to my life to this point and said that for whatever reason I just don’t think I was ready yet. Despite everything I’ve been through and all the hard lessons already allegedly learned, somehow I just wasn’t ready to follow Jesus like I’m trying to now, recklessly, with a carefree heart. Even the readiness I’m experiencing now is by no virtue of my own. Only Jesus could make my heart “what it had to be” too.  

 

Rich speaks of this, of this reckless, carefree faith, when he says that “if they dressed me like a pauper, if they dined me like a prince, if they lay with my fathers, if my ashes scatter on the wind I don’t care…” In Philippians 4 Paul says that he has:

 

…learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

 

Rich seems to be hinting at this. As a would-be “Christian music” star, Rich had access to fabulous wealth, but wrote into all his music contracts that he would receive whatever the average U.S. salary was for that year and the rest that he earned would be donated to charity. In part I suspect because he realized that even this act of generosity, given that the U.S. is the richest country in the history of the world, did not suffice to make him “small” enough (to use the language I’ve been using for myself and my family). So at some point Rich gave it all up and moved to a Native American reservation. I wrote about this again in my last post about Rich. My point now is that I too hope to move ever closer to a place of solidarity with those who are not the beneficiaries of all this fabulous wealth our country enjoys, and I hope to learn to be content “whether well fed,” as I obviously am now, “or hungry,” as so many will experience as they go to sleep tonight.  

 

After going through the chorus the first time Rich sings on:

 

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

 

I can relate to this too. I’ve known a lot of “friendly” people in my life who turned out not to be friends, certainly not a friend “who sticketh closer than a brother.” I’ve known more than my fair share, I’m sure, of broken, fractured relationships, and sometimes the ending of those relationships- or what felt like the ending at the time- has more than once “bent me to the ground.” Still, when I look back at them, usually I realize that I can probably place the blame for the lion’s share of what went wrong in those relationships at my own feet. I am the worst of sinners, and my own worst enemy. In any case, I sense in this that Rich feels the freedom to move on from his own brokenness and broken relationships in order to focus on what matters most. For Rich, music is both an end in itself and a means to end. God clearly gave him a gift for it, and he used it as best he could. All the while, Rich seems to recognize that he’s caught up in a song that is larger than his contribution to it. He sings on:

 

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

 

The Jordan, this boundary between death and life, between salvation/rescue and destruction, beckons on. He says he’s “never seen the other side,” but knows “you can’t take in the things you have here.” “You can’t take it with you when you die” is a truism rooted in Scripture, and has been a major theme in our life of late. We literally have been “storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal and moth and rust destroy.” So as a family we’ve been redoubling our efforts to “store up treasure in heaven” instead, for we well know that “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” Abandoning the ways of Empire and getting as “small” as we can despite our education and privilege is hard, subversive work. It’s reckless work too, perhaps something akin to hitchhiking along the road to salvation, along the way with Jesus, as Rich sings above. When we get moving along the way, we begin to hear “his music” as we too get caught up in a song that is larger than what we contribute to it.

 

“Elijah” builds to an end with this final bit before the chorus again:

 

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

…when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

 

Rich says “people have been talking,” that they’re “worried about his soul.” His unorthodox approach to a life in the “Christian” spotlight and his unwillingness to spend the decades amassing millions while churning out the cliched feel-good musical tropes that his record label may have liked sometimes landed Rich in “trouble.” His move to the Native American reservation only magnified these “concerns,” I’m sure. If you read my last couple of posts, I echoed Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in speaking of Mark 10 and the stories of Jesus and the little children and then Jesus and the “rich young ruler.” In that passage Jesus says that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” I spoke in my last post about how somehow I had always interpreted those verses individualistically, such that if I gave up something for Jesus I would always get something bigger and better in the end, even if only in a “spiritual” sense. I wrote then of my shock to suddenly realize that this too was directed at the community. Hence if Kirsten and I gave up a house to come to MN in part to serve her mother, this passage isn’t suggesting we’ll get a bigger, better house out of the deal. Rather, it’s telling us that we may not need to buy a house again, that as members of God’s family we have access to all the houses wherever our brothers and sisters in Christ can be found.

 

This is a dramatic reversal, I would argue, of the individualistic, consumer-driven “American dream.” As people struggling to better follow God’s dream for the world, we’re working to consume less, not more. We’re working to get small, not big. We’re working to give away power and privilege, not amass it. This flies in the face of the logic of the (U.S.) Empire, and I have no doubt that while our pursuit of God’s dream will bring us “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields” where we had none before, they will also bring persecutions. If so, we are in good company with all the saints and Jesus himself. Thus, Rich can conclude by saying that when he “leaves,” “it won’t break his heart to say goodbye.” His heart is aging, after all. Mine is too.

 

Thus it was that upon hearing “Elijah” just after hearing N.T. Wright talk about how what we do in the here-and-now matters in eternity because when Jesus returns it will be to join heaven and earth and reveal the new creation that is already present, even though we can “not yet” see it clearly,  I soon found myself weeping again in the car, the tears streaming down my face as I pulled in to work. Today is Ash Wednesday. Throughout history Christians have started the season of Lent in preparation for Easter with the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead and the words from Scripture, “(Remember that) your are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time of often solemn reflection on our own mortality, which is a way to find our place, literally to locate ourselves in God’s story. He is the creator; we are the creation. It’s a time to make space in our lives, often by forgoing some pleasure or even some necessity, like food, so that there is room for God to make himself known in a new way.

 

Remembering that we are dust and that we will return to it and looking forward with great anticipation to Easter, to our remembrance of the inauguration not of a new U.S. President but of the King of the Universe as he conquers death and defeats the powers that would keep us separated from God and one another, we are helped to see again how the end of our story interrupts us in the middle. We are helped to see how every act in this age has eternal repercussions. On the Rich Mullins Songs album that I began listening to after N.T. Wright’s podcast and on which “Elijah” is one of the songs, the one after “Elijah” is “Calling Out Your Name.” This is another all time favorite of mine by Rich, as it so clearly evokes the mystery and wonder of creation and you can almost feel Rich’s respect and reverence for the earth and especially its indigenous people here in the U.S. This amazing song speaks of being “wild with the hope” that “this thirst will not last long and it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain.”

 

Wouldn’t you like to be “wild” with hope? I would. I sure hope to be. The imagery of thirst drowning in a song not sung in vain is very moving. In the story of the “woman at the well” Jesus tells the woman that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Those who drink the “living water” Jesus offers find their thirst quenched once and for all. In fact, they find within themselves a “spring of water” that “wells up” to eternal life. This sounds a lot like a thirst that “drowns” in a “song not sung in vain.” Rich found himself caught up in a song that was larger than his part in it, and so are we. We who “drink” the living water Jesus offers can be wild with hope that our thirst will drown in a “sing not sung in vain.” It’s not in vain because despite the extent to which it seems that the peaceable kingdom of God is not yet fully realized, it is nonetheless true that the end of our story (which our language for is only like a set of signposts pointing into a fog) has interrupted us right in the middle of the story. Our actions today echo into eternity. They matter because we have clues about where this story is headed, how this song ends. It’s a love story, and always has been. Though we were made from dust and will return to it, we were made in and for love, and will return to that too. We’re already on our way, some of us more knowingly and willingly than others.

The Jordan has been waiting for my family and I in new ways recently. We’ve known ourselves to be crossing a boundary, moving from an old way of life into a new one. The more stuff we give away, the more we can extricate ourselves from our participation in the systems of the powers that be, the less we participate in the domination system that seeks to marginalize and control and disadvantage all of us in the end, the more we experience a spring of water welling up in us to eternal life. My heart may be aging, but it’s also wild with hope as I’m learning to follow Jesus in a new, carefree, even reckless way. Thanks be to God.

Being Small(er), I Can See You Now

 

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I’ll try to describe how it all happened. I have a bit of a story to tell. First, though, let me offer you another song. As in the past, I’m listening and being shaped by it as I write. Feel free to hit play and listen as you read:

 

So the book above, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, has been blowing my mind, and that doesn’t happen very often. A few days ago now, describing to Kirsten what I was learning and how it was changing me, I literally wept on her shoulder, but I’m getting too far ahead in my story. So I guess like so many things in my life this story starts in Philadelphia between 1996 and 1998 where I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know as an acquaintance Shane Claiborne. It was right around that time that Shane and others founded The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community and agent for change in a little corner of Philly that has helped spark a movement of folks who want to live simply and radically, together, while trying to follow Jesus and love and serve those around them, especially those “on the margins of Empire.” Such love, and such a life, is by definition radical because we USAmericans live in the belly of one of the greatest “empires” the world has ever known. Shane and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove are friends and colleagues, having served together in Christian Peacemaker Teams (see my last post for more on CPT) for a while. Notably, it was shortly after the U.S. military bombardment of the city of Rutba, Iraq that Shane and Jonathan’s Christian Peacemaker Team was wounded and experienced the love and hospitality of the very people who their government had just been bombing. This post tells a little bit of that story while describing the founding of Rutba House, the intentional Christian community that Jonathan and has wife founded in Durham, North Carolina. If you know much about me or have read this blog much, you may know then already why I like Shane and Jonathan both so very much. Kirsten and I have lived in a few little “intentional Christian communities” over the years. Mostly we’ve failed at really loving and investing in those we felt called to build community with under one roof for very long, but the ideal of such community, very much rooted in the kind of life Jesus calls us to, continues to spark my Christian imagination.

Anyway, Jonathan would later collaborate with Shane and Enuma Okoro on Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the prayer book/devotional I’ve used for years and continue to be challenged by. In fact, that book has a key part to play in this story. It gives recommended readings for each month, and Kirsten challenged our family to try to read them each month this year. So here (sort of) are the ones for January:

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Having read and been deeply influenced by Ron Sider’s seminal work Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger many years ago, I started off this reading project with Economy of Love. It’s a short little book meant to be used with a video that Shane and others produced. It was very, very challenging, though. Here’s a page from it:

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Challenging, eh? As another hero and, in this case, friend, Duane Crabbs from Akron said, and which I’ve also recently referenced on this blog:

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…

Another way of putting this is to paraphrase what Eugene Peterson says in the foreword to God’s Economy, “Money impoverishes rich and poor alike.” The poverty of the poor ought need little explanation. The poverty of the rich is another matter.

Speaking of God’s Economy, I should say a little about some of what I found so incredibly profound and challenging about it. Here’s one page that struck me early on:

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Another former pastor of mine often used this quote, I believe by MLK, Jr., which posited that “…it is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” the point being that not only does God call us to something more and better than middle-class society, but we must take stock of just how readily our lives comport with the expectations of that society. If there’s little difference, really, between our “Christianity” and our standing as patriotic USAmericans, then something is terribly wrong. As Wilson-Hartgove put it in God’s Economy:

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“Jesus was born homeless to a family living under Roman occupation and grew up as a refugee in Egypt because the authorities back home wanted him dead.”

Meanwhile, the country I grew up in is an occupying force and supports other such occupying forces, and is currently doing its best to build walls and keep out refugees fleeing genocide, all in the name of protecting the comfort of our middle-class citizens. Thus, in the midst of reading God’s Economy, our family came up with our focus for the month of January:

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Yes, I know I misspelled “implications;” I was writing fast.

Pretty soon we came to terms with the fact that we had accumulated two 40-inch-or-larger TV’s, and we didn’t need one, let alone two. So, with joy we gave our living room TV and sound bar to the Mill City Church Commons (our shared space- the only building we “own,” which is used for meetings, offices, training, and hospitality while as a church we remain committed to meeting for worship and maintaining a presence in the Sheridan School in Mpls.). Other such realizations would follow, but more on that later.

I should pause and talk about another part of this story, which has a lot of threads that I hope you’ll find decently come together at the end. In the midst of all this good reading I’ve been doing in January, I’ve also kept up with the goings-on and writing coming out of the Circle of Hope community, our former church in Philadelphia. First I read this post, titled Doing Theology: Paul’s “Two Tiers” and Social Action, which still has me thinking about the implications of it all. It opens provocatively:

The big temptation for Jesus –followers who want to make a difference in this troubled world is to join forces with the very powers that be who make the world troubled — all in the name of getting something done. In the name of tolerance, acceptance, mutuality and humility (and maybe fear or shame), they shelve their faith or make it “personal” and dig into world-changing according to principles they can share with the world. All too often, they join the endless cycle of history and just repeat the same old damned things in the name of love, hope, and goodness.

In describing the “two tiers” of the post’s title, Rod White, Circle of Hope’s Development Pastor, says: “What I mean is that there is a general, universal, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it.” I should mention that this “doing theology” piece is the result of something they actually “did.” They got together, face-to-face, and worked some of this theology out. That’s what they do. Rod elaborates on the two tiers like this:

Romans 12

First tier:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. – Romans 12:3-5

Second tier
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. — Romans 12:6-8

The first tier starts with God, who distributes grace. The second tier is more about us who variously receive it. One could start with the second tier and celebrate the “diversity” of it and easily miss the first. God’s distribution is the essence of our oneness and what dignifies our diversity.

Trying a second example from Romans 12, I rearranged the material to make my point. Some people wondered if it was accurate enough.

First tier:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. – Romans 12:21,17,19

Second tier:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” — Romans 12:14-21 (minus the verses above)

The first tier is a word from the Lord, a basic new thing that Jesus reveals. It is the heart of the new humanity the Lord is redeeming from their bondage in evil.

The second tier is a brainstorm of how one does that, what it means to keep revealing this in the world. It is a list of actions to take. Like in the Lord’s metaphor, the first tier is about good trees, the second about good fruit. Paul could have said more about action in Romans 12, and he does elsewhere, because he continues to apply this truth. He doesn’t try to sum it all up because Jesus is his heading. He is describing something that is living. Our actions are more like the traits of our character, like an aspect of Christ culture than like an ideology we apply or a law we follow.

These two tiers become especially useful in dealing with some of the more challenging of Paul’s writings. Here’s how they apply the two tiers to Paul’s writings about women:

Paul’s writings about women, as revolutionary an application of his revelation as they were, have been the source of much oppression by the men who eventually came to dominate the church. Circle of Hope is alternative to so-called conservative and liberal churches in how we deal with the “issue.” We are acting out Paul’s two tiers.

First tier:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:23-29

In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. — 1 Corinthians 11:11-12

Everything comes from God. We receive it. Our faith makes us children of God, and we go from there. Relatedness, love rules.

Second tier:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved…. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. — 1 Cor 11:4-5, 11-16

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. — 1 Cor 14:34-35

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. (*italics and bold print added*)

That not-ironclad principle alone is incredibly helpful, but this “two tier” approach to Paul is especially important, and important to the larger argument I’m making, in regard to slavery. Rod takes the work Circle of Hope did in “doing theology” and riffs on it over on his blog in a post you’ll find here. I’ll let him speak for himself again:

One of the places where we could see Paul’s two-tiered thinking was when he related to slaves. In this day, when people are into the idolatry Trump preaches, in which young people are chained to their survival jobs and debt, when white supremacists are trying to re-enslave African-Americans, and in which we are all tempted to bow in fear before the Tweeter-in-chief, we may need to think about freeing the slaves more consciously than ever.

Be small

First, if we want to get anything out of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, we have to remember that when he speaks to women, Gentiles and slaves seriously as members of the church, his respect is subversive. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

Slaving

Once in Paul’s shoes, we can see what he is talking about. His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us. Here’s just one example of how he thinks:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – Colossians 3:23-4. That last clause should read: “It is for the Lord (master) Christ you are slaving.”

Everyone who is thoroughly trained in democratic equality and the centrality of human choice (the general God-free zone of Western thought these days) is likely to think those lines are heresy; it might even feel icky to read them, taboo. Slaving?! Paul has none of those qualms. He finds it an honor to be a slave in Christ’s house as opposed to being a ruler in a house of lies. God is a “master” beyond anything Hobbes, Rousseau or Ayn Rand could imagine.

So when he goes on to talk to slaves, locked in their situation with masters, benign or despotic, Paul has a variety of options for them. His first tier thinking makes him completely free to do the best he can with what he’s got in the day-to-day, passing-away, fallen world. So he says to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” — Colossians 3:22, 25

Elsewhere, of course, he advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.

There are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I wanted to include it all because it’s central to how I and my family are being shaped and formed right now. I don’t think I could re-state much of what Rod says any better than he did, but I want to pull out a few quotes that I find terribly important:

  • “We often forget, as we turn our ‘imperial gaze’ on the ‘others’ who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those ‘others.’ He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the ‘others’ in their towns and villages. So he writes from ‘under’ not ‘over’.”

This language about Paul being “small” is crucial. Relatively rich white male U.S. citizens like myself are at the height of power in what is again one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Though Paul was a Roman citizen, “he has become small,” as Rod said. He gave up persecuting as a Roman in order to be persecuted as a Jesus-follower. He has become one of those “on the margins of society.” If I am to better understand what God might be trying to teach the church through Paul, I need to become “small” too. More importantly, if I am to follow the same Jesus that led Paul to become “small,” the chances again are very high that I must do likewise. I must give up some (maybe a lot?) of my power and privilege. As Rod says:

  •  “One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ.”
  • “The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us” (italics added).

Rod isn’t arguing, I don’t think, that those experiencing modern-day slavery shouldn’t get free, if they can, nor that we shouldn’t be a part of helping make that happen. What he is arguing is that:

  • It is a “delusion (to think) that law makes (anyone) free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering.”

So if we want to understand Paul, we powerful rich white Westerners have to become small. Paul, a person-on-the-margins-of-empire for Jesus, wrote to other people on the margins who also met Jesus there. If we want to meet (and understand and follow) Jesus today, perhaps we should look there too.

So then last weekend our family experienced a very meaningful Mill City Church Winter Get-a-way during which Kirsten and I were honored to have been asked to share a little (I posted my talk recently; you’ll find it here). The weekend ended with an impassioned plea by one of our pastors, Stephanie, which she summarized helpfully on Instagram:

Less than a year ago a Missional Community from @millcitychurchmpls welcomed a refugee family from Somalia. The team spent months preparing, praying and training before the family arrived. When the family got to Minnesota they got to see their own relatives who they’d been separated from for years. It’s heartbreaking to me that the ban ordered by President Trump means that so many teams will not meet the family they have been praying for. Not to mention that families will continue to be torn apart. As followers of Jesus, we can have different political opinions about HOW to welcome refugees, but there is little nuance in the call as gospel people to allow and to welcome the foreigner. This is an opportunity to unite across party lines as people who pledge allegiance first to the Kingdom of God. (Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Exodus 23:9, Malachi 3:5, Matthew 25:25-36, Luke 10:29-37 – and many more…)

Then, on our way home, we listened to the live stream of that morning’s Mill City worship service back in Minneapolis. Another of our pastors, Michael, gave this sermon, the final in the just finished series that introduced our church’s “mission priorities” for the year:

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In talking about how to engage with the marginalized, Michael used Mark 10:13-16:

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms,placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Michael makes it clear in his sermon that the interpretation of this story that many of us grew up with simply misses the point. Many of us grew up thinking that what Jesus meant is that we have to have an innocent, child-like faith in order to enter God’s kingdom. Michael says that while simple, child-like faith might be helpful, what’s notable about this story is that in the economic and political system of the day children were absolutely without power. They had no status or standing. Thus, when Jesus acknowledges them, makes time for them, receives them, and says that you have to be like them to enter his kingdom, he’s saying something about power and status. He’s saying that if you don’t receive the kingdom of God like one on the margins of society, like one without power or privilege (like a child), you won’t receive it at all. Just as importantly, Michael reminded us that the mission priority he was focusing on was “engaging with those on the margins,” not “serving” them or even loving them, though that’s obviously important too. Michael notes that it’s important that we work to engage with those on the margins and not just try to do things for or “rescue” them because, put simply and as he said, “we have something to learn from the people on the margins: the poor, the widow, the foreigner, the fatherless, the oppressed. They have something to teach us about what it’s like to receive from God the good news of Jesus Christ.” He adds that engaging with the marginalized is meant to be reciprocal. He says, “I think that God is easier to find on the margins…because when you’re not on the margins it’s easier to value self-sufficiency and fight off dependence and lose your sense of trust in something bigger than yourself.” He adds: “The heart of the good news of Jesus Christ is about receiving; the whole point…is that we couldn’t do anything to earn God’s grace and God’s love in our lives;…so it makes sense that people on the margins might understand that better on a daily basis.”

On the heels of all that, I read a little more of God’s Economy, and lo and behold very soon Wilson-Hartgrove is also talking about that very same story of the “little children and Jesus” from Mark 10:

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Wilson-Hartgove likewise describes the household economy of the day and details how trade was conducted household to household and therefore the head of a household, especially a large one, was something like a corporate CEO. Thus, when Jesus is inviting the children to come to him, and when he says you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom, he’s again saying something about worldly power, about worldly “success and security” (more on “success and security” below). In other words, Jesus is inviting his followers to make themselves small, to put themselves on the margins of society, to give up their (worldly) power. It’s a theme Paul would later echo, as we learned above.

Wilson-Hartgrove, though, makes a point to show that the pericope with the story of the little children and Jesus very much sets the stage for what happens next in the Biblical narrative, which is detailed in the “story” of the “rich young ruler:”

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

With deep conviction that everywhere I turned God was inviting me to become “small,” to find him on the margins of society and there perhaps to understand Jesus, let alone Scripture, in a way that my power and privilege had prevented me from up to this point, I was simply stunned as I realized for the first time in my life, at the age of 41, what this verse (Mark 10:29 and following) might really be all about: ” ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life’.” I know someone who thinks this is saying something along the lines of this: because Kirsten and I gave up a modest (by U.S. standards) home in OH in order to move back to MN in part to help my mother-in-law as her health declines, if that act can in any way be construed as having something to do with following Jesus, then this passage means we’re going to get a much nicer, bigger, better house here. In fact, I now know that quite the opposite is promised by this passage, and it has everything to do with we, the church, actually “being the Church.”

God’s Economy puts it this way:

Jesus is no less concrete in enumerating the abundance of the new (God’s) economy that the disciples are to receive. Where they had a home, they will have homes with fields aplenty. Where they had siblings, parents, and children, they will have brothers, sisters, mothers, and children- but notably, no fathers. No heads of household. In this new economy there is only one Father, and his abundance is enough for everyone…..Jesus says that those who follow him will receive a new economy here and now. We have access to a global network of people who, with us, have devoted themselves and all the resources at their disposal to the way of subversive service.

I’ve long known that many of the “you’s” in the Bible that describe how to follow Jesus were plural; they’re directed to you, the Church, because we can’t do this alone. Yet somehow it never occurred to me to quit interpreting this passage individualistically too. The point of this passage isn’t that I’m going to get a bigger house because I left a smaller one to (arguably) follow Jesus. The point is that I don’t need one, because together, we, the Church, already have everything we need. This was startling to me. Some would-be Jesus-followers exhaust themselves pursuing worldly economic and political power, thinking that somehow they can do more good by participating in the structures of the “principalities and powers” of our day. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has already given us, the Church, absolutely everything we need to follow him closely and well. He’s given us each other. Could it be that we really are the answer to our prayers, that we really are the ones we’ve been waiting for?

It was this realization that had me weeping on Kirsten’s shoulder, and doing so all the more because of this line from God’s Economy: “Most of us would rather listen to our iPods or blog about hunger than cook a meal for people we know and love,” the implication being that we should know and love people who are hungry, and if we don’t, we’re not doing it- following Jesus- right. Naturally, I am promptly blogging about this, but when I read that I was- and am- devastated.

Even so, God wasn’t- and isn’t- done with me yet. After the crying session on Kirsten’s shoulder I saw this post on Instagram:

Mill City Church posted this as a preview for the new sermon series that started this past weekend. They said:
Mill City Church posted this as a preview for the new sermon series that started this past weekend. They said: “New conversation starts this week at @millcitychurchmpls. Success and Security – Questioning What Matters. Many of us want to be successful. We want to feel secure. Yet we often find ourselves struggling to feel like we have achieved success or attained security. Jesus consistently redefined success and security by inviting people to question what matters most in their lives. This series will look at the ways Jesus redefines success and security.”

So we went to yesterday’s worship gathering having more than an inkling of how this conversation might go, as it seemed more than likely that we would be invited again to meet Jesus on the margins, to give up our power and maybe even some of our stuff so that we might have even just a slight chance of receiving the goodness God has for us instead of clinging to and trying to create our own. Prior to attending this past Sunday’s worship gathering, Kirsten and I began taking some concrete steps to get just a little smaller ourselves. After just a little conversation, we gave up our smartphones and went back to basic flip phones. This certainly “costs” us something in terms of convenience, but honestly having been without a smartphone now for all of three days I can tell you that I’m receiving so much more than I gave up. Obviously this frees up some money (we cut our cell phone bill in half) and is part of a larger financial strategy that includes once more starting a debt management program, all of which will, Lord willing, put us much more readily in a position to live out the oft-repeated Mill City Church truth that “generosity is something God wants for you, not from you.” We hope to much better be able to be generous like we believe we’re called to in the very near future. Even more importantly, perhaps, we’re receiving a little freedom from the constant bombardment of news alerts about every offensive posting by the tweeter-in-chief and the inundation of our social media feeds. We’ve now gotten rid of one big “screen” in our life and several smaller ones, and we’re finding it easier to resist the temptation to think that we’re responsible for and must respond to everything that’s happening in the world all the time. We can now have just a little more ability to choose when to be informed about things and by whom, and we’re reminded that if something happens when we’re not paying attention to it, God is still working all the while to love and save us all.

This theme of how to use the (technological, in this case) tools we’ve been given would come up in J.D.’s sermon yesterday (J.D. is another of Mill City Church’s pastors). In what could only be a providential act, J.D. picked up right where Michael had left off the week before in Mark 10, with the story of the “rich young ruler” and Jesus. I’m paraphrasing him here (and didn’t have a smartphone to snap a picture of the slides he showed during his sermon!), but essentially J.D. said as he was setting the stage for this sermon series on just want constitutes “success and security” in God’s kingdom that he wanted initially simply to ask a number of questions. Among them were:

  • Does what you have, have you?
  • Is it easier to give than to receive? (A related question for me comes to mind: what does God want to give us, and does our “stuff” prevent us from receiving it?)
  • This isn’t a question but J.D. wanted to really highlight verse 21 from Mark 10, in which we read that Jesus looked at, and loved, the rich young ruler.

That first question, “does what you have, have you?” is one that it should be clear I’ve been wrestling with for some time now (probably decades, but in a new way over the past few weeks). Therefore I need to report that I think the answer was absolutely “yes!” In the relationship between myself and my stuff, one of us was a tool, and I’m ashamed to report that it was me. It has become very clear that I was a tool, not my smartphone. Having given up my smartphone, I had a remarkable experience on Saturday (even before J.D.’s sermon). We went to my mother-in-law’s for breakfast on Saturday, as we’ve made a commitment to do most weekends, and I found that the dynamic in my relationship with her had changed. I won’t go into needless details publicly, but I found that I suddenly had more capacity to love her, to really see her, to quit (I’m again ashamed to admit) judging her and simply be open to taking her for who she is, another sinner in need of grace. I’m still slightly dumbfounded at the love I found myself a conduit of.

After J.D. preached, the closing song the band sang was the one I opened this post with, Broken Vessels by Hillsong. Hopefully you’ve been listening to it as you read this. I still am. The lyrics are:

All these pieces
Broken and scattered
In mercy gathered
Mended and whole
Empty handed
But not forsaken
I’ve been set free
I’ve been set free
Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
You take our failure
You take our weakness
You set Your treasure
In jars of clay
So take this heart, Lord
I’ll be Your vessel
The world to see
Your love in me
Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I seeOh I can see you now

Oh I can see the love in Your eyes

Laying yourself down

Raising up the broken to life

Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
[2x]

Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life

Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
[2x]

Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
[3x]

Some lyrics stand out: “Empty handed, but not forsaken, I’ve been set free…I’ve been set free…” As I tried to sing that song yesterday I thought of my empty hands, no longer clutching a smartphone, and all that this entailed. I thought of how much more present I hoped to be to those around me. More importantly, I thought of what it meant to go without Google in my pocket, to be not willfully ignorant but consciously aware that even with the benefit of Google I can’t possibly know, respond to, and solve all the problems I’m daily confronted with, but I know someone who can.
Finding myself just a tiny bit smaller than I had allowed myself to be before, I sang the next bit in the song: “Oh I can see you now, Oh I can see the love in Your eyes.” Stunned, it hit me again that I am the rich young ruler, whom Jesus looked at, and loved. Gratefully finding myself a little closer to the margins of society, I hope, I found that in a new way just as Jesus was looking at and loving me, I could really look at and see him: “Oh, I can see you now….” I can see the love in Your eyes. I sang a little more:
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
You take our failure
You take our weakness
You set Your treasure
In jars of clay
So take this heart, Lord
I’ll be Your vessel
The world to see
Your love in me
I pray for the courage to keep making myself ever smaller, to keep giving up my power and privilege so that I can better understand Scripture, and more importantly, Jesus; so that I have capacity to receive the goodness God has for me, the success and security he wants to give me not through independence but through the interdependence and mutuality that comes as a result of really being the Church. I pray to be a vessel through which God keeps pouring his love. I pray that I will be part of a movement, a Church that eschews political power and prestige and that uses instead the incredible resources God has already given us: each other. Could it be that Jesus meant what he said? Could it be that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for? Lord, let it be so.

The Arc of our Lives is Long, but Bends Toward Jesus, Part II

SW Philly, circa 1995. "Streets where feet are always dirty and tears sting, where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven."
SW Philly, circa 1995. “Streets where feet are always dirty and tears sting, where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”

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.”

He continues:

“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.

Some of my KW team and I. Holly is the one I'm giving the "bunny ears" to.
Some of my KW team and I. Holly is the one I’m giving the “bunny ears” to.

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:

 

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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 sores 21 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]
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.

Striving No More, Part 5a, or, Can You Love Coffee Without Loving Starbucks?

empire

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.”

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.

Striving No More, Part 1, or Why I Keep Talking About Circle of Hope

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The cell group we left when we left Philly/Circle of Hope the first time, in 1998.

This is part 1 of a 5 part series. This post started out very differently. I set out to write about our ongoing struggle to follow Jesus, now in MN, and what that means for our participation in a local faith community. As is usually the case, however, I felt like I couldn’t tell that story very well without giving some background on our participation in other faith communities, including and especially our experience with Circle of Hope. Since I find myself telling this story so often, it made sense to pull it out of its context as a precursor or the background for any other story I might tell and instead let it stand alone as its own tale. It is, obviously, a story in its own right, and a foundational one for me, no less. This also gives me the ability to refer (link) back to it the next time I feel the need to re-tell it as context for further adventures. So, here goes.

As anyone who knows much of anything about me and/or has read much of this blog would know, to whatever extent I have, however little that may be, I “grew up” as a would be Jesus follower among the people of Circle of Hope. As I’ve often said, it was in that faith community that I learned that an isolated faith is no faith at all, that following Jesus is a communal project. It was among them that I learned that the church is a people, not a place, that “we are the church” and that it is therefore incumbent upon us to go and be the church, which is why it’s impossible to “go to church,” unless you mean you’re go(ing) to (meet the gathered) church. It was among them that I learned the power of storytelling as a means for working at right relationships, together. In fact, most of what I’m still trying to learn about how to follow Jesus has its roots in their proverbs, such as:

  • Jesus should be “lens through which” I “read the Bible”
  • As I alluded to above,”the Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project”
  • The church “exists for those yet to” become a part of it
  • “Life in Christ is one whole cloth,” and so I should “repent of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ “
  • I should be a “world Christian” if I am to be one at all; that is, the body of Christ is “transnational.” Therefore, if I am to pledge allegiance to anyone, it is to Christ and his kingdom. There’s much to say there about patriotism; for now, suffice it to say I am grateful for my privilege as a white male U.S. citizen but work continually at least to have some dim self-awareness of how many of my global brothers and sisters suffer so that I can enjoy that privilege
  • “Without worship, a person shrinks”
  • “We are discipled for mission, not just for personal growth”
  • “We learn best person to person, not program to person”
  • “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable;” therefore they (the people of Circle of Hope) say:
    • “A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.”
    • “We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represent the new humanity.”
  • “In a culture deformed by violence, proactive peacemaking transforms our individual fears and faithfully witnesses to the Prince of Peace like nothing else;” therefore, I’m working to learn how to be a peacemaker, which is why I am against not just war, but violence of any kind
  • Circle of Hope, as I’ve oft described, is a cell group based church. Thus, they say:
    • “Our cells are the basic components of our living body in Christ. In them, Jesus is our ‘agenda’.”
    • “Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.”
    • “Living in covenant, like a family with a common Father, is basic to being a Christian.”
  • “Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.”
  • “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor.”

That basic concept of a cell group based church remains foundational and formative for my understanding of how the church can and maybe should work. As I’ve said before and they (the people of Circle of Hope) can describe much better than I, the metaphor is biological. Just as the human body exists as a collection of cells, each working together to serve the whole and allowing the whole (that is, the body) to grow as cells not just reproduce, but multiply; so too the church can function in this way as well. The local church known as Circle of Hope exists again not as a building or slickly produced worship experience or program or ministry, but rather as a collection of cell groups and, eventually in Circle of Hope’s history, congregations that work together in a network to serve Jesus in the greater Philadelphia region. Every cell, a circle of no more than about ten or so, has Jesus as “its only agenda” as described above. The cell has a leadership team consisting of a leader, apprentice, and host or hostess. The cell forms and covenants together, perhaps after telling one another their “stories” for a little while so they have a sense of who they are as a group. Their covenant specifies when they will meet, how often, and for how long. No cell is meant to go on forever. It’s written into each cell’s “DNA” that it will eventually either “multiply,” or die.

Once stories are told and a covenant made, each cell is free to focus on whatever they’d like to. Whatever they do, whether it’s read a book or talk about the latest sermon or explore coffee shops in the city, those activities are a means to the end of deepening their right relationships with God and one another as together they do the face to face hard work of trying to follow Jesus. When “life happens” and a group member walks into a meeting with what feels like the weight of the world on their shoulders, whatever activity may have been planned for that evening may be delayed or scrapped altogether so that the group can surround that person in love, support, and prayer. It’s about being a people on a mission together. All the while as the cell goes through its life cycle, the cell leader is discipling his or her apprentice so that when the group is ready to multiply, the apprentice is ready to step up as a leader of the next cell group. This is important because it really gets at the idea of the “priesthood of all believers” and turns it into a reality. As cell groups grow and multiply leaders are constantly being called out, trained, equipped, and unleashed to lead. There’s a part to play for everyone whether they lead a cell or not as it’s “all in” to do the work of not just following Jesus but having a life together. The people of Circle of Hope have bought and rehabbed old buildings and turned them into worship spaces, art galleries, and thrift stores that serve real needs in their community, including the need for jobs. The people of Circle of Hope have started community gardens and host an ongoing, free baby (and kids) goods exchange where everyone brings their gently used baby and kids clothes and offers it to their neighbors who might have an older or younger kid in need of just that size or that item.

In the meantime, if lives in the individual cell groups and in the network of cells and congregations as a whole are being changed and people are experiencing what it means to really be a part of something larger than themselves as they respond to the experience of actually having a life together that is rooted in Jesus, then each cell group is growing. This group project of following Jesus together is powerfully transformative, such that you can’t help but talk about it to your neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers. Among the people of Circle of Hope, you don’t really “invite someone to church” (remember, that’s impossible because the church is a people, not a place).  Instead, you invite someone into the life you’re having together as the church in your weekly cell group meeting. You might also invite them to the “public meeting” that happens on Sunday when all the cell groups gather for worship and teaching, but that meeting is also a big part of the church’s life together and serves as a celebration of all that good stuff that is already happening throughout the week. In any case, ideally each cell grows, and once it gets to be bigger than roughly 10 people or so (the “just right” size for meaningful face to face relationships in which there’s space and time for everyone to be heard, known, and loved over the course of a group’s life cycle), so long as the apprentice leader is ready, the group multiplies, forming two groups from one, with the apprentice leading a new group with his or her own apprentice and host, while the former leader selects a new apprentice and host, and the whole process starts over.

Multiplication is hard, and it doesn’t always happen, but forming a group that is designed to grow in this way, that has multiplication again written into its “DNA” is a powerful reminder again that the church exists for those yet to become a part of it. As members of that church, folks yearn to know and be known and loved for their own sake, to be sure, but again they’re learning that following Jesus is a group project. Therefore, they are not (only) their own. They’re not trying to “save” anybody by offering them “fire insurance,” by convincing or coercing them to say a few magic words before they die so that they don’t burn in hell forever. That’s not their motivation. Rather, the love they experience in the life they’re having together with Jesus makes for a genuinely better life than any they could have known otherwise, and certainly better than any that any one person could have known alone, and folks therefore want to share it. They have, after all, been invited to join God in the “family business” of reconciliation. By definition, then, a cell group can never be insular. It can never go on indefinitely in any sort of static form. God’s love can not be contained in this way. No one’s perfect, obviously, and no group is either. Some groups don’t multiply, in which case once their covenant period has come to an end the group dissolves and members are free to become a part of other cell groups.

I should say too that because this is how the people of Circle of Hope work so very intentionally at being the church, at being a people on a mission together, “membership” looks very different among them. It doesn’t happen by attending a class and signing an agreement to give of one’s “time and talents.” Like some individual cell groups make a covenant together that outlines what their shared life will look like, the people of Circle of Hope as a whole have done the same thing. Thus, to join the circle, you become a covenant member. Remember too that on Sundays the various Circle of Hope congregations have a “public meeting” to put a public face on the life of the church that is happening throughout the week in the cells. This meeting is a time for worship (remember, “without worship, we shrink”) and celebration of all that good stuff happening throughout the week. Similarly, as cells multiply congregations do as well and Circle of Hope has grown over the past 20 years from one fledgling congregation and a few cells to a network of five congregations and more than 50 cell groups. Thus, each quarter all the congregations and cells gather for a “love feast.” This is a celebration of the life the whole network is having together; it’s also a time when folks join the covenant that helps bind the whole network together. The process is intense, but beautiful. At a Love Feast, a covenant member will stand up in front of the whole assembly and introduce their friend who is joining the covenant. They might say, “This is my friend John. He’s a buddy from work who started coming to my cell. His family lives elsewhere and he didn’t have too many connections here. He didn’t really know a lot about Jesus and honestly may not have been that interested in him, but I’ve really seen him grow and change since joining my cell. He’s been really honest about some things and I’ve seen him really love the people around him well. I know he’s working to love and follow Jesus now too, and I’m proud to recommend him for membership in our covenant.” Then John will say a few words about why he wants to join the covenant, and then the gathered church can lovingly ask John questions. Then the group together assents to John becoming part of the covenant they all share together, and the party begins. It’s intense, like I said, but you might imagine, deeply meaningful and not much like most church memberships I’ve been around or know of.

So Kirsten and I were a part of Circle of Hope in two stints, from ’96-’98 and ’03-’05. In the latter stint I was a cell leader apprentice, then cell group leader, and for a short while a cell leader “coordinator” (a leader of cell leaders). Obviously, this model for how to be the church together has stuck with me and continues to captivate and shape my imagination. Obviously too we left Philly and Circle of Hope not once, but twice, both times under duress in the first case as Kirsten’s dad was rapidly dying here in the Twin Cities and in the second case in the wake of Samuel’s extraordinarily premature birth. In the latter case, we did not leave well or lovingly. Any meaningful relationship among imperfect people involves pain, of course, and we let ourselves get hurt when we weren’t loved in just the way we wanted or hoped to be as we dealt with the trauma of Samuel’s prematurity and all the disruption it caused in our lives. Instead of working through the issues that came up and growing as a result, and giving the community a chance to grow too, we skipped town. It wasn’t our best moment.

And truth is, since leaving Philly and Circle that second time we’ve struggled mightily in our efforts to be a part of any subsequent church. I’ve discussed that elsewhere on this blog. The one notable exception was House of Mercy here in the Twin Cities, which we were a part of for five years between Circle of Hope stints and which we’ve tried to reconnect with here since we’ve been back. There’s more to say about that, but this post is focused on Circle of Hope and why it continues to serve as the model for what I hope for from life together as the church. Before I end, I should add that every once in a while I’ve been in touch with one of the pastors of Circle of Hope since we left. I appreciate his leadership even from afar and even long after we’ve moved away- again- even if I didn’t always submit to it very well when I was there. I recently asked him to comment on the way a local church here in the “cities” is working at trying to follow Jesus together, and he had some helpful things to say. I’ll say more about that in a follow-up post to this one, but for now I want to comment on one of the things he said in response to me expressing some reservations about how that local church here was working at “being the church.” 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.”

I suspect he’s right, and again I’ll have more to say about that in a follow-up post. For now, though, I want to focus on his comment that they (Circle of Hope) “would likely look wrong, too (to me), by this time.” I think part of what he’s getting at is that Circle of Hope has changed over the 20 years of their life together, most of that life now having occurred since we left for the last time 13 years ago. They’ve added some “proverbs” to their collection of them and taken some away. People have come and gone (though many have stayed). They’ve stayed true to their mission of being the church through cells, but because they work so hard to be relational not just with one another but with God and therefore to be organic; that is, living and alive; because this is so, their life together has changed too. For instance, they have compassion and mission teams now in addition to cells. These other teams are never programmatic but rise up when there is a need for them and go away as soon as that need is met. Cells remain the basic building blocks of the church. Compassion and mission teams work with the cells to help the larger network fulfill its calling in the region, especially as they are called to works of compassion and service. As they say: “None of our teams constitute a ‘program’ of the church. They are all an expression of the life of the Spirit in the body of Christ. They start with an inspiration and form when enough people want to join together to express God’s leading. When they lose steam or their service is done, they disperse.”

This may or may not be one of the changes my former Circle of Hope pastor was perhaps alluding to when he suggested that they “might look wrong” to me “by this time.” I don’t know. I do know that I continue to appreciate what Circle of Hope is becoming. As they listen to God and try hard to get with “what God is doing next” and listen to one another as they keep making their covenant together and do the hard work of being the church together, face to face, person to person, lives are being changed and they are impacting their region. I’m glad just to know that they’re out there and will re-double my effort to figure out what that means for me and my family here in MN.  I appreciate too that in the past I’ve gotten the message that what God is doing in the Philly region among the people of Circle of Hope is just that- what God is doing there. I don’t think they’d ever try to “take this thing national.” As I said, I asked my former Circle of Hope pastor to comment on how a local church here was working to be the church, here. Part of that work by that local MN church involves their connection to a larger, (inter)national group which I’ll comment on in a separate post. Anyway, about that, my former Circle of Hope pastor said, “why don’t you steer away from national things that should be local?” This question is contextual and his larger point was that, from what he saw online, he likes the local church here, but my point now is that the work of being the church together is always contextual too. God got really particular in the person of Jesus, and he continues to work quite particularly in local people in all the places and times where they can be found. I need to be better at not only paying attention to what God might be up to among the people here, where I am now, but perhaps more importantly, I need to be better at allowing myself to be one of them. In other words, I need to be better at letting God do his particular work in and through me, here in MN, whatever that may mean. Stay tuned.

Be Who We Are, Where We Are

This post from Rod White was timely. I especially appreciate this part:

The big threat of our era is the inability to be who we are where we are instead of always standing outside of ourselves taking a picture or imagining some other experience instead of the one we are having.

I’ll probably have more to say about this later. 

Renting=Spiritual Discipline(?)

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This is where we live right now. It’s the classic nondescript townhouse in the ‘burbs. It’s literally the antithesis of almost everything I claim I believe about the importance of place and one’s stewardship of it. My old/former friend/mentor David once said, as I’ve long since quoted, that “buying a house is one of the most important theological decisions you’ll ever make.” As he went on to say, there’s a lot that goes into such a decision. It involves deciding how much of one’s budget to commit to housing, for starters, and whether or not one will live beyond one’s means. It means deciding, for good or ill, who your literal neighbors are and how much time you’ll spend each day commuting to work or school. It should involve critical thinking about justice and race and economic disparities. I could go on.

The first/only time we bought a house, we chose this one:

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We really grew to like and appreciate that house in OH. It looks, and was, relatively small, but in a “bigger on the inside” sort of way. There were two bedrooms upstairs, a normal sized one on the main floor, and another tiny one on the main floor for a total of four. Plus, the basement was mostly finished, giving it a family room and second bathroom down there, plus a bonus room that variously served as a workout room for a previous owner and a sewing room (when Kirsten’s mom lived with us), office, and eventual extra “bedroom” in our almost decade in that house. Still, despite it being what I think is a fairly modest house from the look of it with a working class neighborhood vibe, I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about (working toward) “owning” it.

For starters, I love cities and believe that there are justice issues involved in choosing to live in one. I lean toward thinking that it’s more just to do so, given the historic reality of white flight and the resultant declining urban tax base and property values. However, I know too that choosing to live in the city can unwittingly make one part of the gentrification process of the very disadvantaged neighbors one might seek to make common cause with. Still, I do love the city. So choosing to buy the house we did above was a conflicted decision as it was a house in a ‘burb. The nice thing about Cuyahoga Falls is that it felt more like a small town with its own “downtown” and the like; it just happened to be adjacent to some larger cities in Akron and Cleveland (and, going the other way, Canton). The not nice thing about Cuyahoga Falls is that it was sometimes known as “Caucasian Falls,” and that lack of diversity was certainly reflected in our experience there. I salved my guilt about (working toward) “owning” that house by:

  • Moving into it with Kirsten’s mom in tow and giving her the biggest bedroom for our first year+ there.
  • Later, by fostering a couple of African-American boys for a very short while in that house.
  • While we were in Texas for a year-and-a-half as my dad was dying right in the middle of our near decade “owning” that house, we rented it out at a significant monthly loss to a couple that couldn’t have afforded to live there otherwise. We hoped to eventually sell the house to them, but we wound up returning to it instead.
  • Much later, we gave up our basement first for a young married couple to move in and, as they left, then for a teacher friend to live in it.

None of that of course made my guilt completely go away. Whether or not I should have entertained such a feeling at all is another question, but I struggled with it until the house finally sold after our move to MN. In a sign of changing times and perhaps providentially, it just so happened that we sold the house to a an African-American family.

So, now here we are in a townhouse well entrenched in “nice” neighborhood in what is more classically and obviously a suburb. I have some guilt of course about where we are now, which is only slightly lessened by the fact that we’re renting. We sold the OH house at such a loss that it may be a long time before we ever “own” again. We chose this townhouse because it’s a few blocks from Kirsten’s mom (and sister), and ostensibly we’re here in no small part to help give care to her as her health declines. It’s within sight of a good elementary school that did very well with Samuel and his (slight) Autism diagnosis in the year+ he went there. However, Coon Rapids seems to have a lot of baggage in terms of a heritage of racism that we still run into every day. I’ve experienced this personally as I heard an employee at the local Ford dealer where I was getting work done on our car call the President a “raghead,” and in the news. Sadly, the school district also has a terrible history of discrimination of LGBT students that resulted in a rash of suicides.

That said, things here are very much changing too. When I let a manager at the Ford dealership know what I had heard and how offensive it was, he went out of his way to apologize and express his agreement with me. He may have been exercising good customer service, but it felt genuine. While attending a community event at a local park, I sat down with the boys for a snack while lunch was being served. In the circle we were sitting in, I saw another white family, but also an Asian dad and his boys and an African-American mom and her kids. Things are improving in the school district too, and even that good elementary school that’s just a stone’s throw away seems increasingly diverse when we attend school functions. I’m glad for that.

But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to put down roots here, and this is why after yearning for so long to live the “American dream” and own a home, I’m almost glad not to right now. When we did, I gave lip service to the notion that everything belongs to God and I was but a steward of whatever possessions I came to have, including that house, but I don’t know how well I actually lived that out. We are fortunate to have what so far is a really great landlord here; so with that in mind, I can say that my lived experience of renting this townhouse for the past year isn’t all that different from the decade we “owned” that OH house. I still make a large payment every month to the person/entity that “really” owns my residence (if not truly or ultimately again if everything belongs to God). I don’t have the freedom to do whatever I want with this place, but that’s what I’m grateful for now, because it reminds me that if I really believe that everything belongs to God and I am but a steward of God’s stuff, than I never really did have that freedom. Being more conscious of my likely transience in this place helps me be mindful of those who lived here before I did, and those who will come after me. Moreover, it helps me be thoughtful about that super important theological decision of just where to put down more “permanent” roots, and I hope and pray to use this time wisely to make sure we make that decision, whenever we do, with all the force of our convictions and wisdom of our experience.