In two weeks I’ll be home, preparing to meet people in the church I lead who I haven’t seen in nearly three months. Their priceless gift of a sabbatical has blessed me with a rare opportunity for extended time away from church life, American culture, and the day-to-day responsibilities of my job. As a result, I’ll return restored spiritually and emotionally, refreshed and stronger physically (up to around 500k in hiking, running mileage now), and challenged.
I’m challenged because these three months have been a concentrated time away from teaching, studying, and writing, three activities I enjoy and look forward to doing again when I return. As much as I enjoy them though, I’ve come to see them as dangerous because America’s about education, and among American cities, Seattle’s all the more about education, and among Seattle churches, the church I lead, filled with university students and professors is even all the more about education. We’re educated. Highly.
All this education has upsides of course, but this trip has made me aware of the downside. That’s because I’ve met lots people with little formal education who in spite of their “lack” have poured generosity, service, hospitality, and joy, from their cups to ours, over and over again. Whether it’s been food, hospitality, the gift of sunglasses at a hut when mine had been stolen, directions offered when uncertain of the way to go, a much needed ride from strangers, or bus drivers signalling ahead to another bus so that it wait would for us, so that we’d make our train connection, we’ve seen people with large hearts, who allowed themselves to be inconvenienced in order to care for us.
Remember that story in the Bible about the guy who gets robbed and beaten up? Jesus uses it to draw a distinction between the educated religious leaders who, in spite of their eloquent sermons and theological precision, frankly didn’t give a damn about the wounded victim, even though they knew Hebrew. Then there was the Samaritan. He’s the one who, for the purposes of this story, is, (are you ready for this?): Blue Collar. He never went to college, earns below the median wage, and is having a hard time affording the new mandated health care. He doesn’t enjoy reading C.S. Lewis much and doesn’t even know who N.T. Wright is. He can’t tell the difference between a Neo-Calvinist, and a Rob Bell devotee because frankly, he’s too tired at the end of the day to read all the blogs and add his own comments. Besides, he doesn’t really care.
He works. He comes home and cares for all the things that need to be cared for in life—shopping, cooking, maintenance, friendships. You’re not even sure where he stands on most issues because in small group he doesn’t say much. He prays. He’s not perfect, God knows. He’s got issues, but he’s working on them. In the meantime though, until he’s perfect, his greatest joy isn’t found in talking about faith. It’s found in living it—“boots on the ground” as the saying goes.
When there’s a need in the shelter though, he volunteers.
When there’s a homeless person outside TJ’s he often makes the time to engage in conversation.
When there’s a neighbor in the hosptial, he’s there with meals, and laughter, and maybe even an awkward prayer.
He’s as generous with his limited money as he is with his time. He doesn’t know where he stands on the issues of homosexuality and gun control, but he’s had dinner with the newly married gay couple on his block, and the NRA guy whose Jeep has a bumper sticker with something about his “cold dead hand.”
Who is this guy? Never went to seminary. Falls asleep in most Bible studies. Wakes up immediately when someone needs a helping hand.
The point Jesus is making in Luke 10:36 is that this (along with loving God) is the point of the Christian life. And in that story, the protagonist is a Samaritan for God’s sake; a compromising half-breed who “anyone with a Bible degree would know is an outsider because his belief system takes him to the wrong mountain, and my pastor, who has a PHD (or is “super funny and edgy”) says that such people are…” blah blah blah.
Talk on if you must, o educated one. I’m tired.
Tired of doctrine being more important than living.
Tired of words being more important than actions.
Tired of writing about life as a substitute for living it.
Tired of Sunday being viewed as the peak experience of faith rather than Monday, or especially, Tuesdays.
Tired of hype and zeal on the surface, and pride and greed at the core.
Tired of ministry professionals like me thinking they have all the answers for “the little people.”
I don’t know all the ways that I’ve changed as a result of being on sabbatical. But I know this much: in the days to come, my criteria for personal health and spiritual maturity will have more to do with how I know and treat my neighbors, friends, co-workers, and those in need around me, than the size of my church, the “impact” of my sermons, or the hits on my website.
I know this because I’ve been pierced by the degree to which I’ve often lived alone, inside my head these past years, as slowly, I confused right thinking, and speaking/writing about right thinking, with spiritual maturity.
I suspect I’m not alone, because look at what Phil Yancey has to say in his upcoming book:
We’re good, it seems, at talking about Jesus—who he was, what he taught and stood for, how he died, how he rose, why it matters, and what people should do about it. I’m just suspicious (and so are lots of other people apparently) that I, maybe even we, have elevated our words as the real proving ground of maturity. When we do that, huge blind spots will remain and we’ll think we’re fine, when we’re really far from the life Jesus has for us.
It’s a dilemma for me. This is because words still matter. We grow in response to revelation and my calling and gifts have to do with teaching God’s revelation so others can respond. So we all need words in our lives, and I need to study words, teach words, write words.
And yet, I need and want to make room in my life for actually putting those words into practice with real neighbors, and co-workers, and friends, and family. How does it all fit together?
That’s the question I bring home with me, but this much I know—if something’s gotta give, it won’t be the living of it any more—that’s become a higher priority. Pray that I’ll live it. New adventures await, as I learn to be a Samaritan… who’s in?
We’re waiting for the cable car that will haul us up to the Douglass Hut, the base from which we’ll be hiking over a couple of passes to another hut. We’re waiting at the base of the lift, gazing skyward. All we can see are two cables disappearing into the clouds. Eventually one of them begins dancing, then the other, and finally, 150′ above us, we see something mysteriously appearing out of the grey, taking form as the cable car. A horn sounds, and soon the car is “parked” and we step in for a ride upward. Everything quickly disappears as we ascend, and then, moments later, we look down, seeing snow on the brush that rushes by 100 plus feet below us. The snow gets thicker as we go higher until, finally, we’re there: The Lunarsee and Douglass Hut, our home for the night.
We exit the car for one of our shorter hikes, going maybe 100 feet to the adjacent entryway of the Douglass Hut, in howling wind, wet snow, and the capacity to see nothing other than what’s exactly in front of us, moment by moment. This is called “white out” and if you’ve been in the mountains during white out, you know it’s never, ever pleasant. You look at the map, and know that there’s a large lake and mountains somewhere near here, but you don’t really know it in the fullest sense yet, because you only know it from the map. We duck inside out of the cold, check in to our rooms, and are quickly in our room in this “summer only” hut, which means that the dorm’s unheated, which means that on this snowy, windy day, every blanket is cherished while we rest, along with our snow hats.
Later in the afternoon we’ll rise and go spend some time in the dining area, enjoying some good food, hot tea, wine, and reading time. The hours pass quickly actually. In spite of the cabin feverish feel of the place, it’s far from empty. There are guests sitting around talking, drawing, reading, playing games. None of them speak English though, so the two of us are a bit in our own world when, as afternoon turns to evening, I hear a stirring and look up.
The fog lifted! Not a lot, but enough to give reality to the lake we’ve seen on the map and at least the bottoms of the surrounding mountains. People are rushing for their boots so that can get outside with their cameras because God only knows how long the fog will keep her skirt lifted for us like this. All attention has turned outside of ourselves the beauty show offered us.
“So it’s true” I say to myself, as reality comes into view. There’s a sense of delight and relief to the whole situation, and above all else a sense of “We’re glad we came… in spite of the fog!” By the day after tomorrow, we’ll return here to largely blue skies, and celebrate the full beauty of that which was drawn on a map and described, but unknown to us even as we were in it, because our sight was clouded by fog. “This” I say to myself, “is an important moment.”
It’s important because large swaths of our lives, especially our lives of faith, are lived in the midst of a thick fog of suffering, doubt, failure, war, abuse, hunger, loneliness, cancer, addiction. It’s all swirling around, in our own souls or the experiences of those we love, and we can’t see a blessed thing, because only the cursed things are apparent in the moment. “Where’s God?” we ask ourselves, or we ask where hope is, or joy, or meaning. They’re fair questions in the fog because we were promised a lake and we’re really looking hard, but all we can see is fog.
Yes. This is why they call it faith. We have a map that paints glowing descriptions of both the present (in the midst of challenges and trials) and the future (when all tears are gone), and we’re invited to live, not “as if” it’s all true, but to live fully “because” it’s true, and to live into the true-ness of it in spite of the fog. What does this mean?
1. It’s means I’m deeply loved and fully forgiven, in spite of the fog of failure.
2. It means that I’m complete in Christ and filled with His strength, in spite of the fog of brokenness and weakness
3. It means that all enemies have been reconciled, in spite of the fact that we also see the horrors of war and terror, custom delivered to our inboxes every day
4. It means that a day is coming when weapons will be melted down and used as farm tools, and cancer, loneliness, fear, human trafficking, abuse, and oppression will all be done away with forever. It’s down the road a bit, but it’s coming.
Here’s the mystery of the map and fog in a nutshell: (Hebrews 2:8,9)
“God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we see him….!!
I need to believe the map, and live according to the reality of the map while I wait for the fog to clear. This means living in a posture of thanksgiving for what is true, even when the fog is swirling so thickly that I can neither see or feel it. The result of this posture of heart has led people to joy and peace, even in the midst of the storm.
Two quotes speak to this powerfully:
“Don’t struggle and strive so, my child.
There is no race to complete, no point to prove, no obstacle to conquer for you to win my love.
I have already given it to you.
I loved you before creation drew its first breath.
I dreamed you as I molded Adam from the mud.
I saw you wet from the womb.
And I loved you then.” Desmond Tutu
All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Julian of Norwich
Now it’s our turn… to walk into the fog as people of hope because of what we know is true.
We’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world. During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey. These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter. For these reasons, we pray, and pay attention—step by step.
These prayers, though, are also very provincial. They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family. We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).
High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep. Yes. This was round one.
We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assualt, in a different direction. We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in St. Louis. Bombing in Iraq? Ukraine? Syria? Fires still burning. Refugees. And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. My God. Is this the same world?
Yes. The same world indeed. What are we to make of the disparity between candlelit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?
My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see. I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price. There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment. The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a cost—vulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial. That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.
But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college. I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings; for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child; for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all, but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.
All I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering. Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened. Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasy—whether that takes the form of porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.
Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear. He knew, as Simone Weil also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our creator. “There’s a time for everything” as the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.
For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days. We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold. We pray, we’ll be safe. We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people. But, The Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us to cry out once again: “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.
“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. ” Rilke
In just a few short days, my wife and I will be off to Europe where we’ll trek through the Alps, fully expecting to find the fingerprints of God in both creations beauty and power, and in the fingerprints of history. Carl Muth’s faithfulness in obscurity is an example of the latter, and a reminder the big, loud, high profile stuff, isn’t necessarily the best. Obscurity has it’s privileges! ….
In the Bavarian countryside, during the days of WWII, there was a small house, surrounded by a flourishing garden. Carl Muth lived in this house. Born in the 2nd half of the 19th century, Muth became a leading Cahtolic theologian, publishing a journal of Catholic Existential Theology for many years, until the work was censored and ultimately shut down by Hitler.
Hans Scholl found his way to Muth’s tiny house, having heard of this man who was now living in relative obscurity as the war was unfolding. It was here, at Muth’s house that Hans found both a mentor, and the theological underpinnings to carry out the subversive work of the White Rose, work which would eventually cost Scholl his life, but whose ‘subversive’ literature would be air dropped across Germany by the Allies helping to free Germany from Hitler’s grip.
Two things stand out about Muth. The first is his relationship with a younger generation. We read, “Muth’s magic was not only his philosophical sweep of knowledge or his deep hatred for National Socialsim, but his youthful, amost playful snesne of ethical and metaphysical exploration. He not only listened to young people, he wanted to live and share their experiences.” I love his posture towards emergent generations, maybe because I identify with it. I don’t know why it is that to this day, I’m drawn to interact with, enjoy, and learn from, people in the late teens to early 30’s. For whatever reason, though, I’m grateful for the privilege of investing in the next generation. Muth did that by being not only teacher, but student, eager to learn from the thoughts and perspectives of those who are younger, even as they’re eager to learn from him.
The second quality I notice is his call to courage in the face of darkness. Again we read, “In a universe where all values have been shattered, where religions and histories and literatures and social structures have lost their meaning, man has to stand up again, accept his condition, accept that he is alone and has no protection, and proceed to create his own world, his own values, his own decisions, his own actions – and be willing at all times to pay the consequences.”
These are powerful words, calling people to stand courageously in a world adrift in every way. Hans and Sophie Scholl heeded Muth’s words and paid with their blood. Sophie took the words to heart, and every testimony said that she remained calm, steadfast, courageous to the very end. Hans shouted, “long live freedom” loud enough for his voice to be heard beyond the walls of his Munich prison, just before the blade fell, severing his head.
One of Sohpie’s last letters was sent to Carl Muth, expressing her deep gratitude for his friendship, and admiration for his life.
A man’s ministry of publishing and parish work is shut down and he’s left with nothing but tending his garden and getting by as he can. Then, a young man enters his home, his life, and soon his house is bursting with conversations and idea which would become part of the soil in which, in a world gone mad, sanity would once again be born.
In world where churches obsess about size, writers look for platform, and business and trying to capture market share, someone needs to shout, “FAME IS OVER-RATED!” at the top of their lungs.
Fame is over-rated. Muth isn’t exactly a household name, like Beyonce, or Russel Wilson. But his seeds of faithfulness, sown in obscurity, took root in the lives of a new generation, whose literature shook Germany and the world. They got martyrdom, and fame. But who was the man behind the curtrain? Carl Muth – quietly investing in a few young people who would shake the world. I think that’s the calling that belongs to all of us. I hope I can be that faithful.
Teach us Lord, to let go of our addiction to influence, knowing that in the end, it’s scope isn’t ours to create anyway. Rather, grant that we’ll be faithful to live well, serve faithfully, and love deeply, those people and endeavors you allow into our lives, and let us rest in that, rejoicing along the way in the simplicities of beauty, fellowship, and intimacy with you. Amen
It’s become fashionable to be socially just. The evening news covers protests about the horrifically evil kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls. We call each other to embody the gospel by breaking down walls of social division, and setting captives free, by working for environmental justice and empowering the poor and displaced. Clean water. End poverty now. Buy a shoe, give a show. There are buttons, campaigns, fundraisers, banquets. Come on. All the cool people are in.
It’s high time that the realities of suffering, racism, oppression, and ongoing injustice rose to the top of our collective consciousness. For much of her history, we who call ourselves “the church” have been guilty of either intentionally crossing to the other side of the road, so as to disengage from these pesky dark realities, or worse, we’ve spiritualized away the suffering by promising a greater afterlife in some bastardized version of karmic justice. Our passivity has misrepresented the essence of the gospel, and allowed ongoing exploitation of peoples and resources, resulting in mountains of suffering and loss for hundreds of generations. That these issues are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness in both our culture and many of our churches is a very good thing indeed.
And yet there are at least two lurking dangers in this justice revival:
1. Superficial Solutions inoculate. “I recycle and ride my bike to work on sunny days. I bought those cool shoes to help some poor kids. And last night I went to party where the tips at the bar went to a water project somewhere.” This kind of thinking becomes the equivalent of thinking we’re equipped to climb Mt. Rainier because we bought an ice axe. An ice axe is good, but it’s certainly not all you’ll need to get to the top. The sacrifices, discipline, change in priorities, and even change in world view that will be needed if we’re to be in any way a substantial part of the world’s solutions are for more profound than attending a few cool events and riding our bike to work. Take our call to justice seriously, and we’ll find ourselves, over time, become involved not only in deep personal lifestyle, but actively working to address systemic issues that are deeply embedded in our world. Paul the apostle called them “principalities and powers” because they’re animated by forces darker than single individuals.
Our fashionable protests, focused projects, and occasional forays into environmental stewardship or some other cause might do more harm than good if they create a resistance in us to the notion that we might be called to more. Jesus called people to this principle when he told the pharisees that they “tithed even their spices” but did so as substitute for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Of course, Jesus tells that crowd that they should have “done the latter without neglecting the former”, which is just another way of saying that an ice axe is vital, but you’ll need more than that to get to the top.
2. Spiritual Realities fade. What’s not to love about redemptive involvement in the pressing problems of our time in Jesus’ name? There are a few answers, but the most important one is simply that there are two great commandments and that they’re wed together like an ecosystem, each feeding off the other. Take one of them out of the equation and the other inevitably suffers. We made for love, plain and simple – made to love god and love our neighbor as our self. We’re in a season where love of neighbor is the rising star, and sometimes the light of one outshines the other. A little look back into history though, and we’re reminded of a time when it surely looked like people were loving God, at least if candles, hymns, preaching, and bible study were any indication. But of course they actually weren’t any indication. They were their own form of inoculation against more robust and truer faith, because in spite of it all, slavery was sanctioned, or racism, or colonialism. Praying and Bible reading convinced people they’d hit gold, but it was fools gold when it wasn’t coupled with the hard work of crossing social divides to love the neighbor. Bible reading mattered, and matters for some today too. It’s just that real transformation will drive us into real relationships in our broken world.
Today’s justice based t-shirts, shoes, water bottles, blogs, missions, non-profits are at risk of becoming the same form of 19th century pietism in reverse. Convinced we’re in the stream of God’s activity, we lost sight of our own need for transformation, healing, and freedom, so lost have we become in the consuming of justice symbols. Real longing for justice will do more than paint a sign or wear a bracelet. It will drive us to prayer, and brokenness, and mourning. And those things will drive us to intimacy with God.
Do you want whole faith instead of the 2%? Then you need to recognize the dangers on both sides of the ledge and go deep in your pursuit of intimacy with God, and justice in the world. That’s a journey worth taking, and it has a name: abundant life.
“They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” -Jeremiah 6:14
Dissociative disorder is defined as a “disruption or breakdown of memory, awareness, identity or perception.” It’s a common occurrence among war veterans, physical and sexual abuse victims, those growing up in family systems broken by deep addictions, and among victims of religious/spiritual abuse. The pain and trauma of the past or even the present is simply too much, so the person dissociates, meaning he or she moves into a different space, a safer space, by denying the painful realities of the present moment. By denying reality, pretending there is no pain, and getting lost in some form of alternate reality, we find a fantasy land which is in the short run less painful. But when the Disneyland we’ve created closes, we’re forced to face our pain again. Eventually, if we hope to live the sort of full life Jesus promised, we’ll need to face to truth of our pain, both personal and collective. Whether we do that, and how we do that, are perhaps two of the most important issues many of us will every face in our lives.
All of this, though, sounds very personal, a sort of clarion call to get therapy. Maybe, but recently I’m struck by the reality that there’s a broader collective application of this dissociative tendency and our collective need to face reality. Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia company (standard issue clothing at the church I lead) recently wrote, “I’m not optimistic at all. I’m a total pessimist. I’ve been around long enough, traveled around enough, and been around a lot of smart people to know that we’re losing. In every single category, we’re losing.”
Wow Yvon. Way to ruin my day. I want to get up in the morning, hop in my car and drive my 1.2 miles to work, put in my time contributing to the industrial machine that’s drawing down the earth’s resources, drive home, eat my food that was raised in the industrial agriculture machinery that’s stripping the precious topsoil from land and laced with growth hormones and pesticides. I’ll watch a little something on TV, endure a few ads reminding me either of my inadequacy if I’m prone to insecurity, or that the reality of my economic well being is predicated on other people buying crap they don’t need. Then I’ll fall asleep and wake up the next morning with an injection of caffeine and do it all again. I don’t want to be reminded of species extinction, or the fact that human trafficking and the oppression of women are at an all time high in the history of the world, or of the harsh realities in South Sudan and Syria, Ukraine and the oceans of pain on the streets less than two miles from my house – so I focus on my upcoming world cup brackets and Stanley Cup if I swing towards sport, or a new band if I don’t. After all, I’m not part of the problem. I pay my taxes. Vote. Stay sober. Read my Bible and go to church. Eventually the world will see the wisdom of the free market (or the socialist “single payer” solution if I think that way) and things will turn around. They always do.
I can live that way, but this is dissociative; a massive form of self-denial. With respect to things always turning around, the reality is that they “always don’t”, at least of the history of empires is any indication. Jeremiah’s mourning in the 6th century BC was not only over society’s condition; it was over the massive, intentional, and collective denial of society’s condition. If we take our cue from Alcoholics Annonymous we’ll recall the first condition of transformation is the admission that things aren’t just bad – they’re beyond fixing in the resources of our own strength. If it’s Bible you want (and I hope you do) the same thing is declared all over the place. The starting point of healing and transformation is staring the harshness of naked reality in the face.
At some point, it happens; it hits us hard. We can see that though the system might be working for us, it isn’t working. It isn’t sustainable. It’s isn’t life giving. It isn’t whole. We see it, it hits us, and we’re filled with both grief and a longing for things to be other than they are for our world. When we really see with clarity, and are willing to sit in the reality of what we see, we mourn. When we mourn and lament, we open the door to even clearer ways of seeing and then, of living. We re prioritize. We confess. We take a step towards wholeness; and then another; and then the steps become a journey; and the journey has a real joy in it, because it’s rooted in the truth and the truth, as painful and dark as it might be, will set you free.
There’s more. Those who are willing, like the prophets of old, to look beyond the superficial categories of personal well being and forgo the temporary anesthetics of culture long enough to feel the pain will become part of God’s grand and joy filled solution, and this will happen for three reasons:
I. Because we’ll think collectively
Our hyper individualized society makes it easy to dissociate ourselves from the sins of our parents, but we do this to our shame. When Israel returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls of the city, the dedication included a lengthy confession of the sins of the parents. This isn’t a blame game. It’s an acknowledgement that we’re shaped by our culture, by our family, or nation, or geography, and that there are scars because of it. Our insistence that all’s well, that Adam Smith is wiser than Chief Seattle, that our internment camps were necessary, and that racism is behind us are all just a massive forms of denial.
We’re terrified of becoming negative, depressing people, but the reality is that my willingness to own every piece of the story that has shaped me lays a foundation for redemption and my own transformation that would be impossible as long as I cling to denial.
II. Because we’ll make wiser choices
Seeing, owning, and naming the disastrous consequences of consumerism, nuclear proliferation, industrial agriculture, unrestricted free markets, commitment free sex, unrestricted access to abortion, will, if we allow ourselves to really see, change the way we live. It’s in the wake of this kind of mourning that take bold steps towards simplification, or hospitality, or eating less fast food, or maybe even making a bold vocational change. I’ve no illusions that these simple choices will change the overwhelming systemic problems. But I do believe that creatively imagining a better world, as we’re wired to do, and equipped to do by the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the prophets (see Micah 6:8 here) will move us into a more joy filled, life giving, and peaceful existence, making us part of God’s solution.
III. Because we’ll say Maranatha and mean it.
We who follow Christ have a grand hope and that has to do with the promise of his coming reign. Just as the prophets are saturated with the bad news in an attempt to shake us awake, they’re equally overflowing with hope, as they envision all tools of war melted down, and an end to suffering, injustice, environmental degradation, and disease. This kind of cosmic transformation won’t happen because I bring my own shopping bag to Trader Joe’s, even if I go there on my bike. Still, every chance I might have to live as a sign that there’s a different kingdom than the prevailing kingdom of consumerism and trivialities will testify to the hope I carry in Christ.
All of it begins, though, with an acknowledgement that all’s not right. So maybe join me in praying this Anishinabe prayer:
Grandfather; look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way. We know that we are the one who are divided and we are the ones who must come together to walk in the Sacred Way. Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor, that we may heal the earth, and heal each other. Amen
to which I’d only add: Marantha! Come quickly Jesus!
I took physics in college as an architecture student, and learned that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Likely true in the world of matter, but this week evangelicals managed to prove that Newton’s law bears no resemblance to realities when it comes to the ugly science of ecclesiology, which is ostensibly the study of the church, but often in reality is the study of how humanity has messed with the church by taking the beautiful mystery of Christ’s bride and body and adding it’s own sorry cocktail of arrogance, violence, indulgence, often baptized in God language and waiving the flag of Jesus. The results down through history have not been pretty. Papal power grabs. The thirty years war. Ugly admixtures of church and state. Crusades. Colonization and land grabs. Catholics hating on Martin Luther. Martin Luther hating on the Anabaptists of the radical reformation, and so it goes.
You’d think we’d maybe have learned something, and I still hope some of us have. But the responses surrounding this week’s World Vision declaration is a sorry reminder that we have o so very far to go before we show the world the character of Jesus through our collective organizations and institutions. For the three of you who are unaware, World Vision has decided to “hire gay Christians (who are) in same-sex marriages“. In an attempt to avoid an outpouring of vitriol at the hands of fellow Christians, and to clarify his position, Stearns said:
“It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support….We’re not caving to some kind of pressure. We’re not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us. This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church.”
This makes perfect sense and is in keeping with World Vision’s “non ruling” on other potentially divisive issues, such as baptism, divorce and remarriage, and the ordination of women. Their mission is to care for the poor of the world and to do so in Jesus name, and they ask their employees to subscribe to the historic faith articulated in the apostle’s creed. There are people who subscribe to the creed who land on both sides of numerous theological practices; pacifism and war, alcohol use, and all the issues listed above. World Vision has created a big tent, where Christ followers from different faith traditions can focus on their mission to serve the poor and vulnerable of the world, because Jesus does that.
If the action of declaring that WV will hire gay married Christians was tantamount to tossing a snowball, the reaction of the church at large has been nothing short of an avalanche; disproportionate, and filled with destructive power. Franklin Graham declares that “it’s obvious World Vision doesn’t believe the Bible”. WV can, in Graham’s mind, not have a position on any of the faith practice issues listed above, accepting into their fold the divorced, the indebted, the teetotalers and drinkers, those with patriarchal views and the egalitarianists, without any problem. But not having a position on this single issue suddenly makes them, in a sweeping condemnation, an organization that doesn’t believe the Bible. Denny Burke of the Southern Baptists tweets “Good bye World Vision”. Some pastors are encouraging their congregants to cancel child sponsorships in protest. Boom! An avalanche of protest is directed at WV right now, reminiscent of the hundreds of other notable doctrine wars among Christians that make us look more like fighting political parties than Jesus. Meanwhile, the words of Jesus about us being known by our love for one another and our unity recede to the background as, somehow, we collectively show the world that its more important to argue, accuse, and boycott, than serve.
The point I’d like to make isn’t about gay marriage. It’s about how we treat each other as Christ followers. And here’s what we might consider:
I. We all have convictions – and we’re all Learning
We pastors need to make rulings on things like divorce and remarriage, and whether or not women can be pastors, and whether or not we should offer sanction to a same sex wedding by performing it. We who lead in churches might not even want to land on certain positions, but we don’t have that luxury. Either woman can be pastors or they can’t in some given setting. This forces us to shape our convictions on various issues, and as a result, we hold those convictions, and uphold those convictions.
And yet, I don’t think I’m the only one who has changed my view on this or that ethical issue over the years. My changes have come through careful study, prayerful consideration, conversation, and consideration of an issue within the larger context of a faith community. The fact that I’ve changed on this, and not on that, means that my understanding of my faith is continuing to grow, even while I live out my convictions.
I need convictions, and the courage to uphold them. But I also need the humility to recognize that, though I have good reasons for my convictions, there are people on the other side of an issue who also have good reasons for their convictions. They serve in a different part of Christ’s body, where they have the freedom to live out their convictions, even as I have freedom to live out mine.
There should be a way, though, to express our differences without the indicting weight of accusation dividing Christ followers again and again. World Vision isn’t even saying they have a position on the issue of gay marriage, which is their prerogative since they don’t do weddings (though I, as a pastor, don’t have that same prerogative). In spite of this, the word rolls out, from other faith organizations, that WV “no longer believes the Bible”.
It’s one thing to say, “I disagree with you on this single issue… and here’s why.” It’s another to hold up your single issue as evidence that you’re a heretic and that you don’t believe anything the Bible has to say. WOW! I thought we were beyond that.
II. Because we’re all learning – we should dialogue
The Bible talks about iron sharpening iron, and it’s a metaphor of the healthy friction of disagreement which, in its best iterations will lead to greater fellowship and eventually, more clarity with respect to matters of faith and practice. This can only happen in an environment where we drop our accusatory tone and verbal weapons, instead beginning with the notion that this other with whom we are speaking loves Christ as we do, in spite of our differences on a particular issue. When this happens, we’re challenged, frustrated, enlightened, and even if we don’t change our view a single inch, informed.
The early church wrestled with all kinds of issues and Paul seemed to indicate that there would be room for disagreement on some things without calling another’s faith into question, or worse, presuming that the other has lost his/her faith completely. There’s an example here, and another here. In both instances, Paul calls for grace and love to rule the day. Of course, it’s equally true that the early church came into clarity on various ethical issues and drew a line in the sand. You don’t sleep with your step-mom, for example, and expect the church to be OK with it. You don’t treat sex as just another appetite, like food. That misrepresents sexuality utterly. But holding slaves? Letting woman speak in church? Allowing a divorced and remarried person to serve in the church? Whether the earth is six thousand years old or 14 billion year old? Can you at least see that, in all these cases, there are two views – and people on both sides believe in the resurrection and in Jesus as the way, truth, and life. This should create an environment of robust and healthy dialogue, but our insecurities and combative natures creep in instead, creating embarrassing discord.
We’d do well to repent, collectively, for this kind of arrogant divisiveness.
III. Because we’re all learning – both sides need to offer grace
I’m so very tired of hearing from the left that those who won’t perform same sex weddings are bigots and haters, tantamount to abusive slave owners of the 19th century. Can you grant the possibility that they’re trying to be faithful to revealed scripture, even if you don’t agree with their conclusions? I’m equally tired of the right presuming that all who have said yes to same sex unions aren’t just making what they view is a misinformed decision on a single issue. They are utter heretics. Can you not grant that they too might be rooted in a desire to be faithful to what God’s revealed even if you don’t agree with them?
The early churches in Corinth and Galatia couldn’t be more different than each other. Gentile vs. Jewish. Cosmopolitan vs. somewhat provincial. Liberal vs. Legalistic. Both needed correction. Both missed the mark. Both received corrective words from Paul. But what’s most striking to me is that Paul asked the liberal, cosmopolitan, Gentile Corinthians to take an offering for the legalistic provincial Galatian church. Instead of tweeting “good bye Corinth” Paul begged them to share fellowship, because after all, they loved the same Jesus, worshiped the same God.
Instead, today people are cancelling sponsorships to World Vision because of their “non ruling” on gay marriage. A snowball gets buried by an avalanche.
If you simply must know my view on gay marriage, I’ve written about it elsewhere, but as I said at the outset, this isn’t a post about homosexuality; it’s about how we’re killing each other and our testimony through our inability to love each and disagree charitably. I stopped writing about homosexuality because my words were taken out of context and the comments people offered were so hateful that made me sick.
I believe there’s one right view on every ethical issue – God’s view, not mine.
In the meantime, until I know everything perfectly, I’ll preach Christ, live out the convictions I have, and seek to disagree charitably with those whose view is different than mine. And, because my sponsored child in Albania just wants to keep going to school so she can move out of poverty, I’ll keep sponsoring her.
The first words out of Abraham’s mouth that are recorded in the Bible are spoken to his wife, when he says, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’ and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please tell them that you are my sister that it may go well with me, and that I may live on account of you.”
And so begins a mini drama where Abraham’s wife is taken by force because of her beauty and offered to the harem of the highest leader in the land. It’s an amazing story, and I don’t want to give everything away, because I’ll be preaching on it this coming Sunday here. One thing worth pondering during the middle of the week, though, is our often shallow, thoughtless, and critical judgement of Abraham, as we gaze down on his fear based decision, convinced that, “we’d do better”. Maybe you don’t think that way, but I have in the past, and still do sometimes. But let’s look a little closer…
That he was in a tough spot is beyond a doubt. What I often hear though, is that Abraham was faithless, and that he ought to have trusted God to protect him. That’s (for some, perhaps) easy for us to say, 4000 years later, in the midst of seminaries, Bible teachers, stories of God’s faithfulness down through the ages, and the fact that it isn’t really our problem. It’s just that sort of dismissive self-righteousness, that sense of “I’d never do that”, which stunts our growth, often creating an arrogant and ugly misrepresentation of our faith. So let’s just pause for moment and consider that, of the many reasons Abraham might have doubted God, there’s at least one worth talking about precisely because we still doubt God for the same reason:
Remember that when Jehovah spoke to Abraham, the notion of a single God to “rule them all” so to speak, was unheard of. The prevailing world view was that gods were territorial, and that if you were the god of Canaan, you had power only in Canaan, like being the local sheriff in a small town. You had power, but only to the boundaries. After that, there were other gods, and the stories of nation indicated that the gods had learned to steer clear of each other.
When God called Abraham, there are only subtle hints that anything will change. God tells Abraham that in him (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed, which is a cryptic way of saying something, but not clear enough for Abraham to divine that, while in Egypt this new God of his would be his protectorate there too.
Add to this the fact that Abraham traveled south to Egypt in defiance of God’s explicit command, and you realize that, even if he believed the new God would protect, the fact that Abe went out ‘on his own’ would create questions in his mind about whether God would get him out of the jam. The net result of this kind of thinking? Abe felt that, down there, in Egypt, he was on his own.
“Silly Abraham” we say, as we put down our devotional reading (if we even have such a thing on those “other days” – you know, during the busy M-F routine). Then we’re online, checking the market. Our bottom line of course, is ROI (return on investment). We don’t believe in social venture funds because they’re “fraught with complexities” and rarely do as well as standard investment. So our money’s distributed among the fortune 500 and the S&P index. It’s sad that some of these companies are outsourcing to places where labor practices and environmental standards aren’t so stringent, but that’s the market, and we need to be “good stewards”. God language? Yes… but most if it comes from a different god than Jehovah.
Later tonight we’ll go out on a date, fully believing that the notion of virginity is an archaic throwback to earlier days because Dan Savage, Sex at Dawn, Sex in the City, and car commercials remind us that sex is for pleasure. That’s it’s meaning. Period. The culture preaching this has a beautiful man, made mostly but not entirely, of straw, that they easily topple, as they point out how many people have been damaged by shame inducing, body demeaning preaching that demands chastity or hell as the only options. It’s convenient for the culture to have this mostly straw man, but creates a false dichotomy between the gods of pleasure and suffering in a shame filled hell for daring to enjoy your body as the only two option. The beauty, eroticism, and intense sexual pleasure found within the walls of covenant relationships isn’t really elevated as a realistic option. Ironically, that’s the very first thing God tried to teach Abraham. It seems we haven’t learned it yet.
That’s because we too often also believe that God’s are territorial – not geographically, but ideologically. There’s one God for the my spirit, another for my money, another for my sexuality, another for my patriotism. But when we move into the land of economics, or (historically at the least, if not today too) colonialism, violence, slavery, nationalism, environmental stewardship, or the primacy of the individual over the community, we’re sort of singing the song of Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is.” As a result, Indians were given blankest infected with smallpox by Christian settlers. Slavery was not just sanctioned – it was exalted as sound doctrine from the Bible. These things happened because people failed to let God’s reign bleed into those areas of their lives.
Please don’t miss the point because of the illustration. I’m not telling you which stock to buy, or not buy. I’m suggesting God reigns over economic matters, and sexual matters, eating choices, body care, and whether community is more important than individualism. We should try to let God be God all week long.
Like Abraham, we function “on our own” outside of the small private realm where Jesus talks about justification by faith. Maybe it’s time we recognized the reality of Ephesians 1:10-11, which is that Jesus wants the glory of God to saturate every atom of the universe. Only then will infinite joy and pleasure, perfect justice and peace, reign!
Let Jesus go beyond the boundaries of Sunday in 2014 and get ready for a grand adventure. Who’s in?
I glance at my watch. 15:50. I shut my computer, toss on some shoes and a jacket, and am out the door because so far, all week, I’ve missed the sunsets over the lake. It’s about a half mile down to the park on the waterfront and when I arrive, the suns maybe 15 minutes from dipping below the Alps as it moves west, just now greetings my friends in Seattle as first light of a new day.
The views are stunning. Swans, ducks, geese, and a sky painted gloriously by the interplay of ever changing light and clouds make for spectacular, memorable artistry. But I’m equally intrigued by the people all around me. Over there a German couple holding hands, whose grandparents would have war stories to tell. There’s a man walking, slowly, who looks to be over 70. He would have been a child when this beautiful city was so heavily bombed in WWII. Today, this little plot of soil is a place of peace and beauty, a photo op for sunsets and, on a clear day, a stunning view of the Alps. A place for wind surfing.
But of course it wasn’t always so. I wonder what thoughts must have unfolded in the minds of people on this beach 70 years ago as they looked across the water to the mountains of Switzerland? Those dark days in Germany’s history were preceded by other dark days in the 1920’s and 30’s, days of want and deprivation. It was into that vortex of economic crisis that a leader rose up promising brighter days, a leader whose power and darkness would enshroud all of Europe in a dark cloud for a season.
During the those days, I wonder how many stood here and looked across the Alps, longing to be free from the scourge of war, and loss, and genocide? Getting there wasn’t possible, even though it was visible, just over there, just beyond reach. The darkness of war, the scourge and brutality of evil rulers – all of it was on full display then. But now there’s peace, and beauty, and couples holding hands.
What I find remarkable are the ways in which Germany has flowered these past 70 years after her defeat. The first Chancellor of Germany after the war put structures in place to assure less blind nationalism, less violence, and significantly, more economic equity. The “social market economy” was born at this time, and this article explains that it… “led to the eventual development of the Social Market Economy as a viable socio-political and economic alternative between the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and the collectivist planned economy not as a compromise, but as a combination of seemingly conflicting objectives namely greater state provision for social security and the preservation of individual freedom” The country is by no means perfect, but make no mistake – this nation that was so humbled throughout the first half of the last century learned from their mistakes and, to this day, display a marvelous blend of discipline and charity that comes about through hard work, thrift, and a collective commitment to the well being of everyone, evidenced in social services and taxation that would rile the sensibilities of the American political right. Even now, they, the most successful economy in all of Europe, continue to call their overspending European counterparts to both raise taxes and cut spending – a strategy that, while perfectly reasonable, offends both the American left and right.
I think about the transformation of Rwanda that’s occurred in the wake of the genocide. The transformation of Iceland in the wake of their own economic meltdown. The changed lives of friends who’ve been stricken with cancer and recovered with an entirely different set of priorities, or of those who finally stood up and said, “I’m an alcoholic” who have been to depths and back, raised up to a fuller life than ever before.
As I look around this peaceful setting, I realize that the glory of the gospel, and the glory of God’s goodness in the world is that beauty can come right out the ash heap of our own arrogance and failure; that if we’re willing to learn from them, the mistakes of our past can make us wiser, more beautiful, more generous, and more fruitful than ever we’d have been had we remained prim, and proper – looking good outwardly, but in reality filled with our own foolish presumptions and self-aggrandized priorities. This, of course, requires humility, and therein lies the problem.
To fix social or personal ailments always demands beginning with the notion that we are, at the least, part of the problem. Our choices, our history, our values – something’s broken. When was the last time you heard the Tea Party admit that they’re part of the problem, or BP, or Monsanto, or the Democrats. All I hear is blame, and the notion that the problem is wholly over there in “those greedy idiots” is, itself, the biggest problem of all. We can all see the flaws in the other’s ideas and policies with 2020 clarity. It’s the log in our own eye, we can’t seem to handle. And logs in eyes aren’t very good things to have when you’re in the drivers seat. That’s why I’m praying for humility… at any price… for me, and all the rest of us too in the developed world.
It’s been a week. In the normally limp and newsless lazy days of late August, our senses have been assaulted by horrific images, at home and abroad. We’ve learned that the Syrian government is exterminating their own people, and that options of intervention run the risk of a full scale attack of Israel, an event which puts the middle east, and hence the world, in a heightened state of vulnerability – more ready to burst into flames than a California forest.
Meanwhile, our pop culture offers one of it’s stars at a music awards show and we’re struck with the realization that nobility, inspiration, edification, and real beauty are all lying on the ash heap of a previous era. In their place, we’re offered objectified and sexualized bodies, bawdy lyrics, and the stark realization that our cultural “elite” have played their hand, declaring that this is, and will be, the new lower norm. CNN’s elevation of the event to front and center news is newsworthy in its own right because the huge spike in readership for this “news” over any real news reveals the depths of depravity (yes, it’s an Onion article, because truth is sometimes best told through satire) to which our collective culture is rapidly sinking.
It’s tempting to respond to all of it by turning off all media and withdrawing to a cave, or a fundamentalist church that’s working on personal purity and self-fulfillment while waiting for Jesus to come fix it all. Nope: that’s a false hope leading to disengagement and private faith. It’s tempting too, to mobilize, aligning ourselves with campaigns to reign in the crass media, and make sure our military, and Israel’s are both strong enough, not only to win the impending wars, which could be massive, but also the wars that will happen AFTER the wars are won, because God only knows who will fill the power vacuum in a new Syria. It will become Egypt 2.0, only worse. Nope: that’s false anger, leading to public rage, and more fear based responses.
How about this instead?
Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the anciengt paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ – Jeremiah 6:16
What are these ancient paths that will enabling us to know peace, beauty, hope, in the midst of the meltdown?
1. They are paths that take intimacy with God seriously. Jeremiah lived in similar days, when people couldn’t look outside or inside without getting depressed or overwhelmed. When all hell breaks loose, whether personally, culturally, or globally, it will be good to already have habits that take intimacy with God seriously. This was Jeremiah’s point in my favorite Bible verse, found here. He said that no other pursuit is worthy of “boasting”, which is a way of saying that nobody really cares about the car you drive, or the mountains you’ve climbed (corporate or literal), and neither, in the end, should you. Your real joy, real meaning, ultimately should have intimacy with God at its foundation. He’s the one who, as Jeremiah says, “practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth…” Make knowing God a priority, and God’s priorities become yours. You’re called, in the midst of all this insanity, to look like Jesus, and you will, as a by product of making intimacy with God your main priority. We won’t always have economic prosperity, national greatness, physical strength – but we’ll always have our relationship with God – right up to our dying breath, and beyond.
Knowing God means looking for revelation from God everywhere, as I’ll write about later next week. But to begin with, everyone needs a lens through which to look at everything differently. Acquiring this lens comes by making a habit of listening for God’s voice in a daily encounter. If you need help with that, let me suggest this resource, or this one, or this one.
I rise early, make my coffee, open my bible, sit in the forest, receive God’s revelation, pray a bit – and get on with my day. Over time, I’m gaining a perspective on reality that’s different, more hopeful, less fearful. I wish the same for you!
2. It’s a path that looks around and does something. It’s easy, when the bottom drops out, to allow our concerns to shrink until our concerns become nothing more than our personal peace and safety. Jeremiah, though, writing to people in the midst of a world (and culture) gone mad, writes: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
This is Jeremiah’s way of saying that hand wringing, and moaning, whining and withdrawing into our Christian ghettos to talk about how the world’s all “gone to hell”, or spinning conspiracy theories about birth certificates or NSA wire tappings or whatever it is that Limbaugh’s saying today isn’t, in any way, the Christian life. Rather, the Christian life means being the presence of Jesus, right where you are, which means:
Giving stuff away, throwing a party for the neighbors, visiting someone in the hospital, spending time with children, mentoring a young mom, or young teen, serving in a homeless shelter, planting a garden, making beautiful music or art or great coffee, visiting someone who’s lonely, spending quality time with your grown children, or o so much more.
The days ahead don’t look very bright from my chair. Years ago, though, I read this about that:
Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
Good idea… I think I will.