Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life (and) learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Jesus the Christ – Matthew 11
I’m sitting here on my weekly day of Sabbath, staring out the window at fir trees laden with wet, dripping life down onto the soil and melting snow below. There are candles; a fire in the wood stove and choral Christmas carols fill the room. Warmth. Good coffee. Beauty. Shalom.
I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t it be good to sit here bathed in this kind of peace and beauty the rest of my life?” until I remember Jesus’ words a little bit later, after that bit about the “unforced rhythms of grace.” Jesus had taken the disciples on a little wilderness therapy outing, up to a high mountain where he transcended earthly dimensions and his disciples were able to see him in his pure unfiltered glory.
Jesus’ friend Peter likes this location, this revelation of glory, this peace, this mountaintop, enough to blurt out, “It’s good for us to be here Jesus, so just say the word, and we’ll start building. We’ll make some places for you and your buddies, and then we can just stay up here—because to be blunt, I don’t know if you know this or not Jesus, but we like this peace, this beauty, this joy. Preferred future: staying right here!”
The version of the story is that Jesus goes down. The disciples follow. Shortly after that there’ll be the week from hell, where Jesus goes from universal popularity to the whole world’s object of pure hatred scorn. He’ll be executed. The disciples will scatter, and wrestle with their doubts, disillusionment, and fallibility.
After that there’ll be a resurrection and things will get better. Later still, a powerful success. Then some arrests, and fighting, and martyrdom, with success and joy mysteriously interwoven into the thick fabric of trials.
Success. Joy. Peace.
Failure. Loss. Suffering.
The rhythms of unforced grace.
Embrace the reality that a life with Christ will overflow with everything, and by everything I mean there are times we’ll be drunk on joy and other times sorrow and suffering will take our breath away. We’ll have Sabbaths, if we’re fortunate, and days of laughter and beauty in the forest, or at the beach, and meals with good wine and laughter.
But we can’t stay on that mountaintop because there’s poverty, and homelessness, abuse of power and abuse of spouses. There are a million children who are refugees, and people of great wealth who have the freedom to travel the world, but are trapped in a prison of upward mobility. Beheadings. Injustice. Racism. Cancer. Ebola.
We need to get down off the mountain and into the thickness of this dark world. It’s not just that we’re called to be there as light, though God knows we are, and it feels more and more like high crime to me when the church becomes a gathering whose sole goal is the emotional and spiritual well-being of its congregants. The reality is that we need to get down off the mountain because nobody is ever shaped well by pure sabbath and shalom, not in this life at least. “The testing of your faith produces endurance,” is how James writes it, and Peter says, “Even though now, for a little while, you’re beset by various trials…” and Jesus himself says, “In this world you will have tribulation.”
All this stuff down there below the summit is shaping us for the better, or can at least. That’s because in the wisdom of the way God has created the world, it’s not just the beauty and rest that brings healing and transformation, but the suffering and loss too. The enemy of our souls can throw everything at us, but our glorious hope is that no matter the stuff, though we may have scars, even the scars will become part of the beauty in our lives.
How do we open ourselves up to both deep beauty and deep suffering?
1. Actively seek both engagement and withdrawal. Jesus is a good model for us here, as you’ll find him alone in the wilderness a fair bit, as well as in the thick of things in the city, confronting religious hypocrisy and control, casting out demons, gifting people with forgiveness, healing, restoration, and teaching too.
This rhythm is best sought by paying attention to the way God made the world, with that day of rest each week, and that continual rhythm of sunrise and sunset inviting us to both work and rest. You need all of it if you’re going to be fully in God’s story, and continuing your journey of transformation.
2. Don’t shy away from the edges. A favorite book of mine posits that if you’re afraid of great suffering and as a result, build walls around your soul so you don’t see beheadings, don’t give a damn about ongoing racism, poverty, or a million child refugees, you’ll also become numb to great joy on the other side of the spectrum. The result will be a bland middle, whereby we not only don’t let the news of our city and world affect us, but we also fail to pay attention to the profound beauty of art, music, and creation that could have filled us with the confidence and strength of Christ to continue shining as light in the midst of darkness.
Don’t let yourself settle for the middle—unmoved by Van Gogh, or Rainier, or human touch—resistant to hard or painful truth and conversations; avoiding solidarity with the suffering of our planet. The middle ground knows little suffering and little beauty. The boredom, though, is soul killing.
Better to be on the lookout, always, for the inbreaking of beauty, whether art, music, generosity, creation’s glory, or intimacy. To go there, though, requires a willingness, too, to come down off the mountain and enter into the thick of suffering, loss, sickness, death, injustice, and hard conversations.
Rainer Rilke puts it this way:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
All right then – let’s go.
It’s Advent, and that means there are daily reports on the success of our national goal to “shop ’til we drop”. Black Friday’s off a bit from previous years, and the experts declared over the weekend that it was because more people would be shopping online, on “Cyber Monday”. That also came and went, with less than expected results, and so now new theories are being spun, about people waiting for “super deals” closer to Christmas. Whatever. I no longer care—because as a pastor, I have bigger concerns.
That’s because I live in a different world. I live in a world where I know more and more people who are coming out of closet; they’re gay, Christian, and wanting to find the grace and acceptance of Christ in their churches. I live in a world where black people love Jesus but also feel on the outside of things, not because of Ferguson, but because 400 years is a long time to be sub-humanized, bought and sold, denied the chance to vote, and o so much more, and they’re a bit tired of white people just telling them to “get over it” while the distrust continues. I live in a world where women who have gifts of teaching and leadership can use them in lots of places, but still not in some churches. I live in a world where people I know are deeply divided on how the church should respond to all kinds of things, including mental illness, poverty, and gun violence.
In all these matters, the church is divided, but not just divided, deeply fractured, as evidenced by blogs and discussions this past week about Ferguson, World Vision’s challenges earlier this year, and the inflamed language associated with any attempt at a good conversation around the issues of gun violence.
It’s this deeply divided faith world, with its attendant hateful, sarcastic, and derogatory language aimed at the other side, that’s the biggest issue on my plate these days. This is because I serve in a church that has sought to live faithfully for many generations on the basis of this declaration: In Essentials Unity. In Non-Essentials Liberty. In all Things Charity.
Finding unity seems harder and harder these days, because the list of essentials seems to be growing for most people. Real people of faith need to be for gun control or against it; for same-sex marriage, or against it; for the police, or for Michael Brown. And its vital these days that you not just be FOR or AGAINST —but that do so with enough dogma that the true faith of those on the other side is called into question.
This is not only rubbish, but really very alarming to me for several reasons:
1. Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 4:13 says we’ll keep growing “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” which implies (as reinforced here) that we’re not in a state of unity yet. What’s more, that’s apparently OK, because Paul indicated that in this moment, we see through a glass darkly. That means we don’t have perfect knowledge yet, so we’ll need to keep at this; keep dialoguing, growing, learning, praying.
2. Our division into self-referential communities kills our testimony because Jesus says that it’s our unity that is the best evidence that our faith and life in Christ is real. There’s a unity that comes from uniformity of agreement on ALL things, but this is, at best, an ideal to which we aspire, rather than an experience we’ll be able to attain in this fallen world. But there can be a unity that’s willing to say, “Look. We don’t know all the answers about every doctrinal or ethical issue that comes from following Christ. But we do know this much: Jesus is Lord. He’s the hope for this shattered world. He’s the One we’re committed to proclaiming, loving, obeying, and serving.” Living through this lens, World Vision phone workers wouldn’t have been sworn at and been the objects of cruel hate in the wake of their initial decision last spring.
3. Our self-referential communities allow us to prematurely think we have the moral high ground because, in our smaller worlds of Fox News, or MSNBC, or whatever is the denominational equivalent, we’re in an echo chamber where all our reasoning, assumptions, and conclusions are airtight. As long as we stay inside the echo chamber, we’ll be happy, resting in the delusion that our way is, and always will be, the right way.
How can we approach unity?
1. Get out more – meet people different than you. (By the way, one of the very best reasons to travel.)
Our view of things is all good until we actually meet a person with a different view who, just like us, loves Jesus, prays regularly, and desires nothing more than to be a vessel filled with the life of Christ.
Suddenly, we’ve meet the ones we vilified, and have come to see that we have more in common than we’d ever have guessed. We see that we’d made a caricature of those whose view is different than ours, and that “the other,” looking at the world through a different lens, differs with us for reasons that (gasp) make sense. We’re not persuaded, necessarily, to change our view, but having met the other, we find it harder to label them and shoot them.
2. Embrace the humble belief that you’re not yet perfect.
It’s not that we don’t believe in absolute truth. It’s just that we don’t believe that we’ve yet understood it perfectly, communicated it perfectly, received it perfectly, because our understanding of the world is filtered through the lens of not only the Holy Spirit, but our fallen humanity.
A quick view of history reveals that there have been about a thousand blind spots among Christ followers. We’ve wrongly predicted the date of Christ’s return at least 500 times, taught that blacks aren’t human, justified land theft and colonization, barred women from having a voice in the church, taught anti-semitism, persecuted Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Anabaptists, all in Jesus’ name.
I wonder what our blind spots our today? If you say you don’t have any, then I already know your blind spot, before even meeting you: it’s pride and self-righteousness. So let’s relax and enjoy the dialogue, giving each other space to let Christ continue to teach us without doubting the authentic faith of the other who claims Christ as her own.
“Really? How long should we do that….?”
Last night’s American election has birthed both elation and despondency, respectively, among those who care deeply about such things. I care too, and if I were a political pundit I’d have much to say about hopes and fears for our country in the wake of what happened last night, but I’m not. I’m a pastor who is increasingly concerned with the consumerist mindset prevailing in American Christianity, and write in hopes that we who lead churches might learn how NOT to lead by considering how politics is done in America.
The sad truth is that, even by their own admission, politicians and the machinery that work so hard to get them elected, had no interest in changing minds during this last election cycle. Both parties messaged to their core constituency in hopes that their vilification of the ‘other’ would motivate people to get out and vote.
Everyone was, in other words, ‘preaching to the choir’. This is the way everything’s done these days. If you have a blog, I’m told the only way you’ll increase readership is to target an audience: minimalists, leftists, pro-lifers, moms, gun owners, environmentalists, whatever. It works of course, or else people wouldn’t do it. The same strategy works for politicians and TV news stations: Fox and MSNBC live and breathe (remember, they’re not just corporations, they’re people), not by inviting civil discourse but by pouring gas on already existing fires. They’re great at reinforcing what people already believe, and adding more “like-minded” to their folds. How does this strategy work, though, when it comes to changing minds? It doesn’t.
What makes my blood boil is when churches adopt this same mindset. “Who are we going after?” is the question, and then everything is customized exclusively for that demographic: music, lights, teaching content, teaching style, program—it’s all designed to reach a demographic. The tragedy is that if you’re good at it, it works, and if it works, I think you’ve done more harm than good.
Fine, you’ve built an organization of like-minded people. But let’s not point to such success as evidence of God’s blessing, because it’s the same strategy used by the pig lady in Iowa and The Huffington Post. Gathering a group of people who think just like you, reinforcing their beliefs, and encouraging them to invite others into their ideological ghetto might work if success is defined by building an organization. But that’s not the same thing as leading a church.
A core value of the church is that “the dividing wall has been broken down”—between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females. This community, in other words, will be bound together by shared life in Christ and nothing else—including one’s politics, music style. I’m convinced that none of us have yet understood the depths of Christ’s radical inclusiveness, and while there are many reasons for this, one of the most common reason is that “leading like politicians” is easier than “leading like Jesus”. Easier… just not better, and in the end, not real church leadership at all.
The Better Way –
Rather than tailoring our music, message, and ethos to a pre-selected demographic, and going after them, Christ offers a better and more challenging way:
1. Cross social divides rather than reinforce them. As a preacher and teacher, I want to share truth in a way that moves people. This requires both a willingness to let the unpersuaded leave, and a commitment to declaring truth in winsome way that’s uniquely contextualized, as Paul did (changing his message depending on his audience so that he might move every single audience toward Christ—see I Corinthians 9:20ff for more of this).
In other words, and this is huge, we don’t exist to reinforce beliefs as much as to challenge them. That’s utterly different than “building a platform”, though a platform might well be built in the process. But the size of said ‘platform’ is God’s prerogative not mine, and is never cause for boasting.
2. Communicate the breadth of the gospel’s implications, recognizing that doing so will both invite, bless, challenge, and offend, every demographic—rich, poor, left, right, young, old—everyone. This is because the trajectory of history points in the direction of creating something wholly new, rather than something which reinforces our pre-existing conditions and convictions. We’re not in a bunker protecting what we already believe, we’re gathering and sharing life together in an ongoing pursuit of transformation. That’s, at least, the way it ought to be.
When we do this, some people will leave, because we’ll speak about the environment and it will anger the right. We’ll speak about protecting life in the womb, and it will anger the left. We’ll speak about how important the family is as a central source of justice and hope in this world and it will anger the left again. We’ll speak about the dangers of “shopping as patriotism” and the evils that arise in unfettered capitalism and the right will be mad again. Whatever. The gospel isn’t bound by our “pre-existing conditions” and we need to be willing to be challenged, and to challenge our communities. Otherwise, just go into politics. You’ll find a group of like-minded people who will elect you.
3. Recognize how damning the “us/them” language and mindset is. Yes, the very language that works so successfully in getting people elected, is the same language that is polarizing our nation, and creating subcultures within the broader culture who hate each other. When the church does this, it just creates more ghettos of fear-based, like-minded people, alone together in their bunkers, afraid of, and mad at, those on the outside. Such leadership happens all the time in the church, and I suppose all of us are guilty of it to varying degrees. But at the least, we need a vision that begins with admitting how wrong this is.
Dear Pastors and Churches: Don’t play the games that prevail among the talking heads and strategists seeking power and market share. You’ll miss your calling. Instead, determine to know nothing and proclaim nothing, other than Christ, and recognize that the true Christ will challenge entrenched views, deconstruct false idols and move everyone towards transformation—even you, dear leader—and I hope, especially you.
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
“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 wake up this morning in Colorado and, as is typical, make my coffee and then go to my ipad where I catch up on the news before reading my Bible. It’s just getting light as I scan the news, the craziness that is Ukraine. Last night on the newshour, a professor of Russian studies said, “even if you’re not religious, you should be praying, because if this becomes war, all bets are off.” Toss in some stuff about Syrian refugees, and I’m mindful that our world is filled with suffering, and though the cup seems overflowing already, still there’s more pouring in, moment by moment, as lives are plunged into war, hunger, poverty, trafficking, disease.
I read my scriptures for the day, something about nations and kingdoms fighting against each other, and food shortages, and epidemics. It’s a reality, of course, as the news a few seconds earlier corresponds with Jesus’ timely words.
Then I turn around, and there’s a sunrise happening that can’t be described, because it’s not just the colors: it’s the cold, it’s the clarity of the air, it’s the silence, it’s the raw beauty, and significantly, it’s the fact that I am here – in this place, and not there, and any of those places I’ve read about this morning. I’m awestruck, but conflicted at the same time.
“Why am I here” is the question that haunts me, and at many levels there’s no answer. There are responses though, and some of them aren’t helpful.
Guilt isn’t helpful. We’re here, in wealth and, relative to most of the world, peace and safety. There are hard working, honest people throughout the world who are victims of oppression and injustice, so the causal sense that we’re here instead of there because we’re better must be evicted from our thoughts. Equally wrong, though, is a sense of paralyzing guilt, a sense that we, for some reason ought to be there and not here.
Fear isn’t helpful. Our collective narcissism is evident when the questions and comments of journalists extend no further than how the events over there affect our “self interest here” It can be strangely dis empowering to watch various parts of the world collapse around us, filling us with anxiety about whether we’ll be next, and how we should arm ourselves for protection. But no, over and over again, Jesus tells us that he’s warned us about these things precisely so that we ‘will not fear’, which is the message that heralded Christ’s birth, and rings throughout his ministry for our benefit and well being. We need to give fear a swift quick.
Isolation isn’t helpful. “Not my problem” we see, as we change the channel to some rerun, or go out for a run, or pour another glass of Merlot. It’s far too easy to believe that the stuff that over there is outside the sphere of our influence and should therefore be outside the sphere of our concern. This, as we’ll see, misses that mark. I’m surprised at how many people no longer digest the news because it’s simply “too depressing”.
To the extent that we allow these mindsets to carry the day, our worlds will shrink down into petty preoccupations with our own personal survival, or crippling depression and anxiety. One need only read the Bonhoeffer story or this favorite diary read from WWII to realize how tempting these options are. Gratefully, there’s a better way:
Instead of guilt, gratitude. Every sip of cold water, every good night kiss, every moment of this very precious life. It’s vital to recognize that our culture is well beyond the boundaries of comfort, having become guilty of lavish excess, and surely guilty of increasing injustice too. Gratitude though, is for the fact that there no bombs on the roadside, that people gather in public places to express their views, mostly without fear of reprisal, that there’s food on the table and the possibility of friendship, love, education. It’s far from perfect, but there’s much for which we can be grateful. This is a starting point to living here well.
Instead of fear, hope. It might sound shallow and cheap to offer hope from the scriptures for those living and dying in the midst of suffering, but what other hope is there? Nations will rise and fall. Justice will ebb and flow. People will die in the crossfire, and the friendly fire, and the forest fire. And those of us who escape these ravages? We’ll die too, and it will always be inconvenient, and seem wrong.
This tired script, though, is coming to and end. History is headed towards a new script, where every molecule is shot through with the glory of King Jesus. You know, the one who loved lepers, and women of the night, who told stories that hinted his kingdom would be utterly other – a place where the lame, blind, oppressed, broken, would not only find healing, but a place at the table with the king – a place where all war, and cancer, and rape, and genocide, and AIDS, and tribal divisions will vanish in the flames of a just judgement, leaving nothing but healing and joy in its wake. MARANATHA… it can’t come soon enough.
But until it does, it’s our calling to live as people of hope. If the sun’s not yet fully up, we are, nonetheless, called to be the Colors of Hope – the sunrise foretelling a better world. This isn’t about a short term mission trip; this is about a total overhaul of our values so that our daily lives embody, in increasing measure, the very hope of which Jesus spoke. That way, Jesus is no longer a theory – he’s a living king, and our lives reflect his reign. That’s the best response I can think of to the nightly news.
Instead of Isolation, Prayer. We feel helpless, watching the news like that. We’re not. We can pray, believing that God intervenes in history in response to the prayers of God’s people. Years ago, a dear friend whose husband was a British Major in WWII showed me the program from a prayer service held in London after the war. In it, there were quotes from Churchill, Roosevelt, and other spiritual and national leaders, calling the nations to prayer. There were even specific prayers offered, having to do with weather. History tells us (I believe) that God intervened. Prayer matters.
Of course we’re not necessarily called to spend all of every day in prayer, interceding for each nation and activity. That would take us out of the game. Instead, we’re invited to live lives that are permeable enough to let God in, to let God break out heart over some specific thing, whether its Sudan, Congo, Crimea/Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, homelessness, sexual slavery, or something else in the seemingly endless list of brokenness. Maybe all you can do is pray over the thing that breaks your heart. But prayer’s a big deal, or so we say we believe. And of course, we could all pray this a little bit more, since Jesus taught us to do so:
May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen? Amen!
I welcome your thoughts.
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.
The world has turned on big ideas, of course. Lincoln ended slavery in America. MLK gave birth to civil rights. Martin Luther brought the Reformation. Plato. Augustine. Hitler. Pol Pot. Lenin. Marx. Like the ideas or don’t; they’ve changed the course of the world.
And there are lots of other ideas as well, tens of thousands of “medium ideas” that have been shaping forces in still significant ways: Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers. Bill Hybels and the ‘seeker friendly church’. Bill Gates and software. Steve Jobs. Google. Facebook. Henry Ford and the automobile. Human flight. Eisenhower’s national highway project, Earth Day, and countless others at global, national, and local levels that have been impactful for better worse, ranging from multi-level marketing scams and schemes to remarkable non-profits whose intent it is to change the world, like International Justice Mission.
The thing all big ideas share in common is the notion of inviting others to step into a story “bigger than their own ‘small’ story”. Christianity in the macro sense, and local churches in the micro sense do this too, as they (we) should, because our founder, Jesus, had the biggest idea of all – the idea that the eternal reign of hope, beauty, justice, and peace is inevitable, so let’s get on with living into it now – becoming the presence of God’s good reign through our daily living as we bring hope to the hopeless in Jesus’ name. This is, of course, good and right and important. And yet….
I sometimes wonder if we’re not putting the cart before the horse, or even trying to bring mobility to the cart without even having the horse. There’s a huge risk out there among people who are living for big ideas. You find it in Taliban fundamentalists whose computers are filled with porn and Catholic priests who’ve been guilty of pedophilia. You find it in health foodists who covertly eat McNuggets, and environmentalists who speak inconvenient truths while residing in enormous, energy sucking homes. It’s the Marxist who dines on caviar while the masses stand in line for a loaf of bread. It’s the hawks who talk about duty and sacrifice, while pulling strings to exempt their own children from military service. What’s going on?
Big ideas become a danger fuel at times, feeding these wrong fires:
Hypocrisy is so common among idealists as to nearly be expected these days. Any of us can become convinced that our commitment to the big idea is all we need to live well, which of course is, to put it mildly, a pile of dung. It will always be true that the very first thing we need to do in order to live well is: live well. Beyond that, the 2nd thing we need to is live well, and the 3rd, and 4th, and it really never ends, because when it does, our success with the big idea will create a mindset that exempts us from the very thing our big idea is about. It’s no good. Life’s too short to be that misaligned.
Vicarious righteousness is a shade different than hypocrisy, and applies when we think that by contributing to big ideas, with some money, or maybe even some time, we’re suddenly deeply identified with that big idea. I give a few hundred bucks to some cause such as International Justice Mission and, presto, I’m part of the solution! Yes. But… if I continue buying cotton T-shirts at 3 for $10 down there at Wal-Mart, I’m still part of the problem, and probably a bigger part of the problem than the solution. If a preach about environmental stewardship and justice (and I have), ride my bike to work (and I often do) and then gorge myself on McDonald’s junk (yes… I have), I’m still part of the problem.
Distraction is the third fire wrongly fueled by our big ideas and causes because our love of big ideas can easily overwhelm our much needed commitment to personal integrity. In a word, we’re too busy and preoccupied with changing the world to ever change the sheets on the bed, or cook healthy food, or enjoy a walk in the forest. In the end, our lives become hopeless shells of what they could and should be, having been consumed by our need to do something great.
All these fires can be doused by one simple change: I must make sure that aligning my actual life with my values is the first, and highest pursuit of my life. If I’m trying to align with the big idea that is Christianity, that means taking Jesus’ teaching about loving others, simplifying my life, living generously, practicing hospitality, and crossing social divides must become values expressed in my daily living, not just my checkbook or my church’s teaching. It’s one thing to talk about giving stuff away. It’s another thing entirely to actually do it.
The problem with small ideas, especially for visionaries, is that they don’t bring a big adrenalin hit. There’s no big thrill is making my bed, or taking the time to cook a healthy meal about which nobody will ever read, or inviting a few people over to enjoy a glass of wine and some good conversation. It can all seem so unimportant in the light of world hunger, vast injustice, Syria, terror, and corporate greed. There’s no time for such low level living! There are wars to fight!
Yes. But first… pray. First…get enough sleep. First… begin to live the kind of life that represents what you say you believe in. First… relax and rest in the arms of Christ. After all, that is, more than anything, what he wants to offer you. Out from that soil of integrity, your calling and involvement with big ideas will come – but now in God’s scale, freed from your Messiah complex, and at rest with the notion that if you’re going to play a part in any big idea, you’ll do it better because you’ve learned to give attention to the small ideas that make up daily living.
The convergence of my daily Bible readings and a memorial service for my dear friend have me thinking about how much richer are lives can be if we all align around the one true thing that matters, which is Jesus Christ and his glorious reign.
Daniel and Esther are two personalities in Israel’s history who understood that they will gladly serve the king, and work for the good of kingdom in which they find themselves, but not at the cost of obedience to their one true King, Jehovah. This is why Daniel openly defies the king’s edict by praying to Jehovah, not in secret, but in full view of his open window, as a means of declaring that there’s only One to which we’re called to offer unrestrained allegiance. Esther risks her life by standing before the king, unbidden, fully realizing that by doing so she’ll either be invited in or executed. Her reason for this bold move? Mordecai, a Jew, refused to bow down to the powers of state because he believed that his allegiance was ultimately to God. Neither nation, nor any political party (Republican, Democrat, Green, Other) or ideology (socialist, libertarian, monarchists, tea people, coffee people, “free” market capitalists, Other) will ever embody the reign of Christ. Because of this, we have one true king, one true kingdom, one true citizenship, and it’s not related to our flag or borders – it’s related to Jesus.
Meanwhile, as I read Esther this morning and write this piece, I’m mindful of my global Torchbearer family gathering to grieve the loss of our dear friend and remarkable teacher/leader, Hans Peter Royer. My daughter eulogized his life eloquently here recently. Today, missing my friends, I’m pondering the privilege of being in a community bound together, truly, by fellowship in Christ alone. Our common purpose is Christ; declaring him as the only source of life, inviting people to live out from his resurrection power, and seeking to disciple people into a life of making his good reign visible through relationships and service in our broken world. These things matter more than anything – and as long as they do, we enjoy rich fellowship and unity of purpose in spite of our vast differences.
Differences? Yes! Under the surface of our united grief today there are many cultures and hence, ways of living together as nations. For example, many devout Christ followers in Europe favor universal health coverage and shudder at thought that there’s a nation where people are walking the streets carrying weapons. Devout Christ followers in America often hold exactly the opposite views in the name of freedom of responsibility. Meanwhile, these arguments, on both sides, seem elitist and esoteric to those who are busy preaching Christ in places where the threat of terror hangs over their locations daily. When we’re together we speak of Christ and his reign, speak of how we’re working together to make that reign visible, call each other to deeper Christ commitments.
But never, unless we happen to be skiing together in Austria on the very day of an elementary school shooting spree in Connecticut, do we talk about gun control. Even then, when we do, and Austrians shake their heads at our addiction to “freedom” even as some Americans shake theirs at the Europeans readiness to give up such rights – we don’t baptize our views in the gospel of Christ.
Does this mean there’s never a time to be political? Far from it. Christ followers have an absolute obligation to do justice and love mercy. This requires addressing systemic issues that contribute to poverty, violence, and oppression. But here’s the critical thing to see: We’re called to do this in the name of Jesus, not in the name of a party, or nation. To the extent that we do, we’re able to dialogue about these things, think critically, prayerfully sharpen each other, and then go back into our cultures and truly “seek the welfare of the city in which we live” – all the while freed from the illusion that the ways of Babylon, or Gun Rights, or Universal Health Care are, inherently, Jesus’ ways. We’ll be as suspicious of Huffington Post as Fox News
Jesus’ way will be most visible in this broken world when the people of God embody visible alternatives that are trans-national, trans-political, trans-racial – places where the poor and marginalized are valued, and earthly weapons are never the preferred solution to solving any problems, and people are given the opportunity to be freed from everything, ranging from human trafficking to the many addictions that enslave the prosperous. This is hardly a call to some disembodied apolitical spiritism. Rather, it’s a call to make God’s reign visible, at cost of our lives if necessary. But no nation or kingdom or ideology in this world gets it right – democratics are no more the party of Jesus than the tea party. We need to get over it.
Beer & Brats in Germany. Chai and Dal-Bot in Nepal. Croissants and Chardonnay in France: Christ is there – loving, serving, blessing, and standing against the powers, in favor of THE POWER that is the source of life. May we stand with Him, and in Him, and through Him – because nothing else matters.
If I could wish one thing for our churches these days, it would be that we’d return with due haste to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ, and devote ourselves utterly to making Christ’s reign visible. Everything else is chaff.