The political and theological left and right have become so tired of both shooting each other and being shot at, that there’s little stomach left for honest conversation about ethics, faith, and the relationship of faith to politics. So when you go over the river and through the woods to enjoy a family gathering at Grandma’s house this coming Thursday, what will you talk about? Here’s a little guide to help:
Here’s hoping you embrace your identity as exile so you can relax and live into the confidence of your citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. May you find beauty there, and hope, and may the light of your joy and gratitude radiate at your Thanksgiving table, wherever you are.
It’s not just that it’s been happening throughout history. It’s our collective complicity with it, through knowing and not speaking, through seeing and not saying. It’s the “this is just the way it is” of it that is at the heart of the blight. Turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, misogyny, and the abuse of power in relationships has been happening for millenia. These dark sins have, it seems, been so deeply woven into the fabric of our culture that they’ve gone tragically unnoticed.
Thanks be to God, the tide is turning. Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner occurred at a time when they were viewed as isolated incidents years and decades ago, and presidential liaisons before that were hushed up completely. But the rapid recent succession of Donald Trump, Bill O Reily, Roger Ailes, and now the Weinstein situation have brought the issue out onto the mainstage of culture, front and center. That’s good news, but only if we respond rightly and become part of the healing solution. So how should we respond?
Reject all objectification of women. It’s too easy for those who’ve never been guilty of overt abuse to wash their hands in false self righteousness, ready as they are to throw their stones. But the wise person will see abuse clothed in power as the presenting problem and travel further upstream to find the source of the malady. When he does, he’ll find that always, before there’s abuse, there’s an objectification – the reduction of a woman made in God’s image to nothing more than a body, a thing that exists solely for the satisfaction of the onlooker, as he uses her to fill some destructive void in his life. If this is the real problem, perhaps there’s not a man among us who isn’t guilty – and perhaps this is why Jesus took lust so seriously here.
Overcoming habits of objectification will require an active re-training of our senses, our interior thought life, because the reality is that our culture is complicit in the sex abuse problem, reducing women to objectified images in advertising, bait click portraits, movies, sitcoms, and shopping malls – let alone the vast world of porn. Every time I reduce a woman’s image or her presence to an object existing for my pleasure and satisfaction, I become part of the problem, feeding the purveyors of objectification yet another reason to continue and intensify their offerings.
I get it guys. You’re lonely, stressed, frustrated, insecure. You want comfort, intimacy, less stress, or at least a momentary hit of plelasure – and they all seem out of reach, so you reach for what’s so readily available in our culture and presto – problem solved. You leave satisfied. Except the problem isn’t solved – at all. The only thing that’s changed is that you’ve become weaker. You’ve made an offering to the gods of darkness intent on deepening the strongholds of abuse. O, and one other thing happened. Another woman was used – another story, another wall, another wound.
There’s a better way, and it starts with walking away from every whiff of objectification. And the courage to walk away usually begins by believing that I have a life and calling all my own, a completion in Christ that is real. Because of this, though I might feel lonely and frustrated at times, to the extent that I embrace my deepest and truest identity, I’m freed from letting the false void of inadequacy drive my behavior. I’ve no need to grab, fondle, or even fantasize about doing so, because I’ve an actual life to live, full of serving and sharing, blessing and building. Real life trumps fantasies and objectifications every time.
Restore the primacy of character in our voting, employment, and education. The words of Mr. Trump, caught on “access hollywood” tape should have been a warning: this is a man driven to conquer people, to use them, to acquire them as objects for his own purposes. “… and they let you get away with it…” He’s not the first president with the problem, by any means. Just the crassest, and most cavalier – on tape anyway. The scourge is well resourced with presidents from both parties.
The point isn’t perfection. One look at Abraham, or Noah, or David remind us that perfection isn’t the point. What’s happened in our culture, though, is that our silence, and our collective turning the other way, and our voting, have all become forms of tacit approval, not of those who have failed and know it, but of those for whom the misuse of power as a means of using a woman for sexual satisfaction became normal, even a matter for boasting.
All people are created in God’s image, and as such, none are ever to be treated as objects existing for the profit and pleasure of those with more power. Sadly, this has been one of the most violated truths in the history of the world, including American history. Blacks were literally property, for centuries, as confirmed “on the books” of insurance companies and banks whose records go back to the times of the colonies. American Indians? Objects. Women? Objects for sexual pleasure, void of voting rights, employment rights, equal pay rights, or even the most basic right of all – the right to walk through the world with the confidence that you’re being seen as a whole person, not an object to be used and discarded.
Are you intent on putting people in positions of power who believe in the dignity of all people, precisely because all are made in God’s image? Are you interested in ending the objectification culture that has wounded women in America for centuries? Are you going to take steps, as you’re able, to break down the dividing walls of racism, classism, and sexism that are a blight on both American culture and (too often) the church?
I was about to enter 4th grade when our family moved about two miles in Fresno, out of what would today be called a ‘tiny house’ and into a ‘real house’ complete with a bedroom for both my sister and me. The move put me in a new elementary school and I was terrified that I’d make no friends. It was my cinnamon roll baking grandmother who, just a few weeks before the school year began in September, told me about a favorite Bible verse of hers. “This” she said as she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, “should help you” and she hugged me as I stuffed the little note card into my pocket. After she left the room I read it. She’d written a Bible reference: James 1:19. It read: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”
I wrote it out on an index card and put it in my pocket. It served me well during those tumultuous days, when I was feeling socially awkward and at times, tempted to respond to unkind words with angry verbal retribution. Instead, I’d walk away, usually saying nothing at all, amazed at the power of silence as a means of killing the momentum of escalation that so often happens in so many places:
peer groups in school
Work place gossip
Social media rants
Political parties with all their posturing
Christian leaders who shoot each other over doctrinal differences of opinion
The White House and Oval Office are the newest members of “club mud”, though none should be surprised by it. Accuse one of your political competitor’s family members of conspiring to kill President Kennedy; attach childishly insulting adjectives in front of their names, (“Lyin’ Ted. Crooked Hillary. Little Marco.”) Insult debate moderators by talking about their “blood coming out of wherever”; When exposed for shallow and deceptive egotism, respond by ranting that the political commentator was “bleeding badly from a facelift”; Respond to charges from multiple women that you were guilty of sexual misconduct by declaring that they aren’t “pretty enough” to be worthy of your advances.”
Of course you’ll be elected president.
Of course boatloads of Evangelical Christians will be at the front of the demographic pack cheering you to victory, getting out the vote, and praising God for your win, turning a blind eye, not to character flaws, which we all have, but to your utter blindness to your character flaws, and your comfort level with that blindness.
Of course you’ll continue your childish rants, rooted in ego, deception, and insecurity, three qualities wholly unbecoming of any leader of anything, let alone the leader of the free world.
What’s wrong with this picture?
My answer has nothing to do with the politics of health care, global warming, or the fact that I’m both pro-life and pro-environment (and thus a person without a political homeland). My answer also has nothing to do with the purely speculative conjecture of whether Hillary would have been less scandalous, or more, or less effective. We need at least two parties, and robust differences and dialogue if this democracy is going to work.
I’m writing to say that I’m grieved over the cavalier nature with which we Americans have grown to accept this man’s childish rants as normative for leaders. Yes, perhaps lips service has been given (finally) to the inappropriate nature of our president’s stream of consciousness calloused and degrading rhetoric. Tragically though, our collective failure to hold this man, and others, responsible for the countless lies and (with apologies to sophomores everywhere) sophomoric ‘trash talking’ has led to a loss of civility in dialogue, and a dramatic increase in polarization and division in both our churches and our culture at large.
In an attempt to raise our awareness on why we should work hard to not become hardened to this crass and demeaning repartee, I offer the following three observations:
1. Words Matter. One author writes: “Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Are we using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or compliments, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiraling into a deep depression. Furthermore, our words not only have the power to bring us death or life in this world, but in the next as well. Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That same book of James, which contained the verse given my by grandma when I was nine years old also says: “…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well…Look at ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is fire…” (James 3:2-6)
I could go on and on, sharing about Jesus’ teaching that angry words are tantamount to murder, and how the qualities of leader are ultimately confirmed or denied by the way they use their words. There’s not time for the many teachings from the Bible on the importance of words.
2. A leader’s character matters. Though many see the Old Testament as boring and, at times, eliciting more questions than answers, one principle is certain when reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles: As goes the king, so go the people. I teach this to my staff as well, telling them over and over again that the main principle of leadership is that the people we lead will, at least in some measure, “become who we are”. Two concerns are cogent at this point.
I’m concerned that people like this stuff. If you disagreed with the previous administration, fine. Our country is built on vast philosophical differences and our capacity to work together to find some common ground. The current level of discourse, however, doesn’t lead us toward that kind of bilateral end. People seem to relish the name calling, to cheer the demeaning sarcasm, to celebrate sound bytes and ignore lies. The result is an escalation in hateful rhetoric and violence.
I’m concerned when people say that policy trumps character. No. No. No. Ask the Bible. Ask anyone building a business from the ground up. Ask coaches. They’ll both tell you the same thing. Yes. Policies matter. Yes, other candidates might have been, who knows, just as bad. But make no mistake: Character matters just as much as policy or skill, maybe more.
By our passive silence, we’re telling each other that words don’t matter, that character doesn’t matter. As a result, Christians send hate mail or make hate calls to a Christian ministry because of disagreements over a policy decision. A man opens fire on a group of republicans playing baseball. And people no longer trust each other’s words. No surprise really – all of it is the fruit of our passively accepting insults and lies as normative. We can’t control our president or other politicians. We can be disgusted by his words and purpose to swim in a different ocean. Please join me in living by James 1:19,20 and by calling our churches, our children, and our Facebook feeds to do the same.
They did it “according to the book”. With too many passengers and not enough seats, they asked for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight for a reward, and fly later. You know, by now, what happened on UAL flight 3411. Before it was over, a passenger was forcibly, violently dragged from the plane, getting bloodied in the process. This gave birth to a viral video of the scene, leading to a public relations nightmare and an over 6% decline in UAL stock as outrage over the event filled social media. In my own facebook feed I saw pics of cancelled UAL flight tickets, and declarations of breakup with “the friendly skies” (a breakup I made years ago because of my own encounter with “less than friendly” customer service – but I digress)
The point for the moment is simple. By contract and policy, the airline had every right to remove the man. The man’s refusal to leave led to a need to call security, and security did what security does: they resorted to force. That’s how the man ended up blooodied, being dragged down the aisle while a full flight of paying customers looked on, as seen here. The flight would, of course, end with a steward or stewardess thanking everyone for “flying the friendly skies”. Ugh.
I don’t write to do a post event analysis. Most of us have pondered why too many passengers were allowed to board; why they didn’t up the ante even more in hopes that eventually someone would volunteer; why the security people treated the guy with a level of force that would be the same as if he was a threat to other passengers? We can ask these questions, but have no way of knowing the answers.
Here’s what we do know: This doesn’t look like “friendly skies.” People who belong to a company whose mission statement and slogan elevate customer service as a central value need to be empowered to maintain that core value. Further, if they are empowered, they need to always, always, ask the simple question: “does this action make us look friendly?”
REI gets this. Nordstrom gets this. Starbucks gets this. Amazon gets this.
If your actions are contradictory to what you say you’re about, then you need to rethink your actions.
This is important for every Christ follower to ponder because the Apostle Paul says that it was God’s intent to “reveal his Son in me.” We come to discover God’s intent for humankind in this verse. In other words, our mission statement as Christ followers is to look like Jesus. You know: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, cross social divides, be people of peace, give dignity to those suffering on the margins, don’t cling to your own personal rights, bless and forgive generously – preemptively even. These are the means by which we fulfill our calling, the corollary statement is equally important: any action derived from our policy manual (the Bible) that misrepresents Jesus’ heart, needs to be reconsidered!
And this means a few elements of church history would have played out differently:
The church wouldn’t have fractured again and again and again over words and secondary doctrines, because Jesus’ heart was, above all other things, for Christians to live in peaceable unity. The east/west church schism, the multiple popes debacle, the protestant reformation, and the over twenty thousand denominations? Poof! They’re gone.
The sanctioning of Slavery in Jesus name? The anti-semitic edict declared by the church, forcing all Jews to leave Spain (and leave their wealth behind, by the way) in the late 15th century? The horrific genocide in Rwanda, even as this country was being touted as a Christian missionary success story? All these things change dramatically if Christians stay committed to the vision and mission of their calling, which is to look like Jesus.
I’ve lived long enough to remember specific times when I had the doctrinal moral high ground, but my posture of pride, anger, and a cynical tongue, discredited my doctrine.
So the next time you win a political argument by calling the other person stupid, remember that you’ve lost.
The next time you’re debating same sex marriage, whatever your position on the matter, if your anger toward the other person means you stop listening, stop loving, stop treating them as image bearers even though you disagree, you’ve lost, even if you won.
The next time your reading of the Bible leads to behaviors of racism, or xenophobia, or leads you to withdraw from a group of people in either fear or disgust, I don’t care what the letter of the text you’re reading leads you to believe, you’re reading it wrong.
I say this with confidence, not only because of the clarity of our calling to look like Jesus, but because we’re also told, in numerous places in the Bible, that Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s character. So instead of microscopically proof texting your way to arrogant, violent, fear based, or isolationist behavior, how about becoming obsessed with the character of Jesus instead?
You’ll likely find a gentler voice, throw a party for your neighbors, celebrate beauty more often, and choose peace, patience, and joy more consistently. Yes, there’s a manual. But more important, there’s a mission statement, a vision: making the real Christ visible on a day to day basis. As we walk towards Good Friday and pondering the sacrifice of Christ, I’d suggest that is a mission worth pursuing.
O Lord Christ;
You’ve shown us the way, but we confess that too often we’ve coopted your name and used it to create a thin religious veneer over hate, violence, greed, and fear – all the while quoting the Bible to justify it. Have mercy on us Lord. Grant that we might see your heart with greater clarity, and have the courage to to allow your life to find fuller expression in each of us during this Holy week, and beyond.
When Christians are outraged over a movie, it’s nearly certain that, not only will I like it, but that there will be an element of the gospel clearly presented. It happened years ago with Avatar. Now it’s happened again with Disney’s new version of “Beauty and Beast”.
Though I didn’t want to go because our pre-purchased tickets collided with an important basketball game on TV (yes – I’m that shallow), it was a family event, and I was persuaded it was “the right thing to do”. My intent was to check the score regularly, ducking under my seat and checking my phone, becoming one of those rude people in the theater who can’t seem to just sit and enjoy the movie. I checked early, but was soon deeply drawn in and forgot about the game entirely because something better was unfolding before my eyes: the timeless story of redemption, seen through the lens of fairy tale.
New to this version is the notion that the villagers once had a relationship with the prince, before his heart was hardened and he was ultimately placed under a curse. Part of the curse, though, was a sort of amnesia descending on the whole village, so that they forgot their identity with the prince, and identity which was recovered only after acts of profoundly sacrificial love led to the breaking of the curse.
The loss of identity and relationship is, to my mind, why the village is trapped in xenophobia, illiteracy, fear, and a destructive patriarchy. The cycle of darkness continues as the villagers, in this heightened state of anxiety, are prone to listen to voices that feed on fear, inciting more fear and anger. Rational voices and truth are drowned out by the loudest voices, lies, and insults. Sound familiar?
In Mark 6:34 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”. Forgetting their identity as the people of God, forgetting that they were made for peace, generosity, the confident rest that comes from receiving deep love and blessing, they lived as if they were on their own. This led to various forms of legalism, pride, anger, and violence.
Nothing’s changed, of course. The profound human dilemma is that we’re seeking to know who we are – in relation to each other, to creation, to eternity, and to our creator. Until we get this right, the identity vacuum renders us vulnerable to all manner of voices inciting us to fear, hate, and violence.
The curse is broken in the movie, of course. It’s broken in real life too. The profound word of Christ on the cross that “it is finished” means that his act of sacrificial love has opened the way for us to live once again as free children of God, enjoying shalom, living in joy, and blessing our world.
The difference between the move and reality, though, is that we seem reticent to live without fear and hate, even though the curse has been broken. Why is this?
The answer to that question is, perhaps, for a different day.
For now though, I’ll note that Paul had the same habit of finding gospel truth outside the Bible and building bridges between the questions/critiques offered by artists and authors and the eternal truth found in Christ.
We’d be wise to take a cue from him. After all, when he quotes Greek poets, he’s quoting polytheists, and doing so as a means of defending and inviting people to Christ. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t agree with polytheism. Wherever he sees a kernel of truth, he celebrates it!
Many Christians have lost that capacity, preferring instead only to point out areas of disagreement. So there you go. You’ve shown where you’re right and they’re wrong. You’ve entrenched a stereotype that Christians are haters. You’ve built a wall.
Congratulations. But make no mistake. You’ll pay for your own wall.
The better way? Paul rejoices wherever he finds a vestige of truth and so Greek poets find their way into his preaching, just like Eminem, Beyonce, Van Gogh, Disney, Billy Joel, and more find their way into mine. Truth is truth, and wherever it’s found we should rejoice.
Do you remember eighth grade geometry, and the subject of axioms? An axiom is “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”. An example in math would be: “if x and y are real numbers, then the sum of x+y is also a real number”. There’s no need to prove it because it’s self evident. Axioms are important because mathematicians and philosophers build structures on their foundations.
Get the axiom wrong and the whole structure will ultimately be unsustainable. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction”. This gets practical in our moment because there are claims floating around in our social/political world and they’re being accepted as axiomatic.
“The lyin’ media”
“My inauguration crowd was bigger”
“I won the popular vote”
“I was wiretapped by the previous president”
I’m not writing here as democrat (I’m independent and voted both sides in the last election) and I’m not writing about health care, or the philosophy that lower taxes will be good for the economy. Both the conservative and progressive voices are vital in shaping our democracy; their ideas need collision with each other in order to arrive at next steps in moving a country forward – at least that was the intent of the framers. Further, the conservative world won the election and has both the right and responsibility to govern. All of us are on the bus, so we’d all do well to press for success.
It’s the very desire for democracy to succeed, whoever is in power, that causes me to write today. Whatever your party loyalties, know that a very dangerous foundation is being laid when a country is asked to believe things as if they were axiomatic, simply because they’re spoken by people with authority. While not technically axioms, we’re being asked to believe more and more things, “sans evidence”.
My plea is that you not go there, that we not go there as a nation, that we not allow our leaders to take us there.
Promises gone awry are one thing. (“If you like your current health care plan you can keep it”). They’re named. Apologies are made. We learn. Hopefully we move on.
This is a different time; a different leader. As David Brooks writes: “Everything about Trump that appalls 65% of America strengthens him with the other 35%”. This is an axiom problem. It stems from a readiness to believe things, simply because they’re declared by someone, in spite of the fact that, not only are they not self-evident, but all available evidence points in a different direction.
And so we come to the importance of character. Nobody is perfect, of course, and we know our previous presidents well enough to know that feet of clay have been in the Oval Office from the beginning. Still, the accumulation of spectacular declarations lacking any evidence is new territory. The credibility gap that is nothing more than fodder for late night comedians presently, will become the soil of national crisis when we’re asked to enter a sacrificial war because our leader makes an axiomatic declaration demanding it and, no surprise, most of the notion won’t buy it.
When I teach German students, I’m happy to report that they don’t take what I say at face value. They ask hard questions. They challenge my statements. They ask for evidence. I was taken aback by this years ago, when I first began teaching in Europe. When I asked why they’re “so skeptical” they told me it had to do with their history, that they’d learned the dangers of following blindly, and so built healthy skepticism into their education of youth.
“Following blindly” is becoming a habit these days and that shouldn’t surprise us, though it should alarm us. It’s in our nature to believe what we want to believe, rather than allow ourselves to be shaped by revelation that would be disruptive to our held views. Can I suggest that, rather than elevating any human leader, or source, to the status of infallible – all of us commit to thinking both critically, and open mindedly – to engaging with those holding differing views both civilly and honestly – and that we do it all with the goal of building on a foundation of finding truth rather than defending fallacious axioms.
So here we are, with truth claims being offered and the expectation declared that we believe them axiomatically, simply because authorities have spoken.
Well Mr. President, and speakers of both house and senate, and minority leaders of those same chambers, if there’s any good news in your deplorable, unabashedly partisan behaviors of late its this: your lies have become unbelievable, even to yourselves and the people of your own parties. Your truth claims are, I can only pray, creating a vast sea of skeptics who will no longer take what’s said at face value. And in the wake of your collective integrity failure, my hope and prayer is that the next round of elections won’t be the circus this previous round was. Instead, perhaps, people will once again look for people with integrity and elect them, weighing character above everything else.
…because one thing is certain throughout the history of the world: as goes the king, so goes the nation.
This week World Relief bought space in the Washington Post in order to invite President Trump to reconsider his executive order banning refugees from several countries. They also invited pastors of many congregations larger than 2000 to sign their letter. The church I lead partners extensively with World Relief in Rwanda, and one of their refugee resettlement ministries is located in Seattle, so when I learned of this opportunity, it didn’t require much thought. I signed as soon as I was able, and the reasons were obvious to me.
1. The insider/outsider paradigm is a ruse. The assumptions that terror or violent extremism are mostly imported are, to put it politely, “alternative facts”. Never mind the reality that not a single terror act on our soil has originated from any of these countries; the notion that evil and violence are “out there” and we need to keep “them” at bay is simply wrong, both historically and theologically. In the country of Timothy McVeigh, Omar Mateen, and Dylann Roof, the elevation of “external terror threats” is theologically tantamount to what Jesus spoke of when said “Why do you try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log in your own eye?” We, in other words, ought to be asking questions about why we lead the developed world in per capita gun violence and what it is about our culture that breeds internal violence and terror. It’s far too convenient to vilify “the other” in a way that blinds us to more real problems, and threats, that are already here.
2. The vetting of immigrants has been working, as evidenced by the total lack of incidents from anyone residing in the USA from these countries.
3. The executive order is a chain saw, rather than a surgical incision. There’s a woman and her four children (all under age six) about to enter the USA from Iraq. They are, in no way whatsoever, a threat to our security. To the contrary, they are the people who need exactly what we have offered to immigrants throughout our history – a fresh start amongst the most generous and hospitable people in the world. When we no longer wish to welcome these, we’ve lost our moorings, lost our great idea.
4. Hospitality and Grace are more in keeping with our Christian calling than Fear and Exclusion
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
The punchline of Jesus’ story is simple:
Is this political? No. The kingdom of God, and God’s ethics transcend any party line. I called out President Obama regarding his views on late term abortion too, because these aren’t political issues; hey’re theological; discipleship issues. Christ followers who are truly intent on advocating for the vulnerable should be willing to advocate for life in the womb as vocally as for the lives of refugees, and vice versa. That we’re slow to see this and rise above partisan politics is both what saddens me, and why I’ll continue to advocate for life in the womb, life for the refugee, life for the uninsured woman dying of a treatable disease, and life for the victim of gratituitous gun violence.
I leave you with words from one of my favorite magazines:
“Muslim refugee children are sacred. Police officers are sacred, as are young African Americans with names like Trayvon Martin, Eric Ganern, and Freddie Gray. Unborn babies are always sacred. And so too, with all their grave guilt, are their abortionists. Progressive hipsters, prosperity gospel televangelists, members of Congress, gender-transitioning former decatheletes, Confederate flag waving white nationalists. All are sacred.”
Perhaps we can drop our political labels and dialogue about the ethics of the kingdom. It’s the only way we’ll move toward an informed unity of Christ’s body to which we’re invited.
NOTE: This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”. I deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post. Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!
August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m. We arrive there feeling strong, whole. Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically. It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut. Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse.
After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut. Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served. If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm.
The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one. The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over.
As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise. Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.”
“High or low?” I ask.
“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction. The trail is on the ridge the whole way.” I smile, nodding. I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”. Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together. I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes. “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning.
I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there. Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete. This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner.
This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills. I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges. My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity. You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash. Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it. Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”. They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.
As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t. As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress. It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread. The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles.
This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit. Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing. There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word. In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death.
For those with experience, this is not intimidating. You simply don’t fall. You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step. For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness. My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge. They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure. On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on.
I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing? This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me. Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face. We must descend it. On the one hand, it’s a ladder. The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much: we can climb down this ladder.
On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent. We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps. Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent. After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise.
So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder. The stakes are high. The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.
It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons. They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope. So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still. There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.
Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially. We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power. We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more. Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.
This is a very small way of living. It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels. The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top. Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before. We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank. By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.
…Except we can’t. As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created. This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management. When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling” It’s sin management. It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy. And worst of all: it’s boring.
In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin. God has a summit for us and it looks like this:
Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31 We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in. This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.
Abundance “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10 This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die. I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing. I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving.
Wholeness “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21 Yes! The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning. The vision is much more positive, more summit like. God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living. The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living. Summits. All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear.
After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure. We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides. It looks daunting, and is. Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”.
Exactly! The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option. I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut. The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck. It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here. No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip. And for this, I’ll be forever grateful.
Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety. We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust. The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain. The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!
The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way. They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets. They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives! They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities. They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so. They rose above the valleys of mediocrity. Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home. But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world. When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential.
Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit? When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits: Fear not – for I am with you!
There were times, not so long ago, when mourning was the first response to tragedy. This is appropriate. When 9.11 happened, there was a global coming together that simply grieved the catastrophic loss, acknowledging, before any rush to response or solution, that the world is not meant to be this way. Waves of grief and anger over “the way it is” rise up in the human heart when tragedy happens.
Or should, at least. In Ezekiel 18:32 God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” In John 11, Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and wept tears of grief, because death is an intrusion in our fallen world – a source of profound loss, sorrow, and separation.
These days though, there’s no time for mourning. The blood wasn’t dry on the floor before this tragedy was politicized. Islamaphobia. Homophobia. Gun Control. ISIS. Immigration policy. NRA. Ban on assault weapons. Blame Obama. Mock Trump, or praise him. Why mourn, when you can blame, or use the event to justify your worldview?
Here’s an observation friends: this is sick
Our rush to judgement is a cultural disease, the natural fruit of our increasing inability to listen, think, and learn a bit before talking. I was in Austria when Sandy Hook occurred and the first things I read in social media had to do with blaming the NRA, or declaring preemptively that “the gun control liberals will use this to steal our guns”. Heated rhetoric, even before the children were buried. An alligator steals a child from a theme park, and before his body has even been found, people are lecturing the parents about “responsible parenting”. The biggest mass shooting in American history happens and before there’s a single funeral, Muslims are blamed. Immigration debates fill the air. Christians are blamed. Guns are blamed. And those blamed respond with a whiplash of defensiveness.
Lost in all of it is the time honored tradition, in nearly every culture in the world, to “mourn first – thoroughly – and then respond” The cost of this loss will be huge, is already huge – because what’s happened is that all of us are now constantly at war, with each other. Constantly on the defensive, or to avoid that, on the pre-emptive offense.
Job’s friends may not have assessed Job’s problems accurately, but at least they had the decency to mourn with him a little bit before offering their misguided solutions. The same was true 15 years ago, when America, even the world, stopped for a week or so, and mourned. We were all angry. We were all learning new things about terror and waking up to the realization that our world had changed forever. But we held our tongues.
The Bible is a rich pool of lament for many reasons, one of which is that it allows the dissonance between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be to ferment in our spirits and souls. Such fermentation, born of compassion for victims of suffering and loss, strengthens our longings for the beauty of Christ’s reign to break into our world with full force. It’s only out from those deep longings, ripened in mourning, that the best wisdom of next steps will be born.
Last week was too busy for mourning for me. I was in meetings overseas from morning to night, and squeezing church work and sermon prep into the little margins. I barely saw the headlines, and then quickly saw the polarizing comments, coming from everywhere. Really! Everywhere. The weight of what happened didn’t hit me until yesterday, when I had some time to finally digest the event while sitting in the Frankfurt airport waiting to come home.
Today then, is a day of mourning for me – for one thing. The victims. Young lives were cut down too soon and while death is always tragic, it’s always the more so when the lives are young, still looking forward to most of their days.
Yes, the church must participate in robust and civil discourse about sexual ethics, gun control, gun rights, immigration, Islam, and more. Those are different topics for different days. But not today. Today I mourn…which begins with empathy, and compassion, which simply means, “to suffer with”. For God’s sake, and your own, learn compassion before anything else.
Again violence has taken young lives.
Again people woke in the morning not knowing their hours were numbered.
Again families of victims are faced with an unanticipated hole in their lives, with many parents facing the most difficult grief of all, the death of their own children. Of all the things that “aren’t supposed to happen”, this is near the top of the list.
Let your tears run down like a river day and night
As the beginning of the night watches
Pour out your heart like water
Before the presence of the Lord;
Life up your hands to Him
For the life of your little ones… Lamentations 2
(This will take a few minutes to read, and maybe create more questions than answers. So at the outset, please know: I believe in just war – I believe in the right of governments to carry the sword in order curb evil as seen in Romans 13. And, I believe in that the path of the cross is our calling as Christ followers. May God give us wisdom)
Of course it happened again. We all knew it was just a matter of time before another bomb went off, this time in Belgium. The explosion and shrapnel, though, is never, never the end of the story. Rather it’s a beginning. It sets off another round of fear, profiling, stereotyping, and hatred. It becomes the soil in which the human heart is tempted or incited to match violence with violence. It mobilizes armies, entrenches already held ideologies, and loads lives down with anxiety over the future. Fear of neighbors. Fear of burkas. Fear of travel. And worse than fear; hate. And worse than hate; the threat of violence in retaliation. And worse than the threat of violence; actual violence.
It’s nothing new. And further, it’s nothing new to note that it’s all being done in God’s name by both sides. Giving a soldier a Bible though, or a suicide bomber the Koran doesn’t sanctify the cause, and there’s no better time to be reminded of this than Holy Week because while wounded people are treated in hospitals, while victim’s families mourn, millions will spend time this week pondering the path of Jesus walking to the cross. That cross, and then one who went there, still speaks and lives today, imploring us to follow him on a different path than the one that matches violence for violence, fear for fear, hate for hate.
As Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem on the last week of his life, his poignant cry is telling. We read that “…he saw the city and wept over it saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!…” And then he entered the city, spoke truth to power, was arrested, unjustly tried, forgave his accusers, and died.
Why did he say that? Evangelicals might have been happier if he’d said, “If you had known the prayer to pray so that you can get to heaven when you die…” Or, “If you had known the right sexual ethic or aligned with the right (or further right) political party.” Or, “If only you had armed yourselves and exercised your 2nd amendment rights.” Don’t misunderstand, please. Prayer, sexual ethics, and one’s views on gun control matter. But Jesus wept because the people who studied, defended, and sought to protect the ancient texts, never knew the things which make for peace:
They never understood, not really, that monotheism is, at the core, about peace. The God of the Bible was distressed in the early parts of Genesis because of the violence which had filled the earth, and monotheism began in the midst of polytheistic world views characterized by violence, tribalism, and slavery. In such cultures, religion was the mask used to cover the pursuit of power for the few at the cost of oppression for the many. So it has always been. So it is to this day.
But the God of Abraham, who by the way, is the God at the headwaters of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, posits an entirely different path. Jonathan Sacks, in his marvelous and timely book, “Not in God’s Name” writes:
Not all at once but ultimately it made extraordinary claims. It said that every human being, regardless of color, culture, class or creed, was in the image and likeness of God. The supreme power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless. (According to this God)….A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Life is sacred. Murder is both a crime and a sin. Between people there should be a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love. Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. Though he lived differently from his neighbours, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God –‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.
Things turned out differently of course. Judaism became marked by a terrible superiority complex of self righteousness. Christianity quickly became wedded with state power, and we’re still bearing the ugly fruits of violent colonialism, crusades, and violence carried out in Jesus’ name. And Islam mutated too, presenting itself as overflowing with hate and a lust to destroy, as seen yet again in Belgium this week. Boom!
Jesus words are haunting. “if you’d known the things which make for peace…” Though we hate what happened this week, and in Paris, and in Istanbul, and in Egypt, and in Syria, I wonder: Do I know the things which make for peace? Or have I baptized my lust for comfort and control in Bible words, and continued to wander in the deep ditch that is violence done in God’s name, matching hate for hate, threat for threat, bomb for bomb?
The answer comes as I walk with Jesus to the cross this Holy Week, and perhaps in light of all that’s happening, this Holy Week is the most important week of our lives. When I walk with Jesus with a goal, not just of feeling bad about how much he suffered FOR me, but rather, through the lens of seeing him as the prototype of what it means to be a person of peace, I’m struck with some profound and radical realities:
I learn that retaliation isn’t God’s way. Peter pulls out a sword and is ready to take on the army, but after cutting off a guy’s ear, Jesus heals him (the very soldier who’s come to arrest him) and tells Peter to put away the sword, reminding him that the one “who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Sure, if you want to get all pragmatic about it, the fact is that if someone’s dead, they’re no longer a threat to you. But their family? Their tribe? Their government? All of them will make sure that, by god, “you will pay.” All the way back in Genesis 4, a man named Lamech boasts, “I have killed a man for wounding me…and a boy for striking me” and goes on to say that if anyone tries to extract retaliation he’ll pay them back 77x greater! Yes. This is our world.
No. This is never. Ever. The way of the cross. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
I learn that forgiveness IS God’s way. Later, after Jesus has been beaten, spit on, humiliated, and nailed to a cross, a crowd is mocking him. Jesus’ response is to pray, asking God to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Wow. If I’m going to walk with Jesus, rather than just appropriating him for my own political ends, I’m going to need to lay down my weapons, lay down my life, and pray for my enemies. I’m going to need to learn how to forgive the very people who aren’t even aware they’re wrong. As Jesus warned the disciples, “an hour is coming when people will think they are doing God’s will by killing you.” That hour is here.
Those who did that to Christ were forgiven. Without confession. Without acknowledgement of guilt. Read it here. Forgiven. In a world where bitterness is the norm, and prevailing ‘wisdom’ teaches us that a scorched earth policy will eventually solve the problem, this notion of forgiving is hard to swallow, and surely leads to more questions than answers. I know because I have the questions too. It seems nonsensical and too idealistic.
But the one answer it does lead to is this: those who have the courage to forgive will break the cycle of retaliation and hatred. They’ll break it rather than escalate it, and those are the only options, friend. Either the cycle of retaliation is broken, or it’s escalated. Will I be part of the problem or part of the solution?
I learn that fear must be overcome. The way of the cross is exactly the opposite of the way of upward mobility, or comfort, or expansion, or matching violence for violence. It’s the way of fidelity to God’s vision for peace, by being peace in the midst of a violent world.
If you think that path was easy for Jesus, consider his sweating drops of blood in the garden on the last night before crucifixion and his prayer that if there were any other way to bring peace, would God please offer a way out, because this way resides far from our instincts for self-preservation! In the end though, those instincts went to the cross too, because the way of peace is the way of losing one’s life to find it, the way of turning the other cheek, the way of letting God make things right through God’s means and timetable rather than taking things into our own hands.
Bombs go off and we’re afraid, especially in proportion to their proximity. But in this global village, every bomb is a cause for fear, a cause for retreating into our cocoon of tribalism or racism or religious retaliation.
It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said “It is better to be feared than to be loved”: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. (Jonathan Sacks)
Yes, and it was Jesus who said, “he who seeks to save his life will lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake, will keep it.” If you think that doesn’t require courage, just ask:
Now it’s our turn, and in the midst of all the political rhetoric inciting violence and hate, my prayer is that you and I will have the courage to walk the way of the cross. That’s what makes this week so special this year. It’s not just for me. It’s my path too. To make it on this path, though, I’ll need to take both fear and retaliation out of my pack, and exchange them for an eagerness to forgive and love. It’s the way of Jesus, and his load is the right one.
I pray I’ll have the courage to go there.