Since moving to the mountains it seems my wife and I are always thinking about wood and fire. From the start of fall until at least halfway through spring, we’re hauling wood up from storage and burning it for heat.
Before burning season is over, though, we’re already on the prowl for new wood for the next season. It must be found, cut into pieces small enough for hauling, hauled, unloaded, cut, split, stacked to dry,. All this is as good as, maybe better than, a cross fit workout. Then, once the holzhausens are in the shadows, the wood will be moved under the house to await its contribution as family warmth while the snow falls.
Meanwhile in the middle of the summer, we light a fire in a marvelous home made bbq, using sticks from the forest, in preparation for a grand 4th of July party at our house. Primal fire, with friends gathering from the neighborhood to bid goodbye to a dear couple who are moving east after twenty years living at the pass.
Fire in the mountains has a beautiful rhythm, all by itself, but the more I gather, cut, split, stack, haul, and burn wood, the more I find profound meaning in it as well. My reasons have to do with the ribbon of fire that flows through the Bible.
Worship and fire have always been linked. From the days of Noah, who offered burnt offerings, to the tabernacle, which provided an altar for burnt offerings, and perpetual light from lit lamps, fire and light were necessary to worship. The light represented God’s capacity to overcome darkness, a theme that would culminate in Jesus presenting himself as “the light of the world”.
But fire? It, too, is about hope. The fire on the altar of burnt offering was a divine gift, having been lit originally by God Himself (Leviticus 9:24). God charged the priests with keeping His fire lit (Leviticus 6:13) and made it clear that fire from any other source was unacceptable (Leviticus 10:1-2).
There’s enough here, in this little section of Leviticus, to see that in a cold world, God invites us to be people exuding the warmth of God’s fire. Here’s what I mean.
God IS our fire. God is the source of a holy fire as seen above, but more. We’re told that during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, God WAS a fire by night, and that the fire was there precisely to offer guidance. We’re also told that God IS a consuming fire, in two places in the Bible. Fire brings light, warmth, protection, and yes, fire consumes too. But be careful. It’s those of us who are certain God’s going to consume our enemies that are most likely in a for a big surprise; the realization that we who love God have boatloads of stuff in our own lives that need consuming. When the fire begins to expose and then burn away the lust, greed, self-pity, complacency, rush to violence, and so much more that is in us, then the best answer is: burn baby burn. Our God is fire.
God’s fire is now ours to keep lit. The priests of old were charged with keeping the fire lit. Today its all of us who claim to follow Christ, because he’s called all of us priests! So fire keeping is a thing for us, a responsibility. But what does this mean?
We get a hint when we come to see that the Holy Spirit shows up for these people as fire, and falls on them. This Spirit becomes a vital source of Christ followers, granting them direction, conviction when they’re wandering off the path, a power beyond their human capacity, in words, in the power to heal, in and wisdom.
The hope, it seems, is that such empowered people, lit on fire by God himself, will bring warmth to the world, and point everyone they meet to its source.
So there you have it. If you claim to follow Christ, you’re invited to tend the inner fire, so that the power, beauty, love, wisdom of Christ will be seen like light in darkness, and felt like warmth in the cold.
But be careful. Any old fire won’t do.
There are fires of religion, which are nothing more than legalistic performance, whereby the liberty found in Christ is strangled by long lists of forbidden activities and required activities.
There are fires of nationalism, uniting gun laws, low taxes, and a deregulated environment with Jesus, making him out to be American, the tea-party’s finest advocate. Liberals mustn’t throw stones because, in spite of what the leftist Christians believe, Jesus isn’t the poster child for liberalism either. Jesus’ kingdom is neither unfettered capitalism, nor social/economic liberalism. It’s wholly other, embodying peace, generosity, hospitality, courage, love for enemies, pre-emptive forgiveness, and much more.
There are fires of upward mobility and health, but I’m glad Peter, Paul, and Timothy (all suffering at various times with poverty, persecution, and illness) weren’t depending on those fires. They’d have flamed out.
No, the only real fire, the one with the power to heal and liberate anywhere in the world, won’t be confined by health, economics, politics, or denomination.
This fire wants you as fuel, hence God’s invitation that you be “filled with the Holy Spirit” – and this means allowing your whole self to be offered as fuel, a “living sacrifice” is what God calls it. The reason it’s living is because of God’s mysterious ways with fire. God’s fire was, for example, in the burning bush, a fire Moses saw as mystery because though the bush was burning, it was never consumed!
Imagine never being consumed?
I’m convinced we undersell the adventure that awaits us when we follow Christ wholeheartedly. Then, holding back our money, our time, our politics, our geographical or vocational preferences, we’re making our own fires. Religious? Perhaps. But they literally can’t hold a candle to God’s beautiful fire, the fire that could be, that should be, when a life is lived wholly – with a pre-emptive answer of “yes!” whenever God calls.
One author says “the Christian life hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it’s been untried at all, and it’s judged because it’s religious imposter turned out so ugly”.
So Lord… light my fire! All of me. Consume my garbage, that the diamonds of hope, generosity, joy, and peace might thrive, be lit as everlasting offerings, and bless our cold dark world.
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.
We live in an increasingly tribal world, where white supremacists feel empowered in new ways, European nations are finding xenophobic voices on the rise, and whole people groups, like the Kurds, find themselves at risk wherever they turn. In spite of all the good work God has done in Rwanda, tensions still brew just under the surface there, and the developed world is dealing with an exponential increase in refugees, precisely because of tribalism.
With fears of “the other” on the rise, a look at Jesus life, from beginning to end, is like a drink of fresh cold water in the midst of the desert. This is because Jesus loved all, breaking the normal social and tribal walls that so often isolate and divide. Consider:
1. The wise men were from the east, not Jewish, and among the first worshippers, along with shepherds who, by virtue of their work, were considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite.
2. Early in his ministry, he goes out of his way “pass through Samaria” and engage with a woman who, by any standard of Jewish religious propriety, would have been an outsider. She was a) a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealing with Samaritans b) a woman, and men have no dealings with women and c) living with a man ‘not her husband’, which would have rendered her unclean. And yet here he is, talking theology with her, and eventually revealing his identity as Messiah. She becomes an evangelist, telling others what she’d seen and heard, just like the shepherds before her.
3. Jesus heals a Greek woman’s daughter, commending her for her faith, and later, heals the child of a Roman soldier.
4. He calls a despised “tax collector” to become one of his disciples.
5. The complaint leveled against him by the religious establishment is that he spends time with “tax collectors and sinners”.
6. He advocates for a woman caught in “the very act of adultery” saving her life, forgiving her, and telling her to “sin no more”.
7. He tells a thief dying on the cross that he’ll be joining Jesus in paradise.
7. He even has a heartfelt and compassionate conversation with “a ruler of the Jews” who is part of the religious establishment
All these things offend the sensibilities of basically everyone, because Jesus refused to be confined to a single people group or party. Rich or poor. Jew or Gentile. Slave or free. Man or woman. Married or those with failed marriages. Undeniable sinner, or sinner covered in a veneer of religion – Jesus loved them all.
This is a great gift this Christmas season, because the reality is that those who love this way receive a much needed gift as a result of crossing social divides and loving those different than them – they receive the gift of joy!
I know lots of Christians, lots of religious people. One thing I’ve learned is that its the people who “cross over” who find an element of joy in their lives unavailable to those who remain confined within the walls of “their own kind”. This isn’t because crossing over is easy. It’s not. It’s because crossing over is “the life for which we’ve been created” and when we cross over, we become aligned with the deepest part of our soul.
The gift of crossing over began early, as shepherds, judged as unclean, received a message from an angel and “crossed over” into the presence of a holiness that the religious establishment would have forbidden to them. God, far from forbidding, initiated the invitation! Jesus, we are told in Ephesians 2, has broken down the dividing wall. This is a gift.
Have you unwrapped this gift, and begun enjoying relationships with those across the way – racially, economically, socially, politically? There’s joy “over there” friends, for those willing to follow Jesus and cross the divides.
Here’s the deal, as announced in Luke 2:10:
For all people!
There’ll be a banquet in the end, and most folks at the table won’t look like you; they maybe didn’t even vote like you. But though the banquet’s still to come, the party’s started, so enter in – by crossing over!
But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free? The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies. So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ. They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.
He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
A freedom tied to obedience
These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute. As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.” Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”. The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom. There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.
What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong. If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?
Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love. We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny. This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.
I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers. They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.
A freedom tied to external revelation
One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed. “If you want to own a gun, own a gun. If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion. If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.” What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone. Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being. What if you want my wife? Or my children? Or my stuff?
So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”
Ah, but there’s the problem. One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone. Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server. But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.
The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage. Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul. “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you” Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom. Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.
Simple right? We’re all free. Yes, free. And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom. How’s this working for us? Not so well, I’d argue.
What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke. Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing. My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps. Freedom? Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway. That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.
Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable. Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.
In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more. But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.
The Illusion of Freedom
When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children. We have never been anyone’s slaves…” In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?” I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome. Before that it was Greece. Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire. Before that it was Babylon. Before that it was Assyria. Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.
We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.
But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need. This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”. And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough. Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority. That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.
“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”
Behind the holiday lights, both here in Europe and back home in the USA, the waves of unhappy news just keep coming. Colorado Springs. Beirut. Paris. Mumbai. San Bernadino – death dealing violence has become so common its hardly news anymore.
In such times, the events themselves are never the only stressors. There are reactions to the events, or the proposed reactions by politicians and wanna-be presidents that cause reaction too, and then, because we’re all connected, there are our responses to each other’s responses. Gun control or conceal and carry? Religious profiling or open borders? Boots on the ground? Drones in the air? Leave them alone?
These are our debates, and as we’re having them, they usually aren’t pretty. The uncivil dialogue creates yet another stress, as we become ‘houses divided’ even in communities of Christ followers. How good people land on such profoundly different sides on these conversations is a topic for another day. For this day though, I’d suggest that the most important thing Christ followers can do as they seek to form their own convictions on these matters is to make certain that our convictions are formed by things we know with a great deal of clarity from our Bibles. Jesus hasn’t ruled directly whether a ban on assault weapons is a good or bad idea. He didn’t go into detail on what Rome’s immigration policy should be in the 1st century But he wasn’t silent either. Jesus taught us stuff, and it’s the stuff we know that should be our starting point in framing our ethics:
What DO we know?
1. We shouldn’t be motivated by fear
The west is bathed in fear right now, and the fear is giving birth to all kinds of unhealthy responses, ranging from pre-emptive violence against immigrants to amassing weapons and ammo to protect ourselves and our stuff, to blanket condemnations of entire people groups.
It’s important to see that throughout the Bible, if the motive behind our actions is fear, our actions are likely wrong. When the Lord speaks to Joseph about the unexpected pregnancy of his fiance, God tells him to ‘fear not’, and this means he must overcome the natural fear of social consequences and fear of what other people think. The same message to “fear not” comes to Mary, and then later to the shepherds. Everyone is called to simply “do the right thing” and then trust that the consequences of such actions will be in God’s hands.
The problem with fear is that it leads to reactionary responses and often escalates cycles of violence needlessly, and this is the reason we should make certain we’ve slain the fear in our hearts before choosing our course of action, or even making our vote. Fear’s a seductive mistress, often bathed in the rhetoric of patriotism and/or faith, but when stripped to core, it’s still just fear.
2. We’re called to be people of justice
While it’s true that embodying the character of Jesus means turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and laying down our lives for one another, it’s also true that Jesus has a heart for the unjustly oppressed, the downtrodden, and victims of violence whether in Paris or in Syria.
When my pacifist friends tell me that Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, I wholeheartedly agree. What makes our world tricky is the question of how I’m to respond when the lives of others are at stake; my children, my wife, my Muslim or Christian neighbor, innocents celebrating a birthday in a Paris cafe, or gathering for a work party in Santa Monica, the teenage girl sexually enslaved in Asia or Los Angeles due to greed – what should Jesus do here? Maybe more than tweets and prayers.
What does the Lord require of us? Do justice! And then he leaves it to us to figure out what that means. The thing he makes clear is that the justice for which we’re to work is that of others first, more than justice for ourselves.
3. We’re called to be people of mercy
There’s a story in Genesis about Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and God tells Abraham that he will spare an entire city that’s filled with unjust people for the sake of 10 who are righteous.
It seems our conversations these days have become the exact opposite of that. We’re willing to vilify, label, and exclude an entire religious group because of the risk that some few among them might be zealots intent on doing harm. We’ll judge the whole because of the risk of a part being hurtful. Is this mercy?
4. Words matter
Jesus said that by our words we’ll be justified and by our words we’ll be condemned, and then the Apostle Paul followed up on this by twice calling us to watch our language. When we lose civility in our conversations, we also lose credibility. This isn’t to say we should be anything less than honest, forthright, and courageous in what we say. It simply means that the way we say things matters as much as what we say.
Here at the end of this post, I’ve not addressed ethical and political specifics. It’s not because these don’t matter. However before there are ethics, there are motives and priorities which shape those ethics. And now, more than ever, is a time when we need the wisdom of Christ at the core, at the level of motives and priorities.
The Prince of Peace has come. God with us! But more, he’s calling us come to each other in exactly the same way he came to us. May we search our hearts and motives this Advent, to the end that the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands will have their origin in Christ himself.
One of the reasons I love living in the mountains is because the weather changes dramatically, almost all the time. Waking up in the morning is a bit like unwrapping a fresh present each day whose content is utterly unknown. Will it be like a warm cup of coffee enhanced with the light of a thousand candles and the fragrance of fresh blossoms, or ice, wind, and darkness, stark in its beauty, but hard to handle nonetheless, especially in April.
It turned dark late this past Friday afternoon, and the mixed snow and rain turned to just snow, pure and white, cold in her beauty, relentless in her covering of every fresh blossom of spring. We watched with a bit of anxiety as the fresh blossoms in the hanging baskets were blanketed in signs of winter, and sat by the window with our relatives from California, watching winter fall from the sky on April 24th.
Saturday morning when we woke everything was under a white blanket as we gathered with our neighbors for our morning walk. Halfway through the walk, I left them for a run, and by the time I returned, heading east toward my street, there was a blazing sunrise, back lighting the trees like we were in a studio somewhere, only better.
I stopped, overwhelmed by the beauty of it, but not for long, as I finished my run, got my camera and returned, shooting a dozen pictures before the bacon was even in the pan. Why? Two reasons:
1. Snow in spring is reminder of how the story ends, and this gives me hope.
There’s enough news of brokenness these days to make our heads spin. Yemen. Isis. Baltimore. Nepal. Syria and poisonous gas. Maybe some can just shut it all out by turning up the baseball game or chatting about their latest investments or a vacation plans to Europe, but I can’t. Day after day, the avalanche of suffering and death, most of it inflicted on humanity by humanity, leaves me reeling, wondering if these storms won’t in the end, carry the day, the way snow around here usually wins by Thanksgiving, covering everything and hiding all signs of life until sometime around high school graduations. I wonder if peace will ever happen, if oppression will ever end.
The same thing happens personally sometimes. There are setbacks. We break promises made to ourselves, or are suddenly wallowing in the deep freeze of broken relationships, when only a few days earlier we were basking the warmth of the Holy Spirit’s gentle turning of our hearts toward God in some area. We feel as divided as fresh blossoms blanketed in ice and we wonder. “Who are we really? And who are we becoming?”
The good news of the Gospel is that we, along with the whole cosmos, are heading toward an end when everything will be shot through with the glory of God. All wars will be over. All relationships will be reconciled. All diseases will be healed. Every tear will be dried up.
We know this because Easter is like a fresh blossom in spring, “the first fruits of the resurrection” we’re told. That means the snows of suffering we see these days whether in Yemen or in our own hearts, are winter’s last gasp. New Life is inexorably growing and will continue its miraculous and healing work until all things are made new.
If I didn’t believe that, I’d quit my job, never watch the news again, and confine myself to the pure pursuit of pleasure. Why not, if winter wins in the end? But of course, winter doesn’t win… so Paul, with promise of eternal spring in mind, reminds us to get on with making springtime visible: “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord…” This is what gives me hope, what gets me up in the morning, what gives me a love for my calling.
2. Snow in spring is a reminder that there’ll be storms until the sun reigns completely.
When we walk with our neighbors during these crazy spring snow storms, nobody’s afraid that we’re going to miss summer. In spite of the thick white everywhere, there’s a quiet confidence in the inevitability of the sun’s power, and this confidence sucks all power out of the storm. The fear is gone.
You’ve had faith setbacks, relationship setbacks, financial hardships, health challenges. We all have, in varying measure. And yet, the reality is that these things aren’t the biggest challenge most of the time. Most of the time the big challenge is our reaction to these things, and all the drama we bring to the situation. It’s as if we’re worried that April snow is going to kill God’s love for us, or that this setback will spell the end of our marriage, or this unimaginable loss means there is no God at all.
The truth of the matter, though, is that these are April snow storms. In spite of the thorough victory acheived at the cross and resurrection, we’re told explicitly that “we do not yet see all things subject to him” which is God’s way of saying that it snows in April, May, even in July and August if you live in the high country of vibrant faith.
You’ll be cold alright. The ice will inflame your heart with a longing for God’s divine fire. As a result, precisely because of the storm, you’ll know facets of God’s character you’d never have otherwise seen, and grow in confidence that God’s trajectory is assured, that we are, indeed, moving “from glory to glory”.
Is it snowing in your life just now? Know that underneath it all, the strong juice of Christ’s resurrection life is working its relentless purposes toward peace, beauty, hope, and joy.
O Lord of all seasons
We thank you for the inevitability of spring, for the hope found in the cycles of renewal that reminds us of where history is heading. Grant that we might be people of hope in spite of the storms that blast us, knowing that through it all, your life is filling us, changing us, and making us fruitful.
Spoiler alert. If you don’t know what happens to Jesus after his crucifixion, I’m going to share the punchline in this blog.
“Peace be to you” says Jesus, standing in the midst of the disciples, in a room with a locked door where he’s suddenly appeared without it opening! Their stunned silence is understandable. After all, Jesus, the one upon whom they’d pinned their hopes, the one for whom they’d left everything, the one who they’d betrayed and denied, the one from whom they’d just fled as he hung on a cross, was dead. Not, “as good as dead”—actually dead, and with that death, so died their hopes and dreams.
All this makes Jesus’ next line even funnier to me, when he responds to their stunned silence with “why are you troubled?” as if they should have seen this whole narrative coming from day one, since he’d talked about his death and resurrection explicitly a few times and implicitly dozens of times. Still, somehow they missed it, and so Jesus’ words are much needed in the moment there in that room where it was slowly dawning on them that the whole course of history, not to mention their own lives, was about to change.
“Peace” and “Don’t be troubled” are his words to these anxious, troubled people, and they are just as significantly, words for us too, here and now in our troubles and anxieties.
Iran? Isis? Nigeria? Syria? Yemen? Black lives that matter? Policemen that are dead? Denominations that are in turmoil?
State rights? Individual rights? Health care? Your rights? Wall Street’s rights? Workers rights? Your relationships with children, parents, spouse?
“My God, what are we doing to each other?” is the only prayer some people know how to pray these days, and it’s really nothing more than a prayer for peace, because underneath it is the profound realization that things are broken and breaking, falling faster and harder than we’ve seen before.
Jesus, though, doesn’t bust out of tomb riding a white horse, raising hell, killing his enemies, and setting up shop as the newest savior, like Alexander the Great would, or V. Lenin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or even George Washington, or some power hungry pope, or Luther or Calvin. Instead he appears in a room with his closest friends, folk who’ve doubted, denied him, and functioned as largely clueless, fickle devotees, and offers his peace to them.
This revolution, unlike all others in history, unfolds from the inside out, beginning with the transformation of human hearts from anxious, fearful, and angry—to this state of peace. Wow! Are you interested in that offer? Me too.
I’m not able to fix this broken world, but I can become a person of peace in the midst of it all, and that will make a difference, not only in me, but in those I touch. Thankfully there are steps we can take to become people of peace, right here and now. I share the first step here, and next steps this coming weekend:
Step One: Peace is, first of all, a person. “He himself is our peace” is what Paul says, and he goes on to talk about how the reality of Christ in one’s life will lead to the breaking down of dividing walls, because by his very nature, Christ’s heart is for reconciliation and shalom (peace) among people. If Christ lives in me, the tidal movement of my life will be toward unifying not dividing.
“Really?” says the thoughtful person who knows a bit of church history. “What about Rwanda, or the Christian settler’s treatment of American Indians, or slavery, or culture wars that push people to the margins of society, or doctrinal wars that so fracture the church and fill it with hurtful words that people on the outside want nothing to do with her? What about the 30 year war in Europe, or the Protestant’s treatment of the radical reformers, or… I could go on for a thousand words, but you get the point.
To say that God’s people are people of peace is absurd.
Ah, but Jesus knew that there was a profound difference between being religious and being people of peace. The former draw lines and rely heavily on exclusionary and dualistic language: in/out, saved/lost, right/wrong, civilized/savage, black/white and the way this plays out often gets ugly and violent. This was the way the disciples had been brought up. It’s the usual way for most of us, religious or not. That’s why Jesus’ disciples wanted to reign fire down on that village where people weren’t believing. It’s why they were so excited on Palm Sunday, as they believed that finally Jesus was going to exercise his divine right to bear arms, destroy the Roman violence machine by violence, and finally win this simmering war.
It’s also why Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying “if only you’d known the things that make for peace” —but they didn’t. They knew dualistic thinking. They knew how to win by making the other guy lose. They knew about the peace of Rome, which was a peace rooted in fear and violence. They wanted the peace of Rome to become the peace of Israel, still rooted in fear, but with the shoe on the other foot.
Jesus would have none of it. He’s into breaking down dividing walls and bringing people together. He’s into serving, even his enemies. He’s into going the second mile, and truth telling, but truth telling bathed in love and a commitment as far as possible, to redeeming the relationship. He’s so into peace, that when his disciple Peter cut a soldier’s ear off, rather than teaching Peter better swordsmanship, he tells him to put the sword away, and heals the guy’s ear. He even makes it clear that overcoming violence with violence is not a great idea.
He wins the peace, breaks down the walls, defeats the forces of evil with the most revolutionary weapon known to humanity—infinite love. “While we were still enemies… Christ died.”
You want peace? It starts by yoking yourself with the Prince of Peace. But be careful, You’ll find yourself going to parties with people you didn’t think you’d like, visiting seniors who are lonely, and sharing a drink with someone whose theology is, by your standards at least, “off”. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to bless those around with little thought of whether they’re ‘worthy’, agree with you, or even like you. Your fear will be melting away like a spring thaw. Love will blossom. And the tomb that held your bitterness, rancor, and pride, especially your religious pride—well you’ll wake up one Sunday spring morning and find it: empty.
Peace. Don’t let your hearts be troubled.
I’m happy to offer a repost today of something offered earlier this summer during my sabbatical because it seems so very appropriate during the holidays, when sometimes the tension between beauty and brokenness is so great we’re afraid we’ll snap. Here are some observations about that tension and living in it. Enjoy!
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 assault, 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 candle lit 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 a 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,” is how 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 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 for 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
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.
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.