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“What killed your husband?-Don Draper

“He was thirsty. He died of thirst” -a woman Don had met on an airplane

“You are the one the greatest of good, you made us to love and to long. You’re the fulfillment of all our truest desires, the righting of all wrongs.” -Julian of Norwich

Mad Men and Bad Men If you’ve watched more than a few minutes of the AMC show Mad Men you’ve noticed that everyone drinks copious amounts of alcohol. But no one drinks more than the lead character Don Draper. Actual studies have been done on how much Don drinks on camera, but the show Mad Men isn’t glorifying this because the consequences have been devastating to his life.

Over the course of the past 6 season, Don has vomited at a funeral, gone through two divorces, punched a minister (my personal favorite), been thrown in jail, and has developed a nasty habit of shaking when he’s not able to have a drink. The majority of time Don drinks alone, and without saying a judgmental word about it, Mad Men is letting us know that Don Draper is drinking, not out of enjoyment, but because he’s very, very thirsty.

Obey Your Thirst

One of my favorite stories in Scripture is in John 4. Jesus takes his disciples to a Samaritan village (the Jewish people’s enemies) and sits down at a water well with a woman who’s there alone. This story is profound on several levels, but what I want to point out today is that Jesus starts a conversation with her by asking her if she will give him a drink. She points out that they shouldn’t be talking, because he’s a Jewish man, and she’s a Samaritan woman, and what will the neighbors think, and Jesus just ignores her concern and keeps talking about water.

But not just any water.

Jesus starts telling her that He can give her living water, that He can quench her thirst in places that she didn’t even know she had. And she responds with, “Yeah, that sounds good, give me some of that.”

So Jesus says, “Go get your husband.”

When you first read this, it seems like a jerk move by Jesus, because this woman is a social outcast. She’s going to immediately tell Jesus that she doesn’t have a husband, and Jesus replies “You’re right, you’ve had five husbands and the man you live with now is not your husband.”

Does it surprise you how quickly Jesus gets into her sex life? Not just to fix her, but because Jesus is going to go directly to the parts of our life where our heart is. Jesus is going directly to her greatest disappointments and her greatest desires.

I like the way Pastor Tim Keller says this:

Why does Jesus seem to suddenly change the subject from seeking living water to her history with men? the answer is-he isn’t changing the subject. He’s nudging her, saying “If you want to understand the nature of this living water I offer, you need to first understand how you’ve been seeking it in your own life. You’ve been trying to get it through men, and it’s not working is it? Your need for me is eating you alive, and it will never stop.

Jesus has just revealed what the woman is thirsty for and how her particular drink of choice keeps her thirsty for more.

The Morning After

Theologians have a phrase about this “post coitum omne animal tristes est”  It means: “After sex, there’s still more wanted.”

I think that phrase is so profound, especially in light of what Mad Men is trying to do. The world of advertising in the 1960’s tried successfully to attach almost every product to humanity’s most primal desires. “If you buy this dishwashing detergent you’ll have more time for…” “If you smell like this cologne, she’ll want to do this to you…”

And it’s worked, slowly brands have worked their way into our hearts, attaching themselves to our desires. But from the beginning Christianity has said, “After sex, more is wanted.”

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again.

Don Draper Passed Out on Floor

Don Draper Passed Out on Floor

And this is one the most counter-cultural things that Mad Men has done. It has shown Don Draper live out the darkest fantasy any guy could have. Don has slept with more women than Hugh Hefner, he’s had hundreds of affairs with very attractive women, every sexual dalliance you could fantasize Don Draper has had.

And he’s the most tragic, sad character on television.

Because after sex, more is wanted.

There are really two ways that religion talks about desire. One is the way of Buddha, which is to say that desire is bad and leads to suffering. And that’s not without truth. Buddhism knows that everything will eventually let you down, and if you just can train your body to not desire things you can eliminate much suffering in life.

But that’s not how Jesus does it. Jesus doesn’t call the woman away from her thirst, He calls her deeper into it. Jesus doesn’t renounce God’s good world, He just knows that after sex, after any good thing, more is wanted. God made the goodness in the world, and everything in it points back to Him.

Here’s the way Shane Hipps says it in his book Selling Water by the River:

The objects of our pursuits present one problem. Whatever feeling they evoke, whatever thirst they quench, whatever joy they create, it never seems to last. Eventually, our husband’s gaze returns to his favorite glowing screen, our wife becomes cold and critical, our body fails us, the pay doesn’t match the hours, the sex ends, a loved one leaves, children act out, the bowl of ice cream is empty, and the buzz wears off. Soon the hunger returns and the quest begins again. The Problem isn’t the pursuit of these things. They are meant to be enjoyed. The problem is the nature of these things. They are temporary, and therefore so is their effect. Our joy will share the fate of the thing we bind it to

The problem comes when we confuse the gifts with the Giver.

Before St. Augustine was a saint, he was the Don Draper of the 3rd century, and I’ve fallen in love with how he talks about this. He says that the great problem we all have is that our loves are out of order.

Aft first I thought that meant something like we love food too much, or we love our spouse, or our children, or sex too much. But that’s not what Augustine meant, He meant that our real problem is that we love God too little. Our loves are out of order, because only God can satisfy, only God can teach what satisfaction actually feels like.

When we forget that we become thirsty people trying to drink sand.

We chase so hard after everything, only to catch it and realize that we are thirsty for more.

If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation. -Don Draper

Mad Men and Bad Men

 

The most theological channel on cable television is not TBN, it, by far, is AMC.

Not that there is anything wrong with TBN (he said to not lose readers), TBN talks a lot about God, they talk a lot about Jesus, but they rarely talk like Jesus. Because Jesus talked in parables, he told stories that captured people’s imaginations, stories that were intriguing and confusing and layered and filled with possibility.

There’s a reason that my friends talk so much about the AMC shows like Breaking Bad or Walking Dead or Mad Men.  Each one of these shows, while not moralizing life, has some form of moral compass and, much like the Bible, present complex characters that are hard to place in a category. Is Don Draper noble or a womanizer? Does he inspire or repulse you?

I’ve wondered for a while about why Mad Men is so popular with our culture, it’s overtly racist, misogynistic and incredibly sad. It’s also saying some pretty profound things about the human condition and a specific era of American culture that has shaped how Americans feel today more than any other time in the 20th century.

And so I’d like to do a little series about Mad Men as this show comes to it’s end. I’m convinced that the most Theological events in culture are happening right in front of us, and we don’t have eyes to see it.

Speaking in Tongues

Because Christians, at least Protestant Christians, rarely understand art and how art works. There’s a reason that someone like Martin Scorsese starting making movies after going to seminary to be a Catholic Priest. All art is speaking in tongues because art says something that mere words cannot.

I remember a few years ago, I was sitting at a table of friends and we were talking about sexism and chauvinism and what it meant to be a good man in today’s world, and one of my friends asked the question “What do you think the most pro-feminist television show on today is?”

You might think “New Girl” or “Ellen” or if you are of more the TBN variety, you might think of “Joyce Meyers Hour of Power” but my friend said, “It’s easy. Hand’s down it’s Mad Men”

The show that shows unapologetically how poorly women were treated in the 1960’s.

Mad Men has functioned as one of the most powerful social commentaries for social issues from sexism to racism or anti-semitism for the past 7 years, precisely by working like a parable showing us a familiar, but strange world, and letting us realize that this world was and is our own.

The genius of this show, is that it reveals to us, in a very historically accurate manner, what the world was like in the 1960’s in a way that allows us to see a glimpse into what people did and why they did it.

Mad Men doesn’t have villains and hero’s, each character is complex and filled with great sin and sometimes virtue. And in that way it is art that reminds me of the Bible.

Outside of Jesus, it is impossible to find one developed character in the Bible who the Scriptures present only their good side. It’s like God knows the tendency we have to whitewash over people after their death and the Bible refuses to let us forget that Rahab had an occupation before “hero” or that Elijah was emotionally unhealthy, or that even men after God’s own heart commit affairs…and murder.

The beauty of the Bible is that it’s not a bunch of polished characters. But real flesh and blood people with junk in their lives that could make anyone blush.

The Bible is filled with Mad Men.

But the Bible has more than flawed characters, it has a direction.

The Power of the Ought

Max Kampelman was a Jewish conscientious objector of World War II. When drafted, he chose to sign up for a year long Starvation military experiment instead of going to war. Later in life, he was a U.S. Ambassador and spoke to Presidents and Prime Ministers, and he told them all the same thing. He said the greatest human power is to ask the question “How things ought to be?”

Max Kampelman speaking at the White House

Max Kampelman speaking at the White House

Max pointed out that the Declaration of Independence is filled with oughts, such as “All men are created equal.” But if you think about it, how many years after the Declaration did it take to end slavery, or grant voting rights to everyone? But Max argued that the ought was the engine that kept it all moving forward.

The Declaration of Independence became our “ought”…it didn’t reflect the “is” it reflected what ought to be.

That’s what Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, is trying to do.

Matthew Weiner has created a show that is unlike any other, but it does have some parallels. Namely the book of Revelation in the Bible. Interestingly enough, the actual name of Revelation is Apocalypse, and that word doesn’t mean future prophecy, it means “Unveiling”

Revelation is the story about what happens when God pulls back the curtain and reveals it all.

In an interview a few years ago Matthew Weiner was described as being a gentle creator when it comes to the individual characters on Mad Men, but when he talks about society at large, Weiner is “a god of vengeance, who doesn’t hesitate to condemn” Here’s what Weiner said in the interview:

 “[During the 60’s} I was 18 years old, watching the world being run by a bunch of hypocrites…And at the same time, they were telling us how they had invented sex, how great it was to do all those drugs, they had no responsibilities, they really believed in stuff, they were super-individuals. Then along comes [these people who were] incredibly repressive, selfish, racist, money-grubbing …”

This is not a show I’d recommend to the faint of heart, there’s nothing G-rated about it, it’s easy to think that Mad Men is glorifying all the things that Hollywood commonly glorifies, sex, violence and selfishness. But here is the secret of Mad Men. It is an incredibly judgmental show, judging these things and finding them wanting.

It is a show that exposes idolatry without ever using that word.

It is a show that shows us our history, and calls us to a better future.

It’s a show that looks at all the ways we lie to ourselves and to each other and pulls back the curtains on our hypocrisies.

It’s a Revelation.

“In those days, the Word of the LORD was rare, there were not many visions.” -1st Samuel 3:1

It would be nice if people saw that the world cannot be disenchanted, and that the choice before us is really a choice of enchantments. -Francis Spufford

“I don’t believe in God. I believe in Science.” -Nacho Libre

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After the 2011 Tsunami hit Japan, the London Review of Books reviewed an essay on the recurring problem that people in the coastal regions of Japan called “Hungry Ghosts” The review is filled with fascinating stories of everyday, ordinary Japanese people stumbling into a world that was haunted – a world they really wished didn’t exist.

One story was about a guy named Takeshi Ono, who, two weeks after the Tsunami, drove to the coast with his wife and mother, and within a few hours of being there began acting like a possessed man, rolling in the mud, having to be forcibly held down by his wife and mother while shouting at them “You must all die! Everyone must die and everything be lost!.” And then pointing toward the ocean screaming, “There, over there! They’re all over there – look!”

For three days, every night as the sun went down, Takeshi would see people walking past him who weren’t there. Parents with their children, a group of young friends, a grandfather with his grandson and they would all just stare at him, dressed in their dirty, Tsunami-battered clothes and covered in mud.

Finally, under the threat of a divorce, his wife forced him to go see a Japanese priest who performed an exorcism of sorts, and he’s been back to his normal, not-seeing-ghosts-anymore, ever since.

I think it’s important to remember that this is taking place in Japan. The same place that gave the world Sony and Nintendo and sushi. This is not some Tibetan monastery where people spend their days praying, this is Japan and Ono is a construction worker who’s main flaw according to the LBR was that he was so “open and innocent (he was described as a Japanese kind of Mr. Bean) that the spirits were able to possess him.”

Open to Anything

In his watershed work, A Secular Age, The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor opens his book with this haunting question: “How is it possible for people to not believe in God anymore?”

One of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in amuch less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

[The] process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world.

One of the common distinctions in a Secular Age is not that we no longer have ghosts and demons and angels and God, it’s that we are no longer open to them.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from 1st Samuel, it’s a story of a young boy who grows up in the Temple with a priest. And the story begins by telling us that Samuel was growing up in a time when “The word of the LORD was rare”

Samuel is born in a time where people want to hear from God, but don’t.

And the turning point in Samuel’s life, really all of Israel’s history, is an old, overweight priest named Eli with bad eyesight and a dysfunctional family. Samuel wakes up one night to the sound of someone calling him, it’s just him and Eli in the Temple, so he does the math and goes to his boss and asks him what he wants.

Eli tells Samuel that he didn’t call him and that he should get back in bed (side note: I’ve got 4 kids under the age of 6 right now, you can’t tell me that Eli wasn’t thinking this was some ploy to stay up). This happens 2 more times before it dawns on Eli that this might be more than that late night hummus, and Eli says to Samuel the best advice I know for someone who wants to hear from God.”

Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

I know religious leaders well, I know the humility and courage this small act of ministry must have taken. If I was Eli, I would be tempted to say, “Tell God that He got the wrong room. The older, mature servant is listening in the next room.” But Eli doesn’t, instead he has the awareness that God will speak to whom God will speak, and that the only control anyone has over the voice of God is our ability to be present and listen.

Enlightenment and Enchantment

The ministry of Eil was to get Samuel to be open to the possibility that more might be going on than he had previously assumed. Samuel was working with the idea that if he heard something it had to come from the only other person there, Eli invited Samuel into a story of God who speaks

I want to be like Eli.

12th Century Depiction of "Hungry Ghosts"

12th Century Depiction of “Hungry Ghosts”

So back to the Japanese Demons and Charles Taylor…

Part of the challenge that we have in discerning God’s voice today is that it is such a struggle for us to even believe the possibility that God even exists. But while this might be a challenge intellectually, our emotions are still yearning for God, nothing satisfies us. We are filled with an aching longing desire. I think Eli would say, “Listen up.”

C.S. Lewis opened up his professorship at Magdalene College in Cambridge asking a house packed full with students:

Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the God of the Mountain has been wooing me…Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now.

C.S. Lewis believed that the choice wasn’t between enchantment or enlightenment, we are all under a spell, we are all open to something and closed to something else. The choice is which spell to be under.

This is the ministry of Eli, it is to tell the generation that is growing up in a time when “The word of the LORD is rare” that it just might be God you’re hearing from, open yourself up to the possibility that the world is not what you thought it was and that whisper might not be limited to who is in the room with you.

The universe doesn’t fit into a test tube and the world has always been, and still is, enchanted.

So speak LORD, your servants are listening.

Why is it; that when we speak to God we are said to be praying but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?” – comedian Lily Tomlin

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This is a true story.

At 22 years old, Barry Keenan was the youngest Los Angeles stock exchange investor making tens of thousands of dollars a month back in the 60’s, but he got hooked on pain killers and alcohol and lost everything. His world was unraveling quickly and he knew that he had to do something drastic. He drew up a business plan, choosing the best stocks for investment, but he needed to raise some capital.

So he decided to kidnap Frank Sinatra Jr.

As a dedicated Christian, Keenan never really thought of it as kidnapping, he thought of it as more of a “borrowing” He was only wanting to get ransom money, and because he was a devout but admittedly unorthodox Catholic, he was planning on paying all the money back within 5 years.

He had a detailed 3-ring binder describing how his plan was going to improve both his life and the Sinatra’s. It would bring the father and his estranged son closer together, It would help Sinatra’s PR problems (everyone saw the famous singer as being closely associated with the Mafia), and it would get Keenan the money he needed.

You know, your classic win-win scenario.

Comedy of Errors

Unfortunately, the kidnapping worked, but their exit strategy didn’t. They forgot their gun, Keenan’s partner accidentally knocked himself out during the kidnapping by running into a tree branch, when they reached Frank Sinatra Sr. and told him they had his son, Sinatra offered them a million dollar ransom, and Barry Keenan tried talking him down to $240,000 because that was all he needed for his business plan to work.

When he called Frank Sinatra Sr., Keenan told him that if he wanted his son back he needed to go to a gas station in Carson City (30 min away) to get further instructions. Unfortunately it took Sinatra and the FBI longer to get there than 30 minutes. Keenan called the gas stations at the agreed time, and asked the mechanic if Frank Sinatra was there. The mechanic was sure that this was a joke, and so he hung up.

A few minutes later, Keenan called again, same response. Then he called again, and finally the bartender yelled, “It’s 3 in the afternoon, why in the world would the most famous entertainer in the world be at the Texaco station?!! Now stop calling!”

Photo of the Texaco Ransom site from FBI.gov

Photo of the Texaco Ransom site from FBI.gov

A few minutes later, Frank Sinatra and a swarm of federal agents bust into the bar saying to the mechanic, “I’m Frank Sinatra, has anyone called for me?!!”

After receiving the ransom, the FBI captured Keenan and his partner, he was sentenced to life in prison, and a few years later was declared legally insane at the time. And then forty years later he told the story on This American Glass with Ira Glass. Here’s why he said he did it:

Keenan: I had God’s approval, this thing was being divinely blessed. God talked to me, particularly when I would go to Church, and light a candle, and be silent. God would talk to me, and He was very definite on that nobody could be hurt, and that I had to pay the money back”

Ira Glass: As you’ve gotten older and wiser, and sobered up, does God still talk to you?

Keenan: Oh no, that went away when I got sober, and also when I got psychiatric help.

This is a Test

I’d like to start a blog series for the next few weeks on Hearing God. As a minister, this is a question I get more than almost any other, in a variety of ways. Most often it comes out like, “What is God’s Will for my life?”

I wanted to tell that Sinatra story up front to maybe to pump the brakes on those of us who don’t have a lot of discernment in our lives helping to pick out which voices in our head are coming from God.

Because God never, ever, wants you to kidnap Frank Sinatra’s son, but don’t think that means God is silent.

It’s worth noting that up until recently, one of the litmus test for whether someone was to be considered sane or not was the question, “Do you hear from God?” This was a standardized test, that medical psychiatric professionals used right alongside, “Do you enjoy setting things on fire?” and “Are you cohabiting your own body?”

I’m and aware of the legitimate challenges for people who are mentally handicapped and all for modern psychological help, but this is a test that some of history’s greatest people would’ve failed. From Mother Theresa to Moses to Augustine including the much more average examples like the Christians I grew up with, the God of the Bible is a God who promised to keep talking to us.

On the night before he was crucified, Jesus promised his small band of followers that, while He was going away, He would still, in some mysterious way be present to them.

One of the twelve disciples, was a guy named “Judas who was also known as Thaddeus” (I think for the rest of his life he introduced himself with “just call me Thad”) asked Jesus how he was going to be both gone and present with them. And Jesus told them “The Father and I will come to you and make our home with you.”

Jesus goes on to say that not only will He be present, but that through his mysterious presence He will teach us and give us peace in proportion to our ability to bear and obey it.

If you’re reading this and part of you is cringing, trust me, I get it. I’ve seen the abuses, I know the dangers, I read the newspapers and watch the same documentaries we all do, but I still believe God still speaks, and I even believe that, despite all the risks, it’s good for us to be aware of Him speaking.

In the Beginning, God speaks into the original chaos and His word creates good things, it brings order, and life and beauty to the void.

I believe it still does.

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” -G.K. Chesterton

Un-Cool Desktop

For the past few weeks I’ve been writing a series on the problematic relationship that I think Christianity has with our desire to be seen as cool. And today I’d like to lay my cards on the table for my biggest problem with why I care about this, and why it concerns me.

It’s because the Church that called me to Jesus was anything but cool.

Chances are if you’ve read this blog for long, or have ever heard me preach, you’ve heard me talk about this little 10 person church before. It was for me a slice of Heaven on earth, it’s what I picture everything I hear the word church, and who I think of when I write every sermon.

Our worship leader had down syndrome, our preacher was mentally unstable, and our record attendance was 36 people. As much as I loved these people, I was still your average teenager prone to lots of insecurity and whenever we had guests I was often embarrassed by belonging to this group of people.

Every Age Has a Spirit

Often I would go to my other friends churches, and they didn’t look anything like the one I belonged to. They had people who were actually paid to preach or lead worship, they had gone to the trouble of printing bulletins and graphics for their the new sermon series and they had youth ministries, heck at my church, I was the youth ministry! And sometimes at these youth groups that I would hear the people talking about following Jesus in a way that was dismissive of the way their grandparents did.

They might talk about how Jesus was the original rebel and he certainly didn’t care about all that old crusty doctrine the way their Aunt Betty did (which ironically enough was a doctrine itself).

I learned that Jesus loved D.C Talk concerts and when true-love waited or when Christians kissed dating goodbye, He loved lock-ins and Christian athletes and could cause touchdowns for those who were confident that they could do all things through Him who gives them strength.

I know I’m being pretty sarcastic here, but I’m wanting to make a point. The great temptation of every age is to assume a level of superiority, a chronological snobbery that we’ve somehow been able to evolve past all the sin of previous generations. But today go to any church with a youth group and you’re likely to hear the very things I just mentioned as examples of how wrong we used to be in the very same dismissive spirit that people used in the generation before them. 

But the problem I had then is the one I still have today. I couldn’t write off the older generations because I was sharing life with them, I saw them wrestle with how to be faithful disciples in the world while trying to hold onto the tradition that they had passed on from the generations before them.

And this is my biggest problem with Cool Christianity…in order to exist, cool has to rebel against something, and the main way Cool Christianity thrives today is by rebelling against the Christianity of the previous generation.

In an article for the New York Times a few years ago called, “Ideas & Trends: Alt-Worship; Christian Cool and the New Generation Gap,” John Leland talked about how the the younger generations of Christians are rapidly reinventing church to be something far from what their parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced. Leland ends his article by posing this question:

“If religion is our link to the timeless, what does it mean that young Christians replace their parents practices?”

I think that’s a great question. How does a historic faith (a faith based in things that we believe happened in history) rebel against the faith that we inherited without changing the very nature of what that faith is? Cool is rooted in the moment, the way of Jesus is rooted in a tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Re-Generation

Think about how many times early church planters like Paul tells the churches to organize themselves in a way that helps widows and senior saints pass on their way of life to younger Jesus-followers. Paul will go from these super theological statements about the God who gives grace to all people and who has loved us from the beginning of time to saying things like, “Make sure the older women are teaching the younger women how to love their families and live holy lives.”Jesus loves you Hipster

Paul has this idea that church, like Jewish synagogues before would be a place where younger people and older people would be sharing life and offering generous critiques and wisdom for how to follow Jesus well.

In every healthy church I’ve seen that’s still the case, and those churches are rarely cool.

I like the way that the pastor Jonathan Martin talked about this when he was planting his church a few years ago. He said from the beginning that the church they wanted to plant wasn’t trying to be cool, it was trying to be faithful. Here’s his words:

“We are your grandmother’s church. And your great-grandmother’s church. And your great-great-grandmother’s church. I had grown weary of the clichéd church advertising that said, ‘We aren’t your grandmother’s church.’ I understand what they mean by that. It’s a way of saying that our church has electric guitars rather than pipe organs. I didn’t grow up in churches with pipe organs, so I have no reason to be defensive about them now. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with the careless language. The desire to cut ourselves off from those who came before us is no virtue. Even when we are flatly, and perhaps rightly, embarrassed by the behavior or the history of our churches on some level, we still exist in continuity with them. We are forever tethered to our grandmother’s church, and this is as it should be. Our grandmother’s church has given us many good gifts. But even when it has been very wrong, it still belongs to us.

This is at the heart of Christianity and the problem facing churches today, cool lives in the moment, the church lives through the centuries. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and linked to the generations who have gone before us, we must be faithful to the purposes of God for our generation, but we must also remember we belong to a tradition. We belong to the Kingdom of God and a democracy of the dead.
On February 26, 2015

UnCool: The Church Is For God

Un-Cool DesktopChristine Frost never set out to attract the attention of the entire world. The 77 year old nun had no interest in that kind of platform, she was just serving the LORD by serving the poor.

For the past forty years she had worked to get poor, disenfranchised people into better housing, she and her abbey devoted themselves to serving people in what we call “the projects.” For four decades she had served these people no matter what faith they had or didn’t.

And so when she Christine Frost saw the black flag of ISIS flying over the entry of the apartments she’d spent the better part of her life serving she did what was only natural. She took that flag down.

The flag had already been flying for two weeks, and when journalists approached to take pictures they were threatened with bodily harm, people had complained to local authorities, who were trying to figure out what to do. And that’s when Christine Frost, the nun, known for her ability to organize bingo nights and speak on behalf of the marginalized, stepped up.

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

This plucky senior saint just walked up to the building with a step-ladder and took the flag down.

At first, no one in the British press knew what to make of this act of bravery. Some assumed it was a Christian vs. Islam thing, but it wasn’t, it was woman who had been faithfully serving her community in the name of Jesus for decades and she had no idea that what she was doing would be so very cool, she just knew it was right.

Getting Hugged by Strangers

I spent this past Saturday night hanging out with Kent and Amber Brantly for a fundraising event. I had the privilege of getting to interview Kent about his experience with serving West Africa and having Ebola. They were really incredible, humble people who have given Jesus a good name. But the one thing I wasn’t expecting is how many people wanted to hug them.

We ate dinner at the Macaroni Grill before hand and total strangers just came up and hugged him and walked away without saying a word.

Amber told my wife, “This has been happening a lot lately.”

Think about that, these aren’t people who are asking for selfies or autographs, they aren’t wanting to get anything, they are just wanting to say thank you.

If you know Kent, you know that the best word to describe him isn’t cool, he’s not edgy or image-conscious, he’s the furthest thing from a hipster. He’s not cool, he’s more than that, He’s trying to be faithful.

And this brings me to the problem with the American Christian’s preoccupation with being cool. Cool is built on rebellion, and it’s easier to sell rebellion than holding on to some kind of tradition. I like the way Paul Grant puts it in his book, “Blessed are the Uncool”

Was Jesus really a rebel? Yes, but Jesus didn’t rage against some abstract machine; he called people to an old way, the way revealed in the prophets. . . . Jesus rocked the boat, and defied the status quo, modeling courageous resistance of the prevailing winds. But in our contemporary culture, rebellion is considered a good in its own right—and a thrilling one at that. We’re out to transgress. But we don’t really have any agenda beyond rebellion itself.

It’s so tempting for Churches to fall into the trap of pursuing cool, we use words like relevant or cultural engagement, we want to show the world that we “get it” and that we don’t believe in dragons or elves, but when we pursue this, it quickly becomes where we spend our best energies and resources.

David Wells makes this point well in his book “The Courage to Be Protestant”

“the miscalculation here is enormous…The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God. And the further irony is that the younger generations [are not impressed, they] often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

Instead of battling to be relevant and cool, churches should be doing is engaging their communities and cultures by trying to be the most faithful version of themselves for God and for the world.

Our chief goal isn’t to be relevant, it is to be the people of God.

Who is the Church For?

A couple of years ago I read the great book by Andy Stanley “Deep and Wide” where he asked the insightful question, “Is the Church for members or non-members?” He’s asking the question because of the tendency that churches have to bend toward being internally focused, and Stanley very convincingly makes the point that the church exists for the people who don’t belong to her.

So I went to Jeff Childers, a member at Highland and a good friend, and I asked him that question “Who is the church for?” And in one sentence Jeff exposed a huge gap in my faith and view of Church.

He just said, “Short answer is the Church is for God.”

Immediately, I was like “Oh yeah, that’s the right answer.”

I realized that this was the missing piece in my theology, I still believe that the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, but not first, She first exists for God.

Do you realize the great pleasure it gives God when we forgive people who are difficult to forgive? Do you realize when we reconcile racially/economically/politically we give God great joy because we are acting like His Son? We don’t’ do it because it’s popular, we do it because it’s who God is.

I don’t know of another reason that would cause someone to serve Ebola victims at the expense of their own health, or could cause an elderly nun to take down a flag at the cost of her own safety.

Sometimes the faithfulness of the Church catches the world’s attention and people are reminded that it is good news that Christians follow Jesus. And that may put an elderly nun on the front page of the Guardian, or it may get strangers coming up and giving you hugs at a Macaroni Grill.

But that’s not why we do it, the Church exists for the world, but not first, she first exists for God.

Photo from Gawker.com

Photo taken from Gawker.com

This Sunday afternoon, I read along with the rest of the world about the brutal beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS. Another horrific, intentionally symbolic and strategic bloodbath by a group of terrorists who are attempting to strike fear into the heart of everyone with an internet connection and a heart.

This latest feat is incredibly tactical and shrewd and evil.

As soon as I read the tragic news, I immediately thought of my Coptic Christian friends in Egypt, and specifically I thought of Jasar.

When Leslie and I were in college we spent a couple of weeks travelling across Egypt, the Coptic Christian community was already feeling somewhat persecuted by an predominately Muslim community and so they were cautious to identify themselves publically as Christians but several times we had people whisper things to us like “I follow Jesus too” but sometimes they didn’t have to say anything, like Jasar.

The Real Christian Nation

We met Jasar when we stopped at a local kiosk to get a snack, he was sitting in his chair with a Arabic Bible open in his lap. When we saw the Bible, I asked him what his favorite Bible verse was and Jasar said “Romans”

Maybe the Arabic version doesn’t come with verses.

He told me about how all around us were Jesus followers, trying to live at peace with people who don’t believe like they do. He told me about how often people are confused by Christianity and American culture.

I soon understood what he meant. It was from one of these types ofLetter From Egypt people that I received this letter a few days later. An Egyptian Muslim man handed me this letter, and I’ve kept it for over 13 years Here it is:

Dear Americans: Please tell your film censor board not to release any pop albums which are of bad scenes. This will affect our children in bad manner. Thank you for your presence. Bye George Bush & Condalessa Rice

To be clear, I wasn’t pretending to be George Bush, he just thought that this letter was probably going to get to him. You know because all Americans know him.

This was a serious letter given to me a 21 year old college student to make sure I got it back to the “film board of America.” And the sitting President of the United States. The man who gave it to me told me that he could never be a Christian because he believed that sex was meant only for marriage and shouldn’t be degraded the way he saw on the imported television shows and songs from the West.

I’m telling this story because in the land of the free, we are often unaware of how the rest of the religious world perceives us, when we refer to America as a “Christian Nation” that actually hurts the Church’s credibility across the world. Because they see what kind of stories and music and movies that America produces.

Notice that ISIS says, “this letter is signed in blood to the nation of the Cross” Before others weigh in on the “nation” part, I’d like to speak about the Cross part. Don’t make the same mistake ISIS has assuming that the way of Jesus is embodied by American culture/politics/territory.

The People of the Cross

I’m a part of this “Nation of the Cross” and it doesn’t have a nation, it is an international, world-wide community of people who believe that this is actually not the worst thing you can do to us. Terrorism and acts that are designed as symbolic fear-driven aggressive acts of bullying only strengthen our resolve to lay down our lives. You may denounce some of our culture, and there are plenty of us that wish that the Christians in America didn’t participate as readily in consuming some of the same culture you denounce, but you have woefully misunderstood who you are talking to.

If you want to talk to America than call it by it’s proper name, if you want to talk to the Church than this is our response for over 2000 years.

You can’t kill people who have already died. That’s who you are talking about and who you are talking to when you address “the people of the Cross”

The people of God have faced worse things than this before and we actually have a bit of historical perspective on what God does with our spilled blood. “The blood of Christians is the seed of Christianity” one early Jesus follower wrote during a much scarier time than this. And he was right, you have no idea the sleeping giant that you are waking with this challenge, and it’s not the West. It’s the power of the redeemed suffering of the people of God.

It’s what Revelation calls “the power of the Lamb”

Now If you want to write in blood, write in your own blood, that seems like it would be a bit more congruent with the faith you baptize your blood lust with.

If you want war, you will probably get it, that’s the same tired story that has been going on for thousands of years, nations will fight and evil will be restrained, and your movement is making no pains to hide its evil.

But you have no idea how foolish what you have done is.

In the Bible, murder doesn’t silence the voices of the slain. In the Bible, the blood cries out to God, in the Bible murder only amplifies to God  the sound, and I’ll bet that God’s ears are ringing.

Your attempt as symbolically killing people can not frighten disciples of a man who died by the very kind of propaganda you are trying to create.

So back to Jasar, my Coptic Christian friend in Egypt, after visiting with him for a few minutes, I asked him to read me John 16:33 from his translation.

The verse I asked him to read is translated in English versions like this:

“In this world you will have troubles, but take heart I have overcome the world.”

But Jasar’s rough translation was this:

“This life and the world you live in will be hard, but don’t be anxious. I win.”

I feel great sorrow and solidarity with these Christians and would like to join with my Egyptian brothers and sisters as they have declared the next 7 days of mourning. May we join in the voices of the saints in Heaven looking on asking, “How long O Lord?”

May their families receive the comfort of God and may these martyrs rest in peace and rise in glory.

Come soon LORD Jesus.

On February 3, 2015

Uncool: Embarrased to Say

“The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” -The Westminster Confession

Un-Cool Desktop

Alex was pretty well off in life, he probably came from a family with a modest income, and now he was on a fast track to having a pretty good life. He was lucky enough to be put in an imperial boarding school, and in 1st century Rome that meant that he was going to get to serve in the palace of the Emperor. If Alex played his cards right he might even get to serve the emperor himself.

But that probably never happened.Alex graffiti

Because it turns out that the boarding school that Alex went to was really cruel. Today the ruins of this 1900 year old school are famous not for the education, but for it’s graffiti. The students drew all over the walls of this school, and one of them carved this picture, and along with it all we know about the student “Alex”

Alex’s peers carved a picture of a man worshipping a donkey on a cross. Then they added in crude language “Alexamenos worships [his] God”

And you thought Junior High was tough for you.

The Courage to be Different

One of the best books I read in years was a book by Francis Spufford, a British author writing on why he was still a Christian. In the U.S. Edition of his book, he wrote a preface to explain to people reading in America about what it was like to live as a Jesus follower in the U.K.

 In Britain, where I live, recent figures suggest that about 6 percent of the population goes regularly to church, and it’s a number that has drifted steadily downward over the past few decades, while the average age of churchgoers has just as steadily trended upward: presently the average worshipper is fifty-one years old. In the United States, by contrast, the equivalent figure (from 2006) is 26 percent of the population, with a youthful, rosy-cheeked age distribution. That’s not all, though. Some surveys, tellingly, reveal that a further 16 percent of Americans claim to be regular churchgoers. From the British perspective this second statistic is even more startling and alien than the first one. The idea of people pretending to be regular churchgoers because it will make them look virtuous—or respectable, or serious, or community-minded—is completely bizarre to us. Here in Britain, it is more likely that people would deny they went to church even if they actually did, on the grounds of embarrassment

These days the word persecution is thrown around a lot, generally centering around politics. But I live in a city where people often buy my meal, I get my haircut and eye exams and dental work for free just because I’m a preacher.  I’m not persecuted I’m privileged.

But with that said, I get it, things aren’t like they used to be for American Christians. The privilege is slipping a bit, however when I hear Christians talking in the media today about being persecuted I think the word they are really reaching for is embarrassed. 

And I get embarrassment. I’ve grown up in the Bible Belt, I’ve always lived in the South, I’m a preacher at a church in Texas, and when I get on a plane somewhere and someone asks me what I do, I often feel like a stereotype. I feel as if they assume I also get on television wearing tacky suits to ask for money, or maybe they think of the Religious Right or the Crusades, or the different atrocities that have been committed in Jesus’ name.

I feel in a word: uncool.

There’s lots of things to be embarrassed about, in the words of Bono “Christians are unbearable, I don’t know how Jesus does it.”

But In light of the very real and violent persecution that Christians in other parts of the world are currently facing, I’d like to recommend a passage of Scripture for all of us who live in a world that is growing more post-Christian.

The Smile of God

There is this one time in the New Testament, where Peter the disciple who followed Jesus, is writing to a church that’s facing real persecution. Slowly the Roman empire is becoming aware that they aren’t worshipping their gods, and the Roman Emperor is learning that they don’t worship him.

Rome doesn’t do nuance very well, What Rome understands is that the Cross works…Peter is trying to get the Christians to understand the same thing.

So Peter writes to these men and women and says,

It is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.

This is commendable before God?!!

In context, Peter is writing about people who are at the bottom of society, namely slaves, and Peter isn’t saying slavery is good and that slaves need to be passive toward gaining their freedom. Peter is writing at an entirely different level here, he’s assuming that certain options aren’t on the table, and he’s teaching people how to be Christian in whatever circumstances they find find themselves in.

Peter knows that to be the people of God involves suffering, and his initial advice isn’t to try and avoid it, it is to allow God to redeem it. Reading from a modern Western perspective this sounds absurd and abusive, but then it dawns on me Peter has seen this work before.

And a cursory look at Christian history says it’s been working ever since.

Brett McCracken points out that Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign has Christian roots. From Jesuit Priests to Wesley and Wilberforce, Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and have started the largest charities from Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, to Feed the Children, and World Vision. Jesus followers were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities. They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, and substance-abuse programs.

Today it’s trendy to care about these things, but Christians cared about it before it was cool, even when it was embarrassing to care about.

Now just because it can be uncool to be a Jesus follower, that doesn’t mean that if you are uncool you are necessarily being a good Christian. You might just be obnoxious. But I suspect that there is an aspect of following Jesus that will always be embarrassing and counter-cultural.

And this is my greatest concern with progressive Christianity. I believe just about everything my other progressive Christian friends believe, but sometimes I wonder if we believe it for the wrong reasons. I think the way of Jesus leads to social justice, equality and ministries of mercy, but I think the reason Christians are called to do that is to serve and honor God.

In my more cynical moments, I think that we talk about it so much so we can be seen as cool.

Think back to Alex in Jr. High, all we know about him is found by looking at what people wrote about him on the ancient world equivalent of a bathroom stall. But what we know from the rest of that period is that being a person who believed in Jesus was not just difficult, it was embarrassing.

People were shamed by their family, the rumors were floating around that Christians were cannibals, that they had deliberately started the fire that crippled the Roman economy, and that they were the worst of all people.

And Peter’s answer wasn’t to argue with them, it was for the Christians to live like Jesus did, for the pleasure of God.

We can’t justify ourselves, or offer an explanation for everything we believe in a way that is going to satisfy everyone, all we can offer is our lives of living like Jesus.

On January 27, 2015

Uncool: Losing Your Cool

“There comes a time when we must show that we disagree…We must show our Christian colours, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ…We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.”-C.S. Lewis

Un-Cool Desktop

Last month all the Cardinals of the Catholic Church came together for their yearly Christmas gathering to hear an Advent message from Pope Francis. From the outside looking in, Pope Francis appears to be one of the most kind and compassionate people in the world. He’s incredibly popular in much of the world, recapturing outsiders imagination for why the way of Jesus is still so beautiful.

But from the inside it’s a different story.

Francis stood in front of a room full of men who had given their lives and made great sacrifices for Jesus and the Church, and he gave them a list of 15 things that they as leaders were doing wrong.

And you thought your office Christmas party was awkward.

Seriously, read the speech, he accused these priests of having a Messiah Complex, of making efficiency an idol, of having “funeral face” and losing the joy of the LORD in their life, of being exclusive of loving money too much, of gossiping and worshipping prestige.

Merry Christmas guys.

Love Does…Weird Stuff

I spent last weekend at a men’s conference listening to Bob Goff, the author of the tremendous book Love Does, at one point during the conference Bob told the story about meeting with the Imam in the local Mosque where he lives in San Diego. Bob had started to work in several Muslim countries and he wanted to get more acquainted with the Muslim faith, and so he befriended a local Muslim leader, At one point in the conversation, Bob asked the Imam what the scariest day of his life was and the Imam told him, “That’s easy. It was September 12th, 2011”

Turns out that two of the terrorists who flew planes into the buildings on that dreadful Tuesday morning were members of this Imam’s mosque and after America was sucker punched, we were ready to punch back and we were looking for a target. So on the 12th, the Imam drove up to his Mosque early Wednesday morning to find over 300 cars parked in his parking lot. There was a group of people who had heard that this mosque had connections to the terrorism in New York and they were ready for some mob justice. And that’s when Bob said something happened that I find close to miraculous.

A group of Jesus followers surrounded the Mosque and linked arms and began to sing worship songs while they used their bodies as human shields to protect their Muslim friends entering the Mosque.

When I heard that story I found myself swelling with the best kinds of pride for these Christians. Not just because they were brave and sacrificial, but because they were faithful when it would have been easy to not be.

As soon as Bob told that story, I thought about my life on September 12th. My friends and I were scared, my parents were terrified (confident that Searcy Arkansas was next on the Taliban hit list) and everyone I knew was confused, sad and angry. I remember the world of September 12th like it was yesterday, and I can’t imagine the bravery it took for a group of Christian men and women to to stand in a California mosque parking lot and lock arms against an angry crowd.

I don’t think they were particularly courageous in regards to violence. I doubt that anyone would hurt a group of middle-class Christians singing, I think their courage took a different stripe all together. It was the courage to be uncool.

Remember the momentum culture had during the weeks following September 11th? Every news channel, every politician, every public figure seemed to be able to put aside their differences and focus their collective voices on comforting each other and confronting and making sense of the evil we had just witnessed. Unfortunately, it was also a terrifying time to be a Muslim, it was easy to lump the terrorist in with the Muslim faith, (which would be like lumping all Christians in with the KKK).  And in the middle of all that, a group of Christians stood against their peers, friends and neighbors and did what was in the moment the most uncool thing imaginable.

The Courage to Be Different

Last week some of the Highland Church leadership met with a hospital chaplain for a time of equipping. The chaplain was a middle class white guy who had spent the last 25 years in the hospital around people in crisis. And toward the end of our time with him, the chaplain told us this story:

Many years ago, a young gang leader in our city was shot in the head. He was immediately brought to the hospital where he would eventually die. The gang leaders family was obviously in shock and grieving, and to make matters worse his entire gang was hanging around outside the ICU ward discussing plans of retaliation. They were (not too subtly) coming up with a plan of action for their righteous anger.Canonization_2014-_The_Canonization_of_Saint_John_XXIII_and_Saint_John_Paul_II_(14036966125)

And that’s when the chaplain (not a large or intimidating man) went out to the waiting room and asked the entire gang to follow him to the chapel. He stood in front of this group of young men and told them that he understood they were angry, sad and scared, but that what they were planning was wrong and would ruin and perhaps end their lives and the lives of other people.

He told a room full of boys filled with bloodlust and rage and fear that they were wrong and that there was a better way to live, and then he bowed his head and prayed for God to give them comfort and peace and the ability to forgive and turn the other cheek.

And that’s exactly what they did.

As the years have gone by, many of those boys and their families have returned to quietly say thank you to the chaplain. They thank him for telling them something that is so obvious now but which no one was saying then. They thanked him for saying the uncool things to them when they needed to hear it.

That brings me back to Pope Francis, I think the reasons he’s so popular with most people is not because he’s chasing popularity but because he’s choosing who he’s okay not being popular with wisely. He knows that the world is going to be the world, but the Church is called to be different and so he’s able to say the most gracious things to people who are different than him, and the most prophetic things to those who are called to be different but aren’t.

Pope Francis doesn’t just go around kissing puppies, he’s told mafia leaders they are going to Hell if they don’t change their ways, that they have blood on their hands. He’s courageously rebuked a variety of military leaders, presidents, dictators and especially his own priests.

We so badly want to be popular, we want so badly to be seen as cool. But just a cursory observation of the way the world works reminds us, Whoever wants to save their cool will lose it, but whoever is willing to lose it just might save it.

On January 19, 2015

There is a Promised Land

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

gLyt1OR

On the Thursday morning that Dr. King was assassinated he also was attacked by one of his own friends….with a pillow. On the day of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. got in a pillow fight in his own hotel room.

I don’t know about you, but that fact makes me smile in some deeper parts of my soul. The realization that even though hate might kill this good man, it couldn’t kill the goodness and joy in the man. I smile at the realization that during Dr. King’s final moments alive he was able to smile.

And then I wonder…how did he do that?

Standing on Promises

This past summer I went to Israel with a group of people For the most part, we were your usual group of Christians touring the Holy Lands, retired doctors and lawyers and teachers on a pilgrimage to see where all the stories that had saturated their imagination had happened.

For the most part we were white and southern. But that doesn’t quite account for all of us. There were several African-American women from Memphis, and I spent the majority of the first few days seeing the Holy Lands with them. Mainly because they were so nice and kind, but also because I didn’t want to just see the Holy Lands, I wanted to see it through their eyes.

See, I’ve learned just enough about the Bible to remember that the Bible is harder for me to read than others. The Bible is hard for me to read, not because of a lack of training or my ability to never quite get above a B in Greek. It’s hard for me to read because or where I read the Bible from, and where I don’t.

People who have known systematic oppression and marginalization were the ones who wrote the Bible, it is as it were, a history written by the losers. And so when my new friends were seeing these stories of the land of liberated slaves I wanted to know how they saw it.

And that brings me to Mrs. Shirley.

Mrs. Shirley was a senior saint who also happened to be African American. She had lived her entire life in Memphis and she had seen a lot. She told me about her family’s struggle to rise out of poverty and her concern for her children and grandchildren to do well in a system that seemed stacked against them
And then she told me a story that became one of my favorite memories from the trip.

When when she was only 14 years old, and she got to walk with Dr. King when the Civil Rights movement came to Memphis. In order to go on one of these marches she had to go through all the training about how to keep the protest non-violent in the face of other people’s great anger, she was trained how to respond if people spit on her, or how to react if she or someone she cared about were beaten.

But the advice that really stuck with her was when the civil right protest organizers told her that if that the police released the dogs that they should try to remain calm and keep walking hand in hand. As she was telling me this story, Mrs. Shirley remained calm, as if she was still following the instructions, but she had a fire in her eyes as she was remembering.

I didn’t know how to respond to her story so I asked her if she was scared during all of this and she said, “No, not really.” Then a few minutes later she came back and said, “I can’t lie. I’m embarrassed now, but I was scared. What I really afraid of was the idea that those dogs might bite me.”1183155006_08b1215aeb

Protests and Pillow Fights

I don’t know what you did over this holiday weekend, but I joined the crowds watching Selma. The movie about Dr. King and the civil rights stand off that ultimately past sweeping Federal Voting reform. During that movie I wept on more than one occasion. But the scene that touched me the deepest was watching little African-American girls march with dignity into the angry crowd armed with billy clubs and attack dogs.

I wept because I now knew who that little girl was, and I knew that even thought she might not look it, she was afraid.

But Mrs. Shirley, like so many of my black brothers and sisters who lived through the civil rights movement, wasn’t angry. She wasn’t angry at other white people, and incredibly enough she wasn’t angry even at the people who had unleashed the dogs on her. She had every right to be furious but she had chosen another path.

So eventually I asked Mrs. Shirley how she did it. I wondered what could move someone to refuse to harbor bitterness against those who wish you evil. And that’s when Mrs. Shirley told me the most profound gospel-like things. She said something to me that made me realize how Dr. King could get into a pillow fight on the day of his assignation, even after saying the night before that he knew his life was in danger.

Mrs. Shirley said she wasn’t angry because, “There is a Promised Land”

And suddenly it all clicked for me. Mrs. Shirley wasn’t just there to see the Holy Lands, Mrs. Shirley was there because her entire life had been oriented around a God who makes promises that the future will be better than the past.

There is a Promised Land.

The civil rights movement succeeded because tens of thousands of men and women trusted that what God had promised would one day become a reality, and they were able to refrain from violence or anger because that God would one day keep his promises.

If we want justice, if we want to keep from getting angry in the face of injustice, we must remember this. There is such a thing as a perfect justice and one day it will roll down like a river. There is such a thing as a perfect righteousness and one day it will flow like a never-ending stream. If we want mercy than we must remember that there is such a thing as a good and compassionate God.

That’s how you do it. There is a Promised Land, it’s not quite here yet but it is coming and it changes everything.

The final public words of Dr. King were spoken in a church in Memphis and as we look back on a year of racial tension, injustice and peace, his words are just as hopeful and calming as they were on the day he spoke them:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I’m happy tonight.

I’ll die tomorrow.

I think I’ll have a pillow fight in between.

Because there is a promised land.