Archives For Social Justice

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If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ve heard me talk about growing up in a little 10 person church. I talk about it so often because it is the filter that I view the majority of my life through. A down-syndrome boy who led worship, a mentally unstable preacher, senior saints and racial diversity, communion served by ex-convincts, we had it all.

But one of the more formative parts of our church, is something I’ve never really talked about before. That was that while we had plenty of characters in our church, we almost never had a plan.

There was never really an order of worship, although a regular routine did evolve (3 songs, prayer, 2 songs, communion, sermon etc) there was a lot of moving pieces. After all, when your worship is led by anyone who showed up it’s hard to plan until they get there.

Room for the Spirit

And here is where one of the more charming memories about my little church happened. At least a couple of times a month, Bro. Foy would turn around in his pew and loudly remind all of us about the Quakers:

“You know our Quaker brothers and sisters will sit in silence and just wait on the LORD to give them a word”

And when Bro. Foy did this we knew what was coming next…nothing. No one would speak, as we tried out this little Quaker experiment.

There was lots of silence, heavy breathing, a cough or two and finally someone would stand up and say something that they thought God had moved them to say.

Let me remind you, we were an anti-Sunday School Church of Christ, we were against Bible Classes because the New Testament didn’t specifically authorize them, but worked into our semi-regular liturgy was this idea that the world was inhabited by God and that God could speak anytime and through anyone.

And over the course of my childhood I began to believe it.

One of the more interesting stories in the Bible, is the story of Elijah going up against the prophets of Ba’al. Israel has been flirting with other gods, and now God has sent Elijah to make them choose between Ba’al the idol and the living LORD. So Elijah has a kind of Wild West showdown with over 400 prophets, they carve up a couple of bulls (of course), and put them on their respective altars and they are going to have a god-off to see whose god will send down fire from Heaven.

Elijah lets the prophets of Ba’al pray to their “god” first. So the prophets of Ba’al pray and weep and wail for hours, they take to cutting themselves to get Ba’als attention and the whole time they are banging on drums. I imagine it was a pretty noisy, messy affair. But at the end of the day, there was no fire from Ba’al, because the Bible is insinuating, there is no Ba’al.

But then when Elijah steps up to pray, there’s no dog and pony show, he simply prays for God to send down fire from Heaven and show Israel what a real God looks like. And that’s exactly what happens.

There’s a verse in the book of Habbakuk that has always intrigued me, and it’s a verse related to this story:

“The LORD is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before Him.”

This is not a verse against drums or musical instruments or a Scriptural mandate not to talk (but it might be wise to use less words), it’s a polemic against the very thing that the prophets of Ba’al were doing. God isn’t like Ba’al, He’s alive, he doesn’t need your drums or your shouting to prop up the appearance that He’s really there. He really is there, and so be silent, because God might just have something to say.

The Quakers were right.

The Journal of John Woolman

So back to the Quakers, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them (they are awfully quiet) but if you live in America your life has been radically shaped by them.

A few weeks ago, I read the journal by an 16th century Quaker named John Woolman, Woolman was a entrepreneurial businessman who probably did as much as anyone in America to bring to an end slavery…and chances are you’ve never heard of him.

The Radical Quaker John Woolman

The Radical Quaker John Woolman

At the beginning of his journal, Woolman realized that he had fallen away from meetings and he recommitted himself to gathering with the other Quakers. Because he realized that he was becoming a kind of person he didn’t like. He knew that he was gathering with/spending time with the wrong people, and if he wanted to hear the voice of God he needed to be with people who knew how to hear Him.

So he went, and heard from God in more ways than he’d hoped for.

He noticed that some of his fellow Quakers held slaves, and that bothered him…a lot. So he started privately taking these brothers and sisters aside and sharing his concerns. I want you to think about the courage this took, back in the day, many in the abolitionist movement were very harsh and judgmental, they would shout their angry condemnation of slavery from a distance, but not Woolman. Which is why he was so effective.

He didn’t believe you could love people in theory, but only the actual people in front of you, and out of concern for them, and for the people they thought they owned, Woolman spoke for God.

Seriously, he heard the voice of God over and over again say the same thing in different places. Because that’s the thing about Woolman, God sent him all over the country, and everytime he’d go to the Quaker meeting house, they’d all sit for hour(s) of silence, and then when God would give Woolman a word he’d say it.

And it worked.

Here’s something that Woolman said repeatedly:

These are souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before that Almighty Being who is no respecter of persons…I have been under a concern for some time on account of the great number of slaves which are imported into this colony.  I am aware that it is a tender point to speak to, but apprehend I am not clear in the sight of heaven without speaking to it.

Eventually, the 1780 Slavery Abolition act become official, and it comes from the tiny little Quaker colony called Pennsylvania, that was shaped by a business man who was moved by the voice of God.

Just because someone says that they hear from God doesn’t mean that they do. They may even hear something, but that doesn’t mean it’s from God. A real test of whether something is from the God of Jesus is whether or not it costs you something, if it challenges the status quo that leads to greater justice to self-sacrifice and toward reconciliation with other people.

God still speaks and moves.

So thank God for those movers who are Quakers.

On March 11, 2015

Uncool: A Work In Progress

“I got myself into trouble, but it was the good kind of trouble, the necessary kind of trouble.” –Congressman John Lewis speaking about being beaten at Selma

“When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:’Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.” –President Obama this weekend honoring the 50th anniversary of Selma

Un-Cool Desktop

 

In 1968, there was a rebellion in France that came closer than any other to overthrowing the government. College students were rebelling against the stringent education system and there was several riots in the street which exposed, on national television, police brutality. The people of France turned against their government and Europe turned into a tinder-box, waiting for the revolution.

But it never happened…Why?

Because summer came. The students took off for vacation. The revolution went no where, because it had no where to go. The French students were bored and had seen the anti-war protesters on television, and thought that was something that looked cool to do. In the words of Paul Grant,

“Cool makes for great street theater but doesn’t lend itself to serious activism.”

Most Revolutions go nowhere because they have nowhere to go.

Over the past few decades we’ve talked more about changing the world than ever before, but this begs the question…change it to what?

it is so much easier to be against something than it is to be for anything, and I’m starting to believe that most of the rhetoric that I see online these days is image management, that is we want to be seen as rebelling against the status quo, but not enough to skip summer vacation,

The Best Religions Don’t Need Batteries

A couple of days ago, Ross Dothat, a thoughtful, conservative Catholic columnist at the New York Times wrote an article called “The Case for Old Ideas” where he disagreed with the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari who is airing a sentiment that seems to be growing more common these days. Here’s what Harari said:

It was only when people “came up with new ideas, not from the Shariah, and not from the Bible, and not from some vision,” but from studying science and technology, that answers to the industrial age’s dislocations emerged… “In terms of ideas, in terms of religions,,,the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East.” It’s in Silicon Valley that people are “creating new religions….that will take over the world.”

Ross Douthat points out that Silicon Valley is certainly changing the world, but in ways that are leading to a whole new set of rich/poor divides, a whole new slate of dehumanizing some people for the profit of others, and that this is not a new development with our relationship to progress. Here is Douthat’s point in rebuttal to Harari:

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

selma_1965

Image from WhiteHouse.gov

It’s unfortunate timing for Harari to say that people coming up with new technological ideas, and not the Bible or some vision are the solution to the world.

Because it was precisely a vision from a Baptist pastor that had saints marching out of their churches and over the bridge 50 years ago this week. It was a dream that was drenched in the spirit of the Prophets, and it was the Isaiah of the Bible that no less than the POTUS quoted in closing his speech in Selma this weekend.

Changing the Future Lies in the Past

I’m pushing back on progressive Christianity with this series not because I don’t believe in progress but because I do. I just don’t believe that there has been a better vision of progress that has come along in the past couple of thousand years than the one that has got us this far. Every Church in every age has to figure out how to embody it in their time and place, every generation God’s people have to reinvent how to change the world, but they don’t have to reinvent what the changed world looks like.

I don’t know of a better manifesto for the future than the prophets and apostles of the past.

And even though it may often appear that Churches and Christians are too slow to move for our own good (sometimes we are), even when it appears that we are stumbling in from one spirit of the age to another and not the Gospel (a charge sadly often true) even when it appears that we are stuck in days gone by. Please remember, on our best days we’re not primarily concerned with how we appear.

And if we are not useful to the world with criticism, than let us be useful to the world as a specimen. We may be seen as a throwback to age without wi-fi and common sense but I believe whole heartedly that we are more than that.

I believe that God’s good world is headed somewhere, and that what seems quaint and farfetched today just might be celebrated tomorrow. Because somedays those church doors swing open and we walk across bridges when it’s not cool to walk across because we have a dream from yesterday about how tomorrow ought to be.

We don’t rebel because it’s cool, that never lasts, we rebel because we hope. Not a hope in politics, not a hope in human greatness or that things are just slowly getting better with each invention, that’s not just hubris, it’s foolish. No, we are prisoners of hope in God.

Somedays we fail, somedays we are the white clergy urging patience not the Baptist Pastor in the jail cell, and on those days it’s tempting to disavow the people who share this common dream, but remember…

We are a work in progress.

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.

On February 10, 2015

Uncool: Shame On Us

Progressive kingdom theology has become too often an emasculated kingdom of those whose theology is framed to make reparations for past injustices. As such it functions as little more than the puppeting echoes of progressive Western liberalism and politics with a thin veneer of [salvation] slathered on top of what is little more than a feeble attempt to salve a guilty conscience over a sinful history.  Many evangelicals and progressives today are steamed up about their opportunity to change the world and to be significant and do something important. For all the “good” this movement can do and is doing, I contend that far more importantly it is largely a shame-based movement masking a shallow gospel and an inept grasp of what kingdom means in the Bible.

–Scot McKnight

Un-Cool Desktop

Imagine for a second a good man, who wants to do good things with his life. Imagine that he decides to start doing good things for people around him, so he starts looking for people who are in need, he gives money to people who say they need it, he gives food to people who say they are hungry, and he volunteers at the food pantry. But to his horror he discovers that he’s been drinking coffee made from beans farmed by migrant day-laborers, so he switches to fair-trade organic coffee. Then he discovers that his clothes were all made in Sri Lankan sweat shops, so he takes up knitting. He discovers that his smart phone was made by people in Chinese factories with nets around the windows to catch all the suicide attempts, so he burns his smart phone and gets a dumb one.

Then he finds out that because of his racial background that he had certain advantages that others didn’t have, and then he learns of all the privilege that he inherited just by being born a man into the world, so he tries to redistribute wealth and opportunity to racial minorities and women, and then he hears about how Native Americans were treated by the first settlers, he learns that he stands on top of opportunity built on oppression. And at this point the man looks around him and realizes that there’s just too much injustice going on, and not enough people care, and so he starts to get angry, in part because people should care, but in a secret part of his heart he knows it’s because there’s no way to get clean.

Why are we so angry?

This is a question I’m asking a lot these days, I try to do most of it face to face with friends rather than online, but it’s one that I think most of us need to ask ourselves more often. Because we are so very angry so very often,

Sometimes it feels like the internet is akin to angry writing in the bathroom stall, it feels like a race to see who can say they’re offended first and with the most volume.

I’m saying this as someone who cares very much about justice and who’s closest relationships are with people who do as well, but I’m also saying this as the man who I described above. I’ve been on this journey for a while, and I’ve started to learn that pure justice is ugly, because we’re not just, in the words of Richard Beck, “There is no way to get clean. We can’t wash our hands enough.”

Shame is on all of us.

And here’s where classic Christian theology can help us find our way to a better place. Christianity starts with this radical idea that no one is just, given the right opportunity, and the right incentive, each one of us would do horrible things to other people, in fact we probably already have.

Against traditional liberalism, Jewish-Christian morality has insisted that humanity is actually not, well, moral. In fact, some well-known atheist thinkers have started to see this as one of the greatest gifts the Christian tradition gives the world:

 The doctrine of Original Sin encourages us to inch towards moral improvement by understanding that the faults we despise in ourselves are inevitable features of the species. We can therefore admit to them candidly and attempt to rectify them in the light of day…Enlightenment thinkers believed that they were doing us a favor by declaring man to be originally and naturally good. However, being repeatedly informed of our native decency can cause us to become paralyzed with remise over our failure to measure up to impossible standards of integrity. Confessions of universal sinfulness turn out to be a better starting point from which to take our first modest steps towards virtue. –Atheist Alain De Bottom

In other words, no matter who you are there is a reason to be ashamed of something, somewhere that you have done, chances are you don’t need me to tell you this, it’s probably something that you are already keenly aware of and probably pretty driven to deal with it. We all want to get our hands clean.

But Christianity refuses to see human behavior as something related to a balance sheet. We can’t sum up all the good and evil of our lives and do some kind of calculus to see if our life has justified the next breath we take. Because Christianity, if it says anything says our cruelty cannot be canceled out by equal and opposite amounts of being kind. In the words of Francis Spufford, “The weight of sorrow is not lightened by happiness elsewhere. The bad stuff cannot be averaged. It can only be confessed.”

What Comes After Cool

This is what the Classic view of Jesus’ death on the Cross has meant, it’s why a robust Christian view of Justice must not be based in shame no matter how temporarily effective it might be, because it leads to angry, dis-enchanted people, and because Jesus death actually means that for His people there’s no more room for shame in our lives or in communities that bear His name.

But we are addicted to shame. Why? I think it’s because shame and cool are related, they are siblings.  Cool is built on the shame of some being outsiders, it must rebel against something and someone. It must shame them.

It might be helpful to remember that the Cross functioned primarily as a tool of shaming, in a culture that ran on honor and shame. Jesus’ death was a public mocking of a naked, religious weak and dying man. Mess with us, and Rome says…This is what happens. We strip you bare, we parade you through your hometown and fillet you in front of your friends and family.

That’s what everyone knew about crucifixion in the day of Jesus. But suddenly, people started telling a different story over it. Here’s Paul:

 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Rembrandt's Painting of the Crucifixion

Rembrandt’s Painting of the Crucifixion

Did you catch that? He made a public spectacle of them, he shamed the shamers, He bullied the bullies by emptying the power and changing the very definition of what justice was and taking away the very way it was fueled.

Albert Schweitzer once defined Jesus as a man who was so convinced that the gears of the universe were running the wrong way that He threw Himself into them and slowly the wheels started turning the other way.

He reverses the way the world works, he changes our very notions of justice and mercy and he does it without saying a word, he does it without any notion of needing to justify Himself. And classic Christian theology says He’s not just feeling the anger of this one crowd on one Friday morning in Jerusalem. He’s the love that made the world, to whom all times and all places are present, and He’s turning his bruised face toward the whole human condition, accepting everything we can throw at Him, everything we suspect we deserve ourselves.

In the words of Francis Spufford:

The doors of his heart are wedged open wide, and in rushes the whole pestilential flood, the vile and roiling tide of cruelties and failures and secrets. Let me take that from you, he is saying. Give that to me instead. Let me carry it. Let me be to blame instead. I am big enough. I am wide enough.

I am the shining your shame cannot extinguish.

I am the door where you thought there was only wall.

I am what comes after deserving.

Jesus deals with shame by being shamed. The cross is not cool, and neither are people who pick up ones themselves. This is what comes after cool.

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 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.

On October 21, 2014

In the Flesh: Body Matters

Jesus is the Word made flesh, the truth narrated in bone and bowel, space and time. That is the story He is.” Frederick Buechner

In the Flesh Blog

 

It’s hard to have a newborn baby and a subscription to the New York Times…but sometimes it helps.

Over the past few weeks, it’s begun to seem like a pretty bad timing to bring a baby into the world, I don’t know what you’re take is on the news but I’m overwhelmed by the onslaught of wars and rumors of wars, plagues and politics and riots and racism.

It seems like my newsfeed varies between tragic and hysteria.

I’m also struck by the great irony of the way we live in the world compared to the way we talk about it.

We talk about the color of someone’s skin as if it is irrelevant to their experience in the world, and we talk about Ebola and Isis as if they were the plot points in a chapter of a Tim LaHaye novel.

Body Language

We’re rightfully outraged at ISIS beheading people but have a hard time finding the words to describe why we we find it so disturbing. Christians are rightfully concerned about stopping Ebola (after all there is a reason that so many hospitals were started by or named after Christian Saints)..but why?

Christians today, often come across as quaint and antique, a throwback to another era. In the public spheres we often get hemmed into talking about the Christian view of sexuality as if that was all (or even the main part) of following Jesus. But the only way to understand a Christian view of sexuality is to understand the deeper logic of Christian theology toward the world and our bodies.

Christians have believed for thousands of years that this world matters, which means matter matters. God created the world and thinks it is good, including our bodies. Christian theology believes that our bodies are gifts from a good God. We didn’t make them, we don’t sustain them and ultimately we won’t raise them.

The past few days, I’ve been struck by the beauty of holding a new baby, a tiny little body, complete with all the necessary equipment of fingers, toes and lungs. I’m struck by the realization that in the maternity ward we are aware of something that we pretend isn’t true in the funeral home.

Often at funerals, we hear language about people leaving the “shell” that is their body. That language is fine for someone who is just trying to make sense of death and give people some kind of hope for an afterlife, but it is not Christian language.

Because our bodies matter, and that is a very ancient idea.

Flesh and Faith

A few weeks ago, in the Times. Op-ed pundit David Brooks points out that when secular society talks about life and the physical body, we are forced to reach for words like “sacred” to talk about it:

Well, the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.

David Brooks is talking about the recent beheadings of American journalists by ISIS, and the moral outrage that follows. His point is that the outrage is disproportionate to the American narrative. If we are all just ‘spirits’ longing to be freed from our bodies that are prisons (what the first Christians called ‘heresy’) than why does this strike such a deep minor chord in us?

Brooks goes on to say, because this isn’t any form of the Biblical vision of the world or the God who Created it:

Ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam. The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

In other words, Isis is the Muslim flavor of the gnostic Christian “this-world-is-bad” that has been floating around for the past couple of hundred years. They are willing to kill a body, but only because they don’t know it’s worth.

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

One of the biggest reasons that the early Christians were persecuted was that they insisted on this strange idea that the their physical bodies would be resurrected.

A little over a decade ago, I got to go explore the catacombs in Rome. It was miles and miles of underground caves dug by Christians because they believed in caring for the bodies of the dead.

Whether you are a Christian or not, you have to admit that this is pretty impressive, and some of the best evidence of an actual resurrection. They risked their lives digging these catacombs because they believed that God had started something in Jesus body that had something to do with their own.

They believed that what God had done for Jesus, would someday happen to them.

Bodies matter, and the body that you have been given is a gift, no matter how you have been taught to feel about it. It’s not a prison (though for some it may feel that way) it’s not a commodity (though others may try to use it as such), it’s a gift from God, in fact, it is even a window into the image of God.

I like the way Jonathan Martin says it:

 Spirituality is not a bad word for [Christianity], but the danger is always that we make it “something more” than the taste of brittle bread and sweet wine, the feel of wet flesh and calloused feet…This way of being human is not for people who don’t like to dance or make love”

Your body is a gift from God and He’s not done with it.

On July 27, 2014

The Good Samaritan

Picture from the NY Times of Dr. Brantly in Liberia

Picture from the NY Times of Dr. Brantly in Liberia

I don’t know Kent Brantly, but judging from my social media feeds most of my friends do. And from what they’re saying about him, I wish I did.

Kent and I are the same age, we both went to ACU, a Christian University in town, where he started working toward becoming a doctor.

A few months ago, Kent was working in a private medical practice in Texas, but he left that to be a medical missionary working with Samaritan’s Purse.  Just last week he was pictured in the New York times story on the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Liberia. When the outbreak occurred, his wife and two kids came back to Texas, but Kent didn’t. He stayed because he couldn’t abandon these people who needed him, in the moments that they needed him most.

And then Kent contracted Ebola.

All over my little world, I’m reading status’ shared and prayers offered for the Brantly family and specifically for Kent’s healing. It’s a heartbreaking story of a young father who gets the very disease he’s sacrificed so much to stop.

As a father, with children the same age, I’ve had a dull ache in the pit of stomach since I heard this story. I hope, along with lots of other people, for nothing less than a full recovery for them. I noticed last night, as I was reading through all the different prayer requests on Facebook for their family, it seems like most of us are reaching for the same language to pray for them.

We are asking for a miracle.

Miracle is an interesting word, because it’s actually not in the Bible that much…just a couple of dozen times, mostly in the New Testament. And it’s almost always referring to signs that point to the Kingdom of God, sometimes they were signs that involved things like impossible healings.

But when most of us American Christians think about a miracle what we are thinking about is really another word: “Super-natural”

We are wanting something that is outside of the natural realm of experience.

Survival of the Fittest

Charles Darwin’s great contribution to the world was his revelation about the way the world, and the species in it, have developed. His research helped to explain how death and survival were tied together, and helped us understand a little better how the universe worked.

This is a crude shorthand sketch of what Darwin taught us, but it basically was that the weakest, most vulnerable species, were the ones who death would eventually sort out of the gene pool.

You’ve heard of this as the survival of the fittest. It just means that death and disease force adaptation and change, sickness is something to be avoided or overcome, but ultimately (and hopefully later rather than sooner) each of us will die and our little experience of life will be a part of the grand thing that everything and everyone is progressing toward.

Some people like Nietzche saw the outworking of this theory very clearly. This is why Nietzche hailed the upcoming Uber-man that would develop because all the sick, weak, and poor people would be weeded out by natural selection.

That’s natural.

Dr. Brantly caring for patients in his Hazmat suit

Dr. Brantly caring for patients in his Hazmat suit

But throughout Christian history Jesus followers have chosen the most un-Darwinian like subjects to love. All because of the bizarre things that Jesus’ said 2000 years ago, Things like “Whatever you do for the sick, poor and needy, you’ve actually done for Me” To those of us in the Bible Belt, they are little phrases sound like they belong stitched and framed in a calligraphy font or on a porcelain commemorative plate.

But this is exactly what the earliest Christians were famous for.

In the mid 3rd century a plague broke out in the city of Rome that was so severe it killed 5,000 people in just one day. It wasn’t Ebola this time, but in it’s day it was just as deadly.

People responded, just like you’d imagine, with great panic. Everyone fled as quickly as possible, they abandoned the city in such a hurry that they actually left people dying in the streets and dead bodies unburied throughout the city. They had learned through thousands of years of experience that to touch these bodies would be risking the transfer of the disease.

But…

In that city, there was a small community who followed a man who would touch lepers while they were unclean; and who expected his disciples to take care of the sick.

One early church father, a guy named Dionysius wrote about what these early Christians did during moments like the great plagues:

“Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need, and ministering to them in Christ. And with them departed this life seemingly happy, for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors, and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

Un-Natural Selection

Last night when I was praying over this little family and the turmoil they must be going through I wondered if they knew just what they were doing when they went over there, I wonder if we know what we’re doing when we’re praying for them.

I see all my friends asking for a miracle, and I want what we all want too, for this family to be restored and whole.

But don’t get so caught up asking for a miracle that you fail to see the one that’s right in front of you. Someone who didn’t have to, left a life of privilege to bear in the suffering of the world. Someone who’s very education depended on learning about natural selection, said something wildly unnatural like “I’m not going to leave these dying people when they need me the most.”

Our wounded world needs some good Samaritans, and it turns out she’s still got a few.

That a family who didn’t have to, would have a heart so un-naturally attuned to bearing in the suffering of the world, and even daring to draw some of it to themselves…That’s more than just humanitarian aid.

It’s a miracle.

130521083430-01-ok-tornado-0521-horizontal-galleryIt’s been a heavy week. Especially if you live in Oklahoma.

But It’s been a hard week for anyone with a heart, we’ve all seen the pictures and video, and most of us have gone home and hugged the people we love a little harder.

Maybe you heard about the theological and political debates that it immediately spawned, or maybe you didn’t. But let me tell you what I’ve learned: Whenever something tragic like this happens, we immediately see two things happen. People try to leverage the event for more power or influence, and some people run to it to serve the ones who are hurting.

Why Bad Things Happen

So there’s this one time where Jesus is walking toward Jerusalem and some religious people stop him and ask him a pretty pointed question. They ask Jesus about these current events where some Galillean Jews had gone to the Temple and Pilate, for some reason, had gone in and slaughtered them

And so they were wanting some commentary from Jesus on why this happened.

Now in asking Jesus this question about suffering they are conjuring up all kinds of images, and thoughts that were common in the 1st century.

Actually they are common in all centuries.

They’re asking why, why does this happen, what does God think about this, is God angry, is this God’s punishment? They’re just enunciating a question that has been around since time began.

And that’s why Jesus answers the way He does. He brings up a natural disaster, and he tells them that these people didn’t die because they were more guilty, that we are all broken.

Now I think what Jesus does here is pretty genius. He doesn’t let them draw a straight line from cause and effect for specific sin to specific punishment.

Which is what religious leaders sometimes do, it seems like every time there is a natural catastrophe someone will try to leverage others pain for their own temporary glory. It’s started within two hours of the Moore tornado, because it always does. But I’ve noticed when they say that a certain catastrophe was due to a specific sin they tend to say that it’s a sin that they don’t struggle with.

No religious leader ever says the reason God sent that earthquake is because they were being materialistic, or prideful.

But Jesus response to tragedies like this isn’t to name a specific sin, but to point that there is this deep brokenness in the world. And unless we forget it’s in us too.

That’s why Jesus says Repent, because we are part of the problem, but we can also be a part of the solution.

In fact, as soon as I hear about tragedies like this week, I immediately wonder how long it will take before the world sees the church show up.

Because It seems like we always do.

When the Saints Come Marching In265904e9a0dbb6758fffb87f7635fe87

A few chapters earlier in the same Gospel, Jesus starting getting people to help share in his ministry. He sends out 72 of his followers to different villages to preach and to heal.

And when they get back, they say, “even the demons submit to us in your name.”And Jesus responds with something that I love. He says:

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

He saw Satan fall like Lightening.

The disciples has been walking over hot sand, knocking on doors, asking to see the sick, announcing the coming of Jesus. All their actions took place in the visible world, which they could touch, smell and see.

But Jesus sees more, he saw that those actions in the visible world were having a startling impact on the invisible world. What we do has both personal and cosmological implications.

When natural disasters happen, it always takes me to dark places for a bit. When Leslie and I were at the Hills Church we did Tsunami relief and it was incredibly beautiful and tragic to hear the stories. It all started because one of our members saw the Tsunami on television and flew directly to the worst hit part of Sri Lanka and started making large promises on behalf of the church. And they kept them!

Earlier this week I spent the afternoon with Jon and Joann Jones. A few years ago the Burmese people had a horrible cyclone hit their refuge camp and do great damage, and if you remember that, when you heard that story you had to wonder where is God in that? But while all that was going on my friend Jon Jones was over there.

He’s been going over there for many years, working with those people, trying to get them food. He once told me that he couldn’t see an American dollar anymore without thinking about how much rice it will buy.

But I started thinking about it, this whole time, I was seeing that picture and asking where is God?

This week as soon as heard the story about Oklahoma and the great tragedy of Moore joining the great tragedies of history. I started hearing stories about elementary school teachers protecting their children at great risk to themselves. I immediately started hearing stories about churches and first responders making sacrifices and opening homes for victims.

It’s easy to pontificate and theologize about why bad things like tornadoes and tsunamis happen. It’s easy to use them as a platform to further whatever particular axe you have to grind, but let me tell you who you want to listen to right now. Ask the first responders and those churches who have skin in the game.

Ask the saints who are marching in.

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On July 3, 2012

#eternalthreads

So this is a short video about the trip that Matt Pinson (The Highland Director of Communications) and I just got back from. We’d like to get the word out about what is happening in Nepal and ways that Gospel centered people are trying to stop sexual trafficking in creative and significant ways, so if you have a moment please click the share button at the bottom of this page to share this story with your friends.

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