What is the Church’s task today?

Kaj Munk was a Danish playwright and Lutheran pastor, martyred during the German occupation of Denmark. He was killed by the Gestapo on this day in 1944. His words ring true for us today as they did seven decades ago:

What is, therefore, our task today?
Shall I answer: “Faith, hope, and love”?
That sounds beautiful.
But I would say—courage.
No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth.

Our task today is recklessness.
For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature,
we lack a holy rage.
The recklessness that comes
from the knowledge of God and humanity.
The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets …
and when the lie rages across the face of the earth—
a holy anger about things that are wrong in the world.

To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth,
and the destruction of God’s world.

To rage when little children must die of hunger,
when the tables of the rich are sagging with food.

To rage at the senseless killing of so many,
and against the madness of militaries.

To rage at the lie that calls
the threat of death and the strategy of destruction
“peace”.

To rage against complacency.

To restlessly seek that recklessness
that will challenge and seek to change human history
until it conforms with the norms
of the Kingdom of God.

And remember the signs of the Christian Church have always been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove, and the Fish …

But never the chameleon.

Kingdom Resistance

Hey, it’s been a while. Not for lack of desire to get writing done, but for lack of capacity. Maybe some day, when I have more time, I’ll tell you about it. But here I am.

I’ll start with this: Happy New Year — both, belatedly, to 2017 and, as of tomorrow, to the Year of the Rooster!

Anyway, it so happens that I’ve providentially preached both of the Sundays after Election Day in November and Inauguration Day last week. As such, those occasions have forced allowed me to pray and think and reflect on my own response to those events and the non-alternative reality they reflect. In particular, I’ve been asking God what my calling is in the midst of this — as a man, as a husband, as an American, as a Christian, and as a pastor — and what our calling as a church is.

[Some of what follows is taken from one or both of the sermons I preached — “A Church for the City” on November 13, and “inSPIREd: Relational” on January 22.]

The last few months have felt like a setback for many of us as it relates to fighting poverty, prejudice, and discrimination; for those who care for the people in our society who are vulnerable or feeling uncertain or fearful about their safety or their future. Whoever you voted for, if you’re a Christian, I’m guessing you voted as faithfully as you could based on your understanding of the gospel and your judgment of the candidates and your view of politics. The gospel impacts every area of life — or at least it should — because Jesus has something to say about every area of life, because the kingdom of God means something for every area of life — that includes how we vote and what we do in the time between our votes.

Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970s, when his country was led by an authoritarian government; he said this:

A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that?

We are called to pray for those in leadership over us and to call them to account. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, as the church, we are not to be “the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.”

That’s why, in our church, we’ve sought to address issues like racial justice and racial reconciliation and the real sin of systemic racism; that’s why, in the aftermath of some of the violence last summer, we changed up our worship services to create space to grieve and lament and pray together; that’s why we’ve tried to push into some of those difficult conversations — as faithfully as we can, with as much grace and courage and humility as we can — all the while reminding each other of Jesus and the kingdom of God that challenges every earthly system and structure, reminding each other of the reality of sin in our own lives and in our world, and reminding each other of the power of God’s Spirit to bring good out of any and every situation.

I do want to say this, especially in light of the uptick in harassment and hate crimes (I just met with a rabbi today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and he was telling me about recent bomb threats) and the strange alternative-fact-filled world we find ourselves in: if you have a disability or are a woman, a person of color, an immigrant or a refugee, part of a religious minority, a member of the LGBTQ community, or otherwise care at all about the vulnerable — if you are uncertain or fearful because of things said or things reported or things experienced in recent months — especially by those who claim to follow Jesus — let me say I’m with you and I pledge to do whatever is in my power to continue to oppose injustice and discrimination against you, because I believe that is what Christ calls me to. And if you’re reading this today, and you’re not fearful or hurting right now, and you’re saying, “But what about me? Aren’t you going to oppose injustice and discrimination against me? Doesn’t Christ call you to that, too?” Absolutely, I’d do the same for you too.

So … what’s the calling?

Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s another way of putting it:

Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

How about this, from singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn?

Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

Or this, from Oscar Romero:

I am not with the right or with the left. I am trying to be faithful to the word that the Lord bids me preach, to the message that cannot change, which tells both sides the good they do and the injustices they commit.

To be of the kingdom of God means that Christians are exiles in this world, because we’re following and loving and serving and learning to live like Jesus, the king of the kingdom. Jesus, who chose to step into a hostile world, chose to be an exile, for the sake of those he loved — that’s what Philippians 2 tells us. Jesus, who was eternal but entered time, who was all-powerful but made himself vulnerable, who was in heaven but became flesh and made his dwelling among us — that’s what John 1 tells us. That’s who we follow; that’s who we’re called to be like.

This is the Jesus who said, “Love your enemy,” because he knew that only love can every chain, every destructive cycle, that, as Martin Luther King Jr. would discover centuries later, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is the Jesus who backed his words up with his actions, giving up his life so that we his enemies might have life, choosing to die so that we his enemies might not have to, offering grace so that we his enemies might be rescued and redeemed and restored, and taking onto and into himself the violence we wish upon each other, the violence of our sinful intentions, the violence of Psalm 137, and emptying it of its power. That’s what love does.

And this Jesus, after three days in the tomb, was raised to life, proving that sin cannot stop him, that death cannot hold him down, and that however bleak things may look, Jesus is risen, his Spirit is in us, and there is still work to do. As he said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

My calling is still the same; our calling as a church is still the same:

to speak out and to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ;

to be salt and light in a world desperate for resilient hope and amazing grace and persevering love and the justice of God;

to live as citizens and ambassadors of the kingdom of God;

to defend the image of God in every person, to speak up for the voiceless, to welcome the stranger, to offer healing to the broken and wounded, to give rest to the weary and downhearted, to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized, to preach good news to the poor;

to break every chain, to challenge every injustice and every -ism as an affront to a just God;

to point forward to a day when people of every nation and every tribe will gather at the throne of God to worship.

That’s my calling; that has been my calling during the previous administration—as imperfectly as I lived into that—and it will remain my calling during the current administration—as imperfectly as I will live into that. And that’s your calling too—but you may live it out in the context of a non-profit or a business, or through activism or advocacy, or working in government or running for office, or in a family or a school or a hospital.

So Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6 is particularly germane for us today:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Our boat is going in the same direction. The winds may have changed—and that may make things easier for some of us and that may mean a lot more rowing for others of us—but neither our calling nor our commission have changed. I know it takes hard work; it may involve putting our lives on the line to protect each other; it will involve having difficult conversations with people we know where we’re sometimes not even sure if we’re making any progress. But I firmly believe that God has placed many of you in the families and the friendships and the workplaces you’re in for a reason — to live in and to live out more of God’s kingdom reality in those very places and relationships.

At the Inauguration on Friday, part of Matthew 5 was read — the Beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here’s what struck me:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are the shalom-seekers. Blessed are those who will work to see relationships restored. Blessed are those who will put their lives on the line so that others might be made whole. Blessed are those who do not grow weary in doing good. For they will be called the children of God.

So let’s come together, let’s stand together, let’s hold together, let’s love our enemies together, let’s protest injustice together, let’s be gracious together, let’s listen and speak out together, let’s lock arms and recommit ourselves to following Jesus and being ambassadors of his kingdom together.

Grace and peace to you all, friends.

Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which
He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which
He is to bless us now.

– St. Teresa of Ávila

[Photo: From a cabin trip to Lake Anna earlier this month. It pretty well encapsulates what I’m feeling.]

Out now: Junkyard Wisdom by Roy Goble

Roy Goble is someone I’ve known for ten years, since his daughter Rachel and I met in grad school and became friends. (She leads a tremendous organization called The Sold Project, which fights child exploitation in Thailand by providing education to kids.)

Anyway, Roy has a new book out called Junkyard Wisdom: Resisting the Whisper of Wealth in a World of Broken Parts. This is from the backcover:

Most of us live a life of unprecedented abundance. No matter what our income level, walls of security and distraction inevitably insulate us from the poor or anyone else who might threaten our comfortable life. Yet despite our trappings of wealth—or perhaps because of them—we continue to experience a spiritual hunger for something deeper and more meaningful.

In a surprising solution to that hunger, Jesus invites us to utilize our wealth and our talents to create Kingdom relationships, beginning right in our own communities. To tear down the walls, both literal and cultural, separating God’s children in our neighborhoods and across the globe. To experience a life of joy and fulfillment. In Junkyard Wisdom, Roy Goble shares what’s waiting for us on the other side of complacency: an abundant future we can only reach together.

I was privileged to get a preview of it beforehand and here’s my endorsement:

What does it mean to love God and to love my neighbor in the twenty-first century? Junkyard Wisdom steers clear of easy answers and empty platitudes, inviting us instead into a fuller, truer Jesus-following life by wrestling with the very real challenges of our world and our lives—and the tremendous opportunities for hope-filled, life-changing relationships that are right in front of us. I’m so grateful to Roy Goble for this much needed reminder.

There were a good few moments as I was reading the book when I felt like I’d been punched in the gut—in a good way. Sometimes we need those burrs to stir us from our complacency and comfort. If you have ever wondered how to navigated the tension of wealth and poverty, and what it looks like to steward resources well, this book is for you.

I also got to interview him (electronically!). Here are some of the questions and answers:

Q. What would you say to someone who said, “Wealth is God’s blessing in your life, and you should enjoy it?”

A. I’d say they got it half right. Anything God gives us as a blessing is to be used for God’s glory. Doesn’t matter if it is a great singing voice, the ability to throw a football, or a knack with computer code. So yes, at times, wealth can be enjoyed, just as any gift from God is enjoyed. But to think of it as something that is merely our own is to turn it into something ugly and selfcentered. We have to see the wealth as God’s, not ours, so we can utilize it in a way that honors God.

Q. What would you say to someone who said, “Wealth gets in the way of following Jesus?”

A. Again, they are half right. Wealth most certainly can get in the way of following Jesus if we misuse it, misunderstand its importance, or begin to think it is ours. But wealth can also draw us closer to God is we utilize it in accordance with His will, and if we understand it is God’s wealth, not our own.

Q. How did your upbringing shape how you understand wealth and following Jesus?

A. For the first 12-years of my life I lived in a classic American middle-class suburb. Rode my bike to school, played with the neighborhood kids, and had the whole “Leave it to Beaver” simplicity going on. On Saturdays and most summers, however, my Dad took me to the junkyard to work. It was greasy, dirty, and filled with a motley group of characters. And on Sundays we went to a dynamic church, all dressed in our finest. It was, to say the least, a broad range of experiences for a kid. Then when I was 12 we bought a cattle ranch and I moved there, which was quite different from the suburban home.

All of this brought me in contact with a wide range of people, from different backgrounds, different faith traditions, different languages and different values. It broke down those walls we talked about earlier and gave me a unique ability to feel comfortable in a wide range of places. I’ve often said that I want to feel equally comfortable at a black tie event as I do sleeping on the floor in a village hut. Truth is, I feel equally uncomfortable in those places!

Q. Why is the book called “Junkyard Wisdom”?

Because with all due respect to Robert Fulgham, all I ever really needed to know I learned in a junkyard! No, that’s not really true of course, but I learned so much working in the junkyard it seemed a good title for the book. The junkyard introduced me to what we might call the seedier side of society as it also propelled me into wealth and experiences I could’ve never imagined! So the book, in many ways, reflects the shaping of my understanding of the world, wealth, and faith, as it all stemmed from the junkyard. The wisdom part? Well, hopefully there is some of that in the book, but I’ll let the reader decide.

Thanks to Roy for the interview and the book. Junkyard Wisdom is out this week; go check it out.

A prayer for Paris

… and for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, Yemen, Pakistan, and Palestine — who have also endured evil, violence, and loss of life this week.

From Psalm 10, a prayer of deliverance from enemies:

1    Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3    For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the LORD.
4 In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”

5    Their ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of their sight;
as for their foes, they scoff at them.
6 They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”

7    Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
8 They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.

Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9 they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

10    They stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall by their might.
11 They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12    Rise up, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.
13 Why do the wicked renounce God,
and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”?

14    But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan.

15    Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
seek out their wickedness until you find none.
16 The LORD is king forever and ever;
the nations shall perish from his land.

17    O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
18 to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

[image by @jean_jullien]

#BlackLivesMatter is a gospel issue

At The District Church, we’ve just started a series entitled “A Call for Racial Reconciliation.” Matthew kicked us off powerfully this past Sunday by talking about “Why Race Matters to God,” and included the unqualified statement that “Black Lives Matter is a gospel issue.” You can listen to that here.