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.

Forgiveness

Last week, on a friend’s recommendation, Carolyn and I started listening to the podcast “Dirty John.” It’s a six-episode true-crime story, reported and edited by Christopher Goffard of the LA Times. Worth a listen.

Anyway, the fourth episode is called “Forgiveness,” and, as we were listening, I found myself thinking, I don’t think I agree with that understanding of forgiveness. What was being presented as forgiveness (by one person — I won’t name who, so I don’t spoil anything) seemed like a brushing-over, a non-acknowledgment of reality; it seemed more like willful ignorance, choosing to pretend that some very real and important actions weren’t actually real or important.

Eugene Peterson writes (Living the Message, April 28):

The word forgiveness has been watered down by journalistic cant and careless practice. It frequently means no more than, “I’ll let it go this time — I won’t let it bother me — but don’t do it again.” It is the verbal equivalent to a shoulder shrug. So there needs to be repeated return to the New Testament to renovate the word, to discover its vitality, its strength, its power, its versatility; to realize that it is the most creative act anyone can engage in; to know that more new life springs from acts of forgiveness than anything else; and to believe that the parent who is called on to engage in an act of forgiveness is in a literally god-like position.

Another friend recently pointed me to Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our Worldco-authored with his daughter Mpho. My friend said it was tremendously helpful for his own processing and thought it might be good for me too; he was right.

Tutu begins by stating two simple truths:

there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another—whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity—then you will know this to be true.

When you’ve been hurt, that can be hard to hear. It can be hard to want to forgive. It’s much easier when we’ve been wronged to feel justified, to cling to our grievance, to consider ourselves as having the moral high ground, perhaps even to hold on to our right for revenge. At the end of the introduction, there’s a prayer, which begins:

I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready

Too real. And Tutu doesn’t skip over the very real feelings of those who have been wronged, acknowledging the reality and validity of our experiences, while also drawing us forward:

Know that what was done to you was wrong, unfair, and undeserved. You are right to be outraged. And it is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. … Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.

As Tutu lays it out, the fourfold path of forgiveness and healing is this:

  1. Telling the story: sharing the facts — what happened
  2. Naming the hurt: sharing the feelings behind the facts — what was lost
  3. Granting forgiveness: recognizing our shared humanity — learning to tell a new story
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship: stepping into a future unfettered by the past
Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1669).

More often than not, we just do #3, without understanding that each piece is important because forgiveness is not just an act for us as human beings, but rather a process. It takes time to forgive — and not time in the sense that if we wait long enough, we’ll forget about it, but rather time in the sense that we may have to forgive over and over again until we have truly given up any right of revenge, any wish for retribution, any desire for the other’s ill.

With TIME Magazine declaring as their 2017 Person of the Year the Silence Breakers — the women and men who spoke up about sexual harassment and assault — #1 and #2 have broken their way into the public awareness, and that’s important. The journey of forgiveness begins with naming and acknowledging the full extent of what has happened.

But it can’t stop there; if we recognize our shared humanity, that all of us will, at some point (and sometimes the same point), be in a position of being the transgressor and the transgressed against. It is forgiveness that unlocks the cycle of retribution and bitterness, that frees us from our past, and opens the way forward.

For me, learning #4 was the most helpful insight. There can be a sense that forgiveness means we must go back to how things were before, as if nothing ever happened. It was liberating instead to read these two options:

Releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma. You can choose to not have someone in your life any longer, but you have released the relationship only when you have truly chosen that path without wishing that person ill. Releasing is refusing to let an experience or a person occupy space in your head or heart any longer. It is releasing not only the relationship but your old story of the relationship.

Renewing a relationship is not restoring a relationship. We do not go back to where we were before the hurt happened and pretend it never happened. We create a new relationship out of our suffering, one that is often stronger for what we have experienced together. Our renewed relationships are often deeper because we have faced the truth, recognized our shared humanity, and now tell a new story of a relationship transformed.

Wherever you may be on your journey of forgiveness, with whatever needs to be addressed — or confessed — and forgiven, I pray you’ll have the strength to keep walking.

The times they are a-changin’

It’s been 10 months since my last blog. To say that a lot has happened in that time would be understating it just a little bit, but honestly, I haven’t really had the words to talk about the last year. I haven’t known what to say or how to say it: there have been too many stories to tell, too much background to fill in, too many threads that would take too long to follow.

I guess the biggest news is that I’m no longer at The District Church any more. This summer, the congregation formerly known as the East Side parish of The District Church (which we planted four years ago) was launched as an independent church, so now I’m the Pastor of Liturgy and Spiritual Formation at Christ City Church, where Matthew Watson and I continue to pastor together. Predictably, the summer was filled with the busyness of setting up a new church: filing articles of incorporation, opening bank accounts, writing bylaws, and such; figuring out new structures (such as an elder board) and new rhythms and responsibilities of work; and the pastoral challenge of walking a community through a pretty massive transition and into a new chapter of congregational life together. As you can imagine, it’s been a lot!

Thankfully, throughout the spiritual, emotional, relational, and even vocational strain of the last few months, God has done what God does — most pertinently, sit with us in our grief and bring life out of death. And God has begun knitting things back together in my own life, through prayer and divine encounter as well as through those with whom I’ve been honored to call friends in this season.The work and the healing and the processing are far from over, but we are far from alone and that in itself is grace.

The other week, I was back in the UK for a few days, and a friend and I arranged to meet for dinner. I hadn’t yet been to his new place, so I stuck the address into my phone and followed the directions. As I was walking, I realized it was taking me on a route I’d walked many times before, fifteen years ago when I was in college and dating A. In fact, it took me past her old house; she doesn’t live there any more. I’m not sure I could name all of the feelings I experienced in that moment — it was a strange mixture of joy and sadness and nostalgia and gratitude and wonderment at what was, at what happened in the intervening years, and at where we are now. In the midst of that, God reminded me of the words of an ancient teacher:

For everything there is a season …

I’ve experienced that in places I’ve called home, in passions and pastimes, in friendships and relationships, and even in churches. Some endings we get to choose; others are chosen for us. Thanks be to the God who can bring life out of all of them … even when it takes longer than we would like or looks different from what we had hoped.


If you’re interested, I talk about these things a little more in a couple of sermons: “New Name, Same Calling”, on Launch Sunday back in August, when Matthew and I co-taught; and “Grief and Lament: Tools for Life”, given just the other week as part of our Psalms series.

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.]

Eugene Peterson on the Trinity

A few weeks ago, I got to attend an event honoring Eugene Peterson, author of The Message translation of the Bible and many other books that have shaped who I’ve become. One of the questions he was asked was about the Trinity, and I loved his answer.

He told a story about how when he was a young seminary student, he and his friends used to go square dancing. Now, he wasn’t a particularly good or confident dancer, so he’d usually start on the sidelines. He’d watch folks as they danced, seeing partners swap, join hands, circle up. But as the dance got faster and faster—as it does—the individuals became almost indistinguishable, a blur of movement and motion. And, he said, at some point a hand would reach out and he’d get yanked in—all of a sudden part of the dancing. He was dancing not because he was particularly good at it, but because he was with those who knew how to dance.

Life with God is like that, he said. God is love and God loves us. Father, Son, and Spirit have existed eternally in a community of love, created the universe at the beginning of time out of that love, and invite us to live our lives in that love.

It was a welcome and needed reminder that love and relationality are what define us.

We were created for love and to love.

When we love, we align ourselves with the grain of the universe.

(Coincidentally, Richard Rohr’s new book is about just this; it’s called The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, and it comes out in October!)