How John Lewis ended up at our screening of Selma, a.k.a. A Go(o)d Step

 

 

I was standing by the entrance of the cinema when I recognized him — John Lewis, long-serving congressman from Georgia, civil rights champion, and personal hero.

I was at the theater because The District Church was hosting an advance screening of the new movie, Selma, together with two other churches — Restoration Arlington and The Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. David Hanke (rector of Restoration), Kendrick Curry (pastor of PABC) and I had met in October as part of a Micah Group (designed by Fuller Seminary to help local pastors engage and grow in the intersection of worship, justice, and preaching). And as events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and more had hit the national headlines, bringing widespread attention to issues of race and justice, we’d naturally been talking about what our response was as local churches and as the Church.

IMG_8741Through a connection with Values Partnerships (thanks, Scott!), the organization started and led by Joshua Dubois (the former head of President Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships), the opportunity arose to jointly host a screening of this new movie, centered around the civil rights movement and the significant events that took place in Alabama. The event was designed to bring different congregations together, to begin a conversation our role and responsibility as followers of Christ seeking the kingdom of God together.

So there we were, waiting for the event to start, checking people in, getting folks seated. And in walks John Lewis, who lived through the events portrayed in the film, together with a few other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

My first thought was, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t go to our church! Is he coming to our screening?!

My second thought was, What are the odds? On the night you’ve scheduled a joint screening of Selma with two other churches seeking to work together toward racial reconciliation, a hero of the civil rights movement walks into the same theater?

IMG_4991It was absolutely a God thing. Josh asked if the congressman would be able to take a few moments to speak to our gathered congregations, and he graciously agreed, sharing for a few minutes about being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, about walking with Dr. King and meeting Rosa Parks, and then speaking of the work of justice and reconciliation that continues today. He said:

We had faith. We kept our eyes on the prize. We were ready to die.

It was a challenging word, an inspiring word, a providential word.

Selma is an intense, moving, and at times overwhelming film. To know that this is part of the fabric of the history of the United States is both heart-breaking and hope-filled. Heart-breaking because of the depth of sin. Hope-filled because of the power of God working through faithful men and women.

After the movie, we set aside time to talk and to pray together, because the purpose of gathering was to begin a conversation, not just about a movie, not just about something that happened 50 years ago, but about what we’re called to as Christians, which is to see the kingdom of God come on earth, to see more of up there come down here. We want to see in the here-and-now what Dr. King called “the Beloved Community,” where “our loyalties … transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”

In Revelation 7, the apostle John sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” And they were worshiping God. That’s the future we’re moving toward.

So we broke up into small groups, got to know each other, and prayed together: three churches, from different locations in the DC metro area, with different demographics and different pastors, but “one body, one Spirit,one hope,one Lord,one faith,one baptism,one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

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David and Kendrick and I are continuing to talk about next steps, ways in which we can continue to partner together for the cause of the gospel. But last night was a good first step.

All thanks be to God.

An important book for our generation

OverratedJust finished my friend Eugene Cho’s new book, Overrated: Are we more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world?, and I’m so thankful for his words. Notably:

I fear that we might be more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world.

I fear that we might be more enamored with the idea of changing the world and are neglecting to allow ourselves to be changed.

I fear that we have an unrealistic and glamorous perception of what it means to follow Christ and what it means to pursue justice. In truth, we have not taken the time to count the costs of following Jesus.

I fear that we might be tempted to compartmentalize the action of changing the world rather than seeing it as a key part of our discipleship journey that will impact the whole of our lives.

I fear that we’re asking God to move mountains, forgetting that God also wants to move us. And in fact, it may be possible that we are the mountains that need to be moved.

It’s a confession that is his–and mine too, and he articulates the challenge that a lot of people in our generation face, that doing the work of justice is much more difficult and challenging than supporting the idea of justice.

That’s one of the reasons I’m excited that Eugene will be coming through DC next week. The District Church will be hosting an event for him, where he’ll be sharing from his book, having a Q&A session, and then signing books.

Space is limited (and people have been signing up real quick!) so get more details and RSVP here.

Eugene Cho

You can follow Eugene on:

Suffering Together

A few days ago, my friend (and big brother pastor) Eugene Cho posted on his blog, urging churches and Christians not to ignore Michael Brown’s death. It’s worth reading in full, but I’ll quote his opening thought here:

The integrity of the church is at stake because when it’s all said and done, it’s not a race issue for me, it’s a Gospel issue. It’s a Kingdom issue. We shouldn’t even let isolated issues in themselves hijack the purpose of the church. The Gospel of Christ is so extraordinary that it begins to inform (and we pray, transform) all aspects of our lives. So, in other words, we talk about race and racism because we believe in the Gospel.

On Sunday evening, I led worship at The District Church’s East Side parish and felt compelled to lead us into a moment of prayer for our brothers and sisters all over our country who are hurting — another young black man is dead. Here in our city, vigils had been held at Howard University and Meridian Hill Park.

https://twitter.com/the_blackness48/status/499714499688300545

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says:

1Cor. 12:14   Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.   26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 

1Cor. 12:27   Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

The way God’s kingdom works is not “if I’m okay, then everything’s okay,” but “if you’re not okay, then I’m not okay.” Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it more succinctly:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Photo by Heather Wilson

The body of Christ is hurting in Ferguson, MO and in black neighborhoods across the nation. (And in Gaza and the Middle East and Iraq.)

We can’t afford to be ignorant. We can’t afford to be apathetic. We can’t afford not to be praying. We can’t afford not to take whatever action is available to us.

For more,  you can read:

(There are so many good and wise and convicting commentaries; these are just a few.)

Photograph taken by Heather Wilson on August 17, 2014.

Why Christmas is good news

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church, “Savior, Messiah, and Lord.”]

TDC Christmas

I think Luke 2:10-12 captures the message of Christmas pretty perfectly:

Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Christmas is good news, right? Jesus being born is good news, right? That’s what the angel said to the shepherds, that’s what Christians believe. But as I was praying over this passage in preparation to preach yesterday, I had to ask myself again: Why is the birth of this child, over 2,000 years ago, good news? What does that have to do with us today?”

In these verses, we see that Jesus fulfills three roles—savior, messiah, and lord—and over the years, these terms have all become staples of “Christianese,” easy for believers to throw around without actually thinking about what they mean and just jargon to people who don’t follow Jesus or who are new to this stuff. And I think it’s as we unpack these terms—unwrap them, so to speak—that we’ll find and understand the good news.

Savior. In Greek, the word is soter, which simply means “one who saves” or “one who rescues” from a desperate situation. “Savior” was also a term in the Hebrew Scriptures that was commonly, and almost exclusively, used for God. In Isaiah 43:11, God says, “I am Yahweh, and besides me there is no savior.” Most clearly for the people of Israel, God had been their savior—he had demonstrated his saving power—when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt through the leadership of Moses. And at the time of Jesus’ birth, the people were again being oppressed: this time, they were living under Roman occupation, and they were again crying out to God to rescue them, crying out for a savior.

Messiah. This word comes from the Hebrew mashiach, meaning “anointed” or “anointed one,” and this referred to the practice of anointing a person with oil, a symbol of God’s presence and blessing, usually to fulfill a certain mission or task on God’s behalf. For instance, even before David killed Goliath, when he was still just a shepherd boy, he was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel. And by the time of Jesus, the term ‘messiah’ had come to hold in itself all of the expectations of the people of Israel for someone who would usher in the kingdom of God, someone who would inaugurate the reign of God: that time when everything would be set right, when injustice and oppression would be ended, when the wicked would be judged and the righteous vindicated. This is from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

                        because the LORD has anointed me;

            he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

                        to bind up the brokenhearted,

            to proclaim liberty to the captives,

                        and release to the prisoners;

            to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

                        and the day of vengeance of our God;

                        to comfort all who mourn …

The people of Israel were waiting for the one anointed to carry out God’s mission; they longed for the one who would come and set things right.

Lord. We don’t live in the Middle Ages any more, but this was a deferential title for someone in authority over you, someone of higher status than you, someone you would obey, someone who was your master. When you called someone, “Lord,” you were communicating that that person was worthy of your loyalty, your obedience, and your trust. So when we refer to God as “Lord,” what we are communicating—whether or not we back this up with our attitudes and actions—is that God is worthy of our loyalty, our obedience, and our trust. As the great missionary Hudson Taylor said:

Christ is either Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all.

But the thing is, God was not the only “Lord” around at the time of Jesus’ birth. The story begins, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus …” Caesar Augustus was the first emperor of Rome, and there was a common saying among Romans at the time, a sort of pledge of allegiance, that said, “Caesar is Lord.” There’s also a fascinating Greek inscription from the year 9BC, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, found in the city of Priene, in modern-day Turkey:

Since providence … has ordered things in sending Augustus, whom she filled with virtue for the benefit of men, sending him as a savior both for us and for those after us [this word ‘savior’ is the same one that is used in Luke’s gospel to refer to Jesus], him who would end war and order all things [Prince of peace, anyone? The Messiah who would set all things right, perhaps?], and since Caesar by his appearance surpassed the hopes of all those who received the good tidings, not only those who were benefactors before him, but even the hope among those who will be left afterward, and the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the good tidings [gospel, good news!] through him … (emphasis added)

This inscription is referring not to Jesus, but to Caesar. See, his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was deified after his death, which began the practice of recognizing all Roman rulers as gods. In fact, one of Caesar Augustus’s titles was Divi filius, which means ‘Son of God,’ or ‘son of the divine.’

Even two thousand years ago, people were desperate for help that would come from beyond themselves and they were looking for it. The inscription tells us how loyal citizens of the Roman Empire would see Caesar as a rescuer, a savior, a god, who would end war and set all things right. And you know what? A couple thousand years later, not much has changed—at our core, we’re desperate for a rescuer and a savior, for God to end war and set all things right, even if we don’t admit it.

Because we don’t often think of our need to be rescued, do we? That’s not a common cultural assumption. Once upon a time, maybe—fairy tales would tell of damsels in distress who needed to be rescued—but for the most part in Western society, we’ve left behind many of those patriarchal frameworks. Now, it’s a case of us all being self-sufficient, do-it-yourself kind of people: I don’t need to be saved from anything, and if I did, I’d do it myself! And yet, understanding the reality of our situation can be the key to determining whether we see Christmas as just another tradition or, as the angel described it, “good news of great joy.”

unapologeticThe reality is that you cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to. Because of sin: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin is something that gets in the way of our relationship with God and with each other; it’s destructive like that. English writer Francis Spufford describes sin as “the human tendency to [screw] things up.” He continues:

what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s … (Unapologetic, 27; emphasis added)

Imagine the closest relationship you’ve ever had or could ever have, and now imagine tearing that in two. That’s what sin does, because the closest, most intimate, most wonderful relationship that you were created for was the one with God, your Creator, your heavenly Father, your Sustainer, the one who knows you inside and out, the one who loves you no matter what, the one who desires your good even more than you do. And sin inserts itself between you and God, between you and other people, and it causes a rift, a chasm.

And that’s what we do all the time and all over the place—screw things up—intentionally and unintentionally, with God and with other people:

  • when we’re having an argument and we refuse to give up the fact that we’re right even though it’s destroying the relationship;
  • when we choose our own comfort over the effort it takes to help someone in need;
  • when we give in to our addictions for the hundredth time even though we just said we wouldn’t;
  • when we hurt someone’s feelings completely by accident because we didn’t understand their history or their upbringing or we thought the way we see things must be the way everyone else sees things;
  • when we don’t treat our family members with honor and love and respect because we’re busy playing with our phones or our new gadgets or zoning out in front of the TV.

That’s what sin looks like. That’s what we have no hope of getting ourselves out of, because it’s just so pervasive that we aren’t even always aware of it. That’s what we need saving from; and so we need a Savior.

We need a Messiah to set all things right and to usher in the reign of God in this world by bringing the Spirit of God into our lives so that we might be more of who God created us to be, lovers of God and of our neighbors, not just the end results of trying harder. We need a Messiah so that the world might be all that it was created to be.

We need a Lord, a master, to show us a better way of living, to lead us and guide us in a world that is full of voices and obligations and pressures and anxiety and fear. Everybody’s telling you the way to do things: advertisers, your colleagues, your boss, that random person whose blog you read, your siblings, your parents, your kids, your significant other.

But there is only one who knows the path of life and can show us the path of life; there is only one who can restore all things and redeem all things; there is only one who can save us from all our sins; and that is Jesus—Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

Of course, let’s not forget Luke 2:12, which would be so easy to pass over and yet is so quintessentially God and such a key part of the gospel story: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” If you’re familiar with the Christmas story, you probably won’t bat an eyelid at that statement. But think about it for a moment: the angel has just announced that there’s great news, God is coming to save his people, a Savior is here, God’s chosen one.

If someone came up to you today and said, “Great news! So-and-so is going to bring about world peace,” you’d probably think of a political leader, someone who’s well-known and well-protected, someone with a lot of influence and clout, someone who’ll get things done. You wouldn’t think of a baby, would you? I mean, how is a baby going to save us?! He’s wrapped in swaddling clothes, which means that not only is he a baby, his arms and legs are tucked in tight! And he’s lying in a manger. Again, we’ve gotten so used to the term “manger” that we would be forgiven for thinking that that was just another name for Jesus’ bed. It was a feeding trough! For animals! Because there was no room for the family in the house!

What kind of rescue is this chosen one going to accomplish, who is in the form of a baby wrapped up in strips of cloth? What kind of leader is this who sleeps not in a palace or a high security compound, who doesn’t even have enough influence to get a spare room, has to sleep in a borrowed food container for oxen, and whose arrival is announced not on a public stage for all to see but to shepherds pulling the nightshift out in the fields?

Well, I’m glad you asked!

It will be the most complete rescue, it will be the most wonderful restoration; and he will be the greatest leader to ever walk the face of the earth, the one who will show us who God is and who we were created to be, the one whose power is the power of love and humility and sacrifice, the one who lifts up the lowly and brings good news to the poor and release to those in captivity and healing to the hurting and broken.

This is part of the surprise of Christmas. After all, the word “Christmas” is a conflation of “Christ’s Mass,” that is, the worship of the God who came as a human baby into the darkness of the night two thousand years ago, who comes also into our darkness and our fears and our longing, to bring light and hope and fulfillment. A Savior has been born to us, God’s anointed, who will be the Lord, the herald and harbinger of the kingdom of God, and the one who will set all things right. And he shall come not with a trumpet-in-your-face, unavoidable demonstration of power that will blast you into submission, but as a baby, swaddled, and lying in an animal’s feeding trough. Because that’s how love works. That’s how God works. Frederick Buechner wrote this in The Hungering Dark:

Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. … And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully. (13-14)

That’s why Christmas is good news. And I hope it’s good news for you this week.

Merry Christmas!

Following Jesus: Marks of a disciple

[Part 2 of a blog adaptation of Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Come Follow Me”]

The second part of our recently-started series title is, “Marks of a Disciple.”

The Greek word for disciple in the New Testament is mathetes, which means learner. In Jesus’ day, Jewish disciples would follow their master around, learning how to be like him—how to talk, how to act, how to pray—and eventually, the idea was, disciples would become masters with their own disciples. But Jesus changed that up a little bit; he said, “You are not to be called master, or rabbi, for you have one teacher—me—and you are all students.”

Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message paraphrase, said this:

Disciple (mathetes) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith. (A Long Obedience, 13)

Bob Goff, who wrote a tremendous book last year called Love Does, put it this way:

“I used to think I could learn about Jesus by studying him, but now I know Jesus doesn’t want stalkers” (197).

I love that—it’s not just about learning what he said or what he did; it’s not some dry study of principles of leadership from two thousand years ago, because I mean, from one perspective, the guy only lasted three years, he irritated all the wrong people, and he ended up dead.

Fortunately, he didn’t stay dead, though; and now we don’t just get to learn about him, we get to do life with him. And that’s what discipleship is about: relationship, not perfection.

In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus addresses his disciples—his learners, his followers—and he says to them:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

We all know that salt adds flavor, right? So one way of looking at this is that we’re called to add flavor or zest to the world. Or you know that salt was used as a preservative in the days before refrigeration, so another way of reading this passage is that we’re supposed to prevent the rot of sin. But in the Old Testament—in Exodus and Numbers—we’re told that salt was also used in temple sacrifices as a symbol of the permanence of God’s covenant with his people.

So another reading of this passage is this: “You are a reminder to the world of who God is, you are a reminder of the relationship God desires with humanity.” And so, if you lose your saltiness, if you stop being that image of God here on earth, you’ve lost your purpose, you are not as you were made to be.

Is it any wonder we have a world full of unfulfilled people when so many are looking for meaning and purpose in the next thing–the next job, the next pay raise, the next relationship, the next marriage, the next campaign, the next president, the next child, the next home or car or gadget–rather than in the One they were made for?

When Matthew writes, “You are the light of the world,” he’s harking back to what God said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah:

I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. … I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

You have a purpose and that is to be representatives of God here on earth. You have a calling and that is to be images of God here on earth. You were made for something and that is to live with God here on earth, to be the body of Christ in the world.

Dallas Willard wrote about this passage in Matthew:

Jesus, surely with some humor, remarked that a city set on a hill cannot be hid (Matt. 5:14). I would not like to have the task of hiding Jerusalem, or Paris, or even Baltimore. The Gospel stories tell us how hard Jesus and his friends tried to avoid crowds and how badly they failed. Quite candidly, if it is possible for our faith and works to be hidden, perhaps that only shows they are of a kind that should be hidden. We might, in that case, think about directing our efforts toward the cultivation of a faith that is impossible to hide (Mark 7:24). (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 173)

A faith that is impossible to hide. We want to live our lives in such a way and steward our influence in such a way that our allegiance is impossible to hide.

  • “How can you be so patient when everyone else is so frustrated?” Well, I believe in a God who is sovereign over all and so I trust him and hold my own agenda loosely.
  • “How can you give up your high-paying job to help the underserved?” Well, I believe in a God who provides for everything I need and I trust that as I follow where he calls.
  • “How can you forgive that person when he treated you so badly?” Well, I believe in a God who forgave me of infinitely more and asks me to do the same for others.
  • “How can you love this person who hates you?” Well, I believe in a God who loved me even before I knew him, and who loved those who hated him, and who asks me to do the same.
  • “How can you hold onto that antiquated view of sex before marriage?” Well, I believe that sex is good, that it is such a unique expression of closeness and intimacy that that’s why God designed it for the safety of a committed, covenant relationship, because it is so precious.
  • “How can you give up a portion of your income to the church, some random group of people, many of whom you don’t even know?” Well, I believe in a God who asks for everything, actually, but it’s a reminder that all I have has been entrusted to me and I want to throw in my lot with this group of people; I want to say, I’m with these folks as we follow Jesus together, as we learn together, as we are disciples together.

“So let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine …

The mission of The District Church is, “To make disciples of Jesus in the District who are committed to living out their God-given mission in life.” That’s what we’re about here: making disciples, helping people follow Jesus, becoming ourselves more like Jesus.

And we try to do that through small groups, through service and outreach in the community, and through doing life together: babysitting for one another, helping each other move, supporting each other through triumph and tragedy, laughter and tears, joy and sorrow. We want everyone to be in a setting of discipleship, learning to do life with God; and we ask our leaders more specifically to be in discipling relationships, where they are learning from certain people as well as helping other people learn.

We’re here to help, to walk with you as you walk with Christ, to encourage you and challenge you and provide the space for you to work out what life with God looks like, because we’re meant to do this together, we’re meant to be disciples together, we’re meant to learn together.

So take stock of your life:

  1. What influence do you have? As you’ve been reading, maybe God has been putting a particular relationship on your heart or bringing a particular situation to your mind, maybe it’s to do with your money or your family or your significant other or your talents and gifts or your connections or your education.
  2. How have you been stewarding that influence? What have you been doing with what you have? How does that reflect what you’re committed to? How are you being salt and light in that situation—being God’s representative in that place?
  3. How are you being a disciple? How are you seeking to learn from Jesus? How are you following Jesus? How does your relationship with Jesus impact the way you handle what you’ve been given?

Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, whether you’ve heard this a thousands times or never before, the invitation is always there:

I have come that you might have life to the full. … Come, follow me.