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.

Closing thoughts of an almost-no-longer-single pastor

C&J

4 days.

Four more days of singleness.

It’s a strange thing to consider — almost 32 years behind me as a single guy, with musings about relationships and romantic interests and sermons on singleness; a lifetime ahead of me as a married man, with a whole host of new joys and challenges.

My counselor told me once:

Change = Loss = Grief

In other words, any change involves a loss of some kind — whether of good things or bad things — and there is a grief that accompanies that. Even if the change is a positive one, a step in the right direction, things are lost that may never be regained.

In the quiet moments with God that I’ve been able to snatch amidst the busyness of wedding preparations, I’ve been excited for what’s to come — getting to spend the rest of my life and the adventure that’ll continue unfolding with Carolyn; I’ve been grateful for the faithfulness of God throughout this chapter — during the times when I was striving and impatient and frustrated as much as the times when I was content and at peace (the latter were far less frequent!); but I’ve also had time to grieve the end of this part of my life.

I like to say — and only part-jokingly — that it took me 29 years to fully comprehend the gift that singleness is. And then I met Carolyn.

But seriously … there are things that I learned to appreciate as a single person, ways in which God grew me, for which I’ll forever be grateful:

  • being present and available and stable for friends as they went through some difficult times;
  • having the time and freedom to see and hang out with as many people as my schedule and boundaries allowed;
  • getting to experience singleness for most of my twenties and into my thirties, and thus being able to empathize with and minister to those who have been — and some who remain — single for longer than they’d like;
  • discovering and pursuing God’s call to holiness and God’s design for us to be in relationship (whether in a romantic relationship or in relationships of family and community) and God’s value of us far beyond our relationship status.

From Friday, I’ll no longer be “the single pastor.” It’s strange to think that that’s been part of my identity, part of the way I’ve labeled myself, but that’s the way it’s been for the last four years — and in a church that’s almost three-quarters single, that’s been a unique point of connection. I don’t know how things will change when I’m married, how relationships will change, how ways of relating will change.

And so in this, just as with any step into the unknown, looking back with gratitude and grief, and looking forward with hope and excitement and eager anticipation, I place my life into the hands of a great, big, loving God, and see what happens. I know that some things will be different and some things will remain the same — I’m not sure exactly what just yet nor all of the details, but I’m stoked that I get to figure it out with two of my favorite people.

Here we go … see you on the other side.

For old times’ sake, here’s the blog series taken from last summer’s “Being Single” sermon:

  1. An Apology
  2. Not a Waiting Room
  3. Not a Terminal Disease
  4. Sex
  5. A Gift

The story of your life

Journal[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Story.”]

Today we’re going to talk about “Story”: about the story that we’re telling with our lives, but perhaps more importantly, about the story that God is telling in, through, and with our lives.

Story, #1: God never wastes an experience.

A mentor of mine first said this to me about ten years ago, when I could agree with it in theory but I couldn’t attest to it in experience—and maybe right now you’re where I was, but stick with me.

Let me give an example: I remember feeling for the longest time that the fact that I didn’t have one place where I could call home—I spent 16 years in Hong Kong, 8 years in England, 3 years in California, and 3 years here in DC; my parents are in Hong Kong, my best friends are in London, one brother is in California and the other is in Australia—the fact that I felt a constant sense of not-quite-fitting in, not-quite-feeling-at-peace-with-life was a deficit, something to be overcome.

But over the years, as God has continued to fine-tune my soul to his reality and his presence, he’s been showing me that this longing for home, this present discomfort—even this—is what he’s used to ground myself fully in him—that God is my home, in a way that no place ever could be.

All along, God has been weaving all the disparate and—what I thought were—mismatching threads together into a tapestry that has me here now at The District Church, doing the things I love and feel called to (theology, music, and justice)—after a long time wondering how those things would ever fit together. I’m in a place where—for my job—I get to cultivate a community that might be—even just for a few—a home away from home and a family away from family, because through my experience, I know what it’s like to not know where home really is.

God isn’t done yet, by any means, but the point is that it wasn’t until I realized what God was calling me to, less than three years ago, that I began to know in my experience—and not just in my head—that God doesn’t waste an experience. And that’s true, whether you’re in a place right now where you can see that or not.

Maybe the thing is that you’re in the middle of something right now—a degree, a job, a relationship, a chapter in your life—and you don’t actually know where it’s going, you don’t see it going anywhere, you can’t figure out how it’s connected to anything meaningful. Maybe you know what God’s called you to or what passions he’s placed within you or what kind of life he’s asking you to lead, and what you’re doing right now—well, they don’t seem to be lining up or meshing.

I wonder if the Apostle Paul, when he was a young man, learning his father’s trade as a tentmaker, wondered what on earth he was supposed to do with that craft. He already knew he loved studying the law, he knew he loved rhetoric and philosophy and debating with people; there must’ve been occasions where he thought to himself, Who needs tent-making? And yet that same skill would pay the bills for him to do just what God called him to do—though perhaps he wouldn’t see this for many years; and that’s just one—very small—way in which Paul could attest, as he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (8:28). In other words, in the story that he’s writing, God doesn’t waste an experience.

Story, #2: Conflict is an opportunity, not a setback.

In our day and age, we like things to be a certain way, specifically our way; we like things to be comfortable, and we do whatever it takes to keep from being uncomfortable, from facing any sort of conflict. But, as author Don Miller writes, every good story involves—indeed, needs—conflict:

Conflict fills a story with meaning and beauty. Not only this, but conflict gives value to that which we are trying to attain. And conflict is the only way a character actually changes. There is no character development without conflict.

Think about it: every time you’re faced with a challenge or a hurdle or an unknown, you have a choice, either to go back to the comfort of what you knew and the way things were, or to move forward, through the discomfort, and learn a new skill, a new way of life, a new perspective, and to grow.

In American culture, we’re conditioned to avoid conflict.

  • We build highways that bypass poor neighborhoods so we don’t have to walk through them and be reminded that there are people in need living right among us.
  • We watch news channels we agree with and read books we’re pretty sure we’ll agree with and subscribe to blogs we already know we’ll agree with, so we don’t have to deal with that opposing viewpoint or how it just irritates us.
  • We hang out with friends we mostly agree with and we avoid those difficult conversations, those conflict moments, where we’ll realize how different we are and we’ll have to talk about why we think what we think; or maybe we don’t give our friends permission to truly love and care for us by challenging us, having difficult conversations with us, saying the things we need to hear but we really don’t want to.
  • In our relationships, we avoid commitment and vulnerability and genuine intimacy—not just physical or sexual intimacy because we run to those things, often using them as facades to block out genuine intimacy—so that we won’t have to deal with things like sacrifice and confrontation and tough but honest conversations, those things that are integral to the success of a healthy relationship.

And yet each of these moments could be an opportunity instead:

  • an opportunity to be challenged to mobilize your community to help the poor;
  • an opportunity to see things from a different perspective, to see how God has been working in someone else’s life in a way different from how he’s been working in yours, and to experience a little more of the vastness of God;
  • an opportunity to see growth in your character, to become a better person, more like the person God created you to be;
  • an opportunity to love and be loved, to know and be known, to see and be seen, to experience genuine intimacy.

So don’t let conflict moments drag you down; don’t let difficult encounters drop your head; don’t let yourself get cynical and jaded or whiny or self-pitying; don’t simply shrug your shoulders. God wants so much more for you than that; God is capable of doing so much more in your life than that.

Instead, look through God’s eyes: how can you instead make this—whatever it may be that’s in front of you—an opportunity not just to speak out the story of what God has done in your life but to live a better story, to allow God by his Holy Spirit to tell his story in and through and with you? It’s an adventure we’re on, and we get to be a part of the best story that’s ever been written by the most imaginative and resourceful Artist that’s ever created!

BUT it’s not all sweetness and light; that’s not the world we live in. Jim Collins writes in Good to Great that one of the characteristics of a great leader is that he or she faces the brutal facts of reality, so here’s the honest truth:

Story, #3: We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.

You may have seen the amazing video, “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You,” by now. Kid President is a boy called Robbie Novak, and he actually has a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta—that’s “Brittle Bone syndrome.” In his ten years of life, he’s had over seventy breaks. But Robbie hasn’t let the tough parts of his life get him down, he hasn’t seen his condition as a setback but as an opportunity—the pep talk video is actually dedicated to a two year-old girl who recently had a liver transplant. And he’s not trying to be successful—it’s not about fame or money; he’s just trying to do a little something to spread hope and joy and to encourage people to make the world more awesome and maybe to dance a little more. That’s the story he’s telling with his life. [See below for “The True Story of Kid President.]

It was actually Mother Teresa who said, “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.” There is no guarantee that if you follow Jesus, if you seek the kingdom first, if you allow God to use every experience, and to see conflict as an opportunity rather than a setback, then you’ll immediately be wildly successful and life will be smooth sailing.

Actually, you may face more trials and more opposition, and you may be asked to give up more, to sacrifice more. One of the things Jesus said to his disciples was, “In this world you will have trouble.”

I’m sure you can attest to that; I’m sure you can see in your own experience that life is not easy, that opposition is great, that things are not as you wish they were, even when you’re trying to do what God asked you to do or what God called you to do.

  • God called you to love these kids, but man, couldn’t he have made them easier to deal with?
  • God called you to be in this city, but couldn’t he have made it a little less expensive or a little safer?
  • God called you to be generous with your time and with your money, but couldn’t he have made it cost a little less?
  • God called you to safeguard the sanctity of marriage and to value the gift of sex, but it’s hard to be faithful, even in your thoughts, and it’s hard to wait.
  • God calls all of us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him, but the world in which we are called to do justice is so broken and sometimes seems to be beyond redemption, and the people to whom we are called to be merciful are just so irritating and ungrateful and unworthy and sometimes just plain bad, and it’s so hard to walk with God when there are a hundred other things pressing on our time and, “Well, God, you’ve just been too quiet lately …”

But do you remember what else Jesus said to his disciples, several times just so that they wouldn’t forget it? “I am with you.”

Whenever I’ve had to make big decisions in my life—about a school or a job or a relationship or moving to another country—God has always said the same thing to me: “You choose; and whatever you choose, I am with you.”

Maybe God didn’t tell me what to do at those moments so that I couldn’t blame him if things didn’t go the way I thought they would; maybe God wanted me to grow up and take responsibility, to think through my decisions wisely, to exercise stewardship over the intellect and the relationships and the community and the connections that he had given to me—we’re not just called to be responsible with our money, after all.

That’s what faithfulness is: to do what we can, where we can, when we can, with what little knowledge and resources and time and faith we may have. If you have but a mustard seed of faith, God will use it. If you have only two pennies to give, God will use it. We’re not called to give what we can’t give; but we are called to faithfulness, trusting that God will do the rest.

Remember, as Kid President says, “You were made to be awesome,” because you were made in the image of God and our God is an awesome God. So:

What story are you telling with your life? What story are you allowing God to tell through your life?


We’re two — thanks to you

What a weekend! The District Church turned two years old this week, and we celebrated on Sunday in style–there were balloons and everything.
In the morning, Aaron shared about the journey so far and talked about “A Prayer for the District”; we sang and danced to music from, among others, Rihanna, Swedish House Mafia, and Bill Withers. And I made a video slideshow to commemorate the occasion (click the image to watch):
We dedicated six babies:
And in the evening, we baptized ten people (and had cake):
I’m so thankful for the grace of God we’ve seen over the last two years, and in particular for your support of me–in prayer, finances, and love. It’s a fantastic thing that someone gets to do exactly what they feel like God has made them to do, and I wanted to express my gratitude to you for enabling me to do that at The District Church. Looking forward to seeing what adventures are yet to come!
P.S. In preparation for the baptism service, we had a dry run of putting the portable baptistry together in the basement of the church house. I got to test it out: