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.]

Finding God in Disappointment

[Adapted from Sunday’s sermon at The District Church, “Finding God in Disappointment.”]

Have you ever been disappointed?

Have you ever experienced disappointment in your life with any of the following:

  • something you bought, some event you attended, some movie you watched;
  • some job that wasn’t all you thought it was going to be, some degree program that turned out to be lame, some move that wasn’t everything you’d hoped, some politician who let you down;
  • your friends, your family, someone you looked up to, someone you trusted, a romantic relationship—even a marriage?

How about this: have you ever experienced any disappointment in your life because of Christians, because of the church, or because of God?

Everyone experiences disappointment, but not everyone finds God in it; and I think God is there to be found. God is certainly at work in the midst of it all—that we can rely on, even if we can’t see him. But often when we experience disappointment, our first reaction is to pull away and to give up, instead of trusting that God is still at work even when things don’t seem to be going our way and seeking where he may be found, even in those places.

Think about how we perceive the relationship between God and our well-being even today: there’s a widely-held (and sometimes unspoken) assumption that if you’re doing well financially or relationally or materially or professionally, God is blessing you—and that may well be the case. But the problem comes when we assume:

  1. that that’s always the case—that material prosperity and God’s blessing are the same thing; and
  2. that the converse is also always true—that if you aren’t doing well, then God isn’t with you.

Even if we might say those things aren’t true, there’s still a sense in which we make judgments about others and about ourselves when things don’t go our way. I remember, when I was still single and a relationship didn’t work out, wondering why God would put me through that again. Or when I was applying for jobs and didn’t hear back from a single one, being like, “God, haven’t I done everything you wanted me to do? What gives?”

In Luke 24:21, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus say, “We had hoped that [Jesus] was the one”, but they had to lay those hopes to rest. What hopes have you had to lay to rest? In the wake of a loss, a breakup, a letdown, a layoff, an unfavorable decision; love denied, job denied, school denied. “We had hoped …” The disciples’ hope was that Jesus was the one to bring redemption to Israel. What disappointments have you experienced when it relates to the resurrection and all of the things you feel like you were promised because of Christ?

In the 1500s, a Spanish monk by the name of Juan de la Cruz—in English, John of the Cross—wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul,” which is not simply the experience of suffering but the experience of suffering in what seems like the silence of God. Can you relate?

Last week we remembered Christ’s death on Good Friday and we celebrated Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, but one day we didn’t talk about was Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day when Jesus was dead and in the tomb, and there was no guarantee that he was coming back. Holy Saturday is the day when doubt and despair and darkness held sway, and hope and faith were hanging by a thread. Holy Saturday is the day that reflects the reality of how many of us experience life right now—even after the resurrection: it’s the time theologians describe as the “already but not yet,” when Christ has already come but not yet come again, when Christ has already won the decisive battle but the full restoration is not yet here, when sin and death and evil were defeated on the cross but they have not yet been obliterated.

I think Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus were still living in a Holy Saturday reality—they’d heard about the resurrection but they hadn’t seen the risen Jesus; they weren’t sure if it was even true or not; their disappointments and their doubts still dominated. For them, Jesus was dead and God was silent; hope was gone and God was silent.

Something that struck me this week as I was reflecting on Luke 24 was verse 16: “they were kept from recognizing him.” The disciples, shorn of hope, weighed down by disappointment, experiencing a dark night of the soul, were kept from recognizing Jesus. He could have shown up and said, “What’s up, guys? It’s me! Rumors are true. Back from the dead.” Their hearts would have been lifted, their hopes would have been restored, and their souls would have rejoiced. But instead, he keeps them from recognizing him for the whole journey; he pretends not to know what’s going on; he allows them to stay in their disappointment. Why would Jesus do this?

John of the Cross writes:

There will come a time [in a person’s spiritual life] when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation of the soul [the sense of his presence] in order to teach it virtue.

John Goldingay said this:

When John [of the Cross] talks about the dark night, he talks about it in terms of stripping away the things that do not really matter to us. The dark night takes us back to basics. It raises the questions of who we really are and what we are really aiming at … makes us concentrate on what deserves concentration.[1]

In February, we talked about uncertainty, and I said:

Sometimes God has something to teach us in the midst of uncertainty that we could never learn—or never be open to learning—in the midst of certainty. [Uncertainty] can provide perspective for us and give us the opportunity to see unimaginable beauty that we would otherwise miss, just like darkness allows us to see things—like the stars—that we could never see in the light.

Darkness allows us to see things we could never see in the light. Disappointment allows us to see things we could never see in success. Discomfort allows us to see things we could never see in ease. In Psalm 131, one of my favorite psalms, the writer says: “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Ah, contentment with God, quietness and stillness and calm. Isn’t there a part of us that, in the midst of busyness and stress and anxiety, really longs for that? But what else does the psalm say? “Like a weaned child.”

What is weaning? A series of small disappointments effected in order to help the child move from their mother’s milk to an adult diet, to help the child grow up? It’s a series of “No’s” so that the child might arrive at a better, healthier, more mature relationship with their parents, and with their own needs and desires. The purpose of weaning is to help the child grow into a place of contentment and satisfaction. But to get there, they have to pass through the land of disappointment. “There will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper.”

Why were the disciples kept from recognizing Jesus? Maybe because they needed to work through some things; maybe they needed to hear what Jesus had to tell them—he doesn’t mince words when he says, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe!”; maybe they needed to see that the women whose testimony they had disparaged (see Luke 24:11) were right; maybe they needed to learn what faith looks like when it’s tried and tested; maybe they needed to grasp that the expectations they had had of Jesus, the expectations that had not been met, the ways they thought Jesus had let them down, that those expectations were actually wrong.

The relationships that didn’t work out—the ones that broke my heart—I needed to experience those to realize that my worth doesn’t come from what someone else says about me but it is grounded in God. The jobs that I applied for but didn’t get—I needed to experience those rejections in order to focus my attention more fully on what God was really calling me to; if I’d gotten any of those jobs I’d applied for—jobs in advocacy and politics—I may not have ended up as a pastor, I may not have ended up doing what I know I was made to do. But when I was going through those times, I couldn’t see that. When I was going through those times, they were absolutely dark and disappointing—I couldn’t discern what God was doing through them; they just seemed like closed doors.

Maybe there are places in your life that feel dark or disappointing where Jesus is with you but he’s actually keeping you from recognizing him right now. Maybe because you need to work through some things—and he’ll be with you in it, even if you aren’t aware of him; maybe you need to listen to what Jesus has to say to you—truths you’ve dismissed or convicting words you’ve tried to ignore; maybe you need to see that someone you wrote off was right; maybe you need to learn what faith looks like when it’s tried and tested; maybe you need to grasp that the expectations you had had of Jesus, the expectations that have not been met, the ways you thought Jesus has let you down, that those expectations are actually wrong.

Sometimes Jesus keeps us from recognizing him immediately because there are things we need to learn and work out and realize, because faith grows in all sorts of ways, even in darkness and disappointment. In fact, sometimes darkness and disappointment are invitations and unique opportunities to press in. Let me ask you this: What if you can’t actually truly experience resurrection unless you press in to it?

Here’s what I mean. Jesus called the disciples “foolish”—as in, slow to understand (hence his explanation)—and “slow of heart”—that’s how it’s phrased in the Greek. The heart is not about your cognitive understanding but rather your inner commitments, dispositions, and attitudes, the things that determine your life. See, you can sit back and complain when things don’t go your way—as if that were ever promised; you can do only what’s necessary to get by—show up at church once in a while, show up at small group as long as it doesn’t interfere with your social schedule.

Or you can press in—you can pursue God and life and truth and hope in the midst of whatever darkness and death surrounds you, entrusting yourself fully into the hands of God, leaning into God and caring for others even when things don’t go your way. Only one of those postures opens your eyes to what God is doing in and through and around you. Maybe, just like the disciples, it is as we press in to the resurrection of Jesus, walking in community, sharing our sorrows with God, listening and learning from Scripture, inviting others to speak truth into our lives, that we cultivate the conditions for growth and healing and learning and maturation and sight, that we create space for God to transform us and we begin to find God in the midst of disappointment.

Rembrandt’s “Christ at Emmaus”

When they got to Emmaus, the disciples invited Jesus to stay the night—it was late and the road wasn’t safe after dark. And as they sat down for dinner, “Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him …” (24:30-31). It was only then that they recognized him—after experiencing crushing doubt and cruel disappointment and community division, after walking with Jesus unbeknownst for two hours, after listening to the words he had to say, after inviting him to share a meal with them. It’s only then that they’re able to look back and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” I long for these moments when our eyes are opened and we recognize God, when our hearts burn within us with the realization that God is here now; I pray for these moments—for myself and for all of you—but only in God’s time, because we might not even recognize God in those moments if we aren’t looking with the right eyes, if we aren’t living with the right heart, if we aren’t seeking to understand with the right mind, if we aren’t practicing resurrection as active participants.

So remember these two words, recite them and remind yourself of them no matter what you encounter:

Press in.

Press in to Jesus in the midst of your doubts and your disappointments and your darkness.

Press in to Jesus by reminding yourself of his promises in Scripture.

Press in to Jesus by seeking genuine community—friends who will encourage you and challenge you, people who will help knock off those rough edges and refine you for the kingdom.

Press in to Jesus and find God.

He is with you, even in your disappointments.

[1] John Goldingay, Walk On, 66.

Is Christianity unfair to women?

John Ortberg, Is Christianity Unfair to Women?I wanted to share this last week’s sermon from John Ortberg at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. MPPC is going through a series called FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), and I know this question is one that I’ve had conversations about so I hope it’s helpful! (You can click here or on the image to watch the video.)

It’s also an excuse to repost one of my favorite — and, personally, most regularly challenging — quotes about Jesus’ relationship with women, from Dorothy Sayers:

Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like this man. There never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made sick jokes about women; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took women’s questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out a certain sphere for women; who never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took women as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its point or pungency from female perversity. Nobody could get from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything funny or inferior about women.

– Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human?

What does it mean to “take up your cross”?

Last night in small group, we were talking about Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23-26, where he says:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

And the question that followed was:

What does it actually mean to “take up your cross”?

On Sunday at our East Side parish, Matthew made the really good point that “taking up one’s cross” has, in many cases, particularly in the West, become stripped of its impact and significance. People tend to use a phrase like “That’s just my cross to bear” for any inconvenience, irritation, hardship, or suffering, when that’s not what Jesus means. As Matthew said (and you can listen to the whole sermon here: “Jesus: A Disciple’s Identity”):

Jesus’ cross was a sign of resistance to established authority and an instrument of shame as one hung naked and pitiful for all to see. And the temptation is for all of us to say that any area of challenge in our lives, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear,” and in so doing … we actually cheapen the cross. … Being stuck in traffic is not a cross. A hard business statistics class is not a cross. A difficult roommate, even, is not a cross to bear. Our crosses are those places where following Jesus actually costs us something quite precious.

This reference here in Luke 9 is actually the first time that Jesus mentions the cross, the first time he mentions that he’s going to die. Here, for the disciples, there’s no notion of triumph through death; there’s only death. That’s what Jesus is saying: “If you’re going to follow me, you’re going to have to deny your own desires and take up the means by which you yourselves will die.”

And he says that they are to do it daily. So he isn’t talking about a literal, physical death — though many of the disciples would see their faithfulness to the gospel and to their Master end that way. As one of the guys in my group said last night, “He’s talking about love. Love is the way of denying yourself and seeking the good of the other. That’s the reality that Jesus was talking about and living out.”

Every moment and every day, Jesus was denying himself so that he might obey the will of the Father and seek the good of everyone he encountered. That challenges my notions of daily quiet time. Instead of my usual fallback, “Thank you, God, for this day. Please be with me. Amen”, maybe I should be acknowledging:

God, my life is not my own; my time is not my own; my body is not my own. All of them are yours. Please help me deny myself so that your kingdom might come and your will might be done in my life and through my life on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus gives us the answer in the first part of his sentence: to take up my cross is to deny myself, to deny my own selfish desires, to seek to love and put others first at home and at work, in my friendships and in my marriage, in conversations I have and in my thought patterns. Every. Single. Day.

To take up my cross is to bite my tongue when I want to prove myself right or to justify myself, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to give of my time and my energy and my money — even and especially when I don’t feel like it — when someone is in need, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to train myself in the ways of love and self-sacrifice, to practice the characteristics of love that Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 13: being patient and kind; not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude; not insisting on my own way; not being irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing but rejoicing rather in the truth; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.

That’s what I think it means to deny myself and to take up my cross every day.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 5:3 this way:

Every morning

I lay out the pieces of my life

on your altar

and watch for fire to descend.

I think that’s my new daily prayer.

Résumés and obituaries

[Excerpted from Sunday’s message: “Jesus = More Life.” Listen to the sermon here.]

Jesus = More Life

Forty-seven years ago, in February 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what would be his last sermon. It was called “The Drum Major Instinct.” If you haven’t read it or heard it in full, I’d encourage you to—it’s a challenging, inspiring word. As he gets to the end of this sermon, Dr. King begins to imagine his own funeral, and he says this:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

I heard it said recently that people nowadays tend to think more and more about their résumés and less and less about their obituaries. In other words, people seem more concerned with padding their lives with experiences or with things that will impress others rather than thinking about how they would want to be remembered, and not just in terms of the impression they leave on others—as if it were all just about the façade—but, more substantively, thinking about who they are becoming, about what kind of person they are growing into, about how their character is being cultivated.

How would you want to be remembered?

What kind of person are you becoming, by the choices you’re making, by the relationships you’re investing in, by the values you’re prioritizing?

What kind of world will you leave behind?

How will you respond to the opportunities God gives you every single day, every single moment?