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?

Fasting for Lent

Ash WednesdayLent begins tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), a season for focusing on Jesus as we prepare to celebrate the climax of his life and his mission—his death and resurrection—and also for remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. It lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays), and ends on Easter Sunday (April 5 this year).

One of the traditional Lenten practices is to fast. You may have already seen posts on social media announcing that your friends will be off Facebook until Easter; others give up chocolate or caffeine or alcohol; still others fast from meat or candy. In the Bible, though, fasting is understood narrowly as abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.

Interestingly, there are no laws or commandments in the Bible about fasting. You don’t have to do it, though it may be helpful. Moses certainly found it to be (Ex 34), as did David (2 Sam 12), Jehoshaphat (2 Chr 20), Elijah (1 Kgs 19), Esther, Ezra, Daniel, Anna the Prophetess (Luke 2), Paul and early church (Acts 13, 14).

Jesus did it too, but there’s no sense that he did it regularly—he had a reputation as “a glutton and a drunkard,” partly because he didn’t make a big deal out of fasting and he didn’t command his disciples to fast (Matt 9). Presumably, as a devout Jew, he followed the traditional practice of fasting on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27); and there are instances recorded of when he fasted, most notably in the wilderness, preparing for public ministry. But he never commanded it.

What he did say about fasting comes from Matt 6:16-18:

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Here, Jesus assumes that it happens; he doesn’t command it. (And we should always be careful of making assumptions into commandments!)

In the context of the passage, Jesus is talking about doing religious things for selfish reasons. Fasting is meant to be done as part of a life devoted to pursuing God, together with praying and simplicity and seeking justice (see Isaiah 58).

The point of fasting is to draw near to God, to help us focus on God by denying ourselves. We might also fast in order to become more like Jesus, understanding that we do not “live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). As I wrote last year:

The point of fasting can be to give up luxuries, to remind us that we don’t need the things that the world tells us we can’t do without; it can also about giving up some so-called necessities, to remind us that we don’t need the things we tell ourselves we can’t do without. But ultimately, the point of fasting is to remind us that there is only one thing we can’t do without—and that’s God.

As I mentioned earlier, fasting has become more broadly practiced—it no longer only applies to food. Some of the guys in my small group are challenging each other over the next six and a half weeks of Lent to fast something or to pick up a habit that we’ll encourage each other in and be accountable to one another.

See, traditionally, people fast but we also need to remember to fill that space with something positive. You can give up food or social media or coffee, but if you don’t fill it with some sort of positive engagement with God, it’s kind of missing the point.

So it can be helpful to think of this in two ways:

  1. What you want to give up and then what you want to fill that space with.
  2. What rhythms or habits you want to add to your life and then how to make room for it.

The goal is not to focus on the habit but to focus on Christ and how we are becoming more like him in the process.

We took time to brainstorm some ideas, through the lens of:

  • Work, friendships, romantic relationships, money, time, habits;
  • The District Church’s core values: worship (connecting with God), community (connecting with each other), justice (connecting with the needs of the world);
  • Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Here are some ideas that we came up with, in case you need help brainstorming:

  • Fast
    • Unplug: no electronics 2 hours pre-bedtime until after time with God in the morning
    • Snooze button
    • Eating out
    • Buying anything new (not including necessities, e.g. food)—fasting from consumer culture
    • Swearing
    • Gossiping
    • People (not all the time, obviously, but rather in order to practice solitude)—Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Let the person who cannot be alone beware of community.”
    • Social media (learning to focus)
  • Pick up
    • Exercise to care for the body
    • 30 mins of reading to cultivate stillness
    • Pray for the same thing or the same person every day to cultivate perseverance
    • Listing 10 things we’re grateful for
    • Sending an email to someone catching up
    • Setting aside time to reflect on the cross
    • Reading the Bible
    • Pray for a few minutes

Remember, if you decide to do anything this season, your Lenten practice is not about legalism or drudgery. It’s not about turning disciplines into laws. It’s not about feeling like a failure if you miss a day.

It’s about freedom from self-interest and fear. It’s about joy. And most importantly, it’s about learning how to walk more closely with God, learning how to listen more carefully to God, and learning how to be more like Jesus.

Love your enemies (MLK Weekend 2015)

Luke 6:27-36:

To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.

[Adapted from Sunday’s message: “Love Your Enemies.” Listen to the full sermon here.]

TDC Love Your EnemiesThis weekend we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have turned 86 years old.

Dr. King’s dream was more than just legislation, more than just political action, though it included that. He dreamed of the Beloved Community, where we lived together in love and in reconciliation, and that came out of a desire to see more of heaven here on earth, a yearning to see God’s kingdom come and God’s will done here on earth. King’s vision was rooted in God’s vision. And God’s vision is rooted in love, including love for enemies.

Here in Luke 6, we find Jesus’ manifesto; this is Jesus laying out what the kingdom of God is all about; this is Jesus laying out a vision for life as God designed it. And, in some ways, it doesn’t make sense. Jesus singled out those who were poor, hungry, weeping, and hated because of him and said that they were blessed; and then he called out those who were rich, well fed, laughing, and well spoken-of, and he prophesied trouble for them.

That isn’t the way the world works, is it? We don’t have reality shows celebrating the poor; we don’t watch soap operas set in the slums; we don’t tend to post pictures on social media of ourselves crying; and when someone gets on our case for following Jesus, we don’t tend to use #blessed.

No, we have TV shows like, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; our tabloids reflect our fixation with those who have more than we do; being rich, well fed, laughing, and well spoken-of kind of sounds like the good life, doesn’t it? Sounds like the life many in our world strive for.

But Jesus proclaims a different kingdom, a kingdom that appears to be upside down—that’s what we’ve called this miniseries. But, if we think about it carefully, here’s the twist: the kingdom of God is actually right side up. If we really think about who Jesus is and what he says and what he does, if we really think about what the world would look like if more of the kingdom of God was here on earth—if we all did what Jesus told us to do—we’ll realize it’s actually the world that’s upside down; it’s actually the world that’s gotten it wrong; it’s actually the world whose dreams lead only to disappointment and despair and death.

Dr. King said, “Love your enemies,” because Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”

When I was in boarding school—I was about 16, I think—I knew a guy. We were in the same house—think Gryffindor and Slytherin-type houses—and so we saw each other a decent amount, but we weren’t that close because he was in the year above me; occasionally we’d play soccer together. One day I was in a friend’s room, and this guy came looking for my friend, who’d stepped out. He asked where my friend was; I said I didn’t know.

And apparently I said it in a way that didn’t go over well, because the next thing I know, he’s got me in a chokehold, shouting at me not to disrespect him. To this day, I have no idea what I did that set him off, but I knew that this guy, who was bigger and stronger than me, could do some damage if he didn’t let up. Fortunately, he does let up and he storms out of the room.

And I’m left there feeling angry, frustrated, humiliated, and a whole bunch of other emotions. I’m thinking about ways I can get back at him; I’m thinking about ways I can report him; I’m thinking about what I can do to make him feel the way he made me feel. In that moment, he was my enemy.

Who is your enemy?

  • A friend who hurt you
  • a boss who’s out to get you
  • an ex
  • a parent who left you
  • anyone in the other party, or on the other side of the aisle
  • anyone in a different socioeconomic or ethnic group—you might not be comfortable saying it out loud, but that’s where you are
  • anyone who thinks or acts or looks different from you.

Whoever it is, when you hear Jesus’ words, “Love your enemy,” your gut response is, “You can’t mean that person!”

Pastor John Ortberg describes love as:

a God-powered condition of being in which I will the good for everybody I come into contact with.

Love as Jesus understood it is a God-enabled act of the will, a choice to put the other person before yourself; it’s about seeking the good of the other in tangible action—like being generous to your enemies, praying for them, blessing them (not like “Bless your heart,” but actually blessing them), doing to them what you would want done to you if you were in their shoes (that requires empathy, a conscious decision of the will to identify and associate with the other). It’s not that feeling has no part to play with this kind of love, but it’s not the main part. So even if I don’t feel loving toward someone, I can still be loving toward them by willing and acting for their good.

Bill Pannell, a longtime professor at Fuller Seminary, said:

The real Jesus is really not nice. Packed full of love, and all of that, but whoever said love is neat and nice? … God’s fundamental interest in us is relationship. It’s for intimacy, a love affair. That’s the good news. God says, “I love you, and let’s get that settled.” But then God says: “Now I’m going to mess with you because there are things that need to get straightened out.”

That’s love. That’s the kind of love that Jesus was about. That’s the kind of love we try to be about here at The District Church. That’s the kind of love I’m trying to learn, the kind of love I want to show everyone. This kind of love envelopes every single person in an embrace of acceptance and welcome, and because of the depth of this affection, this love seeks and steers them toward their highest, God-defined good.

So, if this is what love is, why would we do this for our enemies? Why should we do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us? Well, it’s pretty easy to find people who only love those who love them back; almost everyone does that. But that’s the world’s definition of love, that does the bare minimum.

That’s not good enough for Jesus. Instead, he invites us to a higher standard, a higher way of living, a love that goes far beyond the letter of the law. This is a kingdom kind of love; at first glance, this kind of love seems naïve and self-defeating. But if we juxtapose the world’s way of loving with God’s, it’s not God’s way that ends up looking upside down; it’s the world’s.

mlkDr. King gave three reasons why we should love our enemies (in his great sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” from 1957). First, he said,

hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.

Think about it: if you hurt me and then I hurt you, you hurt me, I hurt you—the cycle just carries on, inflicting wound after wound.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Love is the only thing that can heal and restore and reconcile. Love is the only thing that can break a cycle of sin and destruction.

Second,

hate distorts the personality of the hater. … Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.

When you hold a grudge, when you cling to bitterness or rage or hatred, when your being is bent on revenge or animosity or contempt, your soul shrivels because, as Aaron reminded us a couple weeks ago, your soul is made for God, made for eternity, made for relationship, made to love. These things enlarge us, make us more true, make us more real. And so when we do the opposite, our souls become smaller, less solid, thinner and stretched, “like butter scraped over too much bread,” as Tolkien might say.

Dr. King’s third reason why we should love our enemies was this:

love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.

It is only the power of the love of God working in us and through us that will bring about the Beloved Community that Dr. King dreamed of, that will heal a broken city and a hurting world, and bring reconciliation and new life.

Jesus also gives us a reason why we should love our enemies: to be like God, our Father, who is merciful and kind to all, including the ungrateful and the wicked. Since you are made in the image of this God, be like him in love and mercy; that’s what you were made for.

And, Jesus says, God will treat you in the same manner that you treat others. So “don’t judge, and you will not be judged.” This doesn’t mean don’t use your judgment—there are a lot of reminders in the Bible about being wise and making wise decisions. There are a lot of places where Jesus calls out evil and injustice; he doesn’t just say it’s okay. He calls it out, because there is a place for using your judgment. There’s a place, as Dr. King did, for standing up to injustice and oppression. What Jesus is saying here is don’t make a judgment about somebody else that they are beyond the reach of God; don’t put them down or hold them down with your bad attitude about them or your limited mindset and ignorance about what God is doing in their lives. “Don’t condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.” In the same measure, in the same manner.

Let me be clear in all of this: Jesus is not setting out an exhaustive list of new rules; it’s not another checklist. Sometimes that can trip us up—our desire to have a to-do list. Legalism loves having things to do.

But if you do these things with a wrong spirit—for instance, “I’ll turn the other cheek now but I’ll get you back later!”—you’re missing the point. If you limit your love to the activities Jesus explicitly mentions here, you’re missing the point. If you show love to your enemy but don’t love your friends and family, you’re missing the point.

Jesus is not just giving us new activities to do; these are intended to be illustrations of what a certain kind of person does. These are the kinds of “upside down” things kingdom people do. We’ve been trying to press this home: who you are and who you are becoming is far more important than what you do, because what you do will come out of who you are. Jesus says this:

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. … A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (6:43-45)

You can change the external behavior and not touch the heart, and miss the point. You can act in certain ways to present a certain front but not allow God to change who you are, and miss the point. Dallas Willard writes,

In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?” (The Divine Conspiracy, 180)

So are you becoming the kind of person who loves outrageously, as Jesus did, as we were made to? Are you becoming the kind of person who loves their enemies, as Jesus did, as we were made to?

Where the rubber hits the road is when you’re done listening to me and you leave here, and you encounter people. People are messy: at work, in play, in families, in friendships. That’s where the challenge is to love your enemies, to show other people what the love of God can do.

Jesus ends his sermon by saying:

Why do you call me,”Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete. (6:46-49)

There are only two camps: those who listen to Jesus and hear what he says and put his words into practice, and those who don’t. Those who survive the storms of life, and those who get swept away. The flood hits both houses. It’s not like, if you’re a Christian, life will be easy. God never promises that. Life will throw everything it’s got at you, whether you follow Jesus or not. Storms come for us all. The question is whether you’ll stand firm or not, whether you’ll listen to Jesus or not, whether you’ll do what Jesus says or not.

Let me tell you up front: following Jesus is something you have to commit to, something you have to work at, something you have to make sacrifices for—and this is true whether you’ve just started following Jesus or whether you’ve been following Jesus most of your life. Building a house on a foundation of stone in first century Palestine meant digging down seven, eight, ten feet, into soil and clay that, in summer, became as hard as bronze. It would be very tempting for a person to say, “You know what, this is too much work right now. You know what, the sun’s out; I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

And this builder, toil-averse and short-sighted, would not put in the work of building on a foundation of stone, would be caught out when the winter rains came, and would see his house swept away. Following Jesus will require intentionality and discipline and some forward-planning; it will demand that you make decisions you don’t want to make but you know are good for you; it will take you being in a community of love where others can encourage you and hold you accountable.

But above all, it will take you knowing this: God loves you. God says to you, as he said to Jesus in Luke 3, “You are mine; I love you.” That’s what formed the foundation of Jesus’ identity; that’s what allowed him to do everything that he did; that’s what allowed him to endure everything he did; that’s what allowed him to withstand all the storms of life that came his way—because he knew he was loved by God. If you know you are loved by God, you can withstand the storms of life. If you are a follower of Jesus, the storms of life can hit your house and you will not be shaken.

That’s why Paul writes, in Ephesians 3:17:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

See, I could say, “Go, love your enemies because Jesus says so,” and that would not be wrong. But it would be more right to say, “Go, love your enemies because God loves you. And God loves them too.”

“While we were still sinners,” Paul writes, “Christ died for us, and that’s how God demonstrated his love for us” (Rom. 5:8). Even though we didn’t deserve it, even before we knew we needed it, even when we were still enemies of God, God loved us and sent his Son to demonstrate this love, to reconcile and restore right relationship, and to make us new and to give us new life. And every day we receive new mercies, new opportunities. This is what the Father is like, pouring down blessing on blessing, even on the wicked and ungrateful. That’s what makes the gospel and the Christian faith so amazing and so unique, and yet so challenging and so controversial: it tells the story of an enemy-loving God who showed his love by sending his enemy-loving Son to give his life for his enemies so that his enemies might become his friends.

You know, when I was looking back over my life to think of someone I would’ve called my enemy, I recalled that moment in boarding school in an instant—it’s hard to forget! But it took me a long time to remember the guy’s name. Because I had long since worked through my own anger, given it up to God, forgiven the guy, and moved on. That incident is part of my experience; it colors who I am. But it does not have control of me because I trust that God’s love is stronger than anyone’s misdirected hatred, that God’s forgiveness is powerful enough to make me new and to overflow from me to others, and that God’s kingdom is the ultimate reality. We played soccer later that afternoon; and he came up to me. I didn’t know what he was going to do or say; I still wasn’t sure how to respond. But Jesus had already been working in my heart so that even before he apologized, he had already been forgiven. See, I follow a man named Jesus, who can take my pain and my hurt and my hate and my anger and my bitterness and my prejudice and my sin, and replace it with love, even for my enemy.

MLK arm in armMartin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, and countless others who fought nonviolently for civil rights, were able to love their enemies—and so can we—because we follow a man named Jesus who also stood up in the face of violent injustice and oppression, in the face of cursing and beating, in the face of hatred and taunting.

They were able to love their enemies—and so can we—because our Master is a man named Jesus who also knew that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” that in God’s kingdom the poor and the hungry and the weeping and the hated are blessed, that God has the final word, that God’s love overcomes.

That’s what Jesus came to show. That’s what he did show on the cross, the greatest symbol of selfless love, where he died for our sins, and even there, even then, he said, “Forgive them.” Even there, even then, to an undeserving bandit, he said, “You are welcome in my kingdom.” And three days later, he rose again, triumphant over sin and death. This is true; this is the reality we live in. And even on those days when it doesn’t look like it, and even on those days when it doesn’t feel like it, and even on those days when you’re not sure about it, remember:

Jesus has won.

Love has conquered.

The world has it upside down, not God.

J is for Jesus

Ever since I heard U2 for the first time in high school, I’ve been a fan. I even wrote a paper about them in college (my professor marked me down because it read like a hagiography — oh well). I’ve loved and been inspired by their music; I’ve loved and been inspired by Bono’s activism. He and his bandmates have been one of the influences on my own music, as well as my theology and my faith.

Anyway, to mark the end of 2014, Bono wrote an “A to Z of 2014.” It’s a beautiful blog, touching, poignant, inspirational. My favorite is J.

J IS FOR JESUS

At this time of year some people are reminded of the poetic as well as the historic truth that is the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story has a crazy good plot with an even crazier premise – the idea goes, if there is a force of love and logic behind the universe, then how amazing would it be if that incomprehensible power chose to express itself as a child born in s— and straw poverty.

Who could conceive of such a story? If you believe it was the protagonist, as I do, then we should try to be really respectful of people who think the whole thing is a bit nutty or worse… Religious people are the best and worst of us…handle us with scepticism…

Strangely, maybe, some of the most rational thinkers see some kind of cosmic sense in all this… Francis Collins, who led the human genome project, is an obvious one… the language of science and faith are not necessarily at odds….

… the Christmas story … still brings me to my knees – which is a good place for me lest I harm myself or others. Christmas is not a time for me to overthink about this child, so vulnerable, who would grow so strong… to teach us all how vulnerability is the route to strength and, by example, show us how to love and serve.

To me this is not a fairy tale but a challenge. I preach what I need to hear…