A Sickening Sequence of Events…


So this is where we’re at in the national political discourse.

A black man is ejected from a Donald Trump rally.

A country folk white man punches the black man in the face.

The black man is the one thrown to the ground and subdued by police.

The country folk white man is interviewed afterwards, and literally says, I kid you not, “Yes, he deserved it, and the next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”

And in case you thought this was an isolated case, there are a number of cases like this cropping up especially at Donald Trump rallies.

I’m concerned for two big reasons:

  1. That a political aspirant is using the rhetoric he does to inflame a crowd (not behavior and language befitting a political position charged with appealing to our “better angels”)
  2. That the American citizens in the crowd are by and large either outright participating in the unthinkable physical and verbal assaults on those being ejected, or lack the courage to stand up and protect those being assaulted (I’m thinking right now of the iconic situations of Christians protecting Muslims praying in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Muslims protecting Christians on a bus attacked by al-Shabab militants in Kenya)

Trump is coming to my hometown of Cincinnati on Sunday, and I’m wondering if a group of us should attempt to go, just to prepare to protect our brothers and sisters of color, many of whom are being ejected simply because of the color of their skin.


Piper on Terrorism: The Selective Silence is Deafening

Credit: Nicholas Gratzl

John Piper loves to inveigh against Muslim extremism.  See: “France: a Fabric Torn” and many other writings from Piper and his tribe.

I would love to see Mr. Piper with any remote consistency address the elephant in the room that so many other disciples of Jesus acknowledge. What is this elephant? The destructive militarism of Western nations that dishonors and demeans the lives of those who are NOT in the “in” crowd of the West.
It’s called contextual reasoning, or to put it more Biblically, authentic prophecy, to be honest about the negative effects of the oppressive violence of empires (of which the U.S. is the most powerful) that contribute to the violence of others in response.
If Mr. Piper and others of his ilk are silent when Isaiah and Amos would have been shouting, it should raise some important questions about whether their writings and speeches should be privileged the way they are by evangelical Christendom.
I am not seeking to justify ISIS in any way.  We should not be silent about their rampant evil.  Neither should we be silent about the recent unjustifiable actions of the West (by recent, I mean from the Shah of Iran to present day) particularly directed towards our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters. The silence is deafening. The silence reveals idolatry.
Here is one simple, easily obtained bit of evidence that shows the hypocrisy of the West: “Hundreds of Civilians Killed in US-led airstrikes on ISIS Targets.”

It is painful to acknowledge a more full picture of the truth.  Christians need not shy away from this pain, though.  It is the pain of deep repentance from deep complicity with a system that has caused torrents of blood.  We are to weep with those who weep: whether they are our next-door neighbors or our Global South and East neighbors.  May God give us the strength and the courage to do so: especially as a consistent commitment to this path will lead to marginalization in Western culture.  Rev. Jeremiah Wright encountered this marginalization and rejection in a selectively-quoted sermon in the runup to the 2008 Presidential Election where he proclaimed that Malcolm X was right decades before that “America’s chickens were coming home to roost.” Malcolm X said this about the scourge of racism, while  Rev. Wright said this about the awful series of events on September 11, 2001.  Listening to the broader context of the sermon, however, provides a deeply uncomfortable truth for Christians.  We must confess that Rev. Wright is correctly following the symptom of 9/11 to a proper diagnosis of the cancer of Western militarism that subjugates and tears apart the bodies of those who do not comply.

We are not called to be chaplains of the Western system, but prophets of God’s global community, tearing down sinful barriers of nationalism, militarism, racism, cultural blindness, and other maladies.  May we strive toward this embodiment of the people of God.

Dispatch from the frontlines…

Below are the words of a veteran working on the frontlines of the battle for what Christians call the “Pax Christi” (peace of Christ) as opposed to the “Pax Romana” (peace of Rome, now a broad stand-in term for peace enforced with the blade of a sword or barrel of a gun).  Christians care less about short-term peace enforced by intimidation and violence, and care much more about long-term peace marked by self-giving love, humility, and deep listening to our enemies.

I celebrate the life of veteran Peggy Gish on this day alongside classic Christian hero St. Martin of Tours. The excerpt below is from Peggy’s incredible book Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation.

“Before working in Iraq I had talked about, and thought I really knew, what trusting God meant.  But facing the very real possibility of death or torture myself stripped away simplistic beliefs.  I had to rediscover what gives me hope and strength in life and death situations. In the midst of dangerous situations I felt my weakness and lack of control, and didn’t know what else to do but cry out for help. Somehow I’ve been given strength beyond my own and the ability to walk forward in spite of my fear.”
Security was an issue that wove through our thoughts and decisions, but we knew that problems of security were even greater for Iraqis.  We had the choice to leave and get respite from it in more stable places.  There were guns everywhere, and usually high-powered, automatic ones.  At the door of any office or business, there was usually an armed guard.  Our neighbor offered us the use of his Kalashnikov.  We refused it and explained that we would not use violence to protect ourselves.  “I hate this gun,” he said. “But how else can I protect my family?”  Guns had become a normal part of life here, but they didn’t seem to make people safer.

When we met American soldiers at their bases or while walking around the city, we often stopped and talked.  “What are you doing here, walking around the streets of Baghdad?” many asked, amazed.  “You don’t have a gun, or armed guards!  Don’t you know how dangerous it is?  “We’re safer than you are, carrying your guns,” I answered. “And without weapons, we can go places you can’t go, and meet people you can’t, because we’re not seen as threatening to them.”

To others concerned about our safety, I said more. “If we carry guns out of suspicion that someone might hurt us, we instead become more suspicious to them and are more likely to be a target of violence.”  We knew that without guns we would be forced to use other strengths we have, such as our creative thinking, our ability to talk to someone threatening us, transform a tense confrontation, or prevent others or ourselves from being hurt or killed.  And in most threatening situations, having weapons would not make us less vulnerable.

Most internationals living in Iraq surrounded themselves with blast walls, checkpoints, and razor wire.  By doing this, however, they put themselves in a kind of prison and cut themselves off from ordinary Iraqis. “How can you live in the Red Zone?” some asked members of our team with a sense of dread. We, however, felt it was a gift to live among and get to know the Iraqi people more personally and understand what they were thinking.

There was never any question that it was dangerous, but CPT differed from other organizations concerning the amount of risk we were willing to accept to do our work.  We joined the team, willing to take the same risks as soldiers, to work for peace.  We knew it was possible for any of us to be a victim of violence, but, for us, the importance of working alongside Iraqis for justice and peace outweighed the dangers…

We wanted to act out of a “non-mushy” love that compelled us to work in situations where people were under threat.  Most people wouldn’t think twice about giving their lives for a family member or risking their lives to pull a child out of a burning house or a river.  Could we see all persons as part of our family and their lives as equally precious?  Our organization has used the slogan “getting in the way” to refer to Jesus’s way of nonviolent suffering love, as well as standing in the way of those who would cause harm.  When we were willing to put our lives on the line to witness for truth, justice, and peace, God could empower us, work through us, and transform threatening situations.

Eyewitness Stories from the U.S.-led Occupation of Iraq

I’ve been reading the excellent, heart-wrenching book “Walking Through Fire” recently, written by one of my heroes, Peggy Gish. Some of the stories shared in this work are so utterly compelling and so widely unknown in Western media and journalism that I feel led to share them here for readers to hear and consider how the stories affect their narrative of the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular.

This story is narrated by Peggy, and she changed the names of the persons interviewed to protect them.*


“Nassim and Family, farmers, south of Baghdad”

We sat in a modest home on a fruit farm just south of Baghdad while Nassim, a sturdy, medium-built man of about thirty-five, with scars on his wrists from cuts made by handcuffs, recounted what had happened to his family.  Because an explosion along the road near his farm killed a U.S. soldier traveling in a convoy, American forces conducted night-time raids in all the homes in that area.  Soldiers entered Nassim’s family’s house and took him, along with his father and two brothers, to the Al Dora Refinery Plant.  For twenty-four hours they were handcuffed with their heads covered.  Soldiers periodically kicked them and beat them with rifle butts.  Then they were moved to the Scania U.S. Military Base and kept in tiny solitary confinement cells for nine days.

Interrogators accused Nassim of setting bombs and threatened to force him to do sexual acts with a man and send pictures to his wife if he didn’t confess to the crime.  Three and a half months later, he and his brothers were released, but not their seventy-four-year-old father with multiple health problems.  It seemed a common practice to detain many from a family, and then release all but one to insure that the other members didn’t cause problems when they got out.

We had seen the strip along both sides of the road where soldiers burned bushes and trees to take away hiding places for resistance fighters.  We saw the two-feet-deep, fifteen-feet-diameter crater from the explosion that had ended the soldier’s life.

Next to Nassim was his nephew, Ziad, a twenty-four-year-old physician’s assistant with large scars on his face.  His nose was crooked from being broken eight months earlier in one of the three raids on his uncle’s home, where he was staying to keep the trees watered and protect the women and children of the household while the older men were imprisoned. “About 4:00 in the morning,” he said, “I was asleep on the floor with other family members when American soldiers forced their way in.  Before I could get up, one of the soldiers started beating me in the face with the barrel of his gun and broke my nose.  It was bleeding and I had to breathe through my mouth.  They cuffed me and put me roughly in the back of a truck.  They laid me down on the end of the truck bed so that soldiers stepped on me when they climbed in and out.

As he spoke, I thought of my youngest son, Joel, who was a physician’s assistant living in relative safety.

Ziad continued, ‘When we got to the base, they grabbed me and threw me down on the ground with my hands still tied behind my back.  I understood some of what the soldiers were saying- they called us ‘animals.’ At night (in January) soldiers poured ice cold water on us and wouldn’t let us sleep.  When a doctor was treating my broken nose, another soldier came in the room and hit me.  The doctor told him, ‘Don’t you see I am trying to heal him, so don’t beat him. Treat him like a human being.’  The soldier snapped back, ‘A friend of mine died.’

Tears came to Ziad’s eyes and he stopped talking to us, seemingly to reign in his feelings.  Farhad, another uncle, a slightly balding man of about fifty also in the room, interjected quietly, saying, ‘When Ziad was released, we couldn’t see his eyes, his face was so swollen up.’

I looked at Nassim’s mother, Sarah, and his wife, Eman, who had served us tea and sat quietly the whole time the men were talking. I took the opportunity of that pause to ask the women what they had experienced during the house raids.  I had to be persistent, because Nassim interrupted his mother several times.  When he finally let her talk, she said, trembling, ‘For four or five months after the raids, I had trouble sleeping.  I would stand by the door, afraid.’

Eman took us to another room and showed us where soldiers smashed in the door that wasn’t locked and broke glass shelves and the door of a cabinet.  There, she said, they grabbed her and threw her on the floor.  She pulled up her sleeve and showed us a still slightly swollen and bruised place on her arm. She said her mother-in-law and her one-year-old daughter suffered psychologically.  The baby seemed anxious and lethargic so they took her baby to a doctor.

As they appeared finished, Farhad vented feelings that seemed to be building up in him.  ‘If my brother was killed by U.S. forces, I wouldn’t got out and kill all Americans.  If you gave me a million dollars, I wouldn’t shoot another human being.  I have no right to.’

Farhad grimaced as he continued.  ‘I hate Saddam, but he never treated us like this, driving tanks in our streets, shooting at people.  I understand U.S. soldiers have to protect themselves, but things are getting worse.  If soldiers have to go into homes, they could treat the people with respect and not kick in the door and beat people.  Instead, they’re very aggressive and have no manners, no human sense.  They said they were coming to bring freedom.  It’s almost two years- they must leave now.  My father, who’s still not home, is a respected man.  This farm has been in our family for generations.  Besides, if I were going to set a bomb against Americans, I certainly wouldn’t put it out near my own property!’

I (Nathan) have many questions this story sparks for me.  How about you?

Racial Progress and Regress in Historical Context

I just watched a powerful short video of Bill Moyers interviewing author Khalil Muhammed on the historical social “need” for the criminalization of blacks in America. This is important education for us all. View it with me, and join me in watching the full interview with Muhammed later: http://billmoyers.com/segment/khalil-muhammad-on-facing-our-racial-past/

Khalil Muhammad MM from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.


What follows below is my own commentary as a companion to the video content:

In the year 1619, the first black man was brought in chains against his will to this land. The year 2019 will mark the 400th anniversary of this event. Of those 400 years, black persons will have only experienced equality under the law for 54 years, or approximately 13% of the time that they have been in this land. In addition, as we all know, equality in practice (de facto) takes much longer than equality in law (de jure). Knowledge of this context makes any argument that we live in a post-racial society, or that we live in a society of equal opportunity, flatly naive.

But it gets more diabolical. A statistic often quoted by white persons in our society to justify black stereotypes about crime is that blacks are more likely to commit crime or violence of some sort. Present-day justice questions aside, historically-speaking, did you know when black inmates as a percentage of the black population surpassed white inmates as a percentage of the white percentage? It happened in the wake of the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1865-1868).

The text of the 13th Amendment that this shift hinges on follows:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The 13th Amendment is a lesson in an extraordinary idea twisted in an evil way to become something much different than its intention. Slavery or involuntary servitude was abolished, right? In case you missed it, the key phrase here is “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  Particularly in the American South, with work that needed to be done and money to be made with “involuntary servants,” the criminal “justice” system ramped into high gear to incarcerate enough blacks to keep slavery in operation.  One of the more popular forms of crime that blacks engaged in was vagrancy, aka walking down a country road off your property, walking in the town center after dark, or “unemployed.”  In these blacks faced the combination of invented “crimes” together with disproportionate sentencing and financial penalties for those crimes.  When the black citizen could not pay the debt, their period of incarceration was lengthened to astonishing lengths, as in the infamous Pig Laws, where it was common for a black citizen to be sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing a pig, while white citizens walked for murder.

When I think about the tearing of the social fabric of black citizens in this country as a result of this mass incarceration, largely without cause but certainly horrifically racist in sentencing, it brings me to tears.  How many children grew up without their father, mother, uncle, cousin, grandfather, or grandmother as a result of these policies?  How many of those persons internalized the pain of that loss, accepting their fate as persons seemingly only fit for incarceration and involuntary servitude?  At what point did families begin to inhabit generational patterns of true crime after having generations of their family locked out of the American dream by virtue of “crime” and sentencing?  Are we willing to accept the truth of this history, and the awful fallout of the results?  Will it change our communal perceptions, policing patterns, and considerations of the challenges our black citizens are facing?  Are we willing to go there?

It’s hard to listen to Khalil’s thoroughgoing case in the video together with this historical knowledge without coming to some discomforting thoughts about race in America.  It behooves us to follow those uncomfortable thoughts, if we’re interested in being a part of truly equal justice system in America.  The truth often cuts closer than we would like it to, and it certainly does in this case.


For further exhaustive research on the themes touched on in this post:

Douglas Blackman’s “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” and the excellent PBS Documentary by the same name on the book’s content.

Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”  I’ve never been hooked into a book of such amazing substance so quickly by her confession of her initial skepticism and dismissal of the idea that our criminal-justice system functions much like a racial caste system, which was overwhelmed by the subject matter she researched.  A nice snapshot of that intro to her book can be found here.

Observing Jesus: The Role of Hiddenness in Discipleship

Sermon March 2    Matthew 6:1-18

This sermon was the final in a series in our church focused on the Sermon on the Mount.  Just below, I have posted the audio of the sermon if you would prefer to listen rather than read.

Click on this sentence to listen to the audio.

There is a simple adage that has been around awhile now that reads, “God created humans in God’s image, and then humans returned the favor.”  Said differently, human beings have come up with all kinds of religious teachings and concepts about God that we most like, and then we project those teachings and concepts into the heavens and call them “God.”  We might think Jesus is an exception to this rule, since we have the central teachings and actions of him written right before us every time we open the gospels, but it’s always interesting to listen to our society and how we invoke Jesus’ name in relationship to our political, religious, and social agendas.

Just to refresh my perspective on this subject, I simply googled the search term “Jesus” to see what popped up first.  

The first link was the Wikipedia entry on Jesus, which is refreshingly helpful as a guide for initial questions.  The section most relevant to what I just said is that Muslims, Manichaeans, Gnostics, Bahai’s, Mormons, and some Jews have found prominent places for Jesus in their religions. The Mormon theological perspective on Jesus is maybe most interesting in that they claim that Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection, that God and Jesus were separate physical people, and that the Garden of Eden was and will be in Missouri.  Now, if you talk to Angela Pancella on that point, or Pastor Stoxen during baseball season, they might agree, but that is an interesting statement nonetheless.

 The second link was a New York Times article about Christians seeking to follow the counsel of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere to seek reconciliation by multiple avenues before going to a secular court.  This is a helpful thing to think about.

The third link was an article about the new movie “Son of God,” which looks interesting, even though Tony Jones hates it, but Tony Jones basically hates anything related to conservative evangelicals.

The fourth link, and another link down the page, were stories about the village in Japan where some Japanese believe Jesus moved after he snookered the Romans, escaped from crucifixion,  made a Marco Polo-like  trans-Asian journey, settled in Japan, had a wife and kids, and died at the ripe old age of 106. 

The fifth link was the “Jesus Christ” Twitter account with such helpful tweets as “Heaven will be temporarily shut down.  Please feel free to do whatever you want until further notice. YOLO” on October 15th, and “I’ll celebrate when my Dad apologizes for what he did to me,” on June 16th.  So, yeah, there’s that.

Then, further down the page, Paul Oestreicher wrote an article in the Guardian in 2012 entitled “Was Jesus gay? Probably.”  Now, you could spend the rest of your life surveying Google searches of Jesus, but that’s just a little glimpse of how our society thinks about Jesus.  Now, some of the more strange and ridiculous notions of Jesus aside, I think we could agree that even amongst the Christian community in America, Jesus comes off looking pretty monochromatic, pretty flat, not extremely interesting.

Many conservative evangelicals I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited,  come off, frankly, bored of Jesus.  Their story of Jesus, that he lived a perfect and sinless life because we cannot, that he died on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, and that if we accept him as our Lord and Savior, we will be forgiven and saved, has elements of the story, sure.  But does that understanding of Jesus come close to the full meaning of Jesus?  I find that story wanting.  And many of them have heard that one sentence summation of Jesus nearly every Sunday and Wednesday at the end of a sermon for decades on end.

More liberal Christians I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited, come off, frankly, bored of Jesus.  Their story of Jesus, that he was radically gracious, that he welcomed the outsider and was harsh toward the judgmental and religious, that he offers us forgiveness and redeems our understanding of God from an angry, bipolar Father into the embrace of compassion and welcome, has elements of the story, sure.  But I also find that story wanting.  And many of those types are former conservatives who now, out of boredom or curiosity, have rejected the other story and now live in reaction to it, or, frankly, find this version of Jesus more culturally acceptable, more palatable to the American social values of tolerance, freedom, and religion as a hobby.

Now, clearly, there are more pictures of Jesus than these two.  Many charismatics trumpet “signs and wonders Jesus,” all about claiming authority, seizing our destiny as inheritors of God’s blessing.  Anarchists trumpet the Jesus who showed up Pilate and mocked the powerful.  Instead of accepting one narrative, however, is it possible that Jesus is all of these things?

Was Jesus perfect and sinless, die on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, does he forgive us, was he radically gracious, did he welcome the outsider, was he harsh toward the judgmental and religious, was he judgmental and religious himself, did he offer forgiveness, did he redeem a view of God that was too bipolar and angry? Did he teach and reveal signs and wonders and authority, did he strip the powerful of their power even as they schemed to take his life?  Yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!! And yes!

The more I study Jesus, the more I find that he was all of these things, and represented them without becoming the mushy moderate that people so often become.  I think the gateway for all of us into a more full, more dynamic, more meaningful picture of Jesus is to learn more about the story behind Jesus, the social story that he entered into, at the perfect moment.  What I am talking about is the social context of Jesus. 

Jesus was a Jew, a citizen of Israel.  The Jewish people lived under military occupation from the Romans, made even more harsh by the fact that the more radical and violent elements of Jewish society kept rabble-rousing and enraging the Roman authorities.  They lived in a repressive police state.  They were taxed into the ground by the Romans, and many of their Jewish political leaders and tax collectors made the situation worse by intensifying the rates and skimming off the top for themselves.  So the average small farmer in this agrarian society was typically deeply in debt, and many lost their properties that had been in their families for generations, and became drifters and beggars; dishonored and ashamed of their failure.  If we think of the worst of the Great Depression in America, when drifters would beg farmers in the area I grew up if they could split some wood for a meal to stave off starvation, then we’re beginning to catch a glimpse of Jewish social reality.

What made this repressive, brutal situation even worse was the Jewish self-understanding that they were the blessed people of God, God’s special people whom he redeemed out of everyone else.  They understood that blessing to mean material wealth and political power, and over and over in their religious writings after their initial corruption and exile, this concept of the “Day of the Lord” arose.  The “Day of the Lord” was the longed-for day when God would set everything right again, would eject the profane occupiers out, would restore the financial and political fortunes of Israel, and a King like David would rule on the throne, as Israel became the envy of the nations, because God had blessed them.

The fact that Israel saw themselves in this way and the reality that this vision was frustrated and unfulfilled for hundreds of years meant that this vision turned in itself, became ugly and corrupted.  Many carried a low view of themselves, just trying to get by and feed their families.  Revolutionary agitators periodically arose, believing that if they started the violent revolution, that God would join their side.  They were crushed again and again, with the brief exception of the Maccabees in a time of relative Roman weakness.  The Zealots, the revolutionary agitators, were scheming just as much in Jesus’ day.  “Why isn’t God saving us?” was a despair-filled question for them. “Is there something fundamentally wrong with us?” they asked.  

Out of this question and desperation, a group of religious reformers arose, believing that the problem was a lack of religious seriousness.  “God isn’t redeeming us because we don’t care enough, and if we care, then God will come,” said the Pharisees.  And it’s hard to fault them, if we take their social context seriously.  God did, and does, care about religious seriousness.  Their vision involved reforming the morally degenerate and proclaiming the good news of God’s law and the lived value of it.  Unfortunately, they formed simplistic versions of faithfulness, where sickness and disease were signs of God’s curse.  And they focused on outward acts of faithfulness so deeply that in some ways their mission became a form of social theater; with faithfulness enacted in front of the people each day.  When tithing to God, as many people as possible need to see, so that they will reform and do the same.  When keeping purity laws, marginalize the unclean as publicly as possible so society will reform and do the same.  And in their defense, isn’t that how social revolutionaries  have operated through time, using political theater?  Gandhi rejected the British salt tax, so he marched with the Indian people to the Ocean to illegally harvest the salt themselves.  Political theater.  Black and white college students rejected lunch-counter segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina, so they sat down together at the counter, knowing full-well of the reaction that would create.   Political theater.  Learning these aspects of the Pharisees redeemed them from the rather flat story I had often heard that they were too religious and self-righteous.

So the Jewish people were desperate, and in this desperation, there were competing agendas of how to encourage the day of the Lord.  So this is the context that Jesus entered, and makes the way Jesus skillfully built a mass movement in this context infinitely interesting.  Jesus specifically chose one zealot and maybe more as a part of his inner circle.  So was he a Zealot?  Jesus chose a tax collector as part of his inner circle.  Clearly a curious choice, and definitely a political statement.   Jesus chose mostly blue-collar people as part of his inner circle.  Also curious, though we quickly find they were as political ambitious for power as Caesar himself.

Jesus’ movement began in full force in a synagogue in his hometown where he invoked Isaiah and the oppressed being set free.  Who does he think is, but if he isn’t insane, that’s a good place to start, because they’re all oppressed, and the “year of the Lord’s favor” is Isaiah’s version of the “Day of the Lord.”

In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to stake out the boundaries of what his message and movement will look like, and the different groups are there, looking to check off their boxes of whether he really is the Messiah or not, because they know who the Messiah will be.  Beatitudes? Confusing, but referencing the poor in spirit, those who mourn?   We are those things, so the average Jew checks that box.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart?  The Pharisees want to check, but there’s that troubling bit about meekness.  There’s no room for meekness in the need for purity.  Salt and light? The Pharisees’ eyes are lighting up, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law,” obvious, but eyes lighting up even more, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Boom, throw-down.  (band music) He’s one of us!

Murder, adultery, divorce, oaths; his teachings on these all situate him as a theological conservative.  Many of the socially marginalized may have been tempted to see him as a social enemy of theirs in this section. Passive resistance of an evil-doer, love of enemies?  Zealot purists are now convinced he is not one of them.  And that’s a bad community to have opposed to you, since they’re the ones that will knife you in the middle of a crowd.  

And now, in the section of teaching we encounter today, Jesus focuses on the hiddenness of faithfulness.  Here, he is staking out a position of deep contrast from the Pharisees, where giving to the needy, praying, and fasting should not be political theater or public teachable moments, but rather something much different.  The teaching would have been troubling to the Pharisees, so used to their public theater that made obvious to the people of Israel the things they needed to do, but Jesus also embeds this “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites.”  That line is like a papercut on the lip for the Pharisees, a jolting difference.  For the average Jew who had questions about the incessant publicity of the Pharisees, this is interesting.

At this point, I want to leave the consideration of the social context of Jesus and draw us into consideration of our response.  In just the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, it is easy to see why we so often pick one thing Jesus cared about and make it the whole story for us.  Jesus is frustratingly complex, and a joltingly uncomfortable kind of teacher. 

 Jesus, should we focus on outward acts of faithfulness? 


Should we focus on inward acts of faithfulness? 


Well, which one is it, Lord, the inward or the outward? 


Which one is more important, man, I need some simplicity here! 

Well, how would you sum up the last ten minutes of my teaching? 

Hmmmmm.  Sometimes our faith needs to be expressed outwardly, and sometimes inwardly, with both being important, and neither canceling out the other?  But how do we know when one is better than the other?

What else have you heard me teach?

Hmmmm……oooohhhhhhh.  I see you sneak away early in the morning or late at night, and sometimes in the middle of a crowd, I see your attention focus inwardly.  You’re listening, aren’t you?


Today, the term we use for this activity is “practicing the presence of God.”  The name we most often associate with this activity is Brother Lawrence, and attention to his practice is very fruitful for contemplation and action.  I would like to check in this morning, however, with the practice of one of my heroes, Frank Laubach, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Brother Lawrence when it comes to “practicing the presence of God.”  Frank had a wonderful sense of curiosity with the realm of prayer and listening to the Spirit.  He played what he called the “game of minutes,” where he desired to spend one second out of every waking minute in conscious attention to God.  He also engaged in what we could call “experiments in hiddenness” with prayer.

But before I mention a couple practices of Frank, I want to invite each of you into a simple reflection right now. You have been provided with a piece of paper and a pen this morning. I simply want you to think about a typical day for you.  What happens between you opening your eyes in the morning and closing your eyes at night?  What is a typical day?  I’m aware that there is no “typical” day, say, for a parent of a child, but there is still a rhythm of the usual day even for parents.  Write down the events of a typical day for you.

Now, Frank Laubach would do what we just did.  He would consider his day, and aggressively look for opportunities for hidden prayer.  If in a car or bus or walking, he considered how to transform his commute into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others.  If in a doctor’s office or business, he considered how to transform the waiting into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others.  If preparing food, he considered how to redeem the time by listening to God and praying for others.  When lying in bed just before sleep, he considered how to listen to God and pray for others.  In his outward public life, Frank was a hero of literacy and poverty alleviation, and in his inward life, Frank became a hero of experiments in hiddenness.

Frank celebrated the opportunity to pray, and often highlighted that he didn’t see discernible results of prayer right away.  But he shares some crazy cool stories along the way in his experiments.  My favorite is one from a church in Bombay (now Mumbai) India…

When I think of Jesus’ admonition “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen,” I think of Frank Laubach, and I can imagine Jesus saying, “when you travel, quietly bless the person in the car next to you, when you walk, quietly bless the person in front of you, when you parent, quietly bless your child, when in a meeting, quietly bless each person who speaks…and while you’re at it, quietly bless the person who never speaks.”  For me, it could be, “when walking around your classroom, quietly bless each student you pass.”  As we consider the events of a typical day for us, what are places we observe are opportunities for hidden blessing?

There is great value in hiddenness, and in an age where nearly every thought a person has somehow finds its way onto Facebook, these quiet experiments in hiddenness hold the opportunity of helping us regain a sense of what needs to be public and what needs to be hidden in our path of discipleship. May we, like Jesus, cultivate a deep listening to the voice of our Father.



Reflecting on the Presence of the Spirit

Below is the transcript of the sermon I preached January 26, 2014 in our home congregation of which i am an elder.

Click on this sentence if you would prefer to listen instead of read, or both!

As each sermon is a moment in time and experienced with others in the room, some of what it is is lost in transcripts.  For example, I embedded a little teachable moment in the beginning of the sermon on the role of the Holy Spirit where I claimed I did not prepare for the sermon, reasoning that “the less I prepared, the more room for the Spirit to move.” In simply scrolling through the transcript, you already see that I obviously did prepare, so the teachable moment is less effective.  I do hope and pray that the heart of the message of this sermon would be helpful in guiding your reflections on faith, the nature and actions of the Trinity, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  The sermon series in our congregation was “God With Us.”

Because the focus of our series right now is “God With Us,” and since part of God’s presence is the Holy Spirit, I decided I wouldn’t prepare for this sermon.  I figured the less I prepared, the more room for the Spirit to move.

So here goes…

My granddad, a Church of the Brethren pastor, spent most of his years in rural areas, and along the way he did normal things pastors do:  he participated in parents dedicating  babies and small children to the Lord, he baptized, he married persons starting a lifelong covenant together, and he buried those who passed away.  Sometimes he shared leadership responsibilities with other pastors in those ceremonies.  Out in the country in Virginia, there’s a specific kind of Baptists that you find sprinkled around in many rural areas called “Primitive Baptists.”  Primitive Baptists believe deeply in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and so the practice of preaching in their worship gatherings and in funerals and such is that the Pastor opens the Bible to a random place, reads the passage, and preaches then as the Spirit carries him along…In theory…

In practice, my granddad told me, over multiple encounters with these Primitive Baptist preachers, it didn’t matter what Bible passage they turned to, or what the event was, their messages tended to revert to common themes; “hobby horses,” my granddad called them.  After awhile, my granddad says, you pretty much knew what they were going to say every time you heard them.

Which raises several important questions;

Does a lack of preparation typically clear out space for the Holy Spirit to move, or does it enable someone to clothe their personal hobby horses with “Holy Spirit” language?

And in that vein of thought, doesn’t that language of us “getting out of the way of the Holy Spirit” seem really binary and pretty bleak; that we can only be channels of the Spirit’s movement if we’re “out of the way”?  Do we really have that little to offer?  Are our brains, our time, our work ethic, our energy, our imagination, barriers to the movement of the Holy Spirit?

I share this story and ask these questions as a roundabout way to make my first teaching point,

First, to tell you that I indeed did prepare for this message, and

Second, as some beginning thoughts to help us consider what it means for “God to be with us” as his people.  Along the way this morning I hope to address from my perspective what I hope are better ways of thinking about God and our role in what God desires to do in this world.

I think first, it is important to state a deeply historical faith statement; that we as Christians worship a God who is expressed in a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We observe in the Scriptures that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God; that in order to carry out the works of the kingdom, he sought intimacy with his Father to do what he saw him doing, and that after his death and resurrection he left his disciples with the promise, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”

Now, any reflection on the Trinity is bound to fall very short of any worthy explanation.  We cannot fully explain God.  Ultimately we reach the limits of our thought and imagination and simply must declare God is ultimately a mystery.   And this final truth of mystery is not a confession of frustration, but ultimately one of wonder.  We are drawn into exploration of God that can never be finished, into a relationship of intimacy with God that can never draw too close, into looking for signs of God all over our world, preparing ourselves to be surprised and delighted when we find this mysterious work of God at play. I watched a video online this week that captures that sense of mystery, awe, surprise, and delight entitled “Murmuration.” Let’s watch it together.  (Click on the link to see the video)

I love my mom’s reflections on this video, as she said, “I do believe those starlings are dancing before the Lord!”

And yet, while God is ultimately a mystery, God has chosen to reveal himself to us in very concrete ways.   While we can never fully know God, we can indeed encounter God, behold God.  We are a part of a community of God’s people that goes back thousands upon thousands of years, and along the way that community has received gifts of beholding God.  Those encounters form the foundation of our faith; Abram beheld God in the burning bush, Hagar beheld God in the desert with her son Ishmael, Moses beheld God on Mt. Moriah, the people of Israel beheld God in God giving the law, Elijah beheld God in the fire consuming the altar, Ruth beheld God in the generosity and care of Boaz, Gomer beheld God in the patience and open arms of Hosea even as she pursued other lovers, and humanity received its most authoritative, most powerful, most complete glimpse of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

The story continues afterwards, of course; Dorcas beheld God through God using Peter to resurrect her from the dead, Saul beheld God on the road to Damascus, the executioners of Cyprian of Carthage beheld God in his courage and care for them as they ended his life, the emperor of Rome beheld God in the radical generosity and care for the poor exhibited by the house churches in Rome, a random woman in Detroit, I believe, beheld God in Dave Barr’s prayer after God gave him her number to call, and the story goes on…

As we consider God and come to conclusions about God, it is our responsibility to consider all these other stories of beholding God as instructive and authoritative for us.  I would strongly suggest that we prioritize those stories above our personal experiences, giving the collective weight of history and millions of people the respect they deserve.  In particular, we are to give the strongest weight to Jesus, the clearest, most concrete representation of God we will ever encounter.  We proclaim Jesus as Lord and Teacher.  We commit to wade deeply in the gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and consider Jesus, asking questions like, “What did he do?” and “Why did he do what he did?” and “What did he teach?” and “What did he expect  from his followers?” and “What claims did he make about God?” and “What claims did he make about humanity?” and any number of other questions.

I want to make the centrality of Jesus clear when it comes to our consideration of “God with us,” because, I’ll be honest with you, the ideas of God as Father and God as Spirit are pretty spongy and vague in comparison.  What I mean by that is many people make claims that God is speaking to them, or God is directing them to do something. In particular, I feel really burdened and disquieted by recent teachings of prominent teachers in the charismatic and the mainline communities about the “Spirit.”

There is a growing sense among charismatics, driven by prominent leaders, that if there is a conflict between what one senses the “Spirit to be saying,” as contrasted with the written word in Scripture or tradition, that we are to give priority to what we are experiencing.  As an open charismatic myself, and a member of this church that is part of the Vineyard (in the charismatic movement), I find this teaching disturbing.   Some charismatic leaders have used this teaching, to prioritize our lived experience as the most reliable guide of truth, to justify strange manifestations whether they be physical (like uncontrollable laughter or barking and things of that nature) or something in the room (claiming there is gold dust or feathers from God in the air).  At best, persons find themselves prioritizing the gifts and the experience more than the giver, and at worst, persons place themselves in the position of God, when their experience runs contrary to the heritage of the church.

It has also become popular recently with mainline folks, specifically with Phyllis Tickle, to talk of what she calls the “Age of the Spirit.” Tickle first mentioned this in her “Great Emergence” book published in 2012, and literally just published this month a book called, drum-roll please, “Age of the Spirit.”  Upon deeper reading, it seems Tickle primarily drew from the ideas of Joachim of Fiore and Harvey Cox to make the central claims of a new “Age of the Spirit.”

Joachim lived back in the 1200s, and wrote of what he called Trinitarian ages in the earth; the Age of the Father (corresponding to the Old Testament), the Age of the Son (represented by the advent of Jesus, the New Testament, and following), and the Age of the Spirit (when humanity was to come into direct contact with God, reaching total freedom).

Harvey Cox took those ideas several hundred years later and reworked them into the Age of Faith (embracing teachings of Jesus), the Age of Belief (rise of control, doctrine, orthodoxy), and the now-unfolding Age of the Spirit (release from religious dogma and embrace of spirituality).

Based on those earlier thoughts, Phyllis Tickle has written about the Age of the Spirit, which she suggests began in 1906 at Azusa Street, and she describes it in a rather grandiose way,

The Trinity comes now near to the promised realization of its intention.  It comes, as it said it would.  And what we saw and feared in the image of Father, what we saw and embraced as Savior-brother, we now know as Spirit and cling to as Advocate, even as it has said of itself from our beginning.  Now, without need of image or flesh, it comes, and we receive it, as in the last of creation’s ages.Emergence Christianity 208

There is a big emphasis on “now,” “we now know as Spirit.” For Tickle, the focus is really experiential.  When you read her books, the term experiential comes up time and time again.  And Tickle really teaches that the Spirit is deeply experienced, and when one’s deep experience runs up against doctrine, or orthodoxy, or some other written or similar authority, that we, however reluctantly, must trust our experience above other influences.  And she theologically dignifies this belief by calling it the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I think you’ve already gathered that I find an approach like this; whether it be a charismatic obsession with signs and wonders, or the more straightforward liberalizing influence of Tickle; that prioritizing the experience  of what one believes to be the Spirit above all other authorities is very very dangerous.

In Trinitarian terms, these charismatic teachers and Tickle are really setting the members of the Trinity against one another, or at the very least, suggesting they’re working in separate and at times contradictory ways.  I mention these teachings as a warning for us to really ask questions to ourselves individually, as a church body, and as the larger body of Christ: do we serve God, or do we serve the Spirit?  And by the Spirit, we mean, our personal feeling of what is right and good and true.  Where do we draw our authority from?  How is “God with us?”

I say this primarily because the Scriptures tell a story that humanity, which was created “very good” as the pinnacle of God’s creation, placed in a leadership role over all of the rest of God’s creation; used that great gift and made it subject to our pride, our selfishness, our destructive impulses.  We called this new movement on our parts “freedom,” where we dictated the boundaries of our behavior and desire. We took the gift of leadership under the reign of God and became convinced we were instead dictators of our own realm; answerable to no one, with our decisions subject to the whim of whatever we happened to desire.

Yet the Scriptures welcome us into the narrative of seeing the beautiful, faithful methods God has used to win us back to what we were created for.  God first called a man, Abram, then formed a family, then a nation.  As the story progressed, each subject was reminded that they were “blessed to be a blessing,” called to proclaim of the light and wisdom of God in a world gone amuck.  God the Father didn’t do this.  God, what we now know as the Trinity, did this.  There’s language of God’s Spirit all through the Scriptures at a time when God was implementing what we see as a very restrictive system of laws to give Israel guidance.  Then, in the fullness of time, when God decided Israel was ready to leave childhood and grow into adulthood, God became flesh.  In Jesus, God was calling Israel into its deepest identity and giving a clear, human picture of what we were created for.

Jesus had authority over those who followed him.  As we saw in the gospel reading today, when Jesus called, the fishermen left their nets and followed him.  In their discipleship to Jesus, his followers heard teaching that was at once deeply freeing and compassionate and also deeply restrictive.   They were set free and forgiven by the grace of God.  That grace constrained them into very specific boundaries.  They could not treat their enemies the same as they used to.  They were to reject the desire for selfish power over others, the desire for prestige.

Jesus modeled this for them.  And he modeled this for them by honoring God’s law, while reinterpreting it and bringing it to completion.  Along the way, instead of it being all about him in the Age of the Son, he sought intimacy with his Father, and he breathed the lifegiving Spirit of God on his disciples.  He was not operating in opposition to the Father, and wasn’t simply an intermediate stage to the Spirit.  The advent, teachings, and expectations of Jesus were the most full expression of God we will ever see.

As some other wise people have taught, Jesus is the final revelation of God. There is nothing that we know about the love and care of God that we do not know through Jesus Christ. As Torrance puts it there is not a different God behind the back of Jesus Christ. Because the Father has chosen to reveal himself in Jesus Christ we are to pay attention to the Son.  Biblical scholar Dale Bruner illustrates the relationship of the Spirit to the Father and Son like this: He writes “Jesus” on a board, then, himself portraying the Holy Spirit, he steps behind the board, reaches around it, and points to Jesus.

Now that is the harder, more exhortation side of my message.  I want to shift to considering how God includes us in God’s unfolding purposes.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the churches in Rome, “thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.  You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

The beautiful thing about discipleship lived in obedience to God is that it is all about reclaiming our previous position in creation.  God created us, gave us authority, and called us to work deeply with Him for the good of creation. God desires for us to be co-laborers, to listen for where God is moving, and to join in that healing, redeeming work.

The gospel is the rejection of human beliefs at both extremes: God’s goal isn’t for us to “get out of the way” as if our humanity is something so dark and limited that all we can do is step back in order for God to move.  And God’s goal most certainly isn’t for us to act as though our personal or larger cultural experience of truth is God’s truth.  The gospel is about God redeeming our story, and through our repentance and obedience we recapture what we were created for, which is to participate in the healing of God’s world.

 And as human beings, as the pinnacle of God’s creation, placed in leadership over all the rest, when we’re working from that proper place of humility, that potential of that redemption is infinitely powerful.

If we grasp this message, I believe, and some thoughtful historians look back some several hundred years from now, we would be astonished to see how God used us.  But the beginning, for us, does not come with some sort of grasping for power and influence, but rather in falling to our knees in repentance, and in tears proclaiming that we do not know the way, that we are lost, that we are blind, that our instincts and our experience are untrustworthy, and that God can show us the way again.

A couple years or so ago, I became very concerned that personally I was approaching life in a more reactive way with my faith.  I was seeking to minimize risk, hunch my shoulders down, and just march forward as best I could.  Because so often we can respect and value ourselves less than others, it wasn’t necessarily my story that caused a big change.  I saw several marriages of persons in our community fall apart, I saw my friends really struggling through issues of addiction of various sorts.  I had long conversations with some of my friends with beliefs that were clearly crippling their lives.

I felt overwhelmed.  In a way, the relational intimacy we experience here with VC can be paralyzing at times, as it’s much harder to hide our pain, confusion, and conflict.  So when painful things happen, the pain is more deeply and widely felt. Conversations and hugs helped one another along the way, but I began to consider how we could be more proactive about addressing these issues; really more proactive about taking seriously the presence and power of evil at work among us.

Thankfully, we are part of a Vineyard movement that has an open-handed posture toward the power and potential of the Holy Spirit, and John Wimber was a wise leader who modeled well that posture.  He welcomed the power of the Spirit without an obsession about signs and wonders that to some should follow its presence.  He warned against manufacturing a spiritual experience by working ourselves into a frenzy or chanting repetitively until we fell into a trance.  He instead taught to “dial it down” and just be open-handed toward God. He offered a simple, Jesus-oriented sense of discipleship.  As a charismatic Christian, then, John prayed for people, with a comfort level with the Spirit that helped him to sense when to speak, when to be silent, and always willing to participate with God.

I nurtured a vision from several years ago, then, that we as VC could be proactive like John in addressing the sin, brokenness, and pain in our lives through intentional healing prayer.  I don’t have grandiose ideas about what this will look like.  I think it will naturally fit into other ministries of our church as Pastor Joshua leads us.

I do know that our Healing Prayer team has already seen God moving in some wonderful ways; we’ve seen people being able to weep as they tap into their deep pain, we’ve seen physical healing of hips, and progress with backs, we’ve seen how this is a process with no easy fixes, we’ve seen a friend set free from the affliction of two demons, and we have seen one another growing in how God uses us in prayer.

This, to me, is God with us.  We trust our Father, we obey and follow Jesus, and we listen with increasing sensitivity to the work of the Spirit.  We don’t serve three Gods, and we don’t get to pick the one we like the most.  We kneel before God in thankfulness and humility, and rise to serve in love.  God has something for us to do, calls us to participate in the healing of the world, and we have much to offer.  Let us seek to lean into this promise together as a people.