Where Do We Go from Here?: A Sacramental Framework for Confronting Racism

In moments of great crisis, we all come to the crucial crossroad of decision that will determine the shape and fortitude of our character. When chaos confronts us, there is the temptation to shrink away, to shrug in defeated resolution to the world as it is. We may celebrate the moral courage of those who have stood for human dignity and life even while facing overwhelming odds. But it is easier for too many of us to sit in silence and allow the wheels of uncaring oppression to trample down the most vulnerable in our society. We either cannot imagine that our voice matters against the tide of injustice or understand all too well the dangers of speaking out against injustice. Thus, we are rendered silent. Yet, the pressing obligation of neighborly love demands the unrelenting pursuit of peace and justice for all.

Dr. King proposed the appropriate question: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”? The reality is that systemic racism enslaves all in society. Some benefit from its consolidation of power, but that does not diminish its enslaving power – for those who benefit, remaining enslaved can be more enticing. Dr. King recognized we are all enslaved to this racist system and that to work for the freedom of another is to simultaneously work for my own freedom. As he was famously noted for saying, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There is a reciprocal reality to human community. My salvation and freedom are interwoven with the salvation and freedom of my neighbor. The ability to opt out of acting against a system, it turns out, only furthers the bondage of our lives to a system that will not tolerate any alternative way in the world. Racism embodies a totalizing claim upon human bodies. It is a totalizing claim that values certain bodies over others and can discard those undesirable bodies without fear of repercussion or retaliation… until those who know their inherent worth can no longer bear the brunt of society’s denigration, devaluation, and destruction. The devaluing of any life cheapens every life. Saying “Black lives matter” affirms the value of lives that have too often been devalued by our society. So, indeed, where do we go from here?

It seems to me that too frequently the resources of the Church have been ignored when it comes to addressing these societal evils. Statements are easier to broadcast widely but cannot deal with the particularities of each context. Likewise, they ultimately do not provide character formation – although statements may be important as a tool for helping us articulate the world around us. The sacraments, with their unassuming elements and limiting/ed particularity, may not seem adequate resources for healing our racism and prejudice. How can being plunged in the waters of baptism relate to the suffocation of a black man on the pavement? How can the bread and wine sitting on the Table quench our thirst for racial justice and sate our appetites for true reconciliation (I owe much to Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination for his insightful work on the history of racism and the reconciliation of community in communion)? What does a crucified Lord say to a world filled with lynched persons (James Cone’s work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, provides the framework for this poignant and challenging lens by which to understand Jesus)? The sacraments appear too insignificant and small before the looming specter of white supremacy and racism. However, God often uses the seemingly insignificant to shine forth God’s glory and to invite us into a new way in the world.

The sacraments embody the new reality God has enacted and incarnated in Jesus. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, is the new humanity. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the fullness of communion that was intended from the beginning. God’s identification with us is our very salvation for what God assumes, God saves. But, the manner of God’s coming in the person of Jesus should give us pause. Jesus did not come as a Roman emperor but as a lowly brown-skinned carpenter from the backwaters of Bethlehem. And, it is this same Jesus who is put to death unjustly by the political powers of that day. Jesus was publicly lynched by public officials and “church-going” folk. As James Cone writes, God becomes one of the lynched peoples of the world when Jesus hangs from the rugged tree.

The jolting identification in baptism with a publicly lynched Christ, by which we join him in his death, plunges us into a new identity by putting to death that which has been Death in us. We are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. Beneath the surface, suspended for a moment, we recognize the fragile thread of life to which we cling. The waters press down and suffocate, preventing the inhalation of life-giving breath. “I can’t breathe.” The waters of baptism remind us that Jesus suffocated, struggling to draw breath as authorized agents of the government watched the spectacle until Jesus exhaled his final breath. To enter the waters of baptism is to be given a new way of being in the world that does not side with the powers and principalities of this world, but joins with those who are vulnerable and suffer at the hands of the powerful.

Eucharist is the meal for the baptized, for those who have embraced the way of Jesus and the cross. It is the means of grace for the journey. It nourishes us and instructs us in this present moment of chaos. This meal was the celebration of the Passover. It was the Jewish meal celebrating the deliverance of God’s people out of the bondage of Egypt. The meal reminded God’s people that God is not a God insensitive to the cries of the oppressed. Rather, in surprising revelation, God sees, hears, and knows intimately their suffering as God’s own suffering. God comes down and delivers them. The meal is also the ongoing reminder for God’s people that they must not then turn around and become just another Egypt on the scene of world history. They have been called out and set apart to embody the way of God, the way of neighborliness and generosity, whether in the scant landscape of the wilderness or the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The meal brings to memory the abiding call to live as those who seek the well-being and welfare of others (shalom) in the community. To break bread was to share life and peace with one’s neighbors. To break bread was to extend welcome, forgiveness, and blessing to those who gathered with you.

It should come as no shock when Paul calls the Corinthians to not partake of the meal if there is anything wrong between one of them and someone else. They are to go make it right and then partake of the meal. The meal cannot embody true communion if there is no reconciliation between persons. Wrongs must be confessed. Forgiveness must be sought. Humility must replace hubris. The hand of friendship must be extended. Communion invites us into the practice of receiving and sharing, seeking forgiveness and extending forgiveness, loving God by loving neighbor. The sacrament of communion offers us grace for the reconciling journey that seeks to heal the deep communal wounds which we have wrought on others. It invites us to confess our woundedness which has wounded others. We find that even in our brokenness God can take it and bless it for the sake of the world. To eat and drink at this Table requires that we see those we have hurt, hear their cry, and join them in the work of restitution. This happens at both the personal level and the social level because both are intertwined in the work of justice and righteousness (right-relatedness).

The sacraments ground us in a faith that draws us toward community, toward others. The sacraments do not allow us to withdraw into a privatized and individualized faith that denies the bodily, concrete realities of suffering in our communities. Rather, we are invited into the life of God, the life of Jesus, to join others in their suffering and to allow our lives to be poured out in self-giving love and service. The sacraments, by God’s grace, offer us patterns for the new creation life in our present world. They provide the doxological practices by which we are brought to awareness of our complicity in society’s deathly practices, our need for reconciliation to God and others, and the grace to join with those who suffer.

The sacraments provide the ground by which we are shaped by the cruciform life of Christ. It is a life that joins others in their suffering and embodies the hope of shared pain and communion. There is no communion outside the possibility of shared pain. But, as the cross is transformed by the resurrection from the spear of death to the plowshare of life, God is able to transform our suffering into the glory of God by which the world is renewed. Even as the mundane elements of the sacraments are transformed into the means of grace, so the ordinary gifts of our lives may be sacramentally taken, blessed, broken, and given by Christ for the healing of the world.

A Pastoral Letter Concerning Racism and the Church’s Life

              I was 13 years old the first time I began to understand the realities of racism. When you live in a system that benefits you, it’s easy to ignore or be shielded from those realities. Our town did not have any black residents, something I later learned was by design. The town was very ethnically homogenous, although there was a small percentage of Hispanics that lived there as well. Looking back, it is not difficult to now perceive the racial inequality at work in our community. It was my 8th grade year and our teacher required us to memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

            As I sat in my desk listening to Rev. Dr. King narrate the American dream and its “promissory note” of equality, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this call to “justice for all.” His words were like a fiery coal searing the heart. It was difficult to imagine thirty years after Dr. King that anyone would be disregarded, disqualified, or discarded because of their skin color. I thought the battle for Civil Rights had been won and was now an interesting historical fact.

            A few weeks later, my sister and I were riding in my grandparents’ Suburban. We were going to dinner with them and sat on the bench seat in the middle of the SUV. My grandparents asked us what we were studying in school. When my turn came, I proudly noted I was memorizing Dr. King’s speech. The vehicle exploded with racial slurs and words that I had never heard before. There was a brooding rage I thought would engulf my sister and me. There was no escape from the moving vehicle and I experienced a fear I had never experienced before. I met racism face-to-face that night and it left an indelible mark on me.

            Twenty-two years have passed since that night with my grandparents. I wish I could say those twenty-two years brought with them the necessary reforms to extinguish the white-hot inferno of racism. The reality is racism did not die after the Civil Rights movement. It just became more subtle in its work. That is how systemic evil often operates. When confronted, it hides itself behind a more respectable façade: chattel slavery shifted to Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws became mass incarceration, the penal system became a for-profit institution that profited from occupied beds. Each step along the way has dehumanized black and brown bodies by criminalizing and monetizing those same bodies. Four hundred years of fear, trauma, violence, and abuse can be summed up in three words uttered this week: “I can’t breathe.” It was a specific officer, Derek Chauvin, that bore his weight down on the neck of George Floyd, but it was a racist system that authorized and empowered him to do it.

            Four hundred years is a long time to wait patiently for equality and equity. Four hundred years of broken promises and frustrated dreams. Four hundred years of learning to do more while being afforded so much less. Four hundred years of complicity and silence from the Church.

            As a pastor, my calling is to serve the Church by speaking truthfully about the world and about the life of the Church. I am called to serve by pointing to Jesus and holding up a mirror for the Church to check its reflection to see if it resembles Jesus in its life. That sometimes means I am in the uncomfortable and difficult position of saying that our reflection looks like something other than Jesus. Having spent years seeking to understand racism and the systems that propagate it, I have to say that the Church has sometimes been the worst offender. That is not simply an indictment on the past. It is the harsh reality of our present moment.

            I am reminded, however, of a story in scripture concerning another group who experienced the terrors of oppression. They languished for four hundred years under harsh and unjust treatment from Pharaoh and his overseers decked out in Egyptian riot gear. God’s people cried out in their suffering. God saw, heard, and knew intimately their suffering as God’s own. And, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God brought them out of Egypt, out of bondage. And, like Moses, the Church must hear the cries of the oppressed and call out for freedom against the powers of domination that continue to enslave black and brown bodies. The Church cannot continue to sit in comfortable silence. Nor can it settle for speech that is devoid of action. God’s compassion for those who suffer invites us to speak out against the modern-day pharaohs of our world. We need only say, “Here am I.”

            Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed this prayer that may help orient us for the difficult but necessary road ahead: “Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so, as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

Proclaim the Hope

The most devastating waves of hatred exercised in violence betray an underlying sense of fear and fatalism in those perpetrating such atrocities. I sometimes wonder what drives people to the precipice where they no longer see any hope for alternative ways to change their world than to destroy others. Perhaps many of these tragedies might have been avoided if the Church had better articulated its message of hope, if it did not so often succumbed to the same tragic despair that can no longer imagine new possibilities from dead ends? How devastatingly dull our witness is when it is incapable of offering hope to the hopeless. Salt that has lost its saltiness is thrown away and trampled under foot. May God revive the imagination of the Church for these days. May the Church and its disciples be light in the dark places.

 

Turned Right-side Up

 

There is fear that is not fear

There is faith that is not faith

There is hope that is not Hope

There is peace that is not Peace

There is success that is not Success

There is failure that is not Failure

 

There is presence that is not Presence

There is absence that is not Absence

There is victory that is not Victory

There is defeat that is not Defeat

 

There is life that is not Life

There is death that is not Death

 

For our eyes see but do not see

Our ears hear but do not hear

Our minds behold and yet do not comprehend

The Kingdom has turned everything right-side up

Kids These Days: Reflections on Generational Conflict in the Church

Occasionally, I hear phrases bemoaning the state of the “younger” generation.  Somehow or another, they are given credit for the state of the world or the Church’s stumbling about.  They are usually castigated as lazy, unmotivated, faithless, entitled, and ungrateful persons.  Of course, this is true of persons in every generation, but it is easier to point the finger at others than to reflect critically on the ways we are responsible for the world and the state of the Church.  It also releases us from taking responsibility for the way we have discipled the next generation.  There have been books and blogs written ad nauseum about how to fix “the problem.”  I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of growing up to do still.  But, I want to point out that the issues we face in the Church concern all generations within the Church, both in culpability and responsibility.  After all, some problems we created, others we inherited.

Using blanket statements about this younger generation, often couched in negative language, has sometimes blinded us to the incredible things God is doing in and through them!  Becca and I sat at a table of Church congregants complaining about how “this younger generation doesn’t appreciate commitment in marriage.”  Granted, Becca and I hadn’t been married but for five years at this point – there’s still a long way to go.  But, we looked at each other as if to say, “Well, I guess we don’t count as taking our vows seriously in their eyes.”  I can name so many others that have undertaken those vows with utmost seriousness.  Is divorce still an issue?  Yes, definitely!  But, it hasn’t just infected the youngest generation.  In fact, what has often been modeled for them hasn’t looked like fidelity and covenant – even when the marriage hasn’t resulted in divorce!  This is an issue for the whole Church, not just a small segment.

I have actually been encouraged watching young Church members, ministers, and pastors.  Some of the work and witness that they are doing is incredible!  Some have written books, some are ministering in “unconventional” ways, some are teachers, some serve the most vulnerable and destitute in our communities (when they could be making bigger paychecks doing other kinds of work), some are using the arts to proclaim God’s glory.  There are a million ways that these young ministers, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers, counselors, librarians, coffee-makers, and others are serving and proclaiming Good News in their communities.

One young minister in Oklahoma City has created a community garden as a means of living sustainable, healthy lives and simultaneously helping those in need.  Several people that I know (or know of) have created community through coffee ministries where they integrate themselves into a community and share the Gospel.  Some others run a weekly VBS in Section 8 apartments, while their church has created a center that is intentionally being used to help those families through education and other programs.  Incredible gifts that are being offered by those who want to make a tangible difference as the hands and feet of Christ.

This is not to raise up a younger generation as the saviors of the Church or to say that they have all the answers.  I really don’t believe that to be true.  Nor is it to say that an older generation is unfaithful and obsolete.  I have often found the contrary to be true.  Rather, it is to say that all are needed as part of the Body.  But, if we continue to look upon every new generation as a liability or with suspicion while failing to recognize them as a gift, then we might very well find generations absent from the church (by the way, Millenials were not the first generation to leave denominations or the Church over generational divides. Our parents modeled this trend for us.).  If we can’t love those represented in the Church, how much more difficult is it to love those we might identify as enemies?  But, we are often suspicious of difference and change because it creates tension in us and sometimes challenges our own assumptions (this is not a new problem).

If we are fearful of change and the resulting conflict, we will treat those who are different like a body treats an illness.  It attacks the foreign element to eradicate it.  There may be elements that are harmful to the Body that must be healed or expelled (i.e., sin), but when the Body attacks itself we call that “cancer.”  Sometimes we have lacked the patience discerning when it is a disease in the Body and when its simply difference represented in the Body (i.e., the foot or the hand or the eye).  Like the wounds of Jesus, the Body bears the marks of our wounding one another.  As Pastor Becca, my lovely wife, once stated: “It is sad when we who have had our wounds healed turn around and wound others.”

The wounding of one another is astonishing.  I think of a young pastor that I know who went on vacation with his family only to return to find that the board had voted to fire him out of the blue.  I recall a young female pastor that is a tremendous pastor and yet is dealing with “ministry PTSD” because the church treated her like an enemy because her ministry resembled something they didn’t expect (I think it resembled the Kingdom, which makes all sorts of people uncomfortable!).  I know a pastor that received death threats from his some of his congregants!  I can name too many stories where “difference” was met with disdain.  Rather than seeking conversation, clarification, and discernment together, faithful people were dismissed, demeaned and denigrated.

As I have reflected on these realities, there are a few areas (though this list is not exhaustive) where these tensions, dissonances, and differences have created conflict.  They revolve around questions concerning the nature of the Church, what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple, our responsibility for living as Kingdom people here and now, and our complicity with the powers that be, among other issues.  These are important and complex issues that every generation must navigate and re-articulate because every generation faces a changing world in which to contextualize the Gospel.  It is hard yet necessary work which has been going on since the beginning of the Church.

Rather than problematizing a “younger generation” and dismissing them out-of-hand, we could see the tension emerging from the changes happening around us as opportunity for discipleship and discernment together – which is a two-way street where we are all willing to learn, to grow, and to work together for the proclamation of God’s Kingdom.  I am deeply grateful for the many older pastors and parishioners who have lovingly and graciously engaged with me on the hard issues without disowning me and branding me a heretic when we disagree.  Those have been transforming relationships that continue to shape me.  And, I pray that I will be that same kind of non-anxious presence for those who come after me.  When we fail to embody this kind of posture, we move, in the words of Willie James Jennings, toward “Faith seeking understanding” to a “Faith judging intelligence.”

 

 

“Heaping Burning Coals – Romans 12” – Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a season of reflecting in a further intentional way on the life of Christ which leads to the Cross.  The cross is symbolic, although not simply that, of the kind of ministry which Jesus embodied while proclaiming the Kingdom of God has begun here and now in him.  The cross is the way of the Kingdom, for it is the way of its King.  As Kingdom citizens, we are called to embody this same cruciform way of living here and now.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  Our baptisms are where we are buried with Christ so that we might also participate in his new-creation-life, which also anticipates Christ’s coming again to fulfill that which he began – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, we are visible, tangible reminders that God’s Kingdom has come.  We are stewards that build for the Kingdom, announcing its inauguration in Jesus, and the Christian hope that it will someday be consummated in his return.  This is why we say: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Yet, while we wait for Christ’s return, we recognize that there is still work to be done in the Creation and in us.  Although the Kingdom has begun, it is not yet completed work.  So, we long for and anticipate the coming redemption of all things, when Christ will be all in all.  Paul says that the Creation waits for the redemption of humanity.  And, as we wait for our redemption, sometimes we groan in prayer when words fail us.  The Spirit of God takes up our prayer and presents them to God.  We hunger and thirst for God to make right that which is broken and twisted by sin.  We all, including the Creation, groan to be set free from the bonds of sin and death.  Paul’s words picture this anguish perfectly: “Who can rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)!?

Lent weighs heavily upon us.  We see the cross in the distance and recognize that the twisted beams of wood which pierce the ground and the rusty nails which pierce Jesus are both driven deep in the flesh and the earth by our own hands.  It is our violence and our demand for justice which finally nail Jesus to that branchless tree.

It is a tree of death upon which we have placed the Author of Life.  It is the tree which is rooted in our anger, bitterness, anxiety, and malice.  Through that tree we pour out all of our contempt upon the Light of the World.  The cross which stands in the distance comes nearer and nearer as we approach Good Friday.  It holds up the mirror before us, asking: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We can only exclaim, “Yes, it was me.  Yes, it was us.”  We try to avoid the disciplines of Lent because we finally want to avoid seeing our face in the crowd which cried out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We cannot bear the shame.

Astonishingly, what we intended for evil, God reorients for our good.  This is what Paul is exclaiming when he finishes his thought in Romans 7.  “Who can rescue me from this body of death!?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).  God takes an instrument of death and transforms it into a tool for cultivating new life in the Creation and in us.  This is the grand sweep of Romans 8.  Jesus has brought about new creation!  Yes, it is not completed work yet.  But, it’s not just a future event that we are waiting for either.  In fact, Paul calls the Christian community to begin to live into the reality of new creation now – to put our minds on the things of the Spirit and thus to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

We are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  God’s work through the Spirit will impact what we do with our bodies.  Paul writes, “… if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” Rom. 8:13b-15a).  We are called to no longer live in the deathly ways of this world (12:2a), “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  I do not think such transformation is possible without intentional practices that engage both body and spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus.  More specifically, as Paul highlights in the following section (vv. 3-8), it cannot happen outside of the community of faith.  This is not a journey which we can do by ourselves.  God has gifted us the Church for mutual encouragement and accountability.  Christian community and the peculiar practices (i.e., prayer, sacraments, fasting, confession, reading scripture, etc.) of that community have an odd way of “humbling us” and training us to think with “sober judgment.”

Paul reminds this covenant community (the Church) that the very purpose of this community is to serve as a training ground for the Kingdom-already-here-yet-still-to-come.  It is a training ground of love.  Love of God, yes!  Most certainly.  But, equally, love of our fellow people.  In fact, the competition of the world which tries to dominate others is traded in for a new kind of competition.  It is a competition of mutual affection where everyone seeks the benefit of others over their own desires.  It is a “holy zeal and an ardent spirit, serving the Lord” by serving each other (v. 11).  It is this energetic affection for God and for each other which makes things like “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer” possible (v. 12).  We bear the burdens together and we share in each other’s joy.  And, it is a joy that spills over to others.  The needs of the saints are met by one another (v. 13a).  Not only that, but this joy spills outside of the Church as well, by extending hospitality to the stranger (13b).  In other words, the new creation is expanding to receive those parts of the old creation that have yet experienced the new life found in Christ through the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Of course, Paul isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.  He recognizes that there are people that are still living by the flesh.  As such, they may very well reject, even in violent ways, the hope offered by the Church.  The Church may experience persecution.  Jesus never denied this possibility.  He said, “The world hated me; it will hate you.”  Don’t be surprised.  The Kingdom of Jesus isn’t always received as good news and is sometimes treated with hostility because it challenges the world’s way of life.  It says that there is a radically different way of doing things like politics, economics, how we treat our environment, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our enemies, how we treat the most vulnerable in society.  Love is the new priority.  And, if our way of life does not reflect the way of the cross, perhaps our minds have yet to be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul outlines how we are called to respond to the abuses which the world may heap upon us.  Before our renewal by the Spirit, we fought fire with fire.  We matched violence with violence.  We responded to hatred and evil with hatred and evil.  But, now, we are to be those who “bless and do not curse” (v. 14).  We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vv. 15-19).  The way of Jesus; the way of the cross; the way of love.

Just in case we were confused, Paul goes further still.  We must not simply avoid evil.  We must pursue the good of others – even our enemies.  Paul writes, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20-21).  Deep inside of us, we might cheer, “Good!  Serves them right!  My enemies deserve some burning coals on their head!”  But, that interpretation only highlights how much our lives still need to be formed by the Spirit.

The idea Paul is conveying by “heap burning coals on their heads” is rooted in a cultural practice during his day.  They didn’t have instant gas fires or lighters.  Starting a fire was hard work.  Once one was started, it was easier to keep it going than to let it die out and restart it.  If your fire died, it could be a serious problem, especially on cold nights.  If your fire did go out, you might visit a neighbor to get some live coals with which to start your fire back up.  Live coals are hot and heat rises.  So, carrying those coals in a bucket on your head would keep you from getting scorched.  Thus, “heaping burning coals on their heads” was a way of saying that we are called to get their “fires” going by returning evil with good.  Just as Jesus transformed our evil (the cross) into something for our good, we are called to do the same – even for our worst enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  He understood the pain and suffering of being hated.  Yet, the Gospel of Jesus led him to respond with compassion and love for his enemies.  That is Christian hope in action.

May Lent call us to repentance where we have failed to put on the mind of Christ.  May Lent draw us to daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of love!  Let us move from the ash heap of the old creation people that we have been to those anointed with the oil of the Spirit as new creation people.

Wesleyan Covenant Service (Adapted)

We recently did the Wesley Covenant Service 2016 at our church.  You can click the red highlighted text above to see the content of the service in booklet form.

We began our evening of reflection over the Genesis 15 text.  In the text, Abram hears again God’s promise to give him an heir to carry the promise.  Abram is fearful that God is slow on fulfilling the promise and that there won’t be a true heir to follow him.  Abram complains about God’s timing or inability to make good on the promises given.

Despite the complaint, God invites Abram again into the mystery of the promise.  Go outside and count all the stars, if you can (in broad daylight).  God promises progeny as numerous as the stars, but there’s likely only one star visible in the daylight hours.  Just because something isn’t seen doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.  God’s promises apparently work in that way at times.

Then, God tells Abram to kill a heifer, and a male and female goat, and to bring two birds (not killed).  The heifer and two goats are to be killed and cut in halves and placed on either side, making a runway of animal parts.  Gruesome.

This ritual was significant in that time period.  It was called a Suzerain treaty.  When two parties and people would agree on peaceful terms, the more powerful of the two factions would march the lesser party through the dead animal parts as if to say, “Break this pact and you’re likely to end up like these animals – dead meat!”

The text says a dread fear fell over Abram.  Perhaps he recognized his peril.  God would grab him by the scruff of the neck, march him through the animal carcasses, and tell him that he would be ripped apart if he dared step a toe out of line.  Abram is clearly at God’s mercy as the weaker party in this agreement and how is Abram to make good on a promise that he can’t fulfill or keep?  After all, he’s too old to have children!

Suddenly, inexplicably, a fiery pot and a flaming torch appear – fire often is used to represent God’s presence.  And, rather than being force marched through the animal pylons, Abram is astonished to see God move through the gory pathway first – not Abram.  God makes the first move.

God stakes God’s very life on fulfilling God’s promises.  The One who promises is the One who is faithful to complete the work.  God puts God’s name on the line, placing God’s honor, reputation, and glory on seeing this plan through to fruition.

As we reflect on the nature of making covenant with God, Wesley reminds us that it is God’s work into which God invites us.  God invites us to participate in the divine life and plan, but it is something that God accomplishes – yes, working in and through us – for our sake and for the sake of the world.  The appropriate response, as with Abram, is awe, wonder, joy, and thankful receiving of the promise.

The promise may seem slow in coming, but we can rest assured in God’s faithfulness.  This is especially true for those that understand Jesus to be both the promise, fulfillment, and the one by whom the new covenant with God is entered.  All the promises of God are “yes” in Christ Jesus.  And, God is willing to put God’s life at risk to accomplish that which is promised.

To enter into covenant with this risky God means that God is not willing to settle for anything less than our whole selves.  God desires to be all in all.  Covenant is no small matter, no small step.  It is the bid to come and die.  Yet, in great surprise, we find that the risk we thought we had entered into was really our gain for we were invited to partake of God’s life, to drink deeply of the Spring of Life.  God shouldered the risk and, for those who commit their very lives to God, we became the benefactors of such abundant grace.

To be a covenant people is submitting our lives to be shaped into the likeness of Jesus, to fall upon his righteousness, and to humble our hearts for holy service.  The promise of God may seem slow in coming – but, God has given God’s very life to see it through to completion.  If God is willing to stake God’s life on God’s promise, then it seems like such a small risk (though perhaps very painful or difficult in practice) to give my life to the One who will complete the good work started.

The Church, Marriage, Sex, and Prayer

I recall one of my professors, who was also a member of the church I attended, saying something like: “The purpose of marriage is not to make you happy but to make you holy.”  It’s been a number of years since I heard this line, but it recently came to mind as I have been reflecting on marriage, the Church, sexuality, and prayer.  Yes, that’s a seemingly odd list.

It’s an odd list, until we begin to think about what is at the center of all of these things: God.  Prayer, marriage, the Church – and, yes, even sexuality (think desire rather than simply a physical act) – are all intended to be oriented toward God.  But, as we often experience, when God ceases to be at the heart of these entities and activities, they become grotesque aberrations of their intended purpose.  That is to say, they are steered from their purpose of making us holy – set apart to reflect God’s character.

Sexuality tends to get the most press where this is concerned.  It is not difficult to drudge up the culture that utilizes sex in manifold harmful ways.  Nor is it difficult to find where the Church has strayed in its misuse of sex either.  However, I think that many of the issues that we are struggling with in the area of sexuality spawns from our lack of reflection on the connection between marriage and the Church.

The apostle Paul uses marriage as a metaphor for the Church.  Namely, Christ and the Church are bridegroom and bride, brought together to be one Body.  We are familiar with this association, but we don’t always see the reverse as true.  Yes, Christ and the Church are like a marriage.  But, is marriage really like Christ and the Church?  We struggle with that particular phrasing, if not explicitly, at least implicitly.  And, we may struggle with both the reality of the Church and marriage as sanctifying spheres in our lives for the very reason that we think “happiness” is of the utmost importance for whether or not something has value.

If we were to be honest with ourselves, it would be difficult to deny that marriage or our commitment to the Church is largely based on whether our needs are satisfied in the relationship.  If our spouse, our local church, or some person in the church rubs us the wrong way, upsets us, or doesn’t meet our perceived needs, then we are quick to look elsewhere for satisfaction or fulfillment.  We look outside the marriage and outside the Church for something more, for something that will finally make us happy.

We treat the institutions (that’s not always a dirty word) of marriage and the Church like shopping malls, which makes us consumers.  That puts us in control.  When marriage or the Church are their to serve our happiness, we have essentially made ourselves the end goal.  In other words, we have placed ourselves in the place of God – simply put, idolatry.  And, oh, how our moods and desires are like trashbags caught in the wind, blown to and fro.  Our passions as consumers change with each passing season.  We cast off marriage like changing a shirt.  And, I’m afraid the Church doesn’t fare much better, especially when we see so little use in it making us happy people.

However, if holiness is the proper end because it is pointing us finally toward God, that says something about commitment (rather than our happiness) as intrinsic and necessary for both the life of a marriage and the life of a local congregation.  Of course, our model is Father, Son, and Spirit in this regard.  They have been committed to the Creation, even after its descent into sin.  They have patiently worked with God’s people throughout time, remaining faithful even when we were unfaithful.  It is the persistence of God that enables our faithfulness which leads unto holiness.

That’s not to say that joy isn’t an important part of holiness.  But, we shouldn’t confuse joy with happiness.  Joy is content in all circumstances.  Happiness tends to fluctuate with my comfort level, which God doesn’t seem as concerned about.  If we could extend my professor’s statement to the Church, it would read: “The purpose of the Church is not to make me happy but to make me holy.”  We could also say the same of sexuality (for instance, how we talk about celibacy) and prayer.  This would drastically change the way we struggle with conflict and the mundane parts of being married, serving the Church (rather than schism), practicing prayer, and being sexual beings.

If holiness is the point, then our happiness is not the goal.  And, holiness is only possible insofar as we remain faithful to a God that calls us to live in faithful, covenantal relationship with God, with others, and with Creation.  And, if this is true, then the purpose of such things is not the seeking of my own best interest(s).  Rather, it is seeking the best good for others (i.e., God’s peace or “shalom”).  John Wesley once said, “There is no personal holiness without social holiness.”  Thus, God has wed us together; we need each other.

“Believing with Our Feet: The Politics of Discipleship” by Dr. Tim Gaines

KP Blog Tour

The Christian faith is weird. It’s just different. All the way down. As many times as I can say this, I continually come to realize that I don’t get it. At least, I don’t get it in a depth that really shapes me as deeply as it ought to.

These days, a large majority of my ministry involves teaching college students. I talk with them a lot about how different the Christian faith is. It’s different in the way it conceives of God because it confesses that God was revealed in flesh, and so we know God by an encounter with a person, rather than through metaphysical reasoning alone. And one of the most different things about the way know God is that the person through whom we come to know God was crucified.

The more I say things like this in my teaching, and the more I consider what that means for the way I know God as a person, the more strange it seems. We normally look for God in ideas, high and lofty metaphysical concepts of God. But God wants us to be known through becoming a human, and so we know God by encountering a person. Weird.

Belief is also strange for Christians. Normally, we consider belief to be the intellectual ascent to an idea. When we believe in something, we typically mean that we agree with an idea. When we say we believe in God, it often means that we intellectually agree that there is a God, and that this God is involved in creation in certain ways. But Christians believe in strange ways. We don’t just believe with our heads; we believe with our feet. Ours is a belief of following. Why? Because for Christians, God is not known as an idea, but as a Person.

Jesus words in John 14, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” set a strange pattern for our believing, mainly because we tend to think of truth as a set of concepts, rather than as a person. But Jesus does something fascinating here: he ties ‘way’ to ‘truth,’ and locates both of those in himself. That means that truth is not a concept for Christians – truth is a Person. To believe in truth, therefore, means that we can’t simply intellectually ascent to an idea, because truth isn’t a mere idea. Truth is a Person, and we believe in that Person by following. We believe with our feet.

Believing with our feet makes us primarily followers of the Way. To believe with our feet makes us disciples. But here is the really simple and strange thing about believing with our feet: we are following a peculiar and particular way that isn’t like all of the other ways around us. The peculiar way of Jesus had a lot to do with not simply following one of the given ‘ways’ of the day, but transcending those ways. But lest we forget the cross, ‘transcendence’ even takes on a different kind of meaning – to transcend something in the strange way of Jesus also meant to be killed by it. Why is that important? Because it demonstrates for us just how different the politics of discipleship are.

I probably don’t need to rehearse the given political ‘ways’ in detail here. There are parties and issues and candidates. But the thread running through all of them is that there is a particular way of doing politics: you win. You conquer. You vanquish. Consider the discussion surrounding political debates these days. Most of what I hear is not even about the issues so much as who won the debate. The issues become mere weapons in the hands of those who enter the debate ring as contenders. The whole point is to win.

As disciples of Jesus, though, our purpose isn’t really to win. It isn’t to climb in the ring or throw our support behind one of the contenders. It’s to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life, to hear him teach us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, and to align ourselves with that coming Kingdom, even though it is thoroughly different. To believe with our feet is to walk in the way of the Crucified, and to take seriously the strangeness of the way God has chosen to redeem the world. And that probably means that the way of our politics – the way we think about it, the way we think about what politics is, what it does and what it’s for – will be awfully different. And for that difference, I say thanks be to God.

Tim Gaines is asst. professor of religion at Trevecca Nazarene University and adjunct professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary. His latest book, written with Shawna Songer Gaines, deals with a faithful approach to politics and is called Kings and Presidents: Politics and the Kingdom of God.

TimandShawna

Tim and Shawna Gaines used their time as co-pastors of Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene to seek distinctly Christian approaches to pressing contemporary issues, and to apply those responses to faithful and creative ways in the local church setting. Tim now serves as assistant professor of religion at Trevecca Nazarene University. Shawna is a frequent speaker, author, and blogger. Her work can be accessed at shawnasongergaines.com

You can find their new book here: http://www.nph.com/nphweb/html/bhol/itempage.jsp?itemId=9780834135314&nid=srch&catalogId=NA&catSecCd=NA&subCatSecCd=NA&subSubCatSecCd=NA