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.”

The Poetry of Obedience – Psalm 119:1-8

You’re blessed when you stay on course,
walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
You’re blessed when you follow [God’s] directions,
doing your best to find [God].
That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;
you walk straight along the road [God] set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that my steps might be steady,
keeping to the course you set;
Then I’d never have any regrets
in comparing my life with your counsel.
I thank you for speaking straight from your heart;
I learn the pattern of your righteous ways.
I’m going to do what you tell me to do;
don’t ever walk off and leave me. (Psalm 119:1-8, MSG)

 

Obedience isn’t typically associated with poetry.  We think of obedience in terms of laws, rules, and strict observance of a moral code.  We think about punishment and reward.  It tends to be a very rigid concept, sometimes based in fear of consequences.  Much of this way of thinking about obedience has deep roots in the Middle Ages in the Church.  God was viewed as the Great Judge, Jesus a defense attorney, and Satan the prosecution.  This is also the soil from which we get much of the penal substitution theory of atonement – which says, God had to punish sin and chose to inflict that punishment, death, upon Jesus.  It is a very violent view of God that incites fear in us to “toe the line.”

This framework tends to keep obedience as a response to our fear of God’s retribution.  Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” have tingled our imaginations of a God waiting in the rafters for us to break the rules and jump down to confront and destroy us – unless we somehow quickly repent and make ourselves better.  For many Christians, this may be an oversimplification of Jesus’ work and our responsibility.  And, it is!  But, this reflects the traditions that I was often surrounded by and understood Christianity to be about!  Somehow I knew God loved me, but the fear of God’s punishment hung like a dark cloud over my head.  And, it became more complicated as I witnessed many doing what was “wrong” and yet their lives seemed to continue unimpeded by God’s wrath.  It was confusing and eventually unsustainable.  I stopped seeing any need for the Church or my participation in it.  Ultimately, that has been to my loss.

I had reduced obedience to a mathematical equation.  Do good = get good.  Do bad = get bad.  It was this algebraic formula that ruled my relationship with God.  If I performed X, I would receive Y.  “Y” could be anything from God’s love or presence to God acting in a precise way in my life because of my prayers.  The irony and sad reality of this moral formula of faith is that the equation never balanced in my favor – I was always too sinful, not committed enough, undeserving, lacking knowledge, etc.  The scales of morality always suggested that there was no possibility in gaining God’s favor, becoming faithful enough, or being obedient to the necessary degree.  In other words, the mathematical equation was useless and so was the Church that had offered me that kind of faith.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.  I found those in the Church that imagined obedience was more like poetry than prose.  Poetry is expansive, imaginative, playful, honest, and a work of love.  Prose makes everything seem settled, rigid, matter-of-fact.  But, poetry teases the imagination by plunging into the mystery without the need to control it.  That was the hardest thing to learn (and remains the hardest thing to change) – obedience is not about control.  Poetry invites wonder, awe, praise, thanksgiving, and lament.  Prose, on the other hand, often reduces life to principles, formulas, and equations.

Psalm 119 invites us into the poetry of obedience.  It is an acrostic poem, meaning that each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is the longest poem within the Psalms and it is all about obedience to Torah, to being instructed in God’s way of living in the world.  It is comprehensive (from “A to Z”) and yet it is not reductive.  It imagines God’s instruction to be a way of life, not simply a list of rules to follow.  It is an invitation to bask in the wonder of God’s commands that bless and sustain life – not as a formula, but as hope-filled promise.

The first stanza of the poem is filled with verbs that beg for obedience to be engaged as ongoing journey.  We seek, we learn, we walk, we observe diligently, we praise, we fix our eyes, we keep God’s decrees.  And for those that enter into this life-giving way, there is blessing.  It is the blessing that is found in walking whole-heartedly before the Lord as those who have been re-created and made new, whose shame has been clothed.  This encounter with God gives way to poetry and praise that imagines obedience as a posture and response of thanksgiving to God’s faithfulness.  Obedience is not rigid, but must be appropriate for each new situation that flows out of our prayerful walk with God.  It is the kind of obedience which leads to humility rather than self-righteous self-promotion.  It is the posture of prayer that seeks to know God more deeply today than yesterday and does fail to glorify God through the entirety of our lives – yes, even our failures.

In the love song of obedience, we find a God that is not waiting to smite us when we fail, like a boy with a magnifying glass over an anthill.  Rather, we find God has already pioneered the pathway of faithfulness, the highway of holiness through Jesus – who is the very poem of God’s life in the world.  God does not ask of us that which God is not willing to also do.  In fact, Jesus’ life of love is one deeply marked by obedience – a love song that is his life-song.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to harmonize with Jesus by allowing our lives to also become a love song, a poem.

Bill Mounce, a noted New Testament language scholar, writes, “Paul tells the Ephesians that ‘we are his workmanship (ποιημα), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (ESV).”  We are God’s poiema, workmanship, which is where we get our word “poem.”  We are God’s poem.  Like an artist, God sings a love song to the world through us, through our faithful obedience.  It is a song of beauty.  It is a song of redemption.  It is a song that turns ashes into beauty, mourning into gladness, and despair into hope.

Parents nurturing their children is God’s poetry.  Grandparents caring for their grandchildren is God’s poetry. Handling adversity with grace is God’s poetry being sung to the world steeped in anxiety and despair.  Living in generous and neighborly ways reflects God’s poetry.  Lives that reflect the beauty of God’s love, mercy, and justice are lives of poetic obedience offered back to God and to the world.  Such lives invite awe and wonder at the glory and beauty of such a God living in and through us.

“Let My Life Song Sing to You”

Empty hands held high

Such small sacrifice

If not joined with my life

I sing in vain tonight

May the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

CHORUS:

Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Lord I give my life

A living sacrifice

To reach a world in need

To be Your hands and feet

So may the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

CHORUS:
Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Let my lifesong sing to You

 

The Myth of Progress and an Invitation to Fail

There is an overwhelming and pervasive sense of anxiety in our society.  Of course, it hasn’t merely trickled into the Church; the waters have rushed through our doors.  There are many reasons for the anxiety.  A great resource for reading about some of those reasons for anxiety in our culture is Walter Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.  As I have reflected on my cultural context and the intersection with the Church in America, there is a strand woven through the very fabric of our lives which compounds our anxiety: the myth of perpetual progress.  (Incidentally, though not insignificantly, this myth leads to violent practices, like “evangelistic” movements called Crusades which utilize manipulation and coercive techniques).

There are many reasons for the propagation of this myth, especially because it appeared to be true for so many years in our borders.  The proliferation of technology and medical science and so many other useful tools painted a picture of prosperity that would continually rise to new levels.  Economic growth, particularly after WWII, seemed on a constant upward trajectory (setbacks were always believed to be temporary).  The Enlightenment’s ethos promised that everything would evolve to higher degrees of rationality, creativeness, wealth, power, and success.  And, as such, such success could be measured and monitored.  If progress seemed impeded, it wasn’t because perpetual progress was in question.  Rather, it was time to change leadership or fix this or that problem which prohibited further expansion and development.  But, fundamentally, the idea and myth of perpetual progress remains unquestioned and unchallenged.

This ideology of progress has increasingly become one of the dominant ideologies in the American church.  I constantly see it expressed in my denomination’s polity, but I know that isn’t particularly unique to our denomination either.  There is continuous pressure to grow, to expand, like ecclesiastical colonialism reaching toward an obscure Manifest Destiny we call “evangelism” – or, more honestly, cultural assimilation.  If the negative connotation of assimilation seems too strong, consider the methods of most church planting/ church growth models.  The “target audience” is typically monolithic – young, urban professionals with young families, which can support the ministry with their disposable income.  Everything within the worship service is then geared to appeal to this group’s interests and desires.  Progress and consumerism (both dependent upon numbers and percentages) are conjoined twins, particularly because “progress” has been reduced to an individual’s capacity to choose what suits their desires (this plagues most any age group in our culture).

But, the church in America and other Western countries has had to wrestle with diminishing incomes, sliding attendance, fewer volunteers, and a culture that continues to encroach on the times that were previously reserved for churches.  In other words, we are beginning to see the myth of progress, not only in the culture, within the Church be exposed as an untenable promise.  Deny it as strongly as we might, the reality, and its attendant anxiety, is palpable.

Of course, this does not mean that the myth of perpetual progress has died.  Too many are in denial for it to have died so easily.  Instead, we merely redouble our efforts at marketability, business acuity, and technological reproduction.  In other words, we seek any methodology, technology, or technique that will give us an edge to once again regain our ascendancy within the culture and our particular community.  This effort is undergirded by a particularly acidic theology of chosenness and exceptionalism (both within the culture and the Church, which tend to horribly mix into civil religion).  By the way, this same mentality leads to Israel’s Exile and Jerusalem’s destruction, yet the Church follows suit as if it is immune to such judgment.  The idea of exceptionalism and chosenness is not that we are simply set apart by God but, furthermore, that we are ordained by God and can thus never fail – perpetual progress.  It is the belief that God is always interested in our expansionistic success and has blessed the whole affair (i.e., imperialism).  We revel in resurrection, but neglect crucifixion as a distinct possibility when following Jesus – even as an institution.  Resurrection without crucifixion is merely the prosperity gospel, which lacks any family resemblance to Jesus.

The most insidious aspect to the myth of perpetual progress within the Church is the fallout experienced by pastors and local churches.  In fact, they feel this acutely and it often causes distress and tension within the pastoral-congregational relationship.  It is easy for the church or the pastor to become a taskmaster pushing for limitless progress or a return to the glory days of cultural ascendancy.  Despair characterizes our gatherings when we don’t measure up to the ideal of progress.  So, we make excuses or dismiss our “failure,” putting a positive spin on it (not unlike media spin-doctors).  To use contemporary language, we employ “alternative facts” in our reporting to paint an overall picture of health, no matter how much we may have to twist the truth of reality.  Denial concerning the myth of progress gives way to despair when we don’t “measure up” and we are left disillusioned about faithfully fulfilling our calling.  Likewise, significant theological issues, such as salvation or sanctification or discipleship, are reduced to a  paltry reality which can be numerically captured on paper.  Thus, because we sought to measure it in one moment, salvation became a singular moment, rather than an unfolding reality into which we are continuously invited to participate.  It is an anemic Christianity which has replaced discipleship with “showing up” (see Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship).

But, if we allow the myth of progress to be broken open and give ourselves permission to move past our denials which struggle (even with good intentions) to recapture an imagined glorious bygone day, we may find ourselves engaging a future of God’s new possibilities.  But, again, this is no guarantee of success, no imagined exceptionalism that insulates us from failure.  But, it is possible that the spectacular failures in which we endeavor may yet find God miraculously and surprisingly working through them, and us, in ways we yet to imagine.  In fact, we would be given permission to “fail” and to fail gloriously, to risk much and trust God for the “results.”

It is the kind of failure which is present in a dying church in a dying town, and yet proclaims hope.  To preach Good News in communities  that will never make national headlines and yet to see this as the most important work in which we might engage.  To imagine that the smallest acts of kindness and compassion unleash seismic shifts in the lives of those for whom we care.  To imagine that greatness is in serving.  To believe that death may be a new beginning.  To pray that even small mustard seeds of faith can uproot the grandest mountains in our path.  To imagine that the greatest metrics can never be measured and that the smallest, weakest, seemingly insignificant people, places and practices are quite possibly those upon which God smiles and blesses.  Maybe… just maybe… the vital work of the Church can be re-energized for the mission of God, not by playing the myth of progress game, by painting a compelling vision of God’s Kingdom unleashed in our midst, a costly discipleship, inspiring us to greater acts of love – regardless of the outcome.  I see many pastors, ministers, and laity, often in obscure corners of the world, leading unafraid from underneath. They take the slow & tedious road of faithful discipleship that lacks the star power of conferences or the glory of large crowds.  But, their work is every bit as vital and beautiful and important as the “success stories” of those fast growing, cutting edge churches.  And, perhaps, we can confess that “growth” does not translate into success, especially if it looks more like corporate takeover than actual evangelism.

To put a point on my argument, I am reminded of the story of Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14.  A massive Philistine horde stands ready to descend on Saul’s men, save for a ravine between the two encampments.  Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak off and move toward the enemy.  Jonathan suggests showing themselves to the enemy and awaiting their response, either come up or stay where they are.  If told to come up, this will be a sign that God has given Jonathan and the armor bearer the victory.  Two men outmatched and yet willing to risk greatly despite an uncertain future and outcome.  Jonathan affirms as much: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.”  Jonathan does not presume success in his endeavor, the future is obscure from his sight, yet he acts in hope-filled expectation that God is at work.  Jonathan does not display certainty of “God will act,” but the trusting confidence that exclaims the not-so-presumptuous “perhaps.”  The myth of perpetual progress cannot imagine the “perhaps,” but ever only the idolatrous certitude of progress, prosperity, and power.

 

 

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

Babel’s Allure (A Poem)

Towers rise to pierce the sky

Build taller, build more

Look, how grand the work of our hands

Build taller, build more

The Sky is the no limit; we dare not restrain

Until at last, bright shines our name

Build taller, build more

The foundation cracks; our words become babble

The tower turns to dust and rubble; we become scattered rabble

Build taller, build more – the seductive call

No matter its promise, brings ruin to all

God’s Promise on a Precipice

Pastors tend to live between the world of idealism and reality. Perhaps the majority of theologians (both academic and otherwise) live within this liminal space as well. It is this thin margin between envisioning what might be and observing the reality of the facts on the ground. Most of the time they don’t align. Inevitably, this creates a kind of dissonance within us as we strive toward the future we sense can happen and the hurdles that seem to impede the possibility of arriving at that place of hope. This might be easily dismissed if it is only the pastor or theologian’s vision of the future. However, there are times where the hope moves beyond mere idealism, rising out of a life of study, prayer, and discernment of the Kingdom-shape in which God is molding a community. The tension between the now and not-yet is sharpened when God is the One shaping the vision.

Of course, there are plenty of situations we can point to where “leaders” have claimed to know what God wants and it later came to light that God probably didn’t have much to do with the vision in the first place. There have been plenty of abuses of power in this regard. While not dismissing the possibility of abuses of leadership, I want to focus on those particular moments where the vision really is from God and the leader(s) is in alignment with what God desires. In those moments of seeing what can be and what God desires while facing the reality that we aren’t there yet can spiral into an abyss of defeat, demoralization, and despair. This is especially true when there is strong opposition to the vision from others. Sometimes that opposition comes from outside pressures on the Church, sometimes from within the Church. By leaders I don’t mean ministers exclusively. Ministers can sometimes be the biggest opposition to God’s vision. After all, we’re finite creatures with limited perspective, too. Regardless of the source, these barriers to the new future can create deeper tension within the leaders and communities vying for that future.

Sometimes those barriers to God’s new future are minimal and easily scaled. However, there are times where the opposition is fueled by fear and selfishness. What might have been an easy hurdle begins to look more like an impenetrable fortress, a Berlin wall of refusal to move or budge toward God’s future. Then, there are those that actively pursue counter action. Not only do they dig their heels in, they begin to tug in the complete opposite direction. It may be from good intentions, but it can be devastating to a community. Although it may be frustrating when people are hesitant to walk with you toward a new future, it is absolutely painful when there is intentional, perhaps malicious, energy aimed at working against you. Again, it is easy to despair of seeing God’s new future come to fruition.

The reception of God’s promised hope for a new future brings about energy and joy in those that receive it. It is exciting to imagine the possibilities. But, without fail, God’s promises always find themselves threatened, teetering on the edge of the precipice of failure. God promised Abraham that he would be a great nation and a blessing to all nations. Problem: Abraham and Sarah are old and barren. God’s promise doesn’t seem so sure when Sarah is 90 and Abraham looks like he’s about to kick the bucket. God’s covenant-promises to Abraham’s family appear doomed when Esau trades his inheritance for some “red stuff” to his manipulative brother. Jacob has to run into hiding for being a deceptive cut-throat. So much for God’s promise to bless others through this family that doesn’t even get along. Further down the line, God’s covenant-promise is again threatened when Abraham’s descendants find themselves in the land of Pharaoh making bricks as slaves. Pharaoh tries to extinguish their family tree by killing off their young boys. You can’t be a numerous people if you are enslaved and then killed. The stories continue over and over again. God’s promise is constantly under threat of extinction. Barrenness, infidelity, murder, foolishness, idolatry, destruction, death, exile, and crucifixion attempt to derail God’s promises from finding their fulfillment. Yet, in each moment where God’s promises edge close to disaster, even certain doom, God manages to bring about those same promises, despite the incredible opposition to God’s new future, both from God’s people and from the others.

When God’s promises appear to hang by one finger on the edge of a cliff with jagged rocks below, our reaction is to wonder if it’s even possible. The writing is on the wall and we can’t conceive of any way forward. We are at the end of our creative and motivational capacity. The temptation is to focus so intently on the things that threaten God’s new future that we cease to focus on the God that has promised that new future. Perhaps I’m more egotistical than most and so I think I should be able to accomplish the task at hand. When I fail my attitude sinks because I see the divide between where we should be and where we are and my inability to span the gap. It’s quite possible that those are the very moments where I have become the biggest barrier to God’s new future because I am consumed with what now appears to be the impossibilities of God’s promised future. It’s impossible, therefore, why try?  Or, the future is dependent on me, so force the issue. Both culminate in similar experience. I find myself sitting on the sidelines soaking my hurts in the cynicism of despondency. The subtle shift of hoping in God’s promise to a prideful hope in our own capabilities inevitably falls short and concludes in hopelessness.

 

Advent brings us right into the frustration and conflict.  It thrusts us right into the middle of  our hopelessness and our closed off futures.  We are confronted with our fears and failures.  Advent reminds us that God accomplishes God’s promises in God’s time – in the fullness of time.  Like a pregnancy, you can’t rush the gestational time required to give birth to new life.  As such, we are called to enter into the waiting – that necessary space where we learn to trust, hope, and act in abiding faithfulness – not because of our capabilities to enact a new future but because of God’s promises.  And, like the stories where God’s promises always appeared on the verge of disaster, we are brought into the canonical (read scriptural) imagination which says God accomplishes that which God promises from the beginning.  As Zechariah 9:12 states, “Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope! I promise this very day that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles.”  When vision and reality are separated by a chasm, remember the One who has bound us in hope and return to that firm foundation.

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.”

 

 

“Preaching Jesus as God’s Wisdom: Breaking the Denial of Death”: Preaching – III Reconciliation — Explorations in Theology

Denial is powerful. Denial is the capacity to avoid what is real and to create in its place a sub-version of reality in which to dwell. Humans are very adept at self-deception and denial. A few years ago, my step-grandpa told my mom that he would never die. He wasn’t a person that really professed […]

via “Preaching Jesus as God’s Wisdom: Breaking the Denial of Death”: Preaching – III Reconciliation — Explorations in Theology