Sacred Anarchy (part 2)

The logic of living lives empowered by God’s sacrificial love is nonsense and weakness to powerful elites. They know that real power comes from wealth, military might, and influence in the major national capitals in our world such as Washington DC. The Apostle Paul counters with the zinger, “But the weakness of God is more powerful than human strength (I Cor. 1:25).

Ah, I want to know, “What is such foolishness and weakness?” It looks like love, grace, mercy, truth, and peace with justice. It looks like serving others with joy. Paul adds that we don’t somehow enter this alternative world through our own effort—we receive it as a gift, and then God empowers us to live into it. John Caputo explains that the world of God’s grace is the very opposite of the logic of our world:

In the logic of the world, nothing is for free and nobody gets off scot-free. By the same token, in the logic of the world, everything is for sale, everything has a price, and nothing is sacred. The world will stop at nothing to get even, to settle or even a score; the world is pomp and power and ruthless reckoning.[1]

With reference to such a world, the realm of God’s weakness involves a logic of impossibility—but not as something that cannot be. No! We’re talking about amazing grace, not amazing magic. Instead, it’s a salvific event that flies in the face of the dominant logic of our world.[2] In this respect, according to John Caputo, it involves some degree of sacred anarchy and raising holy hell.[3]

When we think of raising holy hell, we may consider joining a public march or protest. A “March for Lives,” mourning the senseless loss of lives and advocating sensible gun laws, is planned here in DC on March 24. Some of us will certainly want to participate. That’s good! Still, we will not want to put too much focus on appealing to governments and powerful elites as though they are the main actors in our world. A holy anarchy gently challenges that assumption.

The Bible contrasts “this world” with “God’s new world coming.” This new, grace-filled world is integral to who we are as individuals and as a faith community. It creates alternative pathways for life and action. Paul speaks of it as “being made alive together with Christ.”  How do I pass through that eye of a needle and be made alive? Certainly, it means giving my life to Jesus and being “saved by grace.”

Yet, we should be warned, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, such grace is not cheap—it involves costly discipleship—but we don’t go around forever counting the cost. Yes, we deeply feel the world’s pain and take action as we can. We also marvel in God’s good creation, we serve others with joy, we sometimes raise holy hell, and we continually recognize hopeful seeds of new life sprouting to life in our midst. Those signs of life often come unannounced in unexpected places.

During my recent sabbatical, I visited I visited a dear spiritual mentor who is nearing the end of his life. He was so glad to see me; wanting to know all about what I’m doing, about the church I’m serving, and about my family, He still has a sharp, inquisitive mind even though his body no longer fully cooperates.  Spending time with him was such a gift.

Life becomes more precious and friendships more alive as we near death. I first learned to know him when I was a young man serving in Asia. He wanted me to tell him all about my recent trip to India and asked about mutual friends. We talked about the special gift that small churches bring to our world. He had been a mentor to me during some difficult personal faith struggles and taught me how to look for and recognize signs of God’s reign in unexpected places.

Such spiritual friendship exemplifies living in God’s world of grace. God is not some hierarchical monarch seated on his heavenly throne, undergirding earthly rulers, and dictating everything that happens here on earth. No, No, No!  God is love. God is grace. God is weak by worldly standards. God does not coerce. God instead uses the weak powers of friendship, persuasion, and invitation. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, we have this audacious and, yes, subversive hope that love wins.

[1] John C. Caputo, The Weakness of God (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 107.

[2] Ibid., 104-105

[3] Ibid., 108

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God’s World of Grace: Sacred Anarchy

It’s too much! Our human capacity for violence and for causing unspeakable suffering is too much. An ancient chieftain once accused the Romans of creating a desert through their destructive violence and then calling it peace. I think of that when I see those horrific images of completely destroyed cities in Syria. Many outside countries (including ours) are embroiled in this devastating civil war.

It doesn’t end there. Many other places are experiencing their own horror. We have become numbed by incidents of mass shootings with assault weapons in our country, most recently in Florida. Yet our lawmakers are very reluctant to take on the gun lobby. This struggle indicates how fragile and tattered the social fabric of our country has become.

A despair for our world grows in me. As I get older, I don’t think so much about myself, but I fear for the lives on our children and our children’s children. What will become of them?  We feel overwhelmed by such needs and hardly know how to respond, let alone hold all this pain and suffering in our hearts.

The plight of millions of refugees especially tugs at our heart strings. I have a personal note on this. I was doing research on our family history during my sabbatical and discovered that my ancestor Hans Zimmerman and his brother, who migrated to America in 1732, were both less than 15 years old when they arrived. They came alone without their parents, along with a group of other refugees from their home area in the Canton of Berne in Switzerland.

We know they were fleeing religious persecution and war, but the details of their story are lost. I try to put myself in their place, arriving here as young boys knowing that they would most likely never again see their homeland or their families. They needed to start a new life in a strange land. They were not unlike refugees today fleeing war and religious conflict in places like Syria and Somalia.

So much of the human suffering in our world is created by powerful elites, multinational corporations, and national governments vying with each other for power and financial gain. Common people get trampled when bombs start falling and armies sweep through towns and cities. The Apostle Paul characterizes it as the “course of this world,” which leads to death.

It’s a devilish domination system tied to what Paul calls “the ruler of the power of the air” or, as translated by the Common English Bible, “the rule of a destructive spiritual power.” This is strangely seen as normal by most people; so much so that we can’t even imagine a different kind of world. Those responsible always blame the mayhem and destruction on their adversaries (Ephesians 2:1-10).

Now we begin to better understand Jesus’ provocative claim that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It would be a different matter if it were only powerful elites who engaged in this kind of behavior—not giving a twit about that eye of a needle.

The sad truth, however, is that many common people, including those of us who claim to follow of Jesus, also think and act like this. We fail to see that such powers oppress us, and we forget that Jesus gave his life in opposition to them. We forget that our God is a God who loves unconditionally, readily forgives, and calls us to a new way of life. (In my next blog post on this topic, we will look and what this new life looks like and how it is related to what we might call “sacred anarchy.”)

Celebrating Our Church Renovation

Last Sunday afternoon was a big milestone in the life of our congregation as we gathered along with friends and neighbors to give thanks, to celebrate, and to dedicate ourselves and our renovated church building to serve God and our community. Several years ago we began a long-range planning process. We considered who we are as a people and the property we are stewards of here in the City of Fairfax. We have a 3 ½ acre property with a two acre woods, a stream running through it, and a somewhat cranky building with solid bones.

One of our first efforts was to reshape our church’s vision and we came up with: (1) being a small, diverse church where everyone is welcome, (2) being a peace church rooted in the life and vision of Jesus, (3) embodying a Jesus-centered social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment, and (4) ) being a spiritual home for people no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.

As we were working on this somebody come up with the bright idea of changing our name to express this vision. By that time we had built a nature trail through our woods and by Daniels Run, the stream running through our property. It felt natural to take Daniels Run, as part of our name. And the word “peace” identifies us as a peace church in the Anabaptist peace-church tradition.

As part of our long-range planning we identified affordable housing as a crucial social need in our area and we explored building affordable housing on our property. That remains a future goal but we soon realized that it will not happen quickly so we began to explore how our present building could be more welcoming, handicap accessible, and usable for us and our community.

The renovation took a year longer than expected (trying our patience) but we’re so pleased with the transformation. I still need to pinch myself occasionally to remind myself that I’m not dreaming when I walk into our renovated building. I’m most grateful for the enthusiasm and teamwork of our congregation, as expressed in the new church motto we came up with collaboratively, “Living Love, Growing Justice, and Welcoming Everyone.”

The Caveat to Welcoming Everyone

We recently had our church discernment process to choose a motto to put beneath our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church.” It came down to choosing between “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone” or just “Living Love, Growing Justice.” Some of us thought that our new name implies that we’re welcoming and we didn’t need to explicitly say it in the motto. Others thought it’s important to say it anyway.

I was initially on the side of not needing to explicitly say it but noticed that many of the newer people in our church voted for “welcoming everyone.” You were telling us something and I changed my mind. We should never take our ability to welcome everyone for granted. So, what does welcoming everyone look like?

We can learn a few things from Jesus’ unsolicited advice on humility and hospitality when he was a guest at the house of a prominent religious leader (Luke 14: 1-14). People who wanted to be important were honored to be invited and jumped at the opportunity to smooze, to see and be seen. Jesus pushes their buttons with his remarks about the social dynamics of this dinner party.

Such dinner parties happen all the time here in the DC area, especially during elections. People paid $50,000 a plate to attend a recent political fundraising dinner. I wonder who made the seating arrangements and how they decided on where people sat? How much jockeying was there to be recognized or to get a strategic seat beside the more important people. William Lamar IV says that Jesus’ alternative of humility cuts against the grain of our culture:

This is a profoundly un-American impulse. This nation is not humble. Americans assume that American political, economic, and foreign policy prescriptions will fix a world much older and often much wiser. Many American churches—which often seem more American than Christian—lack humility as well. Chauvinism animated their theological forebears to take the faith of the wrongfully convicted Executed One and use it as a tool for plunder. A similar chauvinism is evident in their own dog-whistling around Muslims, immigrants, sexual minorities, and black and brown people, God knows America and many of her churches need Jesus’s unsolicited advice (The Christian Century, Aug., 17, 2016: 20).

Accordingly, there’s a caveat in the fine-print to our welcome motto, “You are invited to join us in following Jesus.” It takes lots of grace and humility but we’re determined to help each other grow in things like loving the least, living in peace with all people, caring for creation, spiritual practices like prayer and meditation, studying the Scriptures, and caring for our bodies. We’re not an anonymous crowd with little regard for each other.  Instead, we’re a body that lives.

We give more than lip service to being Christian and don’t assume that the words American and Christian fit together seamlessly. So, if you resist confronting those places in your life that are more American than Christian, you probably won’t feel included in our church. And that’s okay. Still, my prayer is that you can see this more as an invitation than as an exclusion. It’s an invitation to join us in a faith journey. It’s a journey that invites and walks in solidarity with the poor and disabled. Together we look forward to being part of that great dinner party in God’s new world coming.

Finding Hope in a Briar Patch of Troubles

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A thicket of greenbriar and multiflora rose in our church woods

Proverbs chapter eight is a delightful ode to creation. It transports us back to the very beginning in the mists of time where Wisdom is personified as a woman telling us the story. She and God delight in each other as they toil together to create everything that exists.  Wisdom says she “was rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

The world as we know it today is broken and painted with darker colors. The Apostle Paul characterizes it as the human race and all of creation groaning together in labor pains as we wait for our redemption and for a new world to be born. Old Testament professor Safwat Marzouk aptly describes this groaning:

Communities around the world are suffering climate change, civil war, terrorism, forced migration, and much more. Churches are weary of polarization and division, and many now lack the ability or desire to have fellowship with people who are different from them. Individuals struggles with cancer and migraines and aching bones, or walk with loved ones who do (The Christian Century, May 11, 2016: 22).

The American Dream insist that our standard of living should keep getting better for each generation. We believe this is our American birthright and try to remain oblivious to all the painful realities around us. Others of us have lost hope in a better future as we see our former standard of living slipping away. As a consequence, there has been an alarming increase in alcoholism, drug dependency, obesity, and suicide in working class communities.

The past several decades have been especially difficult for churches. Denominational institutions have had to continually cut staff and programs as their budgets slowly dried up. Church membership has been declining for decades but then more rapidly since the beginning of this century. We remain deeply divided over things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and racial and cultural differences.

Our denomination is experiencing a major schism as various conferences and congregations decide to leave because of such differences. A recent church news article breaks my heart. Several conferences recently voted to leave Mennonite Church USA. This has created a dilemma for many congregations because they now need to make a painful choice between their conference and their denominational affiliation. This ongoing struggle is a constant drip, drip, drip that erodes our faith and hope.

It gets so discouraging! I try to ignore such struggles and put my passion and energy into the life and mission of our church here in Northern Virginia. There’s wisdom in not getting wrapped up in larger church conflicts to the detriment of the local church. Still, like it or not, denominational matters affect us and we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and ignore them.

The challenge is to have our lives formed by a hope that’s grounded in the creative and redeeming work of God. When we do that we’re capable of confronting these kinds of difficulties with grace. Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us some handles on how to do that. He says that we have been made righteous through Christ’s faithfulness combined with our faith. This confidence and faith gives us peace with God. We have an audacious hope.

We boast of this hope. It’s not something to keep under wraps or to be modest about. Then Paul takes an unexpected turn when he exclaims, “We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5: 3-4). The path to a new humanity winds its way through a briar patch of troubles.

I find it hard to gracefully accept troubles. They make me despondent and ashamed of myself and my church. A voice inside me laments that we could do so much better. We certainly could! What I fail to recognize is how we get there. We don’t insist on black and white answers and we don’t just throw up our hands and walk away.

We, instead, persevere and develop character in the process. And as we develop character our faith and hope increase. I love the way Paul concludes, “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 5).

A Mother’s Day Tribute

Giving birth and nurturing new life are special gift from God. That’s why we pay tribute to all mothers on Mother’s Day. My wife Ruth and I enjoy the PBS television series “Call the Midwives.” It’s based on the story of a religious order of nuns and other midwives working with them to serve a working class community in London in the 1950s. This was the beginning of the National Health Service in Great Britain.

It was a tough world but it was also a genuine community of workers, mothers, shopkeepers, clergy, and healthcare providers who loved and cared for all their children. There’s both joy and heartache in each episode of the series. As a pastor, I appreciate the mostly positive role that the church plays. The story revolves around those tough and resilient midwives, the mothers, and the families they serve. Those of them who are not able to have children of their own become mothers in other ways through their service.

In that respect, we also pay tribute to all of us who take on mothering roles regardless of gender or having biologically given birth to a child—we dare not forget grandmothers. All mothers and those who support them are the unsung heroes in our society. These are the most important responsibilities in our world.

It’s fitting to make the connection between our creator God and the life giving and nurturing role of all mothers. I especially appreciate the poem “Mothering God You gave Me Birth,” by Mennonite poet Jean Janzen based on the writings of the 13th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich.

Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, Source of every breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun;
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.

This year Ascension Day and Mother’s Day fall within several days of each other; let’s see if we can make a connection between Mother’s Day and Ascension Day. Christ’s ascension takes place 40 days after Easter. In the Bible, the number 40 is mythically alive. Rain fell for 40 days on Noah’s ark; the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years; a woman is secluded for 40 days after giving birth; and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before launching his ministry. All are pregnant times with a religious future.

Psalm 47 is a customary scripture readings for Ascension Day, It celebrates God as king over all the earth. The vision of God’s kingship is multidimensional, involving memory of the past, experience of the present, and hope for the future. It reaches back to the story of creation where God creates a living ecosystem out of barren chaos. It also reveals what God is doing behind and beyond the confusion of much that is happening in the world. As a people of faith, we absorb headline daily news with this realization.

God reigns over the nations and this means that, as a people of God, our identity transcends our ethnic and national identities. As Christians, our story transcends the American story. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about how broken our national story is and how this is shaping our presidential primary in ugly ways:

Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that isn’t working for people anymore, especially if people think the system is rigged. I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today (New York Times, April 29, 2016)

As followers of Jesus, we have a contribution to make to the new national story that David Brooks envisions. Rather than a story of pluck and self-sufficiency, our story is about giving love, nurture, care, dignity, and justice—especially for those who are most vulnerable. We respond as the people of our mothering God.