A Spirit Endowed Fellowship

Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, is a classic reminder that we’re a Spirit-endowed fellowship. We long to live into the creative power of this reality yet it raises some uncomfortable questions. Do we participate in the life of our church with the expectation that our sureties and lifestyles would be seamlessly confirmed? Or do we participate with the expectation that the Spirit’s wind and fire will release us from the tyranny of our settled certainties and comfort zones?

God’s Spirit is never predictable. We may want to install seat belts on the chairs in our church sanctuary as we negotiate this rush of creative wind. But it’s not always dramatic. Sometimes the Spirit comes as a beckoning ray of light inviting us to explore places we’ve never before ventured into. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains: “

When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power. . . Like Pinocchio, we move from wooden to real. We transform from hurt people hurting other people to wounded healers healing others. Not just individually, but history itself keeps moving forward in this mighty move of Spirit unleashed. The indwelling Spirit is this constant ability of humanity to keep going, to keep recovering from its wounds, to keep hoping and trying again.[i]

This may be hard to recognize in our present political climate where religious equality, justice for the poor, and caring for the earth are continually under assault. Living love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone can feel like a huge stretch. Where is the mighty movement of God’s unleashed Spirit in the midst of all this?

We’ll most likely miss it if we become too fixated on the controversies swirling around the White House. Sure, such things are important and we should be engaged and concerned. Still, politics is about so much more. Some of us here at Daniels Run Peace Church are working at affordable ways to put solar panels on our church roof and a plugin station for electric cars in our parking lot. Others of us are installing a rain garden on our church property. Such things are also politics in the best sense of caring for the wellbeing of our community. The coming of the Spirit is about empowering God’s people for the task of creating and living into God’s purposes for us and our world.

[i] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance (London: SPCK, 2016), 146-147

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Being Poor in Spirit

Han Christian Anderson’s familiar old children’s story about “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is remarkably contemporary. Two swindlers hoodwinked the vain emperor into buying clothes that were purportedly invisible to people who were unfit for their office or stupid. His trusted old minister and then the emperor himself fell for the ruse for fear of being exposed as unfit for their office.

The emperor then paraded through his capital city stark naked in what he thought were his fine new clothes. None of the people lining the streets dared believe their eyes for fear of being exposed to their neighbors as being stupid. They foolishly praised the invisible fabric with its magnificent design and brilliant colors. Then a child whispered to its mother, “The emperor is naked.” Soon everyone began to murmur the same thing and the buzz grew louder and louder. The emperor at last realized the truth but still preferred to believe that his people were stupid.

All the political turmoil during the past two weeks—including the petty argument about how many people attended the presidential inauguration and the banning of refugees and people from various Muslim countries—reveals an emperor overly concerned about being properly admired and given to fear mongering and conspiracy theories. Heaven help us all!

Yet, focusing exclusively on this national drama is too easy. It diverts our attention from this same predilection in ourselves and in our churches. We’re part of the problem. We’ve all seen the hubris and thin egos of pastors, Christian public speakers, and leaders of faith-based organizations. We tell ourselves that our group is “the greatest” and all “others” are somehow deficient. Such religious divisions infect and reinforce the political divides in our world.

We have Mainline churches, Evangelical churches, black churches, hipster churches, Korean churches, Pentecostal churches, and Anabaptist churches—but we rarely engage in meaningful conversations outside of our church groups. Christena Cleveland writes, “if we interact with other groups at all, we usually do so at a distance and with at least a hint of suspicion” (Disunity in Christ, 26).

Jesus’ proclamation that the “poor in spirit” are blessed (Matthew 5: 3) is an antidote.  In Luke’s Gospel Jesus more unequivocally pronounces “blessed are you who are poor” and then contrasts it with “but woe to you who are rich” (6: 20-24).  Why does Matthew instead say “poor in spirit?” Perhaps his life experience has convinced him that a stark contrast between the pious poor and the arrogant rich is an oversimplification.

Still, biblical scholar Douglas Hare writes, “At the heart of the poverty-piety equation lies a profound insight. The proud self-reliance that is fed by prosperity all too easily prompts forgetfulness of our dependence upon God. The poor, to whom less is given, are more likely to remain aware of the givenness of life than are the well-to-do who so naturally come to regard their blessings as deserved” (Matthew, Interpretation, 36).

Wealth and power feed our sense of self-importance, which in turn keeps us from valuing the experience and insight of others. Thinking that we are important and wise, we instead become arrogant and incompetent. We become naked little emperors parading down the street in our birthday suits.

 

 

 

Our Response to a Political Earthquake

We lived through a political earthquake this week. Few expected Donald Trump to win and become our president elect. Most of us are still in shock. I found myself talking pastorally with several women who are so angry and depressed that a man who bragged about groping women and treating them as sex objects is now our next president. This is especially painful for those who were themselves sexually harassed and abused.

One person came to our house because she was so discouraged and needed to talk. Other pastors report the same thing. Some are telling their congregations that they are available to talk to with those who are struggling with severe feelings of anger and depression. Likewise, school teachers report that many children are afraid about what will happen to them or their friends.

I had a conversation with the pastor of a minority church who is deeply concerned about the underlying racism in the Trump campaign and what this might mean for people of color, ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants. This spiritually perceptive pastor told me that perhaps it will be good for churches to recognize that we don’t completely fit in our dominant American culture. It will push us to be more creative in finding models for living and witnessing from the margins.

And I need to acknowledge that I’m struggling to find the inner spiritual and emotional strength to overcome my own despair. I found the way our president-elect mocked and demeaned others, beginning in the Republican primaries, very offensive. I was so much looking forward to the end of the election when he would no longer dominate the news. Now that’s not going to happen. I fear that he’s temperamentally unfit to be president.

This week I attended our Fairfax County Faith Communities in Action meeting. Rabbi David Kalender, who chaired the meeting, opened it by acknowledging the political earthquake we have been through. He gave us some helpful spiritual advice. During an earthquake, things that we thought were stable begin to shake and move and we need to find and grab onto those anchors of stability in our lives. Such anchors may include our family, our friends, meaningful work, gardening, art, exercise, our community of faith, and our God. Then we reach out and hold each other’s hands.

This blog post is part of the sermon I gave at our church this Sunday. This was followed by a communion service and then a sharing time where people freely talked about their personal struggles related to the election earthquake we all went through. There were lots of tears. I also encouraged our congregation to consider our response to Donald Trump as our next president.

I don’t assume that all of us experienced his election the same way. Many Evangelical Christians voted for him, even though they saw him as a flawed candidate, because his political platform supported their positions on various social issues. We will want to have honest conversations with each other about this, practice agreeing and disagreeing in love, and recognize that we’re part of a worldwide communion that brings us together beyond such differences.

Our daughter, who is a school teacher in Oakland, California told me that school students walked out of their classes in protest. Young people marched in the streets holding signs “Love Trumps Hate” and “He’s not my President.” Many more such actions quickly sprung up across our country. That frustration is real but we will also want to give president-elect Trump the chance to prove our worst fears wrong. We hold him up in our prayers.

I believe in grace and that people can change. He might surprise us. Let’s give him that opportunity. Let’s strive to get beyond our distaste and consider the things we may have in common and how we can support those things. He must overcome lots of division and needs lots of support to be a successful president. I’m not sure he completely understands how much anxiety and distrust he has generated.

We will, however, not give him a free pass on things he said and did or his agenda moving forward. He ran a very destructive and mean-spirited campaign. Other candidates then felt that they had no choice but to respond in kind. Such things have consequences. As a result, our American public square is a more vulgar and ugly place than it was before he began running for president. Part of our task will be to hold him accountable and to help repair that torn social fabric.

We should also be prepared to resist were necessary for the sake of the gospel and all vulnerable people. There will be lots of chaos if Trump follows through on some of the things he said he will do during his campaign. We shouldn’t wait to see if that actually happens. Let’s take this as a call to greater social engagement. We will want to pray, talk with each other, strategize, and organize to take action.

Many Christians in the past have suffered for the sake of the gospel. The same is true for some Christians in other parts of the world today. We should not assume that we are somehow exempt from that cost. This is a good time to again read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Let’s take this opportunity to let our lights shine as God’s people. It’s about living God’s love and growing God’s justice.

 

 

Faith Values that Guide Our Politics (part 2)

engaging-politics

 

Many of our faith values are in serious tension with or even antithetical to every political system our world has ever known. Even so, we can use them to help us discern which candidate and which political platform is more in line with God’s purposes:

  • We will want to discern which has the most respect for all people, including recent immigrants and racial minorities.
  • All politicians spin the truth but some are more honest than others and more able to admit when they made a mistake. Being able to admit mistakes is an important indication of one’s character.
  • Wealth and power are ingrained in all political systems. Even so we can discern who flaunts it as a way to impress people, who takes advantage of our legal system for unjust personal gain, who is more generous, and who seeks to live a simpler life.
  • Religious freedom and freedom of conscience go together. Does the candidate respect the rights and consciences of all people on deeply dividing issues such as abortion and sexuality? Does the candidate respect or demean people from other faith traditions?
  • All politicians claim to support common people and all are beholden to the rich and powerful people who help put them into office. Even so we can discern which will do more for common people, poor communities, and small businesses, and which has policies that benefit the rich and powerful.
  • Caring for the earth and all creation has become one of the most important social problems of our generation because of rapidly decreasing natural resources and the problem of climate change. We will want to discern which candidate and political party takes these matters seriously.
  • We will want to discern which candidate and political party is more apt to rely on military solutions to international conflicts and which will be more ready to use diplomacy and other means.

Let’s vote our values as best we can in the upcoming election but let’s also resist getting sucked into the agenda of either political party. Political parties recruit churches and religious leaders as errand boys and girls to help deliver the vote but give little in return. Let’s be wise!

Evangelical writer David Swartz encourages Evangelicals to learn from the Anabaptists who found themselves the target of every civic authority in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, our Anabaptist peace position has always kept us from completely fitting into our American political system. We’ve learned how to live with that tension.

David Swartz says that “the vocabulary of nationalism we hear in the Republican and Democratic parties—and then echoed in Christian groups—typically shades toward idolatry. . . Both sides practice realpolitik to accomplish their goals. Anything goes in the attempt to win. Parties enforce platforms, leaving little room for dissent, and they coerce adherents into following culture war scripts. They encourage the demonization of the enemy.”[1]

This political system is at the root of the partisan gridlock in our country. The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to find ways to rise above, go around, resist, and engage this system. We don’t expect it to bring in the reign of God and we will not become its errand boys and girls.

Even with this critique, I’m grateful for many aspects of our political system and our American culture and seek to work within it to, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of our city.” Our democratic system of government is a huge improvement over the domination and violence in in past centuries and in other parts of the world today. There’s much to be thankful for.

We respect and pray for our political leaders but we will not give them our religious blessing. Our loyalty belongs to God and to God’s reign. We bless and seek to be a blessing to all people. We trust that our church is a sign of that new world bubbling up in our midst. This is where we place our hope.

Jesus repudiated the very premises of systems of domination and called disciples to come follow him. He rejected the right of some to dominate others by means of power, wealth, or titles of prestige. Through his beatitudes, his healings, and by eating with outcasts and sinners, he declared God’s special concern for the oppressed.

As his disciples, Jesus calls us to create a community of equals that includes women. He asks us to do away with the hierarchical relationship of master and slave, teacher and student. So welcome to this new world coming! It’s a good time to be Anabaptist. Vote your faith values and encourage others to do the same, then place your trust in God and the power of God’s Spirit creating a new world in our midst.

[1] David Swartz, “Hey White Evangelicals, Welcome to Anabaptism (September 28, 2016)

Faith Values that Guide Our Politics

engaging-politics

This is the strangest and most worrisome presidential election I can remember because of the temperament of the GOP candidate Donald Trump. Personalities matter but American elections go beyond the individual candidates. We have become so politically polarized that people support their party no matter what and live in echo chambers where they only listen to people who reinforce their beliefs. This is especially true when our sole sources of information are the internet, talk radio, and certain TV channels.

Presidential elections become horse races. The media loves the excitement. The more they hype it the more viewers and advertising dollars they get. Partisan commentators from both sides spin all the bad stuff they can dig up on the other candidate while praising the accomplishments of their candidate. Half-truths or outright lies are exaggerated and repeated over and over again until many accept them as true.

The rhetoric becomes so shrill. We’re told that this election is a crucial turning point or even the last chance to save our country. We should always question such claims. Fortunately, cooler heads generally prevail. Nevertheless, we need to take a step back—breathe in and breathe out—and seriously consider how our faith values guide our politics.

We need to remember what a presidential election is. We’re choosing the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military and the leader of the dominant economic system in our world. Who that person is and how she or he assumes that leadership can make a big difference. Nevertheless, that person will always be beholden to those systems of domination. That goes with the job.

This needs to temper our hope that a new president will somehow usher in a radically more just, secure, and prosperous world. Even though a president can make big differences, more radical and lasting change will necessarily come from elsewhere. For followers of Jesus, change and new life begins with the good news that Jesus lived and proclaimed. This politics of Jesus shapes our political engagement. Core gospel values include:

  • Respecting the basic dignity and worth of all people
  • Honesty and truth-telling
  • Generosity and simple living
  • Religious freedom and respect for people of all faiths
  • A special concern for the poor and most vulnerable among us
  • Caring for the earth and all creation
  • Peace, justice, and reconciliation.

In my next blog post I will discuss how these values inform our political engagement, including how we vote.