Trust in the Slow Work of God

I recently posted a quote from the Catholic philosopher, theologian, and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin above my desk, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” As a paleontologist who studied fossils, he would have been well acquainted with the slow work of God. One of my personal goals for this season of Lent is to develop such patient, determined, resolve and faith.

Part of that wisdom is the recognition that I am mortal, we’re all mortal. What presently appears so pressing and urgent pales in the perspective of eternity and the slow work of God. Remember, I am dust and will return to dust. Soil is a better word. The Hebrew word for soil is Adamah. God created Adam (meaning human) out of Adamah. A literal English translation is that God created the first human out of humus. That includes all of us, including the rich and the powerful. We’re all mortal, all made from soil, and we will all die. I find that liberating.  Nurya Love Parish writes:

Our mortality is meant to be a wake-up call . . . [It draws] our attention to the eternal God, our Creator, whose image we bear. . . It’s hard to grasp that the measure of my days isn’t my bank balance, my reputation among my colleagues, the relative happiness of my family. . . [Instead] the measure of my days is the relationship I have with God.[1]

A fellow gardener recently showed me a garden bed that he had mulched with hay and manure. The dark, rich soil was teaming with earthworms and microscopic bacteria and fungi invisible to the naked eye. Most of us have no idea how much life there is right under our feet—life that we participate in.  This is part of the slow work of God that literally grounds our lives and our faith.

[1] https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/15a7f0490ee201cc

Love Your Enemies (part 4)

Plowshares

The Apostle Paul pushes out Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies when he tells us to not be conformed to the patterns of this world (think of the myth of redemptive violence and the ideology of empire). Instead, we’re to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12: 2). Part of what happens when we become conformed to the patterns of our world is that we make God’s saving grace in Jesus completely spiritual and otherworldly.

Accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior becomes a matter of going to heaven when we die. It’s “pie in the sky bye and bye.” Our ethics are privatized and related to things like sex, drinking, and smoking. That’s a very truncated gospel or understanding of the politics of Jesus, so much so that it practically becomes a caricature. God’s purpose is much more than getting us to heaven when we die. It’s about saving (we might say repairing) our whole world.

Brian Zahnd borrows the Jewish theological concept of tikkun olam— “repairing the world.” We recognized that, although our world’s broken, it’s not beyond repair and that it’s God’s intention to work through humanity to repair it. Brian says that although tikkun olam is properly a Jewish concept, we can borrow it. He writes:

Far too many American Christians embrace a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!), that envisions God as saving [some] people for. . . existence in a Platonic “heaven” while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can! Framed by this kind of world-despairing eschatology, evangelism comes to resemble something like trying to push people onto the last chopper out of Saigon.[1]

We then wonder why the word “evangelism” has become so toxic as we struggle to find other words such as “outreach” or being “missional.” We dare not forget that John 3:16 (the very familiar evangelistic verse) begins with “for God so loved the world.” And as I used to remind my students when I taught in the Philippines, “eternal life” begins right here and right now—not in some far-off heaven.

So, how does out outreach (dare we say evangelism) look when it’s rooted in God’s purpose of tikkun olam—repairing the world? It looks a lot like our church dedication service did as we joined with friends, other churches, community leaders, and even our local imam, in celebrating the things God is doing in our midst and dreaming about all the things yet to come. Sure, it’s only a beginning. We will want to continue and expand this adventure.

In the Apostle Paul’s words, it’s about “letting our love be genuine.” We genuinely care about the quality of our relationships with other people, our community, and all of creation and, in this way, enter into the life of God. It’s a good spiritual exercise to meditate on Paul’s examples of love in action in this scripture passage.

We cannot overcome violence with more violence—only love can do that. We do not fight evil with evil, instead, we overcome evil with good. The goal is not to defeat our enemy but to win our enemy and, by God’s grace, to have him or her be transformed by the gospel of peace just as we have been transformed.

[1] Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014), 58.

Love Your Enemies (part 3)

Plowshares

Evangelical pastor Brian Zahnd had once been a big supporter of American militarism. He enthusiastically cheered during the first Gulf War and delivered a patriotic, anti-Islamic sermon after 9/11. Then he was converted and wrote the book, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. (As we know, Mars is the Roman god of war). Brian writes:

[Americans] have embraced a privatized . . . gospel that stresses Jesus dying for our sins but at the same time ignores his [politics]. This leaves us free to run the world the way it has always been run: by the power of the sword. Under pressure from the ideology of empire, concepts like freedom and truth gain radically different meanings than those intended by Christ.

Freedom becomes a euphemism for vanquishing (instead of loving) enemies; truth finds its ultimate form in the will to power (expressed in the willingness to kill). This is a long way from the ideas of peace, love, and forgiveness set forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.[i]

There are huge differences between political parties in our world. Some are more militaristic, tied to economic elites, and prone to exploit our fears and prejudices. (Different parties exploit different kinds of fears and prejudices.) Yet, there’s no major political party in our country that doesn’t subscribe to an ideology of empire. All think that loving our enemies would be a kind of suicide.

I consider such things as I decide on my support for a given party or political candidate. At the same time, I refuse to identify myself with any political party without qualification. I’m a follower of Jesus and for me, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Within the reign of God, the power of love is understood to be more powerful than violence and hating our enemies.

Jesus is telling us, “Be like God who loves and blesses everyone.” If we instead love those who love us and hate those who hate us, we’re just like everyone else. Instead, like God, we’re called to be complete in our love. We may be severely tested on this in our present political climate.

[i] Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014), 34.

Love Your Enemies (part 2)

Plowshares

Our notion of American exceptionalism and of fighting our enemies to protect our freedom, democracy, and capitalism is a modern version of the myth of redemptive violence. It’s as old as history but its keeps continually evolving into different forms. In Jesus’ day, it took the form of Pax Romana (the peace of Rome)—a peace brutally enforced by Roman legions.

In the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it became Christendom fighting against all kinds internal enemies, including Jews and those considered to be heretics, and external enemies such as Islam. This was followed by independent European nations dividing the world between themselves and fighting each other for their colonial empires. That struggle was at the root of the two world wars in the twentieth century. This was followed by the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

A key part of the myth of redemptive violence is dividing the world between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” This is Star Wars stuff. Pastor Greg Boyd writes, “To be willing to kill, soldiers must believe they are the good guys who are righteously fighting the bad guys—to defend God, country, truth, justice, equality, freedom, or whatever.”[i]

National and military leaders go to great lengths to perpetuate this myth because they simply can’t sustain an effective war unless soldiers and ordinary citizens remain confident that our cause is just. We need to believe that something more than chance has decided which side we’re on. Many in my generation lost our confidence in that myth during the Vietnam War; we no longer believed what we were being told about that war, why we were fighting there, or the justice of our cause.

Let’s return to the issue that Khrushchev raised about following Jesus’ example of loving our enemies. Christians followed Jesus’ example of loving their enemies (sometimes as great cost) for the first three hundred years. That changed when the Roman general Constantine came to power after winning a decisive battle in a civil war in which he had symbols of the cross placed on his weapons of war. (The incongruence is stunning!).

The wheels had been set in motion for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire and the enemies of Rome were now assumed to be the enemies of God. Popular American Christianity is another version of this. I’ll expand on this in my next blog post.

[i] Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 93.

Love Your Enemies

Plowshares

When I was nineteen years old, I received a notice from our local draft board informing me that I was being drafted for military service. As a member of an historical peace church, I had the option of choosing alternative service as a religious conscientious objector. I did, and served for two years as an orderly in psychiatric ward. This raised hard questions that I have wrestled with ever since.

Like many of my generation, I detested the War in Vietnam and had absolutely no inclination to participate in it. As a farm boy, it felt strange that Vietnamese farmers and villagers, who lived on the other side of the world, were my enemies even if my government told me they were. Nations always create some external enemy. But then, didn’t Jesus teach us to love our enemies?

This was in the midst of the Cold War and that helps explain why we were fighting in Vietnam. Cold War strategists believed that Communist countries like the Soviet Union and China were determined to forcibly spread communism throughout the world. This had to be stopped at all costs. This may be hard for younger generations to believe but that fear and anxiety was considerably greater than the fear of radical Islamic extremism today.

A vivid memory is that Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, provocatively said that he wasn’t Jesus Christ and didn’t need to love his enemies. As a teenager, that caught my attention. He was certainly right. As an acclaimed atheist, Khrushchev certainly didn’t have to love his enemies. But what about those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus? What makes us assume that it’s okay for us to kill our enemies?

We assume that because nation-states are addicted to violence and we have become intoxicated along with them. We swallowed the myth of “American exceptionalism” hook, line, and sinker, along with the claims that we need to fight our enemies to protect our freedom, democracy, and capitalism.

My next post will examine the history of how followers of Jesus’ gradually abandoned Jesus teaching about loving our enemies.

Practice Reconciliation (part 2)

We all have a proclivity for breaking ourselves into teams of us against them. Part of the genius of faith in Jesus is that it breaks down such distinctions and walls of separation. It never comes easily but we know that this is what the kin-dom of God looks like. Christena Cleveland writes, “This is a tall order that requires a real and fierce conversation on the elephant in the church: privilege and power differentials. For some reason, high-status people (in my experience, particularly white men) have a hard time seeing and admitting that they are in fact high-status people who enjoy privileges that aren’t afforded to low-status people” (Disunity in Christ, 166).

This is the situation that Paul tackled head-on in the church in Corinth. People were dividing themselves into groups loyal to either Paul our Apollos. He had planted the church and then Apollos became a prominent leader after Paul left. We don’t know what the division was about but we can assume that both were high-status men. It’s easy to see how such a situation could develop. Many loved Paul and resisted any changes Apollos may have initiated. We can assume that Apollos was a little insecure and perhaps a bit sensitive about his status and role. He was naturally charismatic and others were drawn to him.

We don’t know if there was a concrete issue like same-sex marriage (which is tearing churches apart today) that church members in Corinth were fighting about but we always find such an issue to legitimize our prejudices and ambitions . Paul told them that such party loyalties indicate that we’re spiritual babies who cannot even eat solid food. Furthermore, both he and Apollos are mere workers in the church, which he likens to a field. One planted and another watered and each will receive his wages at the end of the day for the work he has done. Neither can take credit for the growth. That belongs to God.

The huge issue that divided people and created huge fights in the early church was the inclusion of Gentiles. Nobody wanted to exclude Gentiles but some wanted to impose conditions that marked them as second-class. This reflected a deep-seated cultural and religious divide or what sociologists call identity politics. The identity politics in our country today includes struggles surrounding racial, cultural, gender, sexual, and religious differences. This drives the fight over immigration.

It was a long struggle in the early church but Gentiles were eventually fully included as equals. Coming to that place included studying Scripture together, discerning how the Spirit was leading in real-life situations, and being committed to staying in communion with each other even when we see things differently.

We dare not forget that we’re Gentiles. Paul reminds us that we have been grafted in. A way was found to include us as equals. This is not our church; it’s Christ’s church! That should make us especially eager to bend over backward to include others, to always make sure we do not relate to others out of a sense of entitlement or privilege, and to drop everything else in order to seek reconciliation.

Practice Reconciliation

As a young man, I participated in a Paul–Timothy Program designed to develop future church leaders. As part of our training, we read about a racially diverse, fast-growing new church in Chicago called Circle Church. Formed the in the late 60s, the church met in a union hall located between black and white neighborhoods in this racially divided city. At the time, Circle Church was a model for racial diversity, but later ran into difficulties and split along racial lines. Long-standing racial segregation and prejudice in Chicago still shaped the way blacks and whites in their church related to each other. Whites were used to taking charge and were largely unaware of what we today call white privilege. Others felt left out and deeply buried racial frustrations became insurmountable.

Such discrimination goes beyond race. Women friends have told me about participating in meetings where their suggestion was ignored but then taken seriously when a male colleague said the same thing.  It can feel like you’re invisible. Women need to be better and brighter to get the same respect. But it’s tricky because a determined woman is labeled “pushy” when a male counterpart with the same characteristics is assumed to be a natural leader.

Social class and economic status easily lead to yet another kind of discrimination. Some of us are born on third base and go through life thinking we hit a triple. This has been a longstanding problem. The writer of the book of James in the New Testament scolds his congregation for giving undue honor to a rich visitor while ignoring and demeaning a poor person. He pointedly asks them, “Isn’t it the rich people who oppress you?” (2:6).

Lynn Hur, an Asian-American high school student gives us yet another twist on discrimination in America. The school she attends is predominantly Asian-American and she says it’s a privilege to grow up in an environment where she isn’t teased because of her small eyes or praised for her good English. But it can easily blind students to the racism they will face in the real world. She wants people to know three things: “Number one: Racism is not just a black-and-white situation. [It] encompasses the entirety of our colorful and complicated world. Number two: No one is completely innocent. Asians have their own assumptions and stereotypes of others, despite our experiences. Number three: I want us to look racism in the eye, name it and undo it” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017:29).

Ben Goossen talks about white Mennonite privilege. He’s referring to those of us from European stock who can trace our genealogy back to our Anabaptist ancestors. He calls it white privilege with a twist. We’re very aware of our ethnic family names, foods, and the history of our ancestors as a persecuted religious minority. It makes us feel special but it makes others feel like they can never quite fit into our churches or ever measure up. They will always be outsiders. Such blinders keep us from seeing our white privilege. Ben Goossen says that learning about white privilege taught him to see us and our churches in a different light. He writes, “I see that even when we talk about peace and justice and righteousness, we can still be implicated in systems of oppression” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017: 23).

Yet another divisive and often incredibly painful matter is how we relate to and include people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. A lesbian friend recently told me that some of her family will not even talk with her (a kind of verbal abuse) or allow her to come to their homes.  Jesus warns us that verbally abusing and demeaning another person is equivalent to murder. Such anger, like murder, opens the cauldron of hell. He tells us that if we are about to offer a sacrifice or gift to God and remember that our brother or sister has something against us, we should immediately drop what we’re doing, first go to be reconciled, and then return and offer our gift (Matthew 5: 21-24).

For Jesus, compassion and relationships always trump ritual and religious purity. He was fond of repeating Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” It’s instructive to consider the many times he went out of his way to build relationships with despised others such as the Samaritan woman. Churches continually face challenges related to the different forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world. We will want prioritize going out of our way to build relationships with despised others and to practice reconciliation.

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.”

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.