If You Want to Have Confidence on the Day of Judgment, Maybe Skip the Sinner’s Prayer?

Image HT

The “Right” Way to Follow Jesus

I will confess that I think most of us get following Jesus wrong. Obviously, to have such a thought presupposes that I have some idea of what it would look like to get following Jesus “right.” I intentionally said “us” in my first sentence, because like Paul, I am the worst of sinners. As I’ve said of late, after abandoning Facebook because it seemed on balance to be more of a negative than a positive in our lives, we came back on in order to better connect with our local faith community, relatives far away, etc. Being back on, as I’ve also said, has been something of a mixed bag. I’m finding that even without a smartphone, Facebook retains its power to suck you in. It’s so, so easy to get locked into the “bubble.” It’s literally rewarding; endorphins are released in your brain when you receive and respond to notifications (even if not on a smartphone). It’s easy to “like” all the news sites, public figures, and causes you believe in, and all the while behind the scenes Facebook’s not so magic algorithm works in self-referencing fashion to reinforce what you already thought was true, to magnify your outrage at all the things you already thought were wrong, until one day you find yourself plowing your car into the people who are surely trying to steal your country right out from under you. I should be explicit here in stating that I am in no way justifying the actions of the home-grown terrorist who murdered and harmed peaceful counter-protestors in Charlottesville, and I can’t begin to think I know what his motivations were when he committed his vile, murderous act of aggression. What I am saying is that I believed before, and believe still, that Facebook (can be? is?) dangerous.

Silencing Those I Disagree With

When we were on before I got in lots of online arguments with the people- usually from the conservative “Christian” upbringing of my youth- that I disagree with. Even if in my heart of hearts I didn’t really believe that my arguing with them would change their minds, I still felt compelled to do so. Usually those arguments ended badly, and a quick click of the “unfriend” or even “block” button followed. Naturally, as I silenced those I disagreed with, I locked myself ever more into my own self-referencing and self-reinforcing bubble. As I write this I’m struck by the last sentence I just wrote. Even if only on Facebook, “I silenced those I disagreed with.” Would I do this in person? Would I refuse to hear those I don’t agree with, even/especially when I find their rhetoric vile, their arguments baseless, and their opinions ignorant or ill-informed? My own rhetoric about myself would say “no,” even if in practice my web of face-to-face relationships and those I choose to spend time with might suggest otherwise.

“Issues” Don’t Deserve Our “Stances;” People Do

Of course I know that people will, and often do, “like,” “friend,” and “follow” pages, people, and groups they don’t agree with for the sole purpose of “trolling” and/or getting into such arguments as I allude to above. I suspect that this is no more virtuous than cementing yourself in your own little like-minded bubble on Facebook. If part of what I think might be the “right” way to follow Jesus involves breaking down barriers and overcoming (often self-constructed) walls of division, I have to think that I have some responsibility to pursue relationship with those who look, think, and act differently than I do, and at the very least to remain in those (online) relationships I’m already a part of with those who think like maybe I used to, but do no longer. Better still, I would do well when possible to invite such folks to dinner. You see, to the extent that I’ve changed in my thinking about the world and especially about how to follow Jesus, much of that change has been driven by my in-person contact with people and ideas that are different than I am. As I’ve said for a little while now, I’ve learned that some of the most divisive “issues” of our time usually involve real people’s lives, and it’s easy to take a stand for or against an “issue,” but when you get to know the real people who the “issue” impacts, you find yourself no longer talking and thinking about the “issue.” Instead, you must decide whether to advocate for or against the well-being and maybe the very life of that person you know, who hopefully has become your friend. The gay “lifestyle” and/or “agenda” used to be an “issue” for me. Now, when people argue about it, I have to think about David, and April, and Ty, and others. I have to ask whether or not I really love them and want the best for them. There’s a lot more to be said about that, but I digress.

Exposure Therapy

My point now I suppose is that “exposure therapy” works. Maybe that’s a good way to think of this. Especially to the extent that we remain afraid of those who are different from us and those we can’t understand, we all need a little therapy, and simple exposure to those friends we haven’t met yet would be a good start. What I’m saying is that I probably swung from one extreme to the other. I lived in a conservative bubble for a long time (pre-social media days), and it did not serve me well as a Jesus-follower. A “liberal” bubble will no doubt serve me no better. It’s probably fair to say that as a mobile-home dwelling male of European descent growing up in Texas, I was a conservative, America-loving, homophobic racist. And because as a child I was an abused conservative, America-loving, homophobic racist who grew up in the church, I really, really loved Jesus in my own small, ill-informed, immature way. I always say I grew up knowing that I could “depend on God in the absence of dependable parents.” Hear me now, the labels I’ve given myself above are labels I’m applying to myself, not to anyone else. Maybe others who grew up in the conditions I did might now look back and think of themselves then in the same way. Most probably wouldn’t, but I’m not saying that about anyone else. I’m saying that about myself.

Moving from One Secular Political Extreme to the Other When I’m Supposed to be an Extremist for Love

If before I was conservative, America-loving, homophobic, and racist, am I now liberal, America-hating, gay-loving, and anti-racist? Some would probably say so, at least in regard to some of those labels. I’d like to be anti-racist. It’s a necessary corrective to a foundational truth about the U.S. which it will likely take just as many centuries to undo as it did to “do” in the first place. I’d like to be thought of as someone who loves my LGBTQ brothers and sisters and who is passionate about (nonviolently) fighting for their good. Admittedly, this is probably still a growth point for me, but it’s something I aspire to. My “conservative” friends, to whatever extent I still have any, would likely think of me as very “liberal.” Truth be told, however, more and more I’m able to see the extent to which “liberalism” inasmuch as it’s thought of as a counter to “conservatism” in this country is a poor vehicle if our destination is the beloved community that MLK, Jr. spoke of and Scripture describes so beautifully. I think “liberal” secular politics in this country often offer the promise of more loving and humane answers to the problems that plague our society, but just as often fail to deliver on that promise. I’ll take the rhetoric of an Obama over that of a Trump any day, but sadly much of Obama’s rhetoric proved to be just- and only- that, rhetoric.

What I ought to know by now is that if what I really hope for is God’s kingdom of love and justice to come, then I have to live like Jesus is Lord, and Caesar/Trump/Obama is not. If the beloved community is what I’m called to be a part of, then I have to do the hard work that the family business of reconciliation requires. That means I must work to be reconciled with my neighbors of color, my LGBTQ neighbors, my poor neighbors, and my rich neighbors and conservative neighbors. If I believe that everything belongs to God, then I must stop hoarding all the material wealth I’ve been blessed with and to whatever extent I have two coats while my neighbor has none, I must give at least one away. If I believe that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and he really meant that we should not violently resist an evil person, I must do the hard work of peacemaking, even/especially as I consider the violent impulses of all the institutions I benefit from and participate in every day.

Too Many Causes, Too Little Time

When I go on Facebook these days, especially after the events in Charlottesville, I find myself overwhelmed with all the things I should be angry about. Some such anger, I hope, is right and righteous, and hopefully to the extent that this is true it will serve its purpose. The purpose of anger, after all, is to give the adrenaline necessary to act, and surely there are many actions that are necessary in these perilous times. Still, the simple volume of anger-inducing information is paralyzing. When there are so many things to do, it’s hard to know where to start. Adding to the vitriol in the comments on a Facebook post or Twitter thread probably isn’t the most helpful place to start, to be sure. I also think it’s a bit of a distraction. Online discussion can be helpful, and I participate in probably more than my fair share, but the real work of healing and restoration that this world so desperately needs happens most often as we break bread together, face-to-face, not as we break faith with one another while hurling insults online.

Without Worship, We Shrink

I read yesterday (online, of course) about how a pastor I respect was moved to pray as he faced all the troubles in the world as represented on Facebook and in his own, real life. When I went on Facebook today and was faced with the same troubles in the world and my own troubles in my own real life, I was moved…to praise. Among the faith community that same pastor I spoke of above is a part of, they have a proverb that goes: “without worship, we shrink.” I continue to believe that this is fundamentally, spiritually, and existentially true. When I allow myself to be moved by an effective worship song, I really am…moved. I’m transported from wherever my burdens feel too heavy to bear to the foot of the cross, where Jesus confronts me with his unflinching love not just for me and my tribe but for each and every person who has ever or will ever live, for the whole world, for the entire created order that groans with us in anticipation of its own redemption. In those moments I am overwhelmed not with anger or despair at all the troubles in the world, or at least on Facebook, but instead with love.

Being Overwhelmed is a Virtue

You see, we were meant to be overwhelmed. We were built and wired to be overwhelmed. We’re finite after all. We’re not in-finite. We can hold so much, and no more. God made us this way because he is infinite. He is not contained. God is love, and that love flows from God to his good creation and to every one of us each and every day for as long as the world has existed and on into eternity, and yet his love is never, ever diminished. He is not the less for it. His love is not a “zero-sum” endeavor. It is not subject to the “laws” of economics, and certainly not to the laws of capitalism. It is not the case that the more God gives, the less he has. And you know what? That’s true for us too. We were made to be overwhelmed because we were made to be vessels of this “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.” We were meant to be utterly filled up with it, and then it was meant to flow from us out to everyone around us. I John puts it best:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in that passage that a lot could be said about, and I’ve said some of it before. What I’m most interested in now is how the passage above ends:

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

How to Have Confidence on the Day of Judgment

Do you think God’s a worse parent than you are? Would you torture your children forever? Image HT

Many would-be Jesus followers spend their whole lives focusing on what came before the last part I just quoted again above. They focus on this part:  “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.” Many Christians think this “acknowledgment” that Jesus is the Son of God has to do with reciting a formulaic prayer, or worse, making sure the Ten Commandments are in front of courthouses and hymns can be played by high school bands during football halftime shows. Maybe saying the “sinner’s prayer” suffices as the kind of acknowledgment the verse above alludes to, but I suspect not. What I’m struck by, though, is this. Why do some Christians insist everybody say that formulaic prayer or let them practice their USAmerican civil religion in public spaces? Undoubtedly it’s so that they can “have confidence on the day of judgment” because they think that God’s a worse parent than they hope to be and is therefore willing to torment people in hell forever if they don’t say such a prayer. Thus, it is very, very based in fear. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the very passage above speaks to this very issue? There are very specific instructions about just how to “have confidence on the day of judgment,” and this bit of scripture has a lot to say about fear. According to this passage, we will have confidence on the day of judgment not by saying a formulaic prayer and not by fighting the culture wars; rather, that confidence comes when, “in this world, we are like Jesus.” Immediately afterward, we read, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The passage speaks of God’s love being made “complete” among us, and it seems really, really clear that this happens as we love another, because God has first loved us. Oh, that we would all be so overwhelmed with this love that we did love one another in this way, so that God’s love would be made complete and the world would know we were really, truly, finally Christians! What better way could there be to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God?

Of course, all that is the opposite of love can seem overwhelming too. Thankfully, as finite creatures we were not built to contain all the hate and evil in the world, and to whatever extent we don’t act lovingly toward one another, there’s plenty of hate and evil to go around. When we focus on the hate and evil, even if we do so in the hope of countering it, it again feels overwhelming. Just spend a little time on Facebook, and you’ll know this to be true. The problem when this happens isn’t that we feel overwhelmed because again that’s how we’re built. The problem is what we’re letting ourselves be overwhelmed by. Let’s work to worship and pray and do whatever we need to keep close to Jesus, so that we can be overwhelmed by his love, letting it spill out of us to everyone who crosses our path. There’s plenty of hate-speech online and hateful actions in real life that require our loving response, but after all “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Not surprisingly, those words came as Dr. King spoke about violence. He said:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Jesus says that we who would follow him are meant to be the “light of the world.” Let’s be light. It’s the only thing that can drive out darkness. Let’s be love. It’s the only thing that can drive out hate. Let’s be peace. It’s the only thing that can drive out violence.

Let’s Be Friends?

I hope to be light, love, and peace in real life, and on Facebook. That presupposes that I again work hard at the family business of reconciliation, and that requires that I be in relationship- in real life and on Facebook- with those who are different than I am. Hopefully in the coming days our Facebook friend list will grow as I reach out to the folks I unfriended when I grew out of the conservative outlook of my youth. I may not like everything they say; in fact, I’m sure I won’t, but I don’t have the right to silence them, and who knows, maybe I’ll learn something from them. Nor, of course, will they like all the online stances Kirsten and I might take. Be that as it may, if Jesus unrelentingly loves the entire world and each and every one of us whether we want or deserve it or not, and I purport to follow him, then I have to grow into that kind of love too. Lord, let it be so.

But I Tell You…

Fear of the (often poor) “other” makes them our enemy, whom we hate and act violently toward. Image HT

The Two Big Questions of our Time

Every day- and especially on this day- I’m more and more convinced that the two big questions of our time as Jesus-followers are:

  1. How do we more fully participate in God’s economy; that is, how do we really and truly order our actual everyday lives as if everything really does belong to God?
  2. How do we more fully follow the Prince of Peace; that is, how do we really and truly order our actual everyday lives as if violence in any and every form is antithetical to the way of Jesus?

I suspect that I and my family will spend the rest of our lives working out the answers to these questions. I also suspect that the world would know that we were Christians- that we were children of our father in heaven- if the rest of those who would follow Jesus would dedicate themselves to struggling with these questions too. Anybody who has read this blog at all this year will know that the call to live as participants in God’s economy was a call we heard as if for the first time in 2017, despite having the heard the call no doubt as long as two decades ago, though it fell on deaf ears all the long many years since. It’s only been over the past year or so that we’ve made any serious attempt to really consider what it means that nothing really belongs to us, that we are called to ask for and gratefully receive only enough bread for today- and if more than enough bread for today comes our way- it is no doubt because we are “blessed to be a blessing,” because we are meant to be conduits of God’s blessing and goodness for others.

Retirement and Savings Accounts are Exercises in Functional Atheism

Of course that means we are asked to have great faith. We are asked to trust God for each day’s bread each and every day. While manna does not generally rain down from heaven each day to sustain us, as educated people of European descent in these waning days of USAmerican empire and global capitalism, we are incredibly privileged, and have access to more “bread” than most people in the world today and certainly in the history of the world could ever know what to do with. The actual, everyday implications for how we are to order our lives in light of this means, for starters, that we can stop storing up treasure on earth. Our retirement and savings accounts are exercises in functional atheism. They develop the muscles that would be necessary in a world in which God did not exist, in a world in which we were not the beloved children of our father in heaven. Jesus seems pretty clear about this in Matthew 6:25-32:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

That little “therefore” that what I’ve quoted above begins with is a hinge on which everything hangs; so let’s back up. Matthew 6 begins like this:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Jesus Gave a Sermon Once

All of this comes in the famous, but not nearly famous enough, Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus radically reinterprets everything his Jewish audience thought they knew about God and how to follow him. It starts in Matthew 5, just before the passages from Matthew 6 quoted above. Repeatedly in chapter 5 he says, “You have heard that it was said…..but I tell you….” Each time he takes something heretofore known as “gospel truth” and then alters, adds to, or flips on its head whatever they had heard before so that it was nearly unrecognizable. Remember, he’s doing this with their Bible. Usually whatever followed the “you have heard that it was said” was a quote right out of the Hebrew Bible, and usually whatever Jesus said after “but I tell you” required a radical reorientation of everything they had known to be true. Before they were subject to judgment if they murdered. Now they were subject to judgment if they get angry with a brother or sister. Before they were not to commit adultery. Now they are not to look lustfully at one another. Before men could divorce their wife on a whim. Now they are to let their “yes” really mean “yes,” especially in marriage, and to make this point Jesus follows up his words on adultery by enjoining the people to not only fulfill the vows they’ve made but to refrain from otherwise resorting to oaths at all, because their word should be their bond. In a culture in which women had little power, this is a radical shift, but that is a discussion for another day.

The Other Great Commandment: Give to the One who Asks

Before they had “…heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” According to what they used to think the Bible said, retributive violence was just fine. Now Jesus tells them not only to refrain from such violence, but to refrain from resisting an evil person at all. Here, though, a critical shift occurs in this discussion of enemy love, for the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth are: “40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (italics added). The command to give to the one who asks of us is italicized because it has been such a theme in what we’ve been learning. It’s become so important to us because it’s so very counter-cultural; it’s anathema to the USAmerican way of life and the pursuit of the “American dream.” Confronted with constant messaging about scarcity, about the need to acquire more and more and more (if for no other reason than to keep the consumption-based late capitalist economy going for as long as it possibly can so that the rich can get just a little bit richer), we seldom know not only how to simply say “enough!”, but even more so, we’ve forgotten how to share. We no longer know how to give, expecting nothing in return. We outsource our generosity to the government, and then attach so many strings that it hardly qualifies as generosity. Sure, we may support a charity or two, but when we do, we think we’ve done our part and otherwise order our lives in such a way that we continue to accumulate far more than we need while others lack even the most very basic of necessities.

Giving to those who ask of us is a profound exercise, then, not in functional atheism, but in functional faith, in the belief that we are children of our father in heaven, the one who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, and therefore will surely do so much more for us. Notice, then, what Jesus is doing here. Jesus puts his command to give to those who ask of us right in the middle of instructions about how to love our enemies, and he doubles down in the part that follows the command to give to those who ask of us. He says:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Let Jesus Be Your Bible

The progression here is remarkable.  Jesus has already said early in chapter 5 that the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will be blessed. He then tells them that they are to be salt and light, that they are there for a purpose. Indeed, Jesus says, they are the very “light of the world,” and that light was meant to “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Before moving into his list of all the ways that what they thought was true wasn’t true after all, or more accurately, wasn’t nearly true enough, Jesus responds to those who might say that his words are so radical, so very re-orienting indeed, that he must have come to “abolish the Law and the Prophets,” and therefore everything that the faith of Israel had stood for up to that point. Jesus says this is not the case. He says: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Do you see what he did there? He doesn’t say, “you must continue to observe the Law down to the smallest letter and the least stroke of a pen” if you are to have any hope of entering the kingdom of heaven. In fact, he says: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (italics added). No, what Jesus says is that he has not come to the abolish the Law and the Prophets; rather he has come to fulfill them. In Jesus, the work of the Law and the Prophets is complete. They are not abolished; they are fulfilled. Their purpose has been served. Their job was to point, eventually, to Jesus. They were signposts along the way, and sometimes not very good ones at that. Be that as it may, in Christ all the fullness of …(God) lives in bodily form.” So it’s not that the Law and the Prophets were all for naught; they were important again because they point to Jesus. It is Jesus, though, and Jesus alone, that is the “living word.” It is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who reveals the Father perfectly; so as the Father said at least twice in the gospels, we would do well to “listen to him.”

Only then does Jesus begin reinterpreting their sacred text, showing them that it could and had only taken them so far, but there was much farther to go still. Nowhere is this more true than in the injunction to love one’s enemies and give to those who ask of us. First he says that to those who would take our shirt, we should give our coat too. Then he says that for those who would force us to go a mile, we should go two. It’s important to know that usually such demands in occupied Palestine were made by the occupying Roman soldiers, who would force locals to carry their heavy soldier’s pack for a pace. Thus the oppressed Palestinians were made to carry the tools of war, the very instruments that could be used to oppress and even kill them. Usually a soldier would demand that a local do this for a mile. Jesus says not to resist this, and then to give them another mile too. Doesn’t it cast his later instruction to his disciples to “take up their cross and follow him” in a new light?

Your Poor Enemies

After saying all this, he then tells them to give to those who ask of them, and not to turn away from those who want to borrow from them, and without missing a beat moves on to another “you have heard it was said…but I tell you…” In this case, he tells them that while before they were encouraged to love their neighbor (and by implication, they were therefore permitted to hate their enemy), now they are to love even their enemies, and they are to pray for those who persecute them, so that they might be children of their father in heaven (italics added). Throughout this bit on loving enemies, there is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, assumption that the needy will be among their enemies. Those who are poor, those who might ask of or borrow from us, are in at least one case no different from brutal, oppressive, occupying soldiers. In both cases, we are to love them and give them what they ask, and more. We are not to resist them. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove again makes this point better than I ever could in his seminal work, God’s Economy. He says:

In both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus presents the tactic of relational generosity as part of his teaching on loving our enemies. Our problem with beggars, Jesus seems to say, is that we imagine them to be our enemies. Most of us would rather not think too deeply about people who are poor that way. We want to think that we pity them or perhaps we’d like to help them. But the last thing we want to do is consider that their poverty has anything to do with us (italics added). Those of us who have access to resources don’t like to name the poor as our enemies. But our fear of beggars and our efforts to control people who happen to be poor reveal the dividing lines that the poor already see so clearly. Through nonresistance, Jesus’ tactic of relational generosity exposes our fear of the poor. By giving to the one who asks, we don’t deny our fear. Instead, we act in faith that love can drive out fear. When it does, friendship becomes possible where there was only division before. And friendship across the dividing lines of our world may be just what we really need to really know the abundance of the life that we were made for.

Thus it is Jesus himself who makes the connection between living as part of God’s economy- in which there is abundance, not scarcity, and we are to give to those who ask of us- and renouncing violence because we follow the Prince of Peace. It is Jesus himself who makes the connection between giving up our selfish ways and giving up our violent ways. It is a message that the U.S. would do well to hear. This country was built on violent oppression and genocide no less than its economy was. The privileges that those of European descent in the U.S. continue to benefit from to this day were only made possible by decimating the lives and way of life of the “real Americans” who have made this land their home for millennia and by likewise enslaving our African brothers and sisters in this stolen land so that we could build our capitalist empire. It may ultimately be a blessing to the world that the U.S. empire is now on decline in nearly every way.

The Lord’s Prayer was Part of Jesus’ Sermon Series on Generosity

Meanwhile, Jesus offers us participation in a kingdom that is decidedly not of this world. As I’ve been learning all of the above I keep saying how shocking it was to discover what was likely there all along, this notion that Jesus calls us to give up all the ways of the world in order to follow his way. All along, Jesus has been telling me to give to those who ask, to love my enemies and not resist them, especially when my enemy is poor. For as long as I can remember, I’ve participated in so-called “Christian” culture. I grew up in the church, saying the Lord’s prayer. From a young age I’ve asked God to “give us this day our daily bread.” I wrote recently how shocking it was to discover just what I had really been asking for all this time. I was simply astounded to realize that right there in the prayer Jesus taught us is the invitation to trust God simply for today, no more, no less, “for each day has enough trouble of its own.” And notice it’s not “Give ME this day MY daily bread.” It’s US. Community- and sharing- is assumed, though that truth fell on deaf ears for the first four decades of my life. When God blesses this rich male of European descent in the 21st century “American” empire with enough “bread” to last for today and many of the days to come, then it is incumbent upon me to remember that I am blessed to be a blessing, that I am a conduit of God’s blessing and provision for others. I am to be a vessel in the river of God’s goodness, not a dam. I may not always remember this, though, unless I’m close to the poor, proximate to those whom I might otherwise think of as my enemies, because I fear they would want to take what I’ve been hoarding.

Today as I worked my way again through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and 6 I experienced another one of those shocking revelations. Over, and over, and over again in these passages Jesus keeps telling us, essentially, to share. He tells us not to worry about tomorrow or about our material needs because God clothes the flowers and feeds the birds. He tells us not to store up treasure on earth, but to store it up in heaven instead. He warns us implicitly that our wealth might cause us to see the poor as our enemies, and so he commands us to love our enemies and give to those who ask of us. Perhaps when we’ve given enough away, not only will we no longer be so rich, but our neighbor will no longer be so poor, and enemies can become friends because both are children of the same good, generous father in heaven. Tellingly, though, the Lord’s prayer comes immediately after instruction on how to give to the needy (in secret, lest we give so that others will praise us), and it is shortly after teaching us how to pray (in part by asking for only enough bread for today) that Jesus tells us again to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth and not to worry about what we will eat or wear tomorrow.

This is a radical teaching, indeed. Again as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says, “If truly following God’s call to abundant life makes Christians into well-adjusted middle-class citizens, it makes you wonder how Jesus ever got himself executed:”

Pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, this is not. Salvation as “fire insurance,” this is not. Let’s give up the stuff we have. It isn’t really ours anyway. Let’s get small so that we can experience what it’s like to really need a little saving now and then. Let’s give up our violent ways. Whatever treasure we have on earth isn’t worth defending anyway. Let’s stop violently resisting those who practice evil among us, returning evil with evil in an eye for an eye world. Let’s return evil with good. Let’s be willing to love even when we’re confronted with enemies, for in loving them they cannot long remain an enemy, and such love may very well be the instrument by which we and our enemy both are saved.

Are you listening, Charlottesville?

Your Tweets Are A Stench To Me

Image HT

I did it. After vowing off of Facebook because on balance its effect was more negative than positive, and then staying off it for 3 years or so, Kirsten and I came back on- together on one account- for the sake of interaction with our local community of faith and relatives who aren’t nearby. I promised myself I wouldn’t get drawn in to the mostly pointless debates Facebook is so infamous for, but I failed to keep that promise today. I participated in a thread dealing with justice for the poor, among other things, and having done so I feel…almost dirty, somehow tainted. The primary antagonist to the majority of voices on this thread, including my own, was unsurprisingly unswayed by anything we had to say; nor were we convinced by his “arguments.” I hate that I did this, but I’m almost grateful for the experience, as it solidified my belief that such debates are mostly pointless at best and toxic and damaging at worst. I suspect if Amos 5:21-24 were written today, it might go something like this:

I hate, I despise your Facebook posts;
    your tweets are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me good intentions and halting steps,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice charity donations,
    I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your voicemails to your congressperson!
    I will not listen to the music of your protest songs.
But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Of course I would never say that every Facebook post or tweet is necessarily useless. I think such tools can be useful for staying connected with loved ones, for providing information and organization within an affinity group, for fundraising perhaps, and in places where speech is otherwise suppressed. That said, social media is ill-suited as a vehicle for “real” news or as a platform for serious debate. Worse, I think it’s a tremendous distraction from the real work of loving the neighbors right in front of our faces and making sure that our faces are positioned in proximity to those on the margins of society.

Now I just need to post this to social media in a craven attempt at clicks, likes, and follows, but I do so knowingly and with a hint of irony; so that’s okay.

Right?

Watering Weeds

Kudzu (an invasive plant introduced from Asia) has completely enveloped a barn in Tennessee. (Image HT)

Congruity

Life in 2017 has been interesting, to say the least. Our efforts to “get small” so we can follow Jesus from “under,” not “over,” is well documented on this blog. A word I’ve been using to describe all this of late is congruent. I’m sure you know that congruent means “in agreement or harmony,” but I really like the geometric meaning: “(of figures) identical in form; coinciding exactly when superimposed.” I’m talking about integrity of course, about living a life in which one’s stated values, beliefs, goals, and desires match up with how one actually lives. In many ways, this has been lacking in our lives for far too long, and while we’re nowhere close to the way we live our life “coinciding exactly when superimposed” over the way we say we want live our life, I’m grateful that we’re probably closer to that being true than we’ve ever been. Remembering that we’re trying to “get small” so that we can better be in solidarity with those we’re called to love, serve, and learn from- those on the margins of U.S. empire- and remembering that solidarity requires proximity, this is then what we’ve been aiming for- proximity. We want to be close to those who again are “on the margins” of the dominant society. In all honesty of course we’re not there yet, but hopefully we’re on our way.

We moved from an outer ‘burb in Coon Rapids to northeast Minneapolis. It’s true that this area is gentrifying and you can see pockets where “trendy” shops, restaurants, and people with means are displacing whatever and whoever was there before. One anecdotal way to look at this is through the lens of educational attainment. For example, according to City Data, where we live now 90% of folks have a high school diploma and 43% have a bachelor’s degree vs. 94% with a high school diploma and only 28% with a bachelor’s degree in Coon Rapids. However, data for racial diversity tells another tale. Here’s a comparison of three zip codes courtesy of this very helpful site. Moving from right to left, the first column is our former zip code in Coon Rapids, the second is our current zip code in NE Mpls., and the far left is a nearby zip code in North Minneapolis:

Racial makeup of our former zip code in Coon Rapids (55448), our current one in NE Mpls. (55413), and a nearby one in North Minneapolis (55412)

What this tells us is that compared to our zip code in Coon Rapids, our little part of NE Mpls. is proportionally far more racially diverse, though not nearly as diverse yet as nearby north Minneapolis. Ironically, perhaps, unemployment in Coon Rapids is a little higher at 6.9% vs. 5.6% in NE Mpls., but there’s a fairly stark difference in household income:

Income data for the same zip codes as above

While a few more people might qualify as “middle class” according to USAmerican standards in our part of NE Mpls. vs. Coon Rapids, a lot more people are undoubtedly poor (again according to USAmerican standards- with household income of $30,000 or less), and a lot fewer are among the very wealthy ($100,000 or more). Taken together, where we came from in Coon Rapids about 30% of households earn $50,000 or less. Where we are now, it’s 53%. I could go on. There’s a wealth of super interesting data over at the sites I linked to above, but you get the point. Where we now live in NE Mpls. is not “the ‘hood” by any means, but if we desire to be proximate to those on the margins, we’ve taken a step in the right direction, considering where we came from. Lord willing, more such steps will follow.

We chose NE Mpls. because that’s where our faith community is rooted, and it was through our faith community that we had the opportunity to move here in the first place. Taking that leap of faith proved to be a key that has opened up a lot of other doors. It meant the kids changed schools, and I took a job just 2.6 miles away- by bike- meaning I could bike to work. I’ve been doing that for over a month now, which has meant we could give away one of the cars we had, which we did. Let me again be clear, I know that in no way have we “arrived.” We aren’t yet where Jesus is probably leading us, but we hope we’re a little further down the road, and we know the key again is proximity. We have to stay close to Jesus of course, and we know we do so much better when we stay close to those on the margins.

Incongruities

Despite all this, there are still incongruities in my life that trouble me. Two big ones come specifically to mind- my work for my employer, and my work to raise money for clean water in Africa through Team World Vision. Let’s talk about my job first. Again, let me be clear, I love my new employer. I now work for a non-profit social service agency operated by a larger faith-based organization. That larger organization does a ton of great work in the community. They’re a leader in institutional anti-racism efforts. They say their mission is to serve those “no one else will.” They work to promote healthy habits among their employees, and they strive to make sure their employees find meaning in the work they do to serve others. I’m thrilled to be a part of the organization. My particular case management type role now, though, is a little less “hands-on” than others I’ve had, which is to say that I don’t often see the folks I hopefully am helping, and most of what I do is behind the scenes of the services the people I serve receive. I do financial work, basically, in my new role, working to ensure that funds allocated to help people experiencing a disability to live independently in the community are properly channeled to where they need to go. I actually tend to like Excel spreadsheets; so in some ways this is a good fit, but larger questions remain.

Toxic Asset-Based Community Development

The largest question is posed to the entire social service “industry,” and it simply is this: to what degree do all of our efforts to help actually do harm? I chose those words intentionally, because as I’ve written previously I am not a proponent of the approach taken by Robert Lupton is his book Toxic Charity or by Corbett and Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts. I think I get what they’re trying to do/say- and I appreciate Lupton’s emphasis that helping should “do no harm.” However, I think in too many cases “do no harm” winds up becoming do no help, and I think the approach of these folks and others in the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) “movement” is only a half-step, and I fear it’s a half-step in the wrong direction. Before getting to that, however, I should simply say that I think ABCD is right to regard poor communities (by USAmerican standards) as having not just “deficits” in the form of needs that need to be met but also “assets” in the form of gifts, talent, and local associations and institutions that might be utilized to better contribute to their own development.

Even more, there is a critique of social service underneath what ABCD tries to accomplish that is spot on, and it’s one I’ve been aware of for a while. Lupton wants us to “do no harm” because there is a very real sense in which all of our efforts to address systemic racism and poverty with systemic social service only perpetuates the former and makes permanent the need for the latter. There’s a yin and a yang here. Systemic, generational poverty, driven in no small part by systemic racism, seems to require a systemic response, but the very real help that social service is able to give to very real, hurting people only serves to dull our collective awareness that profound change is needed.

Some would say that government, for example, should get out of the “business” of helping people and essentially leave them to fend for themselves, somehow believing that the causes of poverty lie in the motivations of individuals and that, if properly motivated- by starvation and deprivation presumably- they will “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” I would hope it’s obvious that this approach ignores the very real systems and institutions that actively work, violently if necessary, to keep some people poor so that others can be rich. There are reasons why people of European descent in the U.S. are far richer than people of color, and why the U.S. is the richest nation in the history of the world, and if you don’t think violence has anything to do with it, you’re not paying attention. Sure, choices that individuals make have a lot to do with their fortune, no pun intended, but people rarely make choices merely as individuals. We are connected to the systems that make our society possible, some of which we have little awareness of and littler still control over.

In any case, there is a line of thinking by some (not necessarily the ABCD folks) that would suggest that if social service was done away with, the suffering that would result would create mounting pressure underneath the fabric of our unjust society, so much so that the real change that is necessary might be forced to occur. A revolution might be born. Meanwhile, people would probably be dying (even more than they already are), and a cynical response would be to ask if even this would be enough to bring about real, lasting change. A related concern is that if violence is used to keep some people poor and others rich- and it is, even/especially here in the U.S.– would violence be the only means deemed sufficient to bring about the kind of “revolution” that might be needed? I fear it would be.

Jubilee

That said, I spoke above of ABCD being a half step “in the wrong direction” because I think it fails to connect the poverty of the poor with the wealth of the wealthy. I think what ABCD seeks to do is essentially to help people be better capitalists, and I believe that “capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from.” I’m a proponent of God’s economy, an economy that exposes the myth of private property as a lie that keeps us from living like everything belongs to God. God’s economy, unlike capitalism and socialism or any other ‘ism, is one in which there is abundance, and all is shared. It is an economy that responds to God the Giver by allowing each of us to live into our vocation as givers. We don’t need to harness the “assets” of under-privileged communities so that they can develop to the point where their members have a “decent” middle-class USAmerican standard of living without government help; we need to recognize that absolutely everything- including the air we breathe- is a gift from God, given for the good of all. We’re all playing with “house money.” What we really need, is Jubilee. We need Jubilee on a global scale. Most of us in developed nations need to give away much of our wealth, privilege, and power. Our standard of living needs to come way, way down, so that the standard of living of the poorest of the poor and everyone in between can come way, way up. After all, what if God doesn’t want us to “help” the poor, but rather wants us to become poor (by USAmerican standards)?

How do we do this? Of course I have no idea how to bring about global Jubilee, Biblical instructions to ancient Israel notwithstanding. However, I do have some clues about how to spread God’s economy. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that God’s Economy will grow like kudzu, a plant that only needs a small start to overtake a garden. Or maybe it grows like a mustard seed, another plant that begins humbly before reaching a strength and stature that wouldn’t have been thought possible. The point is, it starts small, and Jesus says it starts by giving to those who ask of you:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It’s worth noting again that the command to give to those who ask of you is nestled in the imperative to love one’s enemies. The poor become our enemies when we become rich by hoarding what God has given to all, for the benefit of all. It is Jesus here who makes a connection between giving to those who ask of us (presumably the poor or those who lack what we have) and violence. I’ll have to explore that in another post. Meanwhile, the critics of a government response to poverty and injustice are right to say that government can’t supply the answers we need. A big government initiative or program, even arguably good ones like the New Deal or the War on Poverty, can’t finally eliminate injustice. However, those same critics are wrong inasmuch as they think the answer lies in utilizing the assets of underprivileged communities to help develop said communities through capitalism, as if the world’s economy could ever be anything other than self-serving. Meanwhile, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests another way:

 

 

We need to end the poverty of the poor, to be sure, but also need to end the wealth of the rich. Jonathan reminds us that Jesus says it’s hard for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, and he says this is because “if a rich person gets in he won’t be rich anymore” and likewise “if a poor person gets in he won’t be poor anymore.” Why? Because “we’ll share with whoever has need,” like Jesus taught us. We simply have to give to those who ask of us. When we do, more and more we become children of our Father in heaven.

But I digress.

Small Steps

All of this is why I struggle with my current professional role, one which has me firmly entrenched in the social service “industry.” My challenge is to keep reminding myself that just like our move to NE Mpls. and relatedly our enrollment of the kids in new schools, moving to the job I’m at now is but a step in the right direction as I keep seeking proximity to Jesus and to those on the margins. I’m not “there” yet, and I know I never will be. Still, being at this job, so close to our new home, again meant after all that I could bike to work and we could therefore give away one of the cars we had to someone who asked, to a family that had need of it.

It’s a very similar struggle that has me wondering about my commitment to run for Team World Vision and raise money for clean water in Africa. Surely the need is real, and profound, and every time I succumb to temptation and drink anything but the abundant clean water I have access to I flaunt my great wealth and privilege. I would like to believe, too, that World Vision does what they say they do, that every $50 I raise does indeed provide clean water for life to a person that didn’t have it. I can’t help but wonder, though, along the lines of the above, if the “help” World Vision provides fosters dependency so long as the domination systems that have created the unjust world we live in continue unfettered. After all, I of course have clean water that flows from my tap in multiple places in my home, but I’m so rich I ignore it and instead spend hundreds of dollars per year on sugar-filled carbonated water that will eventually kill me if I let it. If we think there’s no connection between my conspicuous “water” consumption and the lack of clean water at all for too many around the world, we’re fooling ourselves. Let’s say I’ve embarked on a long fundracing career with World Vision and over the course of the rest of my life I help raise thousands of dollars for clean water in Africa so that some kids stop dying of thirst or diarrhea, that would be good, to be sure. But would I have done more good than harm if I otherwise lived in such a way that the domination systems that again created this unjust world were allowed to go on? So again the rub has to do with congruence. Yes, there is a very real, immediate, life-or-death need that I can help address, and I have been asked to do so, but this is only the beginning. This is only a step. What I do with Team World Vision must be part-and-parcel of a life spent working to bring about God’s economy, however, whenever, and wherever I can.

It’s true too that the problems I’m wrestling with are big (“global Jubilee,” anyone?), while if I am to live the most congruent, faithful life I can, if I am to live in proximity to Jesus and those on the margins, then I must become small. There’s nothing smaller than a step, even a step of faith. Lord willing, these steps I and my family have taken of late are steps taken in the right direction on a lifelong journey. Undoubtedly other such steps will come. Right now, though, I’m glad for the ones we’ve taken, and I’ll sure be keeping my eyes and ears open as we try to keep close to Jesus, ready for whatever step might be next. Until then, I’ve got some kudzu to water.

While Jesus Slept Outside on a Bench, We Went Inside to Ring Gongs and Clang Cymbals

A homeless camp being bulldozed (HT for the image)

Keep It Covered

She had one sock raised higher than the other, which I thought was a little strange. She came to the rear of the church building to the little room where I was passing out sample size toiletries and the like to people experiencing homelessness who were coming to use the showers. This is a great ministry an urban congregation offers to their downtrodden neighbors three Sunday mornings a month, along with access to a clothing closet and a free hot breakfast. The missional community I’m a part of from Mill City Church volunteers at this ministry once a month, and my job this past Sunday was to serve in the shower area. This brings me back to the woman I met whose socks were not at the same height. She asked me for the usual items she’d need if she were going to take a shower- soap and shampoo, etc., but she wasn’t taking a shower; she wanted to take them with her. We also had toothbrushes and toothpaste, some razors, etc. to give out, and lotion. She kept looking for a particular kind of lotion, which it turns out she had found to be most helpful with the very bad eczema on her leg. It was so bad she had been hospitalized for it recently, and the doctor told her to keep it covered or it would get infected and she’d be back in the hospital. It’s hard to keep your eczema covered when you live on the street, but she was trying- hence the raised sock. She was older than me, I’m guessing in her 50’s or 60’s, and naturally there’s a lot more to her story. We didn’t talk long as she was looking for the lotion that would help her most, but I did learn that she had been “staying” at an “artist’s camp” somewhere- obviously an outdoor encampment of people experiencing homelessness, but had left one day to visit her daughter. When she came back, the city of Minneapolis had come in and bulldozed the camp. All her stuff was gone or destroyed. She was most upset about the two sleeping bags she had recently been given that were now gone. She said a young man came around doing homeless outreach and gave them to her. She said he told her they were donated, but they were nice; so she thought he must have bought them and given them away. They were now gone along with any toiletries she might have had with her belongings. So she said she was “starting over,” and she wasn’t the only person I heard say that. Before she left she asked if she could keep one of the towels and a washcloth that are there to be used for the folks using the shower, and are not supposed to be given out. As she said, she was starting over.

I’ll Just Start Over

The church that offers this ministry three Sundays a month goes a step further and will wash whatever the people who use their shower are wearing. They can come back in subsequent weeks and pick up their washed clothing. The clothes are in plastic bags with the person’s name written on the bag with a Sharpie, hopefully. As I was working last Sunday, I had a few people ask me for their clean clothes; so I went through the bags a few times. Some didn’t have a name, or had “no name” written on them. Those will likely be donated to the clothes closet the church runs to then be given away to others. I was able to find the person’s bag I think two of the times I was asked; another time I could not. That gentleman- whose clothes I couldn’t find- explained it had been a few weeks since he left his clothes to be washed, and he hadn’t come back he said because “honestly last week I was high on meth and I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to come.” I couldn’t find a bag with his name on it. He said it was no big deal, that he too would “just start over.” He may have only had the clothes he was wearing; I don’t know. He wasn’t too attached to the clothes he had left to be laundered, though. He was willing to start from scratch, perhaps for the umpteenth time.

I saw an older couple come through. The woman in the couple seemed to be in poor health, with the guy doing some caregiving for her, even as both lived on the street. I saw a family come through- a mom with teen and tween boys, a younger girl, and a toddler. I thought I heard the girl call the woman “grandma;” so I can’t say for sure what all of their relationships with one another were. The young men played basketball for a while in the nearby gym. At one point the woman sent the toddler into the gym and as she walked away, over her shoulder she hollered for the boys to “watch him.” I don’t know if that message was ever received. Soon the toddler got in the way of their game, and the oldest (teen) boy bounced the basketball off the toddler’s head to get him to move. It wasn’t vicious, but it sent a message. Later in their game the younger (tween) boy fell, hitting his arm hard on the gym floor, hard enough he started to whimper, if not cry. I asked if he was alright, and he didn’t respond. The teen just looked at him. His attitude could have been interpreted as cold, but I suspect their life is such that the teen knows if the tween is to survive, he’d have to learn how to not let a little pain bother him, or at least not to expect anyone to rescue him if he gets hurt.

More happened that morning, of course, but those are the stories that stand out, now a week later. What, then, am I to make of all this? Am I to make anything at all, or is my role simply to show up when I can and love the people in front of me as best as I can, whatever their circumstances? I’m me, of course; so I can’t help but think about the implications of it all. One thing I was struck by was how willing the folks I served that morning were to simply “start over” with possessions as basic as having more than one set of clothes. Of course this may be a willingness born of necessity, but it was there nonetheless. This is one of the gifts the materially poor have to offer we who are materially rich. I and my family have been struggling to learn how to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and have therefore been working through what it looks like to hold possessions loosely, recognizing that everything belongs to God, not us. The materially poor do this as a matter of necessary habit. We do well when we do likewise. This is at the heart of our recent efforts to “get small.” We know that we follow Jesus more closely when we do so from “under,” not “over.” Those on the margins of society- the poor, the disenfranchised, the dominated- not the dominators- they are much more ready than we who are privileged to both receive the good gifts God the Giver wants to give his children, and to embrace, I think, a kingdom that is not of this world.

The Gospel Breaks Out

An old acquaintance of ours recently posted a link to an article and YouTube video featuring Jim Carrey talking to a group of formerly gang involved and incarcerated folks who are part of the amazing Homeboy Industries. In our acquaintance’s intro to the link/video, he said:

Throughout history, when God’s “official” messengers get off track and begin to seek power, spew condemnation, and set up walls of exclusivity, God gets his message of grace, truth and forgiveness out in unconventional ways. I think I see that happening more lately in this day and age.

Meet Jim Carrey, preacher of grace. This is powerful. Praise God.

Here’s Jim, in his own words:

 

If you’re short on time, just watch the first half of this 7-ish minute video; if you get nothing else from this post, but watch that, my “work” here is done. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, says: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Indeed, as I said above and keep learning, the poor have much to teach us. When I was a student at Luther Seminary, I had a great old prof.- Dr. James Nestingen- who always talked about the “gospel breaking out.” In Lutheran theology, there’s much talk of “law and gospel,” of sin and grace. The law serves to show us our sin- to highlight the condition in which we are caught in which we are unable to live and love as we should- and the gospel is the good news that God has already saved us, that we are set free from this entrapment. Too often this gospel word can get cloudy, muddled, and muddied, lost amidst all the other things would-be “Christians” dare to say on behalf of God. Too often the good news that we have been set free from a life enslaved to sin and death gets lost in the midst of the condemnation of others, and especially in the midst of our own self-condemnation. In such times, Dr. Nestingen would say, the gospel “breaks out.” Good news of God’s grace comes from unexpected places. When “professional” would-be Christians bless the greedy violence of empire and insure their place within the fold of worldly power….

 

Image HT

 ….rock stars remind us that while “God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill,” we can far more readily find him with the poor, with the sick and suffering, among the ravages of war, and therefore “God is with us, if we are with them:”

Image HT

Ironically, as we drove to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning, we passed a scene not entirely unlike the one above in our own NE Minneapolis neighborhood. A man was sleeping on a bus bench, kind of like this:

HT for the image. The irony in this picture defies words.

Instead of continuing on our way and attending the worship gathering, which we did, no doubt the best worship we might have given this morning to Jesus- that (homeless) “preach of peace-” would have been to be good Samaritans and stop and render whatever assistance we could to our bench-sleeping neighbor. Instead, it was more important to us to go hear a sermon that would in some way, I hope, touch on how to follow Jesus by loving our neighbor, never mind the one we passed by who, just like Jesus, had no place to lay his head. Thus, if the mission of the church is, like Jesus’ mission, in no small part to proclaim good news for the poor, the irony of a person experiencing homelessness sleeping on a bench festooned with an advertisement for the “new life” that comes through the covenant to be had among God and his people is no greater than that of I and my family this morning ignoring an opportunity to love an actual neighbor so that we could go hear about how to be in right relationship with God and our proverbial ones. Even worse, if we meet Jesus among “the least of these,” we skipped right by him this morning on that bench, preferring to meet him in a more comfortable setting, among other privileged people like us.

Give Away Your Shirt(s)

During that worship gathering we skipped out on loving our neighbor in order to attend, Jesus drove home the point. I didn’t get to hear all of Pastor Michael’s sermon due to an unruly 6 year old (mine :/), but the passage he opened with was in itself sermon enough for me, from Luke 3:

…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.

Just like a valley is exalted when it is filled in, again and again the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that exalts the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the sick and in prison- those on the margins. Just like a mountain or hill being made low, likewise the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that humbles the rich, the oppressors, those who can easily access worldly political systems, the well and those who can easily access healthcare, and those who leverage the language of “law and order” to maintain their systems of power and control. In case the point is missed, John makes it plain. To we rich (do you have more than one shirt? I do), he says:

“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none…”

To we well-fed he says:

“…anyone who has food should (share with the one who has none)…”

To tax collectors, he says:

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”

The importance of God’s economy is so very important that to soldiers, instead of addressing the violence of their occupation, he makes an economic appeal:

“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

I was able to be present toward the end of the worship gathering, when we sang the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace, which quotes this part of the original:

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

If you hear those words as I do, Jesus is still making his point. God the Giver has promised good to me. In other words, he who causes bread to rain from heaven and supplies enough for today, day after day after day, promises to continue to give us this day our daily bread; so we need not store away “bread” for tomorrow here on earth, where thieves break in and steal and “moths and vermin destroy.” The point is again reinforced in the lyric above with the reminder that the Lord “will my shield and portion be.” Jesus is our “portion;” he gives us enough, and we need not violently defend the good gifts of God the Giver, because Jesus is our “shield” too. He has defeated the power of violence by surrendering to it; thus, it was put to death with him on the cross. As a result, violence has no more power over us than death or sin does.

Again and again I see more and more every day the interlinking of violence and the world’s economy, and conversely how both are put to an end through Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we live as part of God’s economy in which there is more than enough for all; if we share freely and give to those who ask, what reason would anyone have to take up arms against us, and what reason do we have to take up arms ourselves?

Am I saying (repeatedly now) that following Jesus is mostly about how we order our economic lives and whether or not we reject or embrace violence? Yes…and no. To speak of the creator God is of course to speak about cosmic, spiritual truths that defy any words we might seek to ensnare them with. Who God is and what God does, and who we are and what we ought to do in response, is a sublime mystery. But if the gospel is true, God has chosen to reveal the fullness of who he is in Jesus, the one in whom all things hold together. It can be said, and I have often said, that God hides. We do not find him where we expect to. But that it not to say that he cannot be found. God, after all, can be found “in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.” He can be found “in the cries heard under the rubble of war.” He can be found lying defenseless in a manger, or on a cross.

God may very well be found in me, and in you.

Because God chooses to be with us, how we order our lives and live in relation to one another matters profoundly, and we ignore at our peril the fact that in John’s ministry and in that of Jesus himself, both lead with literal “good news” for the poor. Most of us spend the majority of our days pursuing economic activity. We work. We spend. We consume. We buy, and we sell. We barter. We support the bottom lines of multi-national corporations, or resist them. Likewise, most of us spend much of our days deciding whether or not to live peacefully together. We honk at the person who cut us off, or not. We return a smile, or we don’t. We respond to a harsh word with one of our own, or we swallow hard and forgive right then and there by choosing not to retaliate. We consume violent media, or try not to. Often, the two are inextricably intertwined. The cheap shirts we buy at Target and Wal-Mart may have been made by basically enslaved people half a world away who are prevented from leaving their workstations by violence or the threat of violence. The taxes we dutifully pay to our government support the ever-growing military-industrial complex, and are used to rain death from the sky around the world, all in the name of “keeping us safe” or “defending” (our) freedom.

Sure, God wants to heal our broken hearts, make us whole, and bring us into right relationship with God’s self and with one another, and with God’s good world. The good news is that God has done this, and still is. Just because this is so, we are entrusted with the family business of reconciliation. We are charged with the sacred task of practicing resurrection. We are to live as if God’s other-worldly kingdom really is upon us, already. We don’t have to serve Mammon anymore. We can freely give to those who ask of us. We can share with one another in radical, counter-cultural ways that can’t help but facilitate the gospel breaking out. Following Jesus means following him into such a life. Maybe we just need to be willing to start over. The poor can show us how. We just have to believe that another world is possible, but that’s not so hard to imagine, is it, especially if even in this world Bono is among our most truthful prophets and the good news of God’s grace keeps breaking out such that even Jim Carrey can be heard proclaiming it.

No Rival

I’ve been spending my lunch break lately in Luther Seminary‘s (my alma mater) Chapel of the Cross, where this challenging-and-inspiring-all-at-once piece of art can be found.

Jesus’ rail thin body still hangs from a cross in Minneapolis, a discomfiting sight that begs a lot of questions. Among them are: Did this really happen? Are we capable of such violence? As I wrestle with these questions, I’m reminded of my privilege. Far too many around the world know such violence all too well, and all too often Jesus seems far away from them. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to write. I start posts, and don’t finish them, or scrap them and start over. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say; the torrent of observations, reflections, and new learning continues much as it has, especially over the past year or so, and I clearly have no deficit of words to offer in response to all that I’m learning. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to produce the volume of writing that I had been for a while. I think some of this has to do with the time, energy, and effort involved in putting into place all that we’ve been learning. In short order over the past few months we’ve moved, the kids have started new schools, I’ve started a new job, we switched banks, and more recently, we gave away the newest of our two vehicles and I’ve begun biking to work. Here’s “my” bike parked at work:

This bike was a gift from a fellow member of Mill City Church whose health prevents him from using it any more. Having it allows me to bike to work, and freed us up to give away the vehicle mentioned above. So I’m doing this all wrong if I’m not using my time spent on it every day to pray both for the person who gave me the bike and the family we gave the car to.

Meanwhile, truth be told, I’m tired.

I think some of my struggle to write also has to do with just what I’m learning, I suppose. The way that we’ve been talking about what God is teaching us and calling us to is to say that we feel called to “get small,” to give up some of our wealth, position, privilege, and power so that we can experience the generosity that God wants for us both as givers and receivers. We experience it as givers when we lean into God’s economy and give freely to those who ask for anything from us, remembering that everything belongs to God and nothing is truly ours, that God asks that we acknowledge our dependence on Him by asking for what we need for today and no more. When we do this, what once we would hold on to for tomorrow or in case of a rainy day or so that we can retire, etc., now becomes a blessing we’ve been made stewards of for the sake of others, making us conduits of God’s provision. Likewise, the “smaller” we get- the more money, privilege, and power we give away- the more ready we are to grapple with our own need and the more likely it is that we will be open to receiving through others God’s provision and blessing for us.

As I keep saying, we wasted two full decades as adults hoping God would see fit to give us a little more, to bless us with enough money to pay down our debt so that we could be more generous and faithful. Living within our means was thus to be achieved by hoping God would increase our means. When we did get a raise or a new job with more pay, our selfishness grew right with it, and still we found ourselves struggling to keep up as the debt kept growing. We’d go through cycles of  being a little more restrained and paying the debt down, only to find some circumstance or situation that provided a convenient excuse to revert to our more selfish ways, and thus the debt would accumulate anew. Sure, some of those situations involved outbursts of generosity on our part, but they were always the exception to the rule, and they usually gave us fodder for trying to bargain or negotiate with God, believing that our hospitality or generosity had somehow “earned” us the right to expect more from God.

Why is it different this time around? Maybe it won’t be, I will admit. The lure of Mammon is strong. It’s tempting to want to fall in line and be a good consumer. All I can say is that there is a depth to both our learning this time and our willingness to do the hard work of following Jesus instead of Mammon. Our minds have been renewed, and thus we are being transformed. Things we thought we really needed (smartphones, two cars, more than 1200 feet of living space, etc.) we’re learning that we don’t, and we’ve given them away. Forgoing those things, coupled with forsaking our retirement plans and savings accounts- which we came to see as “treasure stored up on earth” instead of in heaven- has opened our eyes anew to just how much God already has blessed us, just how much he’s been trusting us with all along. No longer willing to hoard God’s goodness, in probably less than four months we’ve wiped out much of our personal and consumer debt, and expect to have much of the rest of it eliminated in less than a year. All this capacity being created in our budget will very soon mean that we can give a large percentage of our income away, and/or have the capacity to work less so that we can give a large percentage of our time and energy away.

All of this represents our effort to live as participants in God’s economy rather than capitalism or any other system this world can dream up. In God’s economy there is always enough. The hand that guides God’s economy is visible, not invisible, and it has nail marks in it. God’s economy is one of giving and sharing, of blessing and being blessed. In God’s economy we give to those who ask from us so that we might be children of our Father in heaven, because whatever we have to give was already given to us in the first place by our good, good father, and it was meant for the blessing of all. Thus, if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we are called to give him (at least) one along with our apology for hoarding God’s provision that was meant for him. If we are so rich that we can poison our bodies with carbonated, caffeinated water while our neighbors around the world die because they lack access to clean water, or sometimes water at all, then we are most faithful when we skip the soda aisle and make a donation (at the very least) to a water relief agency.

Astoundingly, this is but one of the two big revelations over the past few months that we will likely spend the rest of our lives trying to respond to. In the first, we were broken to realize that we were wholehearted consumer capitalists but lousy lovers of God and neighbor. After all, the love of money really is the root of all evil, for the first part of the Great Commandment is to “love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” I can’t love God with my whole heart if part of it can’t stop thinking about my Amazon cart. And I can’t love my neighbor very well either if I won’t think about the modern-day enslaved persons that made the cheap clothes I got from Wal-Mart, or if I can’t come up with resources to bless my hungry and thirsty neighbor around the world while I throw away nearly half the food I buy, in part because I eat out three times a week.

The other big revelation that we’ll be trying to respond to probably for the rest of our lives is simply that Jesus really is the Prince of Peace. He really meant that we shouldn’t kill one another, and that we should turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. He really meant that we have not been given a spirit of fear and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love. And if it’s true that we not only shouldn’t commit adultery but shouldn’t lust after one another, isn’t it even more so that we not only shouldn’t kill one another but shouldn’t entertain ourselves with killing every time we watch TV, go to a movie, or play a video game? Isn’t it true then that we likewise shouldn’t participate in violence vicariously with our tax and gas dollars as our Mammon-loving economy and warmongering country trudges along, raining death from the sky around the world in the name of “freedom-“ to buy cheap gas?

If in the end capitalism is just another “–ism” Jesus wants to save us from, and violence is a way of life that was put to death with Jesus on the cross, then the way of Jesus insofar as it passes through the good ol’ U.S. of A. is a hard way, indeed. Some well-meaning would-be Jesus followers have the sense to wonder why they aren’t persecuted if Scripture promised they would be, and I was among them for most of my life, but no longer. If I and my family continue to lean in a direction that runs counter to the greedy (read: capitalistic), violent ways of our culture, I trust that our persecution, in one way or another, will come. Kirsten has been reluctant to explain to a member of her family of origin that we gave away a newer car we’re still paying $17,000+ for, while I wonder if I’m getting funny looks for showing up to work on a bicycle (full disclosure here: I’m not showing up drenched in sweat, but I may not smell like I’m fresh from the shower either). These obviously aren’t “persecutions,” though. What if we take the next step, however, and become war tax resisters? What if, as we plan to, we start joining with a few others to build up a mutual generosity fund out of which we’ll give away hundreds of dollars a month to those we meet around us who are in need? What if we start talking openly about our budget and finances, revealing how much we make and how we spend it, and asking others to hold us accountable to our ideals and perhaps risk such vulnerability themselves? What if the Spirit inspires us to ever more creatively subvert an economic system that keeps creating more “have-nots” than “haves?” What if we refuse to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but Jesus and his kingdom?

A line from Hillsong’s recent song “What A Beautiful Name” keeps playing in my head and heart: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” Here’s the requisite video:

I listened to this song repeatedly in the car today (my first time driving all week!) and every time through I heard a new allusion to- or direct quote from- Scripture. I should probably write a separate post breaking all that down (scratch that- Hillsong already did; you can find it here). But right now I want to focus on the line I quoted above: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” What does it mean to declare that Someone is without rival, without equal? Every time I hear that line I think of the two pretenders who keep vying- often violently- for the throne that only Jesus can or will occupy- Mammom, and “Uncle Sam.” Singing those words- declaring that Jesus has no rival, no equal, that now and forever he reigns- has to mean something. Remarkably, I know folks who can sing those words on Sunday and then can remove their cap and place their hand over their heart to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag on Monday.

 

I simply can’t anymore.

 

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers violently seized from its original inhabitants while decimating their population, then we descendants of those European settlers have much to repent of and many amends to make, and it all starts by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers built the world’s most powerful economy in, then we descendants of those European settlers must recognize that that economy was only possible through violence- because of slavery and its aftereffects-  and again we have much to repent of and many amends to make, and we must start by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

Living in such a way doesn’t mean attending every protest, though some protest attendance will probably be required. It doesn’t mean everyone has to quit their job, though some very well may. I did, and I can imagine it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to participate in an economy that will not only decimate your corporation’s bottom line, but even worse, may very well make it irrelevant. Likewise, I can see it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to give up violence forever because it was put to death on the cross with Jesus.

Living as if Jesus has no rival means that while all the external things out there- in the world- are in dire need of attention and there are many urgent causes to be taken up, even so the most profound change that has to occur is in our own minds, hearts, and souls. If we really do work at loving God with all of our mind, heart, soul, and strength- forsaking all others- then we begin to see with new eyes. We begin to be transformed. Things that weren’t possible before suddenly are. And none of it’s because we’ve successfully organized around all those urgent causes; none of it’s because we’ve finally achieved the social progress we were hoping for. It’s because to whatever extent Jesus has no rival, to whatever extent we forsake Mammon and violent “Uncle Sam” so that we can follow “that preacher of peace,” to just that extent we will find that we really can love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

I think of the anti-religious vitriol of the “new Atheists” and all the popular backlash in our culture against so-called “Christians” who are too busy pursuing secular political power to notice the neighbors they’re harming along the way. What if instead of trying so desperately hard to pass or repeal Obamacare or establish or reform “Entitlements,” what if the people for whom Jesus has no rival instead devoted all their energy to loving and serving those around them, to giving to those who would ask of them, to being people who practice a ministry of presence with profound sincerity, effort, and steadfastness? Wouldn’t people know we were really Christians then, because of our love?

Still, I remain tempted to want to be great. I like to be able to tell a splashy story about that big thing I did. I’m far too easily seduced by the proverbial search for significance. I keep hoping someone will discover my blog and offer me a book deal, or a pulpit to supply, or a writing gig. Yet that’s just the opposite of where Jesus is leading me these days. Jesus isn’t calling me to get big; he’s challenging me to get small. Jesus isn’t calling me to lead workshops and study groups; he’s calling me to love him like he has no rival, and not just to like my neighbor, but to really love them.

The great Henri Nouwen said it best:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.  It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.  Still, it is not as simple as it seems.  My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.  But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.”

Amen.

Coho

My dog died today; so I’m not much into the nonsense on Facebook. I did find myself inexorably drawn to the Facebook “get sympathy now” button, which I pushed a couple of days ago when I posted a link to the photo album I made for Coho along with a few words about the fact that she had cancer and a “hard choice would be made soon.” That hard choice came today. I can now say I’ve been present to four beings as they breathed their last, having finally succumbed to cancer. The first three were people, of course, but Coho’s death did not fail to elicit emotion. The end for Coho came peacefully as I held her, her head in my lap. It came pretty quickly too, but I had time before the sedative and euthanizing agent were given to say goodbye for as long as I liked. She’s come to know the vet’s office, and was scared when we arrived. She repeatedly went under my legs and tried to position herself with me between her and the vet staff. Finally I just got down on the floor, which she always considered an invitation to come over and be petted. I held and petted and talked to her as they placed the IV and then later, gave the drugs. I held it together, too, until the deed was done and they left, again inviting me to “take as long as I needed.” The hard parts came when her eyes wouldn’t close, then again when I tried to move her head out of my lap and onto the blanket on the floor so that I could finally stand and her head just flopped like the lifeless thing it then was, and then finally again when I collected her collar and leash. The leash usually jingles when you handle it, and like Pavlov’s dog this always produced a response, in Coho’s case excitement about going outside for a walk or drive. The stimulus-response cycle broke down this time, as Coho was no longer there behind her still open eyes to be excited about whatever the jingling leash would portend.

Coho was a great dog. We got her as a pup from the Animal Humane Society of Summit County in OH. We only went there to “check things out” and weren’t planning to adopt right then, but when we met her, I couldn’t say no. Coho had been neglected and so was a bit of a fearful dog. Things that scared her included: vacuum cleaners, laundry baskets, sudden noises, small-couldn’t-hurt-a-flea dog treats being tossed to-not at- her, and the list could go on. Most of the time it was endearing. Here she is, afraid on Christmas morning of a bone bigger than she was:

She was great with the kids (and me!). She didn’t mind being made to wear jammies, or hide out in a couch cushion fort, or snuggle with a stuffed bear, or wear sunglasses, etc.:

She was great especially with mischievous-even-as-a-baby Nathan:

 

She handled car trips and cross country moves like a pro, even when there was hardly room for her:

 

….and she was a great running buddy:

 

We had a choice, of course. We could have exhausted a lot of financial resources to extend her life. The first step would have been having her leg amputated, and then probably some chemotherapy. The cost was prohibitive, though, and quickly- much more quickly than we expected or were prepared for- the pain and loss of bone in her shoulder caused her to stop using altogether the leg that would have been amputated. As soon as I realized that we were then asking her to live as if she didn’t have the leg anymore without the benefit of the cancer being slowed down or stopped for a time- the benefit that might have come with amputation- I knew we had to act.

This act- one of kindness, I hope, even love- raises a lot of questions, but I don’t have the capacity to deal with them today. Coho was part of our family for over a decade, and while she’ll always be with us in some way, today our family got undeniably smaller.

God is With Us if We Are With Them, Especially When Your New Neighbor is Drunk and Lost

(Arguably the best part of this clip begins at the 4:47 mark; so skip ahead if you’re short on time.)

My new neighbor was drunk on a warm Sunday afternoon. It was just weeks after we moved into the Beltrami neighborhood of NE Minneapolis. Kirsten was gone loving and serving her mom in Coon Rapids; so the boys and I walked the few blocks from our new home down to the corner store (we have a neighborhood corner store!) to buy cheap candy (’cause that’s what you do at a corner store) and then we started walking about a block in the other direction toward the park. There were lots of people out on this bright, warm, late spring afternoon, including more than a few whizzing by on bikes (our home is located along one of Minneapolis’ many urban bike routes).

For some reason, she picked Sam and Nathan and I. She was maybe just out of her teens, though I doubt it. She was young, and looked younger. More than that, she was, as I said, drunk (I could smell it), and scared, and alone.

She came up to me and said she couldn’t find her way home. She didn’t know where she lived. No doubt the alcohol had something to do with it, but she had also apparently just moved into the neighborhood herself. We weren’t much help as she asked for directions, but she also wasn’t even sure of her own new address. We committed to help her, however. She said she had a phone that was dead that if she could just charge would enable her to look up her address. I suggested walking back to the corner store and asking if they would let her plug her phone in for a minute (she said she had her charger with her). Kirsten, the boys, and I had been in the corner store enough since moving in that we knew the folks who run the corner store “are really nice,” and indeed the guy who was working agreed to let her plug her phone in (I never caught my drunk neighbor’s name; things were a little awkward). She plugged it in, but that was useless as the screen was so cracked you couldn’t see anything on the screen. She had asked me to look up her address (somehow) on my phone, but I don’t have a smartphone any more, and so could not.

I had asked her who she lived with, if it was her parents, given how young she looked. She said they hate her, and she did not live with them. Maybe that’s where she moved from. Even so, given the situation, she borrowed my flip phone to call her dad, whom she spoke with, along with her mom. There was arguing and cursing, but someone agreed to text her new address to my phone, which they did, and we agreed to walk her there. It was a block away. We got to her new place, and with obvious relief but not a word to us, she disappeared around back.

Did I help her, I wonder? No doubt she left a bad situation with her parents, but did she leave it for a worse one? And what responsibility do I have now? I don’t know her name, but I know where she lives, and I have access to her parents, I suppose. Would she even remember what happened if we saw her again? Perhaps I assume too much to think I even have some responsibility to “help.” What help could I offer? Obviously she might be a little better off if her life wasn’t such that she found herself drunk and lost a block from her new home in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I can pray for her, to be sure. And perhaps as I and my family run, bike, and take walks in our new neighborhood we can be sure to go her way, just on the off-chance we might run into her again. This, I suppose, is part of the “art of neighboring.” It’s the next sermon series among the people of Mill City Church, and is based on the book of the same name. I’m praying it’s as useful as its promise portends.

I notice as I reflect and write about this experience that there’s something gratifying about it for me, and that troubles me. I wish that young woman hadn’t been drunk and lost, and therefore I wish I hadn’t had the opportunity to help her. I did, though, and I won’t deny that it brought a sense of confirmation that we were on the right path, the path my family and I have been on of late, as we try to follow Jesus more closely by getting “small” and hopefully getting just a little closer to being “under” vis-a-vis the powers that be rather than “over,” which is the position that our heritage and skin tone typically puts us in. I know this: while the ‘burb we came from likely has more than its fair share of drunk neighbors, there was something different about this experience in the city. I’ve written before, for example, about how much more densely populated our current neighborhood is compared to our old one. Thus, the streetscape here is simply much more conducive to precipitating the kind of interaction I write about above; whereas in our old suburban neighborhood the potential for such interaction is greatly diminished, if for no other reason than “white flight” motivated city planning.

My lack of altruism notwithstanding, I am glad that I was there to help her- however much “help” it really was- rather than someone else with less conflicted and more nefarious motives. And besides, if solidarity with the “least of these-” or in the case of this country- the “lesser of these” really does require proximity, as I keep learning it does, I’m glad to be just a little closer to the kind of folks Jesus spent most of his time with. That’s obviously a big part of why we made this move to NE Mpls. So here’s what we’re focusing on this summer:

Our Summer 2017 Family Focus: Trying to Go “Deep” as we “Get Small….”

If you can’t make it out very well, it says:

Phew! We’ve been learning about following Jesus, “that preacher of peace,” from “under,” not “over,” as we try to get “small.” Now it’s time to dig in and consolidate those gains. Let’s go deep and make these lessons ones that are learned and lived every day.

Learn: -Finish peacemaking books (I’ve read the first two of these: A Farewell to Mars, Free of Charge, The Politics of Jesus, & Nonviolent Action)  and complete the Mammon to Manna video series.

Pray: “God, you gave up your power and became small so that you could be close to the ‘least of these,’ our brothers and sisters. Help us to do the same so that we can meet you among them, and in ourselves as we become more like ‘them.’ Help us to decrease, so that you might increase. Amen.”

Do/Act: -Serve in the kitchen at Hope Ave. with our missional community and perfect “the art of neighboring.” Institute car sharing/biking to work.

Summer Family Memory Verse: “…Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” -John 3:29b-30. Background: Some thought John the Baptist was “the Christ.” John alluded to the Church being the bride of Christ and said he was a “friend of the bridegroom” who took joy at hearing the bridegroom’s voice. He then said the above, saying he (John) must get small so that Jesus could take center stage. We rich “white” people, denizens of the “American” empire, are trying to do the same.

Meanwhile we keep learning just how not only political, but economic, the way of Jesus is as we try ever more fully to live as citizens of God’s kingdom rather than the “little kingdoms of this world” and participants in God’s economy rather than unmitigated consumer (late) capitalism. Thus we’re dreaming up ways to share resources and looking for partners to join us, and we’re hopeful that God the giver is positioning us just where we need to be so that we can more fully live into our calling to be givers too. For my just passed 42nd birthday, I was glad to be able to give clean water to 1 person in Africa for life via Team World Vision, for whom I am- Lord willing- running the Twin Cities Marathon (more on that later). I tried to resist wanting any other presents in the form of material goods, but Kirsten and I did pick up a few very cheap secondhand books to continue our learning, which I’m excited about. They are:

We still have a lot to learn via The Powers That Be, Jesus and the Disinherited, God of the Oppressed, and “Say to This Mountain.”

If you’re reading this, whether near or far, might you consider joining our bit of rabble-rousing “foolishness?” We’re cashing in retirement plans to pay off debt and so to be sure not to “store up treasure on earth.” We’re giving stuff away and looking for neighbors to share cars and lives with as we try to take care of God’s good earth and limit the extent to which we live as consumers rather than Jesus-followers. We’re re-imagining savings accounts as generosity funds and conjuring up folks to be generous to. I know there must be others like us out there. After all, my old acquaintance Glenn, whom I know from youth and would call a friend in Jesus, posted this on FB tonight:

Screenshot 2017-06-12 at 11.22.08 PM
Occasionally something good comes from Facebook.

 

God is on the side of the oppressed, indeed. So often we want God to be with us in what we do, and He may well be, as Bono helpfully reminds at the end of the clip that starts this post. But whatever we believe, again as Bono says, we can be sure that:

God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums and the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us, if we are with them.

Amen.

 

I Thought I Was the Giver Here

Giving to whomever asks….(image HT)

I’ve written a lot lately about “giving to whomever asks,” and have been convicted that I need to do so. Reading Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s God’s Economy had a lot to do with that. Thankfully, I also read Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace around the same time. Wilson-Hartgrove challenged me to give to whomever asks “so that I might be a child of my Father in Heaven.” Volf reminded me that my Father is “God the giver,” and that I was made to be a giver too. Still, somehow I managed to place myself right at the center of all this giving that should be happening, when in fact I suspect I’m more rightly seen as a link in a long chain of giving that starts and ends with God.

So yesterday I was reading the day’s entry from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, and it featured this bit of Scripture from Luke 11:

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“‘Father,[a]
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.[b]
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.[c]
And lead us not into temptation.[d]’”

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity[e] he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

There’s probably a lot to unpack there, but for now I’ll just highlight a few things that stood out for me as I encountered this passage again. First, obviously this is one of the places where we find the Lord’s Prayer. I’ll just note what I mentioned in another recent post, that after four decades of repeating this prayer, perhaps for the first time I understood, or was ready to understand, just how important the word daily is in the prayer. In asking for our daily bread- and only our daily bread- we are invited to trust in God’s provision and goodness over and over again, each and every day. In doing so we’re invited to share, to be givers ourselves. If somehow we wind up with more than enough bread for today, it’s important that we share it with someone who might lack today’s bread. I think I always thought of that part of the Lord’s prayer as being about recognizing where bread comes from. That’s important, to be sure, but as much as it may be about acknowledging the source of bread, I know now that it’s also about enacting a ritual of trust. We could acknowledge God the giver of bread once, ask for and receive enough to last us as long as a lifetime, and be done with it all. Somehow that just doesn’t seem right, does it? To turn to God each and every day for just enough bread for that day feels and is wholly different. By necessity such an arrangement requires relationship, which is kind of the point, and again it creates capacity for generosity to not only be received along with today’s bread, but to  be passed on should we again have more than enough bread for today.

Another thing I noticed in reading this passage yesterday was what appears to be the climax of it. After all that talk about how to pray and persistently ask God for what we need and after the reminder that even we know how to give our own children what they need, the writer of Luke says: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” To go through all that language about asking God for what we need and then talk about the Father giving the Holy Spirit to those who ask him, seems to imply that the gift of the Holy Spirit must be pretty important. In other words, when the writer of Luke wants to hold up an example of God the giver giving a good gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit is his go-to example. I, for one, am inspired (no Biblical language pun intended) to try to be more attuned to the Holy Spirit’s presence and leading in my life.

Common Prayer usually adds a prayer that is informed by the Scripture for that day. Yesterday’s prayer was as follows:

A part of yesterday’s reading from Common Prayer

If you’ve been reading this blog of late, you may be able to guess that I was stunned by one little turn of phrase: “you promise to give to those who ask.” This wording may be no accident, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of God’s Economy, is a collaborator on Common Prayer. Still, it hit me hard. Over and over again, as I keep saying, I’ve been confronted of late by the notion that Jesus’ command to give to those who ask us is one we should be taking seriously, along with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Here it is from Matthew:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a]39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Love for Enemies

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And here it is in Luke:

Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

And here is the bit from God’s Economy that I keep coming back to:

Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.

It is indeed notable, as Wilson-Hartgrove points out in God’s Economy, that the command to give to the one who asks comes in the context of teaching about enemy love, which Jesus frames as a duty we perform “so that we might become children of our Father in heaven.” Isn’t it obvious that we “have’s” so often regard the “have-not’s” as our enemies out of fear that they might take what we think is ours? Loving them, and giving to them when and what they ask of us, enacts the reconciliation that we’re called to take part in; it tears down the wall of hostility between us. When we do so, we are indeed children of our Father in heaven, God the giver.

Yesterday morning I was reminded that it is not only we who are told to give to whomever asks, but that God himself is “wired” this way. In the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to ask God for our daily bread. In Jesus’ further teaching on prayer in that passage we are reminded that if even we, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, surely God the giver, who is good, will give good gifts (namely, the Holy Spirit) to us. When I give, I am indeed my Father’s son. For that, I am grateful. Now I just need to make sure I don’t live a life that is so isolated from anyone who might ask anything of me that I deprive myself of the opportunity to act like my Father’s son, to be who I’m called to be. If true solidarity with those in need requires proximity, giving may as well. We’re trying to literally and figuratively “move” in that direction, but I know we still have a long way to go. Lord, help us.