Why Am I Still So Rich? Why Are You?

Our new place in NE Mpls. We have the 2nd floor unit.
It’s been over a month since my last post, an uncharacteristic drought for me, at least of late. I’ll chalk it up to the incredible busy-ness surrounding our move from the ‘burbs into the Beltrami neighborhood in NE Mpls.

That’s an attribution I could get away with, but I’ll confess that there’s a little more to it. Forcing myself to be honest, I think I’ve experienced our arrival here and the aftermath as a bit anti-climactic. Of course, that’s only possible because clearly I had built this move up in my own head to entail something of a climax. In the space of a month I’ve found myself with a new place to live, a new job, and even a new bank, and with all that change has come all the disruption you might expect. I didn’t quite plan it this way, obviously.

As we began to, I hope and believe, really listen to what God might be saying to us in new ways and with a new willingness to literally follow where we were being led, we found ourselves open to new possibilities as they began to present themselves, and present themselves they did. While we knew we probably weren’t long for the ‘burbs, this move to Mpls. only came about because we were talking to some folks from our church about what we were learning and our sense that our calling to get “small,” coupled with our realization that solidarity (with the “least of these”) requires proximity, would likely mean moving. Out of that conversation the opportunity arose to move into the space we’re living in now. There was a little more intentionality behind my job change, though not in regard to the timing. As my former employer, a for-profit social service agency which had recently given its CEO job to a former investment banker/pharmaceutical industry type, began making ever more changes under that new CEO’s leadership that reflected the priorities of the Mammon-serving industries from which he came, it became ever more clear that I would need to find another job soon. It just so happened that the opportunity arose to work for a faith-based non-profit I’ve long respected and have some familiarity with, and it just so happened that this opportunity included working less than 2 miles from our new home. Thus, as I’ve been so grateful for of late, the “rare trifecta” has been achieved in which I live, work, and worship within the same community- all within a 2 mile radius of our new home.

Is this “Overdraft?” HT to this page for the pic.

We had been planning to change banks too, though again hadn’t quite planned to do it just yet. Our soon to be former bank began locally but now has a footprint in a number of states, and its former CEO infamously has a boat named “Overdraft” after all the $ collected from charging fees when overdrafts occur. When we learned that there was a much smaller, “certified B corp.” bank whose mission is to give financial access to under-served communities, we knew we had to bank with them as soon as we could. When it became clear that we were not only moving but I was changing jobs at the same time (and therefore our direct deposits would be disrupted due to the job change anyway), it made sense to just make all the changes all at once. So we did.

Still, we’re not just doing all this because we felt like it. We truly have experienced a profound sense of calling to again get as “small” as we can, and this move represents a significant step of faith in that direction. Though our place in the ‘burbs was not huge (by rich Western USAmerican standards) and represented downward movement (in terms of space) from what I still describe as our “modest” home in OH, we’ve now cut our space down by probably a third again with this latest move. We share a garage in our new space, and our side is relatively full, and sadly we do have some stuff in storage at Kirsten’s mom’s; nonetheless, we got rid of a lot of stuff as we moved here, and I’m grateful. As I keep saying, we shouldn’t have more stuff than can fit in our current space.

We went from a street on which the houses/townhomes were widely spaced out and one could really go a long while if one desired without interacting with or even hearing one’s neighbors, to a neighborhood in which the houses are tightly packed together with some so close to each other that you could literally pass items through open windows from one house to another. Many of the houses on our current street aren’t all that much smaller than those in the ‘burbs we came from, but many of them here in the city have been converted into multi-family homes with several rental units in each, including ours. That, plus the much greater density of the housing stock means that there is much greater density of people to go with it. Our street is busy with frequent foot and bicycle traffic, and we often interact with our neighbors (well, some of them anyway). There’s a real sense of community here- desired or not- that was designed away in the ‘burbs from which we came. We’re glad for that.

NE Mpls. is a haven for artists and is the setting for the just completed Art-A-Whirl, an annual open house of all the local galleries packed into this part of the city that showcases local art. It’s the largest event of its kind in the country. One of those galleries is at the end of our street. Right across from that gallery, also at the end of our street, is what we already know to be a delicious Asian food restaurant from which we had take-out last weekend. Across the street from our house, a few houses up, is a house at which folks frequently come to the stoop to smoke. Whenever they do, they almost always sing- loudly, beautifully, and in harmony. I don’t know if all the singers live there or if they sing vocationally or if they just can’t help themselves, but they do it well, and I always appreciate it and try to listen. It’s less than a mile from our new place to the only vegan “butcher” in the country, which is very close to a taco chain from TX that has some good vegan options and one of our favorite running stores. While this particular section of Minneapolis is still fairly Caucasian, there’s much, much more diversity than there ever was in the neighborhood from which we came. Both of the new schools the boys go to are very diverse, and Samuel is in fact a minority at his. We can see some of the landmark skyscrapers of downtown Mpls. just over the tops of the trees from the windows on one side of our new place. The ‘burbs this is not.

Of course, it’s not exactly the “ghetto” either. Like many urban settings, NE Mpls. is gentrifying, and it gave us pause to consider that we would be contributing to that phenomenon by moving here. We only hope that on balance our presence does more good than harm. Obviously, it remains to be seen if that will be the case. Nonetheless, being here, especially taken with all the other changes in our lives, is a step in the direction of much more consistently and with integrity living into our values. Our rent here will be cheaper than in the ‘burbs, and as we moved here we made many, many changes to try to live more simply and more consistently act as if we really believe that everything belongs to God, that everything is a gift from God, including the money we “earn” using the gifts God has given us. As has been well documented on this blog, prior to moving here we gave up our  smartphones and “cut the cord” again. We quit contributing to our retirement plans because of all the unjust ways in which those funds were being used and because we’re supposed to be storing up treasure in heaven, not on earth.  We gave away a lot of the stuff we had accumulated and sold some other things, and we pray that this purge represents changes to our way of life that we will be able to sustain. Doing all this has freed up a lot of money in our budget, and with it we’re more rapidly paying down debt than we ever could have imagined just a few short months ago. We’re building capacity into our lives, both financial and otherwise, to much more faithfully be who we feel called to be.

We know we’re called to be generous, for starters, that this is something God the giver wants for us, not from us. We know we’re called to tread lightly on God’s good earth and to be present to our neighbors, let alone to one another in our own immediate family. We know, as I’ve been saying, that we’re called to get as “small” as we can, to live as citizens of God’s kingdom from “under,” not “over” the kingdom(s) of this world, especially the kingdom which is the U.S.A. and the unmitigated consumer capitalism and war-making empire for which it stands. All of this means that we’re more keenly aware perhaps than we ever have been of the degree to which we’re called to swim upstream in the culture(s) we’re immersed in. We’re immersed in the culture of consumer capitalism, for example, but we now know more clearly than ever before that we can’t follow Jesus and the dictates of that culture. We can’t serve Jesus and Mammon, and that actually means something. It means we have to act in contradistinction to what most consider to be wise and prudent financial behavior. Many think it wise if possible to not be in debt (though few seem to live this out). On this point, we agree, and we’re grateful that all the other financial choices we’ve made of late to help us get “small” have built up capacity in our budget to enable us to rapidly pay off some debt we’ve been accumulating for many years (not counting student loan debt, which we’ll continue to carry for quite some time, sadly).

Image HT
That said, most would say it’s wise, prudent, and faithful to not only not carry debt but also to save- preferably up to three months’ worth of salary or more to help provide in the event of illness, injury, or job loss. Most say it’s wise to save for retirement and to plan for it someday. Most say it’s wise to own a home and take advantage of the chance to build equity and maximize tax savings. I could go on, but on these points we’re just not so sure anymore, and again we must consider: what if Jesus really meant what he said? He said, after all, that our hearts will be where our treasure is, and that we should store up for ourselves treasure in heaven, not on earth. The hard truth is that every savings account, IRA, and disability insurance policy is a tool meant to do just the opposite of what Jesus called us to. They’re tools meant for no other purpose than to literally store up treasure on earth, however virtuous one’s intentions might be regarding that earthly stored-up treasure. Though we’re still figuring (all) this out, we’re not even sure of the logic of home-ownership any more. I wouldn’t suggest that every home purchase represents something less than what God wants for us. Buying a house certainly helps one be rooted in a community, and that is a good thing. However, I’ll say again that when we gave up the home we had owned for 10 years to come here in part, but certainly not solely, to help Kirsten’s mom, we readily accepted the frequently used and seemingly Scriptural logic that “…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age.” I’ve written a lot about this passage from Mark 10 and the stunning realization I had about it as I heard it used in several Mill City Church sermons and especially in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s seminal book, God’s Economy. I’ll give you the verse again, with a little more context. Just after Jesus has said to “let the little children come to him,” thereby radically giving prestige and status to those whose socioeconomic position in the household economy of the day was lower even than that of slaves, and then after the “rich young ruler” has “gone away sad” because Jesus has told him to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor because this is the “one thing he lacked,” after all this, this is what happens next:
 

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

 
I’ve written a fair bit already about my stunning realization that after learning, I thought, so well that so many of the “you’s” in the New Testament that talk about how to live the Christian life and follow Jesus were plural, addressed to you, the church; somehow I still managed to think this particular passage was about me (the individual). Of course it’s not. Jesus isn’t saying that I and my family will be rewarded handsomely with material goods if in fact we have given any up for his sake. He’s saying we don’t need them. He’s saying that we’re part of a community that collectively has so much more than any one of us or any one family among us could ever want or need. So, thanks be to God and still, Lord willing, I and my family are doubling down on our “downsizing” ways. Thus, we find ourselves here in our new space in the Beltrami neighborhood.
Our daily “bread?” Image HT.

Interestingly, I had yet another of those stunning Scriptural revelations within the last couple of weeks. As someone who supposedly has been trying to follow Jesus for most of his life, I’ve probably said the Lord Prayer’s thousands of times- without ever fully realizing what I was really asking for. As I’ve also written about recently related to all this, in the desert God rained down manna from heaven daily (except on the Sabbath), and he who gathered much never “gathered too much,” and he who gathered little “never too little,” because they shared. And those who tried to hoard and save some for the next day found it spoiled the next day (except on the Sabbath). Thus, each and every day they had to trust God for their “daily bread.” In the prayer Jesus taught us, he invokes this bit of Israel’s collective history and invites his followers to continue to trust God for their daily bread with the simple words: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Again after 41 years on this earth and 20 of them as an adult trying to follow Jesus, I realized that Jesus doesn’t say to ask God for our weekly bread, or our monthly or yearly bread, or enough bread to hide some away so that some day we can retire and stop collecting bread. Jesus doesn’t say any of that. He invites us to trust God every day for just what we need for that day. Capitalism and good, common sense financial wisdom- even what most consider good stewardship- this is not. This is utter nonsense, utter foolishness in the eyes of the world and I would argue in the eyes of most “Christians,” but this is the life Jesus invites us into.

And it kind of makes sense, if we’re also invited to “give to whomever asks.” Especially in this society and especially for people of my gender, location in history, and skin tone, I have access to more “bread” than I could ever possibly need. Thus a life of radical generosity is not only possible but clearly demanded of me. What other reason could there be for the unimaginable bounty I’ve been given? So then why am I still so rich?

That question- why am I still so rich?- has been haunting me of late in terms of my own life of course but also as I’ve wrestled with the ideas and thinking of Bob Lupton in his much talked about (at least in the circles I’m a part of these days) book, Toxic Charity. Let the reader of this post beware that I myself have not read Toxic Charity. Naturally, I’m not in the habit of commenting much on books I haven’t read, but obviously I’m about to. The book has generated enough “buzz” since it came out a few years back that there’s a lot of discussion of it to be found online. It also seems to be well-esteemed among the leadership of my faith community; so I’ve found myself repeatedly encountering some of the ideas Bob and his book(s) present, and am feeling more and more compelled to respond to them even as I continue to learn about them (learning which, I assure you, will include reading the book in the near future!). At first glance, Bob should be someone that I would be inclined to like, respect, and esteem myself. He’s a Christian Community Development practitioner and has spoken at the CCDA conference. He’s a Jesus-follower who was himself compelled to respond to the “good news for the poor” by moving his family from the ‘burbs to the “inner city” to live among, love, and serve his neighbors there, thus enacting one of the “three R’s” of Christian Community Development- “relocation.” As is often said about this principle, “Jesus didn’t commute from heaven every day when he walked the earth and loved and served us.” There’s a lesson there. Bob took it to heart and has lived in “inner city” Atlanta for 40 years, and for that I do indeed think well of him. Moreover, he’s calling the church to “do no harm” in its efforts to love the poor and wants to see all God’s children realize their full potential and not be dependent on government entitlement programs for their sustenance and well-being. This, I suppose, is what he says is often “toxic” about charity, that by indiscriminately giving “handouts” to the poor- apparently whether it’s the church doing so or the government- the “have’s” create dependency in and “destroy the work ethic of” the “have-not’s.” There’s a lot to be said about that, which I’ll get to shortly.

 
All that said, it’s precisely because of Lupton’s history and associations (with CCDA, with many church leaders who think well of his message, including the leaders of my own faith community) that should incline me to want to agree with him or at least give him the benefit of the doubt that I find myself struggling so mightily because I just can’t. The more I learn and reflect on what Lupton’s message seems to be, the more I discover that I simply don’t agree with him, and this has bugged me enough that I’ve been compelled to research, think, pray, and now write about it all. Lupton seems supremely interested in the results of charity work, while Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Miroslav Volf might say that the act of giving to whomever asks is as much about us as givers and therefore image-bearers of God the giver, as it is about those to whom we give or the “results” of said giving. Nevertheless, Lupton wants to center the conversation on “results-” what lifts people out of poverty- but is overly critical of the poor along the way. One reviewer wrote:
One criticism is that Lupton moves uncritically between uplifting the capacity and creativity of the poor and degrading them as lazy and dishonest.  “Most [panhandlers] are scammers,” he states (45).  Most poor people in the United States “assume that their subsistence is guaranteed” and so lack any kind of work ethic, he claims (121).  I won’t dignify his words with the verb “argues” because Lupton doesn’t argue his points; he simply states them.  I would be concerned that statements like this, when coupled with his criticisms of charity, would motivate more people to avoid service work in the first place than to engage in the community development he suggests.
Another reviewer of his follow-up book, Charity Detox, which builds on the ideas presented in Toxic Charity, said:
…the author seems unwilling to address (or even admit) that some of the root causes of and root solutions for poverty are related to social policy. It is hard not to sniff ideology. The author talks more about the rich than the poor, telling story after story of rich entrepreneurs whose faith and business acumen change impoverished communities. Meanwhile, too often “the poor” are mostly faceless, nameless, and never described as “low-income communities” or even “our sisters and brothers.” It makes for uncomfortable reading.

Interestingly, when Jesus tells stories, he seems to take the opposite approach. In the story of the “rich man and Lazarus,” for example, it’s the “rich man” who lacks a name while the poor man is named- Lazarus- and known. Indeed it is the poor man who is “carried to Abraham’s side” when he dies, while the rich man is “in torment” “in Hades.” This is a subject for another post, one I’ve already written. Meanwhile, Lupton seems to want to say to the rich two things, one of which I wholeheartedly agree with. On the one hand, he encourages rich folk to live alongside poor folk (he did it, and again I respect him greatly for it). He seems to think that by doing so rich folk will “see” (and hopefully “hear” through meaningful relationships with their neighbors) what poor folk “really need.” By virtue of proximity with poor folk, rich folk will then on the other hand be better able to invest in “good” charity. Meanwhile, the effective message he seems to have for the poor is essentially to ask, “why aren’t you less poor yet?” There’s a corollary question that goes unasked, that might be asked of the rich, “why aren’t you less rich yet?” Lupton seems silent on this subject, but it’s a question I can’t avoid, especially as I direct it at myself.

What bothers me most about Lupton’s “argument(s)” is just how firmly they seem to be rooted in the economy of this world- capitalism, specifically, and thus just how firmly they are out of place in God’s economy. Lupton’s ideas for helping poor folks pull themselves up by their own bootstraps so that they can better participate in consumer capitalism simply have no place in an economy where everyone shares everything because every good thing is an unearned gift from God the giver. They have no place in a world in which we give to whomever asks, without judgment. They have no place in a world that lacks only one thing- scarcity. In God’s economy, there is more than enough for all and since all share freely there finally “are no poor among us;” neither are there any rich. This is the world I want to live in, and as for me and my house, we will be living as if we do.

Our challenge is to find partners who want to live in such a world too. I suspect that may be why our move to our new place and everything it represents for us may feel a little anti-climactic now that we’re here. We’re excited to get to know our neighbors here, and some- though not all- of our new neighbors seem to feel likewise. Still, while we’re so very grateful to now be leaning into the life we feel called to much more than we have in a very long time, it still feels a little…lonely. We remain convinced we simply can’t live this life alone, and we believe that this is not what Jesus wants for us either. So then perhaps our biggest challenge is simply to be patient. It took us 20 years to finally be “ready” to follow Jesus like we should have all along. Lord willing, there are partners who will join us- or whom we can join- along this way with Jesus; I only pray they learn a little faster than we do.

“Oh Lord, Bless This Thy Holy Hand Grenade, That With It Thou Mayest Blow Thine Enemies To Tiny Bits, In Thy Mercy.”

I can’t help but think that everyone’s been reading from The Book of Armaments rather than the Bible.

Yesterday I heard a Christian say, in response to the comment of a co-worker that was in some way related to the election (still!), “you lost!” Later I read about a church that is so afraid that it has asked its state legislature for (and may well get) permission to form its own police force. This morning I saw a headline about a Republican legislator using the Bible to justify withdrawing food stamps from welfare recipients, and then I saw a person online wanting to re-hash Vietnam (still!) by arguing that the U.S. bombing campaign was successful and the war was only “lost” because Democrats who were swept into power on the heels of Watergate stopped funding the shipment of arms to South Vietnam.

Is this what Jesus died for? Is this the best we can do? All of this occurred just after Jesus, just a few days ago as we follow him through Holy Week on his way to the cross, wept over Jerusalem because she “did not know the things that made for peace.” She still doesn’t. Neither, apparently, do we.

Doesn’t that vindictive Christian so ready to shout “you lost!” realize that we all lost with the election of Trump, and would have just as surely if Hillary had been elected too? (I saw something else online recently describing the surreal world we live in, in which Clinton argues for the bombing of Syria, Trump goes ahead and does it, and both blame Obama.)

Doesn’t that fearful “church” know that violence begets violence, that those who live by the sword will die by it? Doesn’t that fearful “church” know that Jesus sets us free from fear, that if God is for us no one can stand against us, no matter how many guns and bullets they have?

Doesn’t that stingy, heartless Republican know that there is enough, enough food for all, enough resources to meet everyone’s needs, if only “he who gathers much does not gather too much, and he who gathers little does not gather too little,” if only we would “give to whomever asks” and stop treating the poor as our enemies, as Jesus commands?

Doesn’t that warmonger who’s still bitter about Vietnam know that the same “successful” U.S. bombing campaign involved dropping more bombs per capita on Laos (not Vietnam) than on any other country on earth, in part simply because U.S. bomber pilots sometimes had their mission changed in-flight or didn’t drop their bombs on Vietnam for some reason, but didn’t feel safe landing their planes with bombs still onboard, and so dropped them on Laos indiscriminately on their way home, never mind the people below?

Screenshot 2017-04-12 at 4.16.48 PM
Unexploded ordnance dropped on Laos. HT to this great site for the image.

In a couple of days our violent ways will culminate in violence against God himself as the state executes Jesus on the cross, and Jesus will interrupt this and every cycle of violence by receiving it without retaliating and praying “Father, forgive them, for they know what they do.”

Father, forgive us. We still don’t know what we’re doing. Teach us to follow you, the Prince of Peace. Amen.

Trampling the Flag on Palm Sunday: A Word to the Irrelevant “Powers-” Freedom Is Coming

HT to this site for this Palm Sunday art by Bill Hemmerling

I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.

Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…

…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?

Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.

Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 5:38-42

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:

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.

Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:

Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.

Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp.  He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister.  Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:

Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning.  While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church.  After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.

Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth.  The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis.  Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.”   He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.

Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943.  He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.

Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?

The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”

Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.

That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.

All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”

The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.IMG_0332.JPG (2)

The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.

Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…

(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”

 

Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political. kid_soccer_fan

 

I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.

In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.

We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!

Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.

 

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.

This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.

We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.

Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?

I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.

What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:

  • foreign occupation
  • injustice
  • politics of empire
  • economic policies

in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?

There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.

As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not.  Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.

Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.

 

Capitalism Has Me Feeling Sad and Depressed Because of My Illicit Taking and Greedy Cheating

Do me a favor and give a watch to the short video of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove above. As anyone who’s been reading this blog of late knows, I’ve been profoundly influenced by his book God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, and my family and I have been struggling with how to live in light of the truth it revealed. I’ve recounted that journey so far here, here, and here. As I said recently on Facebook (God help me, we’re back- sort of- on Facebook): “This book changed my life and that of my family in ways that are just beginning to unfold. I probably became a ‘Christian’ when I was 5 years old. I don’t think I really started following Jesus, however, until a few months ago, and that was after 20 years as an adult of really, really trying to do so.” Part of that “really, really trying” before involved forays and flirtations into alternativity. I’ve been marginally “woke” to the world’s injustice, pain, and suffering at least since the summer of 1995, when loyal readers know I did Kingdomworks, that then summer program that had me on a team of other college students in inner-city Philly where we partnered with a local congregation to reach out to its neighborhood youth. Along the way, I became somewhat aware that I was swimming in a capitalist stream or perhaps better said living in a capitalist ocean that atomized relationships and reduced us all to consumers motivated by our own self-interest. Having this marginal awareness, Kirsten and I over the years have experimented with community living and a few halting shared economic relationships. These attempts were good in their own place and time, but never amounted to much. ←Look at that sentence I just wrote; do you notice the language, as I do, of quantification? Economics are everywhere, and God’s economy matters.

So last night, courtesy of Facebook (again, God help me), I came across a recent piece, provocatively entitled “It’s Basically Just Immoral to be Rich.” The author, A.Q. Smith, is careful to argue that he’s not addressing how one acquires wealth, which quickly sidetracks most such conversations. Instead, he’s speaking to what happens once you get it. He says:

I therefore think there is a sort of deflection that goes on with defenses of wealth. If we find it appalling that there are so many rich people in a time of need, we are asked to consider questions of acquisition rather than questions of retention. The retention question, after all, is much harder for a wealthy person to answer. It’s one thing to argue that you got rich legitimately. It’s another to explain why you feel justified in spending your wealth upon houses and sculptures rather than helping some struggling people pay their rent or paying off a bunch of student loans or saving thousands of people from dying of malaria.

 It’s a salient point, one the author makes perhaps most cogently, and more controversially, here:

To take a U.S. example: white families in America have 16 times as much wealth on average as black families. This is indisputably because of slavery, which was very recent (there are people alive today who met people who were once slaves). Larry Ellison of Oracle could put his $55 billion in a fund that could be used to just give houses to black families, not quite as direct “reparations” but simply as a means of addressing the fact that the average white family has a house while the average black family does not. But instead of doing this, Larry Ellison bought the island of Lanai. (It’s kind of extraordinary that a single human being can just own the sixth-largest Hawaiian island, but that’s what concentrated wealth leads to.) Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others.

Do you find this as challenging as I do? Notice something, though. The author speaks of “buying houses and sculptures” instead of helping those struggling to pay rent, or in the case of Larry Ellison, of buying a whole island rather than answering the legacy of white privilege, slavery, and racism with an effort to provide housing to people of color who have encountered institutional barriers to acquiring good housing all their lives- and all the lives of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and on back through the generations. Clearly it seems to me he’s speaking of the excesses, of the conspicuous consumption of the “1%,” while so many of us, even privileged males of European descent like myself, think of ourselves as the “99%.” Truth be told, however, nothing could be further from said truth. People like Larry Ellison are the ultra or “super-” rich who truly could be counted among the very few whose wealth puts them orders of magnitude above people like you and I, if you’re anything like me. However, there’s a little more to be said there. Wikipedia says of Ellison: “As of February 2017, he was listed by Forbes magazine as the fifth-wealthiest person in America and as the seventh-wealthiest in the world, with a fortune of $55 billion.” Plug those numbers into the ever helpful Global Rich List, and it looks like this:

Clearly you and I aren’t Larry Ellisons, right? Are we really “the 99%,” though? I put in the combined income of Kirsten and I into that same ever helpful Global Rich List tool, and this is what came out:

The “99%” we are not. We may not be the “0.0001%,” but we most certainly are the “1%.” A.Q. Smith above wants to blame the Larry Ellisons of the world for holding onto their wealth instead of distributing it to the poor, and he may be right to do so, the efforts of the Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling‘s of the world notwithstanding (seriously, click on the Bill Gates link; he literally can’t give his money away fast enough, or can he?). But A.Q. Smith, like the rest of us, is swimming in the sea of capitalism. He’s immersed in our shared consumer culture, and does not seem to yet be self-aware enough to realize that to whatever extent he has two coats or pants or pairs of shoes while there are people in the world, his would-be neighbors, who lack such things, they do so because he holds on to too many. Of course, no doubt part of his lack of awareness of this has everything to do with the fact that our atomizing individualistic capitalist consumer culture does everything within its power to prevent those on the margins from actually being our neighbors.

So it seems obvious to me, now anyway, that the modest accumulation of wealth and “stuff” (modest in comparison to that of the “0.0001%-ers”) that I and my family have been engaged in for so long is just as reprehensible as the wealthy behavior of people like Larry Ellison. However, I am reminded that this is nothing new. Some would-be Jesus followers have known this for a very, very long time, and have been calling us to do better. The great (ha!) 4th century Greek Bishop Basil the Great is reported to have once preached:

Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance? But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.

 This is the essential challenge that God’s economy poses to we rich (yes, WE rich)- to remember that everything belongs to God and that we who both gather and keep much are therefore greedy cheaters. This language of gathering and keeping comes, of course, from Scripture, and I was reminded of it as I recently finished Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf. As the loyal reader knows, I read Economy of Love and then God’s Economy and then Sabbath Economics: Household Practices in January, and my life was changed. As Lent began further change came as I felt the call to not only begin participating in God’s economy but also to remember that I follow the Prince of Peace. Thus I read Farewell to Mars and then Free of Charge, while next up is The Politics of Jesus. I chose, as I’ve previously mentioned, Free of Charge because I knew that radical forgiveness would be crucial to life as a peacemaker. What I did not anticipate was just how much Free of Charge would also have to say about participating in God’s economy.

Volf has a lot to say that I found again truly challenging and transformative, but I’ll try very imperfectly to sum up some of what I learned below. Volf argues God exists primarily as love, of course, and so exists essentially as a giver. Many years ago I came to the understanding that God is love in God’s self because God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that it was this love that overflowed to creation and in the very act of creation, and so we were made, I’ve been saying, “in and for love.” Volf says something like this too, and I wouldn’t dare say that he stands on my shoulders in doing so, but I don’t mind standing on his and I’m comforted to know that we came to the same conclusion. Of course, Volf does much more with this than I ever have. Volf says that just as love flows among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and from God to us, so does giving. Volf goes on to argue that just therefore as God is “God the giver” (and later he argues that God is also God the for-giver), so too were we made to be givers too. Volf says that God gives to us for our benefit, and so should we. Thus giving is as essential to our nature as love (and flows from it), and we stifle who we were made to be when we keep what was given to us for ourselves only instead of passing it on as was intended. He also reminds us that everything belongs to God, even our very breath. Thus we can’t argue that we’ve really earned anything (and therefore shouldn’t have to give it) since whatever we’ve acquired through our efforts to get a salary, for example, only came to us because of the gifts we were given that enabled us to acquire that salary. If life itself is a gift and with it our minds and arms and ability to do anything at all, we misunderstand ourselves and our place in the world if we think we deserve anything we have or somehow “pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” For those with ears to hear there are clear implications for how we think about “charity” and the social safety net, but I digress.

Volf is careful to argue that while some may have some special calling to give all, even their very lives, for the sake of others so that there is little left even for their own sustenance and well-being (think Mother Teresa, for example), in most cases we do well to remember that God gives for our benefit and so he wants us to be have enough to sustain ourselves and even flourish, but such “flourishing” may look very different from how most good consumer capitalists might think of it, however. This brings me back to the language of “gathering” and “keeping” in Scripture that I alluded to above. This can be found in several places. In Exodus 16 the Israelites wandered in the desert and grumbled about the lack of food, and God responded:

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer[a] for each person you have in your tent.’”

17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little.18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.

19 Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”

God himself provided the food they needed each day, and though some gathered (acquired) much and some little, once they “measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” Indeed, “everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.” Why? Because they shared. Moreover, it was clear that they were not to keep getting for getting’s sake, as if they did try to keep any of this bread from heaven, this manna, until morning, it rotted. They were required to trust God for what they needed each and every day. We would do well to do likewise.

Paul touches on this in one of his letters to the Corinthians:

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able,and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

10 And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”[b]

Notice what’s happening in this passage. The Macedonian churches, despite “their extreme poverty,” found that said poverty “welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.” Think of the widow’s mite. Paul is urging the church in Corinth to do likewise, to give what they’ve been given so that all may share in the abundance God gives to all. Volf discusses this passage of Scripture in Free of Charge. In my last post I quoted Volf from Free of Charge in which he discussed why it would make little sense for God to give us more so that we could in turn give to the needy, thereby ending their neediness. Volf argues this makes little sense because it’s clear that God has already given us more than enough and we have thus far been negligent in sharing what we’ve already been given. Volf goes on in that same part of the book to say this:

We want God to multiply the loaves and fish to feed the multitudes, as Jesus did in the Gospels. But the Apostle suggested that we’ll be able to feed the multitudes if we’d let God change how we think about the loaves and fish we already have. Consider the extraordinary claim he made about Macedonian believers: Their “extreme poverty…overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthinas 8:2). The Apostle knew, of course, that you can’t give what you don’t have. They gave “according to their means, and even beyond their means” (v. 3), no more than that. But he also believed that we don’t have to have an excess of goods in order to give.

Here’s the coup de grace from Volf:

We can be poor and afflicted- indeed, we can be extremely poor and severely afflicted- and still give. We can be affluent and secure- indeed, we can be opulent and bursting with power- and still not give. Wealth doesn’t make us givers; poverty can’t prevent us from being givers. The poor can give a kind word, a sympathetic ear, or a helping hand. But they can also share food, clothing, shelter, and money- and they generally do it in greater proportion to their means than the wealthy do.

 And here I thought I was reading a book that would help me forgive better so that I could better live into the way of peace Jesus calls us to. (By the way, it does that too.)

As I’ve become convicted of the extent to which I and my family have been “illicit takers” to use Volf’s language, or “greedy cheaters” to use Basil the Great’s, we’ve felt called to get as “small” as we can. We’ve been giving stuff away or otherwise purging quite a bit of our possessions and, thanks be to God, look forward to moving into a fair bit smaller (and somewhat cheaper) place in NE Minneapolis in the next month where we can be more closely integrated into the life that Mill City Church is trying to have together there. Still, I wonder if what we’re doing is enough. How can it be, really, when I remain among the “1%,” living on something like $300/day (together among Kirsten, the boys, and I) while much of the world lives on less than $1/day? Volf speaks to this too, and I alluded to it above. He says:

The world’s needs are larger than any one person’s capacities, though they are not larger than our collective capacities! Our resources are limited, and needs cry to us from all sides. And they all need to be met. But is meeting all needs a responsibility of each person?…God is the primoridal and infinite giver, and it is God’s responsibility, not mine, to give to everyone. Each of us is only a single channel, one of many through which God’s gifts flow. Our responsibility is to meet needs as we encounter them, as they come to us in the course of our lives, whether they are close at hand, as in the case of the Good Samaritan, or far away, as when the Corinthians helped the Jerusalem poor.

He adds, again as I alluded to above: “God doesn’t give only for us to pass it on; God gives so that we ourselves can exist and indeed flourish- and so that we can be flourishing rather than languishing givers.” Still, if “generosity is something God wants for,” not from, me, just how to live such a life in light of what I’ve learned about my heretofore illicit taking and greedy cheating remains elusive, and hard. I hear Volf’s admonition to meet needs as I encounter them, but what if capitalist consumer culture has so shaped my life that I can go all day, if I want to, without ever encountering a person in need, without ever having to think about my privilege as a historically wealthy person, let alone a “white” person?

I’ve been struggling with these questions a lot recently. I have some vague sense of how shaped I am, how compelled I am to be a good capitalist consumer who will do his part to keep feeding the consumption based machine. So we gave up our smartphones and got rid of one of our big TV’s. I still spend a lot of time in front of a screen being programmed to want more and more and keep doing my part for the world’s (not God’s) economy, but amazingly I do so less now than I did before. Yet I still spend some of that screen time feeding my consumptive habit. As a loyal Amazon customer, my “cart” is ever filled. It used to be filled with gadgets and thingamajigs, but I’m a much better person now (that’s sarcasm). Now it’s filled with books by Ched Myers and Walter Wink (I’m eager to read the “powers” series which I know will help me better live in opposition to those powers that Jesus has already defeated, including all the ‘isms, of which capitalism is just one of many). This makes me a better person as I’ve said, right? Doesn’t it?

Providentially, it was on one of those screens this morning that I read Rod White’s latest post. I sat there reading it, simply stunned. As I’ve said, the call to follow Jesus instead of Mammon, to participate in God’s economy of abundance rather than the world’s economy of scarcity and hoarding, is one that rings with crystal clarity for me right now, but as I’ve also said, it feels so very hard. It feels like swimming upstream, like trying to extricate oneself from the ocean one usually isn’t even aware of. Then Rod said this, which I give to you in its entirety:

What does it mean to love in an era when people have been reduced to “human resources?” I wish it seemed obvious to state that the culture of capitalism dramatically affects how people understand themselves and one another. But I don’t think it is obvious; thus, this blog post.

Is Capitalism the best system?

Not long ago I was watching one of the news channels and tuned in to an interview of a 90-year-old billionaire. He interrupted his young interviewer at one point so he could make sure to say what he wanted to teach. He said, “There is one thing everyone needs to understand. Capitalism is the best system. We tried communism, or at least some did, and it failed. We tried socialism and that does not work.”

The interviewer did not say, “What do you mean by ‘working?’ Are you talking about ‘achieving the most profit with as little expenditure as possible for the shareholders or owners of an enterprise?’” Instead, she just moved on, either swallowing what everyone has been taught or being afraid to contradict it.

I think 90% of the people who enter a Sunday meeting  react about the same way as the interviewer every day. They spend the week moving along with capitalism and the billionaires who run it — and preparing their children to do the same. But are the goals of capitalism and the 1% the goals of Jesus? You can already tell that I am going to say “No.” But do I have a leg to stand on?

The secret philosophy that runs us all

Last April George Monbiot summarized his book for the Guardian. He identified the secret philosophy that drives what most of us do all week and infects what we do on Sunday, too. He says, Today’s capitalism

  • sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.
  • redefines citizens as “consumers“ whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling.
  • teaches that buying and selling has its own morality that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency.
  • maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

People are fighting about how to apply this philosophy in Congress right now. Will a generous version of today’s capitalism (like Obamacare) rule our healthcare or will a radical version rule (like in Trump/Ryan care)?

Monbiot says today’s capitalism fights any attempts to limit competition and labels any question of limits an assault on freedom. It teaches:

  • Taxes and regulations should be minimized, public services should be privatized.
  • The organization oflabor and collective bargaining by trade unions are are market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.
  • Inequality is virtuous: a reward for being effective and a generating wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone.
  • Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

You may have heard those last four bullet points preached from a pulpit somewhere (other than Circle of Hope). Or maybe you just know the viewpoint is assumed, a moot point, in your evangelical church. I have experienced both the preaching and the assumption. For instance, if a variant viewpoint is raised on the BIC-List (our denomination’s listserve), men will come out of the woodwork to reinforce those bullets, as if they were a 90-year-old billionaire interrupting some foolish youngster. They will even marshal the Bible to help make their point, even though everyone knows neoliberalism was not invented by Christians.

Last summer the pope explained this while on a flight from Krakow to Vatican City. He surprised journalists when he told them Muslim attacks on a priest in France were basically caused by neoliberalism. He said, “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person…This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.” At the time, Americans were in the middle of an election campaign, so they probably did not hear the Pope over all the hubbub about Trump’s tweets. Evangelical Christians were about to overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump, the epitome of what neoliberal capitalism created since Ronald Reagan.

Are we actually pawns in the philosophy’s system?

What if we Christians, we who are bound and determined to follow Jesus in his suffering and transform humanity, become the unwitting pawns of capitalist deformation of humanity in the image of neoliberal capitalism? Our lives teach. The content of our dialogue sets the contours of the culture are always building!

Can a Christian merely exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? No. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. We still fundamentally believe, don’t we, that one cannot serve two masters? We might normally think about not serving Mammon within the framework of capitalism and consider how to allow Jesus to be the Lord of how we do capitalism. But what if capitalism is, in effect, the alternative god?

Capitalism makes desire an end in itself and diverts our desire from communion with God. That sin causes us to stray from God’s will and design for us. God’s design for us is to desire God and our true selves. Unfortunately, the economic modalities around us pervert that desire. We cannot serve both our capitalism-perverted desire and God’s desire. We must go back to God, which means rejecting the capitalist way. The two are incompatible.

We need to talk about this, because everyone who comes to our Sunday meeting is feeling desire. Assuming that their desires, dominated by capitalism, are healthy and not a cause of their general illness is wrong. If a person is constantly making a deal and can’t make a covenant with God’s people, if they are trained for desiring what they don’t yet have, if they protect their autonomy and freedom at the expense of their faith, should they not learn that comes from neoliberalism and not God, not even from themselves?

Image result for homo economicus

Capitalism creates homo economicus in its image. That being, by its nature, is:

  • Not in community, not collective.
  • Free to choose. Amidst millions of consumer options, we are free to choose what to do (of course, within the confines of capitalism)
  • Self-interested
  • Driven by Insatiable Desire.
  • Competitive.
  • Reduced to thinking Justice is only about fair exchange regulated by contracts and laws. In capitalism, social justice doesn’t exist because the market is beyond justice.

I think most people who read this far are probably trying to figure out how to be the alternative to what is killing humanity. When people come to the Sunday meeting they come as people condemned to being homo economicus. Is there a way out? If we force them to perform within that bondage, aren’t we preparing them to be consumed consumers? Couldn’t we condemn our children in the name of helping them?

Somehow, we need to risk acting according to the Lord’s economy that is

  • Spirit formed
  • Communal
  • Self-giving
  • Generous out of eternal abundance

After all this theoretical sounding writing, it may seem difficult to think about how to apply it. So will we just go back to being led around by the invisible hand and letting our faith be invisibilized by living under its shelter? Obviously, I hope not. Let’s keep exposing the powers for who they are in the spirit of today’s image of the atonement: Christus Victor. Jesus is our leader in that, present with us, every day.

Did you read that? For some, this may feel like a punch in the gut, so challenging as it is to how most of us live our lives every day without ever thinking, let alone talking, about it. For me, it came as an “aha!” moment as Rod so clearly articulated exactly what I have been struggling with since reading God’s Economy. “We need to talk about this,” indeed, and some of it bears repeating:

Can a Christian merely exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? No. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. We still fundamentally believe, don’t we, that one cannot serve two masters? We might normally think about not serving Mammon within the framework of capitalism and consider how to allow Jesus to be the Lord of how we do capitalism. But what if capitalism is, in effect, the alternative god?

Capitalism makes desire an end in itself and diverts our desire from communion with God. That sin causes us to stray from God’s will and design for us. God’s design for us is to desire God and our true selves. Unfortunately, the economic modalities around us pervert that desire. We cannot serve both our capitalism-perverted desire and God’s desire. We must go back to God, which means rejecting the capitalist way. The two are incompatible.

How can I stop serving my capitalism-perverted, Amazon-enabled desire and start serving God’s desire instead? How can I stop trying to follow Jesus within the world’s (capitalist) system and instead step out of it and into the kingdom, the economy, that he intends for us? As with so many things, I know that I can’t do this alone. I need people. Kirsten and I need partners who will be willing to share budgets and checking account registers, let alone money itself. We need folks who will be brave enough to see the abundance that God has given us, who will remember that we are children of he who owns the “cattle on a thousand hills.”  We need folks who will help us listen to God in all this and who will then help us join in with what he’s already up to. We pray we might find some such folks among the people of Mill City Church. Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t.

Maybe you’re one of them. Are you?

On Mad Farmers and Mindless Scurrying, or Why I’m Not (So) Afraid Any More

HT to this site for the image.

The people that are Mill City Church have been talking about “What’s So Great About Easter.” We’ve been focusing on one of our “mission priorities” for 2017, “Gospel and Neighbor.” Specifically we’ve been working our way through a series of questions that might come up in a conversation with a neighbor about the gospel. Last week one of our pastors, Michael, wrestled with theodicy as he sought to answer the question, “Why Is There So Much Pain and Hurt in the World?” Something that stood out from that sermon which I live-streamed while sitting flu-ridden on the couch was his use of Hebrews 2:14-15:

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

If you read my last post, you’ll recognize the ongoing theme, slavery (and freedom). Michael went on to say something  very compelling about living “in slavery” because of the fear of death. He said:

“When we live our lives afraid of what might happen to us, afraid of what ultimately may come whether it’s today or next week or next month or next year or at the end of our lives, we live different lives than the lives God intended for us. So the Christian perspective on this is Jesus makes it possible for us to not be afraid all the time. Jesus makes it possible for us to not even be afraid of dying because we know that the God that we serve, that we love, that created us… will bring us back to life, and that means you can live your life way differently than you otherwise would. That means that today matters in a really different way than it otherwise would.”

Thinking about this today I was reminded of something Eugene Peterson said that I saw on the Twitter account dedicated to quoting him:

In this season of Lent, as we focus on following Jesus to the cross so that in some mystical sense we can participate with him in both his death and his resurrection, it’s fitting to focus on how we should “practice resurrection” now. Practicing resurrection is what Peterson was alluding to, and I think it’s what Michael from Mill City was talking about too. As he said, because “God…will bring us back to life…today matters in a really different way than it otherwise would.” Indeed, it matters precisely in a resurrected way. This too has been a theme running through many of my recent posts, because it has been a theme running through my life. Again as N.T. Wright alludes to, Jesus didn’t “have to die” so that we could secure our heavenly retirement plan and leave earth in order to get to heaven. What God promises is that in some way we can’t quite yet understand, heaven will come to earth. So the earth matters, and what we do each and every day on the earth matters.

That little phrase, practice resurrection, is one that is common among the likes of some of my heroes, Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. As far as I know, though, it comes from another hero, Wendell Berry, who wrote in his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

It goes on for a bit, and then concludes:

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Powerful, prophetic, and, frankly, damning, isn’t it? He starts by offering one way to live: “Love the quick profit…vacation with pay…Be afraid to know your neighbors, and to die.” This indeed has been the only way to live for those who have been “held in slavery by their fear of death” as Hebrews spoke of above. I’m afraid to admit that for much of my adult life, I have been just such a person. Kirsten and I talked about it recently. It’s hard to know just when it started. It may have been when Samuel was born, so premature, so fragile, so subject to death which could come at any moment, from the slightest fluttering of his fledgling heart, from the slightest infection that slipped past all the sterile precautions we religiously observed when visiting him in the NICU. It may have started when my Dad’s life ended, an event which I feared and expected to come for so very many years, and which finally did. However and whenever it began, for the better part of a decade, and maybe longer, I have in fact been quite afraid of dying. My first foray as an adult into a healthy lifestyle and running came in 2009 as the swine flu pandemic raged and I knew it seemed to have a worse impact on “fat people.” Some health issues along the way including a few bouts with various stomach bugs only moved this fear more deeply into the core of my being.

Whatever the cause, fear became a part of me. I experienced it as recently as with this latest bout with influenza, as I read about young, otherwise healthy people who lost their lives to flu this year. Thus, hearing Michael’s message and being reminded of that Scripture about being enslaved by the fear of death was a very timely word for me. It is indeed gospel, good news, to know that I have been set free from this fear, and need not live in subjugation to it. Of course, it’s never as simple as all that, and to my credit, I suppose, I sometimes make forays in quite the opposite direction. Take, for example, my recent post that explored the Rich Mullins song, Elijah. In that song, as I’ve said, Rich talks about just how he wants to “go” (like Elijah) and just how, in some sense, ready to do so he was (“my heart is aging, I can tell,” he wrote). I wrote in that post that I could tell how my heart was aging too, and I expressed my acceptance of this fact. It is a fact, no matter how fearful I sometimes feel. I only pray for the strength to more faithfully and consistently live into that truth.

Returning to Berry’s poem, he seems to have a lot to say to USAmerican consumer/war-making culture, doesn’t he? “Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know,” he writes. Against this possibility of how life can be, he offers another one:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

“Take all that you have and be poor.” This is a direction our family has felt called to move in as we’ve worked to “get small.” It’s unlikely, of course, that we will ever be truly materially poor given our education and status as people of European descent, but that is only all the more reason why we have been so terribly convicted about how faithfully we’ve been serving Mammon all these years, rather than God. As we’ve put our trust in banks and business and retirement plans and college savings funds, we have failed to put our trust in he who clothes the birds and the flowers of the field. All the while, we’ve cast our judging eyes on the conspicuous consumption of some…

HT to this site for the picture of the now “First” family.

…while somehow justifying our own conspicuous consumption…

Those are my feet. That used to be “my” TV. Thank God, I came to see it as one of the chains I continued to allow myself to be enslaved by, and I have since cast it off.

…because we were focused only on the orders-of-magnitude-more-conspicuous consumption of the very, very few (the Trumps, above). Meanwhile, our own consumption is just as conspicuous to the very, very many in the world who live like this:

This picture came from this article, which is probably worth a quick read.

Wendell Berry is sure a sage for our times, is he not? Meanwhile, having worked through all the “God’s Economy” related books that helped move us in the direction of “getting small” in January, I’ve moved on to peacemaking as a topic for Lent. I finished A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd, and am now well into Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf.

I knew Free of Charge wasn’t about peacemaking per se, but I also knew that radical forgiveness will be a necessary component to peacemaking as a way of life on the way with Jesus; so I’ve been glad to dive into this book. The book is divided into two parts, with the first three chapters having to do with giving and the last three having to do with forgiving. Ironically, I’m not even to the “forgiving” part of the book yet, and already I’ve been radically challenged, again. If I could sum up in a few words what I keep running into in the first half of the book, about God as giver and consequently how we were made to be givers too, with little eloquence or precision I would say that Volf argues that, like Israel, we are “blessed to be a blessing.” God gives to us because fundamentally it is in God’s nature to do so, and also because his gifts are meant for our benefit and flourishing. Crucially, though, God also gives to us because it is likewise fundamental to our nature, the nature God gifted us with, to be givers too. The people of Mill City Church touch on this whenever they say, “Generosity isn’t something God wants from you; it’s something God wants for you.”

Volf, for example, touches in passing on the problem of food scarcity and abject poverty in the world, and has this to say:

The relationship between God as giver and the growing poverty in the world is a complicated one that lies beyond the scope of this book. We should keep two things in mind, however. First, God doesn’t just give so that we can have and enjoy but so that we can pass gifts along to others. As we have seen in previous chapters, we are given to so we can be givers, not just recipients. Second, what’s primarily at issue is not why God doesn’t just give more, but why we don’t pass on to the needy what we already have. At the current levels of economic productivity, there is enough “stuff” around that no one need go hungry and everyone’s basic needs can be met. Yet they are not. We pass too little on. If Christians in the United States alone gave 10 percent of their income, the problem of world hunger could be solved. But those of us who have tend to squander or hoard, and what we do pass on is often misappropriated by middlemen. No, it’s not clear that increasing the amount of things given by God would actually help.

He goes on to challenge us to remember that everything belongs to God, and we must therefore fundamentally redefine our relationship with everything. All that we “earn” is a gift from God, who made our lungs and filled them with the breath of life. Thus we are to hold every single thing that comes across our path loosely, and pass it on as often as we can for the benefit of others. Instead, I’ve spent my adult life squandering and hoarding. God, forgive me.

Having recently read that bit from Volf, as you might imagine my ears were ready to hear when Pastor Michael from Mill City preached again this morning, this time talking about “why Jesus had to die.” He said a lot that was very helpful, but again what stood out was when he talked about Jesus’ work on the cross being less about saving me from the never-ending checklist of all my sins and moral failings, and being more about satisfying God’s original covenant(s) with Israel and thereby fulfilling Israel’s mandate to be a blessing for all the world. In failing to do so, in failing to receive God’s blessing for the sake of the world and then passing it on to the world, Israel became, borrowing a term from Volf, an “illegitimate taker” where it was supposed to be a giver. Do you see, again, the theme I keep running into at every turn? Would it surprise you to hear that it was reinforced from yet another direction today, again in a poem? Circle of Hope, our former and still very formative church in Philly, puts out a lot of great resources for following Jesus from “under, not over,” as I keep mentioning. One of them is one of their two (as far as I know) daily prayer blogs. In yesterday’s post, they included this poem:

Catch Me In My Scurrying, by Ted Loder

Catch me in my anxious scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my feet to the fire of your grace
and make me attentive to my mortality
that I may begin to die now
to those things that keep me
from living with you
and my neighbors on this Earth;
to grudges and indifference,
to certainties that smother possibilities,
to my fascination with false securities,
to my addiction to sweatless dreams
to my arrogant insistence on how it has to be;
to my corrosive fear of dying someday
which eats away the wonder of living this day,
and the adventure of losing my life
in order to find it in you.

Catch me in my aimless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my heart to the beat of your grace
and create in me a resting place,
a kneeling place,
a tip-toe place
where I can recover from the dis-ease of my grandiosities
which fill my mind and calendar with busy self-importance,
that I may become vulnerable enough
to dare intimacy with the familiar,
to listen cup-eared for your summons,
and to watch squint-eyed for your crooked finger
in the crying child,
in the hunger of the street people
in the fear of the contagion of terrorism in all people,
in the rage of those oppressed because of sex or race,
in the smoldering resentments of exploited third world nations,
in the sullen apathy of the poor and ghetto-strangled people,
in my lonely doubt and limping ambivalence;
and somehow,
during this season of sacrifice,
enable me to sacrifice time
and possessions
and securities,
to do something…
something about what I see,
something to turn the water of my words
into the wine of will and risk,
into the bread of blood and blisters,
into the blessedness of deed,
of a cross picked up,
a savior followed.

Catch me in my mindless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my spirit to the beacon of your grace
and grant me light enough to walk boldly,
to feel passionately,
to love aggressively;
grant me peace enough to want more,
to work for more
and to submit to nothing less,
and to fear only you…
only you!

Bequeath me not becalmed seas,
slack sails and premature benedictions,
but breathe into me a torment,
storm enough to make within myself
and from myself,
something…
something new,
something saving,
something true,
a gladness of heart,
a pitch for a song in the storm,
a word of praise lived,
a gratitude shared,
a cross dared,
a joy received.

I think I’m experiencing something like being “caught” and “held,” for I am beginning to die to those things that have kept me from living with Jesus and my neighbors on this earth. More than that, I’m beginning to recover from my dis-ease, and am listening “cup-eared” for Jesus’ summons, which I hear all around me, in every direction. Thankfully, “during this season of sacrifice” I have felt enabled to “sacrifice time and possessions and securities” and “to do something…something about what I see, something to turn the water of my words into the wine of will and risk, into the bread of blood and blisters, into the blessedness of deed, of a cross picked up, a savior followed.” Over the past two months we have purged probably thousands of dollars worth of “stuff” in our efforts to “get small,” and I couldn’t be more grateful. I perhaps have never felt more free. Thankfully, the “wine of will and risk” is becoming “the blessedness of deed” for us. Soon we’ll move into a smaller place in NE Minneapolis, the geographical community which Mill City Church is working so hard to love in Jesus’ name. This is an opportunity that we couldn’t have imagined just a while ago, and which is possible now only to the extent that we’re getting “small” enough to “fit” into this literal and metaphorical space. Thanks be to God for that.

The great Daniel Berrigan (a newly discovered hero and saint; God forgive my ignorance!) said, “If you want to follow Jesus….you better look good on wood.” As I dare to take up my cross and follow Jesus on his way to crucifixion in a few short weeks, I turn my mind again to just why Jesus “had” to die, to just what it is I need to be saved from. It was with those thoughts in mind that I wrote this:

Jesus save me from my fear of death; save me from clinging to your gift- life itself and every breath by which it continues- as if it were scarce, as if you, like me, were a stingy giver.

Jesus save me from my insatiable greed, which manufactures desire where there was none. Save me from thinking that the next trinket or shiny thing offered by the ad-man is finally that thing which will make me whole or complete.

Jesus save me from my own colonized mind, which is all too willing to do the work of the colonizers for them. Save me from the head games I play, from the elaborate justifications I concoct for why the thing which in principle I know is wrong is in practice okay, just for me, just this time.

Jesus save me from my captivated imagination, which refuses to consider that another world is possible.

Jesus save me from my blinded eyes which will not see when that other world draws near, as it is doing even now.

Jesus save me from my stopped up ears, which will not hear the cries of my oppressed neighbors far and near, let alone what your Spirit says to the churches.

Jesus save me from my tiny, selfish heart, ever hell-bent, literally, as I constantly seek to save my own life instead of losing it, which is the only way it can ever be found. Save me from thinking that salvation is primarily about me.

Amen.

On “Slavish Shoes” and Tired “Feets”

The other night we watched Amazing Grace again. It’s a powerful film about the Abolition movement in England, led in no small part by William Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s story is compelling, all the more so because his efforts to end the slave trade were very much rooted in his faith and desire to follow Jesus. Wilberforce began following Jesus in earnest after his political career began, and there’s a great scene in the movie between he and his butler that plays out like this:

William Wilberforce: It’s God. I have 10,000 engagements of state today but I would prefer to spend the day out here getting a wet arse, studying dandelions and marveling at… bloody spider’s webs.

Richard the Butler: You found God, sir?

William Wilberforce: I think He found me. You have any idea how inconvenient that is? How idiotic it will sound? I have a political career glittering ahead of me, and in my heart I want spider’s webs.

Richard the Butler: [sitting down next to WW] “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else and still unknown to himself.” Francis Bacon. I don’t just dust your books, sir.

Having been found by God, Wilberforce struggled with whether or not he should remain in politics, and in the movie version of his story, there were many voices in his life that came together to convince him to continue his political career in large measure so that he could work to end the slave trade. One of those voices was John Newton, a mentor of his, a pastor, and former slave ship captain who spent his days haunted by his former career. Newton, the reader may know, wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” from which the film takes its title. Knowing even just that much about Newton’s life puts the words of the hymn in a new light. Though Newton doesn’t have much screen time in the film, his scenes are powerful. For example, he is depicted in the film as saying: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Newton was haunted by the “20,000 ghosts” of the slaves he was responsible for transporting either to death or into bondage, and so fiercely urged Wilberforce to remain steadfast in his efforts to bring an end to the slave trade. He again is depicted as saying:

I can’t help you. But do it, Wilber. Do it. Take them on. Blow their dirty, filthy ships out of the water. The planters, sugar barons, Alderman “Sugar Cane”, the Lord Mayor of London. Liverpool, Boston, Bristol, New York. All their streets running with blood, dysentery, puke! You won’t come away from those streets clean, Wilber. You’ll get filthy with it, you’ll dream it, see it in broad daylight. But do it. For God’s sake.

So Newton urged Wilberforce to remain in government because Wilberforce “had work to do.” Likewise, Wilberforce’s friend and compatriot who would became Prime Minister, William Pitt, is depicted as arranging a dinner meeting with anti-slave trade activists who told him: “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist. We humbly suggest you can do both.” Here’s that scene from the movie:

 

And so he did. Thus began a long effort to pass legislation that would end the slave trade. In fact, it took 16 years for Wilberforce and his allies to get a bill passed, and even then it required a bit of political “trickery” to do so. The final vote to end the slave trade did not end slavery outright, but it was a momentous and long-awaited step in the right direction, one which Wilberforce had given his life and health to help bring about. As Wikipedia notes:

Sensing a breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey moved for a second reading in the Commons on 23 February 1807. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, whose face streamed with tears, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16.

 Of course, this was not the end of Wilberforce’s story. He continued to advocate for steady progress toward the ultimate goal of ending slavery in England altogether, but it would take another 26 years for that to occur. Again, Wikipedia picks up the tale:

On 26 July 1833, Wilberforce heard of government concessions that guaranteed the passing of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery.[224] The following day he grew much weaker, and he died early on the morning of 29 July at his cousin’s house in Cadogan Place, London.

Wikipedia adds that the bill passed a month after Wilberforce did. This steady, lifelong advocacy for the ending of slavery went hand-in-hand with Wilberforce’s faith. Such dedication over such a long time reminds me of the title of the Eugene Peterson book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, for surely that’s what Wilberforce’s life represented. Or, as Newton again is depicted as saying in the film: “God sometimes does His work with gentle drizzle, not storms. Drip. Drip. Drip.”

It’s interesting to revisit this pivotal moment in history amid the racial tensions of today and the disheartening realization that all the “progress” in the world over the past 50 years or so can’t come close to making right the injustice done over the 3+ centuries that came before. As important as bringing an end to the slave trade and then to slavery itself was, it is a decidedly unfinished business as people of color today represent a gravely disproportionate share of the economically and educationally disadvantaged and represent a gravely disproportionate share of the prison population, etc. Still, Wilberforce’s story is inspiring, and we were glad to have been reminded of it again.

 So it was with slavery on my mind that I was reviewing one of my recent posts about our efforts to get “small” and I again came across this language from Rod White that helped move us in this direction. He’s writing about Paul and encouraging us to remember that Paul was a person “on the margins” writing to other people “on the margins” of Empire (the Roman one, in Paul’s case, while today we live under the shadow of the “American” one). Rod says:

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

There’s that language of “becoming small” which has been so important in shaping the paradigm we’re working to live into. And obviously too there’s quite a paradigm shift in regard to thinking about slavery. Rod has a lot more to say about slavery than just what I’ve quoted above, and I would again encourage you to read the rest, which you can find here. For now, though, I should just add that Rod is careful to say that Paul “advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.” However, Rod’s point is that…

…there are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

Again I want to be very clear about what Rod isn’t saying, as far as I can tell. He’s not saying that because “a slave in the world is God’s free person” we ought not work tirelessly as Wilberforce did to end slavery wherever we find it. What I do hear him saying is that whatever state or social position we find ourselves in, as Bob Dylan put it, you “gotta serve somebody.” Rod says, speaking of Paul: “His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us.” I still love that “frosting on his hope cake” line.

The point, I think, is that salvation isn’t something we just look forward to after we die. Jesus offers us freedom now, whether you’re a rich male of European descent like myself or the lowliest refugee risking it all to get to this country which has (literally) afforded me so much. Having just watched Amazing Grace again I continued my reading for Lent. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve started reading Brian Zahnd’s important work, A Farewell to Mars:

Zahnd has something to say about slavery too, though it’s a side point in the larger argument he’s making for following the peacemaking way of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Zahnd says:

He’s drawing a direct line from life in the way of Jesus to efforts to end slavery wherever and whenever they’ve been found throughout the world. He adds:

And finally:

Indeed, precisely because we who not only follow Jesus but have been set free by him have therefore also “been freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to us,” we therefore are compelled to work against enslavement wherever we find it. I struggled with the word “compelled” in the line above, but it’s the right word, for I am a slave…of Christ. I gladly surrender my very body, mind, soul, and spirit to the One who has set me free. I am not just free, after all, from something, I am free for something. Zahnd above speaks prophetically against those who misunderstand Scripture, or worse, twist and misuse it for their own nefarious purposes, to “make” it mean that the big point of life with Jesus is to give us our heavenly retirement plan when we die while everything we leave behind here on earth burns. I’ve recently written about this too.

Zahnd says: “A secret (or not-so-secret) longing for the world’s violent destruction is grossly unbecoming to the followers of the Lamb. We are not hoping for Armageddon; we are helping build New Jerusalem.” I’m reminded again of N.T. Wright’s ever helpful work in calling us to remember that the point of the Christian life isn’t to escape the earth and get to heaven; rather, because of Jesus, heaven will come to earth some day and indeed is already coming, even now, wherever we who have been “saved” choose to live like Jesus is “already” our King.

All these thoughts were swimming in my head as we attended Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning. Today was the second in the sermon series for Lent: “What’s So Great About Easter?” We’re focusing during this series on one of our four “Mission Priorities” for 2017: “Gospel and Neighbor.” Today, one of our pastors, J.D., talked about what exactly it is we need to be saved “from.” He said that in part what we need to be saved from is a “cycle of captivity.” He gave some very vulnerable examples of this from his own life and then challenged us to be willing to be fully present with our neighbors, whoever they might be, as opportunities arise to discuss the things in our life that would have our allegiance, that in fact seek to enslave us and hold us captive. Do you see the theme running through my weekend, starting with our viewing of Amazing Grace on Friday night? At every turn God seems to be saying something to me about slavery.

For a long time I lamented that God seemed absent and hidden from me, that I could not find him in the places I expected to. There’s a lesson there that I’m still learning. Now, though, I seem to have entered a new season in my life in which I can’t help but find God everywhere I look. God seems to be waiting around every corner, lurking in every face, stowing away in the pages of every book, and leaping out at me from the melody of every song. I am grateful, to be sure, and will continue to treasure up all these things and ponder them in my heart. William Wilberforce, at least in the movie Amazing Grace, said he didn’t so much find God as was instead found by him. I believe this is something of what I’m experiencing now. In Wilberforce’s case, God found him and led him to see Jesus in his enslaved brothers and sisters from Africa, and therefore he was led to do everything within his power to overturn the laws that enabled their enslavement. Paul speaks of slavery and calls us to realize that even if we happen to find ourselves enslaved in the world, if Christ has set us free, we are free indeed. Likewise, if we happen to find ourselves in positions of power in the world, Christ has still set us free from the trappings of that power, and we are still free, indeed, to stand and work in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who find themselves in earthly chains.

We do indeed need to be saved from a cycle of captivity. Whatever keeps us from experiencing the freedom Jesus offers are chains no less constricting than the bonds that brought black bodies from Africa to work on plantations on the continent I call my (earthly) home. For many people who look like and have the privilege that I do, that which captivates us keeps us from knowing the freedom we have to fully love, serve, and learn from our brother and sisters of color. This must change. It is beginning to change in me, and I am grateful. But we must not only ask what it is we need to be saved from, but just what it is we need to be saved for. Moreover, we need to fully embrace the experience of being saved. It’s hard for a privileged person of European descent like myself, but I need to imagine how it must feel to have literal chains removed from my ankles, wrists, and neck. As I imagine those bonds being loosed, I do well to remember that this freedom comes at a price, but I do not have to pay it. As Rod again said, “In Philippians 2:7…Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not.” Jesus became a slave for us so that we could know freedom. Isn’t it indeed wrong-headed then to see him “serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not?”

We want it, don’t we?!

Having been set free, we follow the example of our Lord and choose to be slaves of and for Christ, for unlike that of those earthly impostor-“lords” that would enslave us if they could, Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and in him we will find rest for our souls. Mother Pollard knew something about both the legacy of slavery and finding rest in Jesus. Though Rosa Parks is much better known when one thinks of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mother Pollard played no less an important role. As this site notes:

Mother Pollard was part of the African-American community in Montgomery, Alabama, during the start of the historic 1950s bus boycotts. Despite her advanced years, she refused to take the bus and was adamant that she would walk to see change happen, making the statement, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” Pollard was also a valued source of love and inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.

We’re saved from cycles of captivity, and saved for the work of the “family business” of reconciliation that God calls us to. Having been indeed set free, our souls find rest not just in “Paul’s slavish shoes,” but in Jesus’. Our “feets” may get tired, but I for one wouldn’t miss a step along the way. Like William Wilberforce, we’ve got work to do, after all.

Obi Wan Kenobi is Not My Only Hope; “That Preacher of Peace” Is

A violent scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. HT to Digital Spy for the image.

My last Star Wars movie was my last Star Wars movie. I enjoyed Rogue One; I thought they did a great job with it and tied it in well with A New Hope. I suppose I should mention, lest it isn’t painfully obvious already, that I’m a “geek.” I’ve enjoyed sci-fi since I was a kid. As I grew up, I came to appreciate how the genre could be used prophetically even, telling the truth about the world we live in with stories about other worlds that if said plainly would fall on deaf ears. Think how relevant George Orwell’s 1984 has become for our current secular political climate, for example. Nonetheless, I won’t see any more Star Wars films. I won’t see any more Marvel or other “superhero” films either, a decision which comes at the unfortunate time just as the I understand generally well-received Logan has come out.

Also, having grown up in the D/FW Metroplex I’ve always been a huge Dallas Cowboys fan. I came of age as the original “triplets” were winning Super Bowls and have remained loyal ever since, which is as natural for a native north Texan as it is to believe that Texas is somehow better than other states because, after all, it was its own country once. Likewise it’s as “natural” for a native north Texan to be a loyal Cowboys fan as it is for a native north Texan (of European descent) to think that the Civil War was about “states’ rights,” but then again both claims- that TX is better than other states and that the Civil War was about “states’ rights-” are obviously demonstrably false and especially in the latter case downright sinful. So of course I really enjoyed this last NFL season for the Cowboys (right up until the very end), and couldn’t have guessed that it would be my last NFL season as a fan.

A violent NFL hit depicted in this YouTube video.

Why, you might wonder, am I giving up Star Wars and NFL/Dallas Cowboys fan-dom? In short, it’s simply because as captivated as I’ve been by sci-fi and the Cowboys for most of my life, they can both undoubtedly be categorized as violent entertainment, and these days I remain even more captivated by “that preacher of peace,” Jesus. As such, I can no longer participate in violence literally nor vicariously through my entertainment. I’ve long been sympathetic toward peacemaking as an ideal that seems to have a clear emphasis in Scripture, and I’ve been blessed to have participated in some churches that took peacemaking seriously, though some more so than others. Still, like most of Jesus’ ideas, I failed to see how the ideal of peacemaking could or should translate into my everyday life. I far too readily subscribed to the lie of “redemptive violence,” for example, a lie which is perpetuated in some of my favorite sci-fi stories, like Star Wars! Likewise I far too readily believed that not only were some wars “just” (with the fight against Hitler being the most commonly used example), but I believed it would likewise be “just-“ifiable if I were to ever “need” to employ violence to protect a child or a loved one. I mean, surely Jesus couldn’t have meant what he said about “turning the other cheek” and loving our enemies and not committing murder, etc.? After all, like so many things, the ideal of peace in the kingdom of God is a worthy aspiration, I’m sure, but in the meantime don’t we live in a “real world” full of “bad hombres” and violent jihadists?

The truth is that however wise I thought I was, however radically I may have thought I followed Jesus in the past by doing Kingdomworks and living in community and giving stuff away from time to time, I nonetheless refused to take Jesus seriously or at his Word. I didn’t believe Jesus meant it when he said to love our enemies and turn the other cheek when they strike us any more than I really believed he meant it when he talked about selling all of one’s possession to give to the poor or when he suggested that if we did give up the “stuff” of this world to follow him, we would be blessed in this present age and the age to come with more of such “stuff-” and relationships- than we could possibly know what to do with. I’ve recently written about my stunning realization that no, Jesus really did mean what he said about not storing up for ourselves treasures on earth and that indeed if we did give up “everything,” like the first disciples, to follow Jesus then we would find that by virtue of our admission into the family of God we would have access to more earthly resources than we could possibly ever accumulate on our own. Indeed, our Father has the “cattle on a thousand hills” and looks after the raven and the flowers in the field; so we can indeed rest assured that he will look after us, especially if we live like the brothers and sisters that we are and look after one another.

But violence? Could Jesus have really meant to preach peace to those who were “near” to God and to those who were “far” away? Could he have really meant for me to work proactively at peacemaking with those around me, giving up violence as a viable option for those who would follow him just as we are clearly called to give up the pursuit of worldly goods, worldly success and power? What about all the horrible “what-ifs” we’re supposed to imagine whenever we get close to actually wanting to live like we follow the Prince of Peace? I’ve long advocated for a “consistent pro-life” stance that not only seeks to limit abortion by investing in women’s healthcare and early education and the social safety net and other resources for those who feel trapped when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy but that also eschews other forms of violence and murder including war and the death penalty. This seemed to make sense simply for integrity’s and again consistency’s sake. It made sense because I came to see that Jesus is supposed to matter in the “real world” or he isn’t much of a savior. He’s supposed to matter when secular politics get tense and nations are tempted to take up arms against one another. He’s supposed to matter in scientific labs where research is being done into ever more inventive ways to blow each other up. After all, how many wars have been fought mostly by people who claimed to be Christian? There’s a beautiful story about violence ceasing long enough for soldiers who had just been trying to kill each other to come together momentarily to celebrate Christmas, for example. But this moment of beauty begs the question of how they could stop for a moment to celebrate God-with-us, the coming of the Prince of Peace, only to resume their worldly blood lust shortly thereafter? When truly considered, it just makes no sense.

So while I came to eschew violence in theory, I never bothered to do any work to become a peacemaker in practice, and it never occurred to me to consider for very long what I allowed to captivate my imagination. I never for very long considered the implications of peacemaking for how I chose to entertain myself. My family, for example, is committed as much as possible to a whole-food, plant-based diet. The more we learned about not only how much healthier such a diet is for our own bodies, but about how many resources that could be used to feed hungry people around the world have been diverted to raise livestock for meat-eaters, the more convinced we became that we could not participate in this injustice. Some readers may or may not know that in order to meet the demand for chicken and the eggs they produce, etc., the poultry industry simply discards baby male chickens. Sometimes they “just” discard them; in other cases baby male chickens ride a conveyor belt at the end of which is a grinder that chews them up, alive. This is (hopefully) obviously abhorrent and entirely inconsistent with the way of life we try to practice as a family; thus we don’t make popcorn on a Friday night and watch videos of chickens or any other living creatures being butchered. Why, then, has it been “okay” all these years to entertain ourselves with people– bearers of the image of God- being butchered, even if for some arguably justifiable reason?

The fact is that I am every day more convinced that this simply is not “okay.” Eyeballs=dollars for advertisers and content producers, after all, and for too long I’ve allowed mine to be seduced by the dark side (Star Wars pun intended). This realization has been dawning in my awareness for some time. Most recently, it occurred as I discovered the origin of Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’ve known about them for quite a while, since our early Circle of Hope days in 1996, but I never knew that they grew out of a talk given by Ron Sider in 1984, which I recently wrote about.  I’m including much of what I said then, because it’s so very relevant to this discussion. I said:

I’ve long been familiar with Ron Sider through his work with ESA and his seminal book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which was instrumental when I first read it so many years ago in helping me learn not only that God has a special concern for the poor, but that if I want to follow Jesus well and closely, I should too. What I was less familiar with was his work and advocacy in regard to peacemaking and that it was the talk he gave…that spurred the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams, whom I likewise have the utmost respect for.

One of the most remarkable, and heartbreaking, things about this speech is that Sider gave it over 30 years ago, but it’s as if it could have been written today. Some of the threats to peace may have changed, but the instability of the world order feels just as fragile these days and the likelihood of global conflict, even nuclear conflict, feels just as ominously possible. Indeed, it was a mere four days ago that the “Doomsday Clock” moved closer to, well, doomsday than it has not in 30 years but in 64.

Against this perilous backdrop, Sider reminds us not only that Jesus was a peacemaker, but that we are to be agents of God’s shalom too. Remember that the Biblical vision of “Shalom” is not one of mere peace. Instead, Sider reminds that “God desires that ‘justice and peace will kiss each other’ (Psalm 85:10). If we try to separate justice and peace, we tear asunder what God has joined together.” But this dynamic works both ways. We can not achieve true peace without justice; nor can we achieve true justice violently. Our current political leaders could take a lesson from this, but I don’t think they will. As Sider says in reference to Jesus’ command “not to resist the one who is evil:” “Apparently Jesus thought that protesting police brutality or engaging in civil disobedience in a nonviolent fashion was entirely consistent with his command not to resist the one who is evil.” Again, Sider wrote this 30 years ago. Sadly, police brutality still commands front page headlines, and nonviolent civil disobedience remains a potent tool in the (nonviolent) arsenal of those who would resist evil, and may be even more necessary in the days to come.

So often those who object to peacemaking as a viable strategy for resisting violence, oppression, and injustice raise hypothetical scenarios in which there are only two options (much as is the case with our polarized secular politics these days, but I digress). Brian Zahnd speaks of this in his important work, A Farewell to Mars. Likewise, Sider reminds us that:

“The most famous advocate of our time, Mahatma Gandhi, once said that if the only two choices are to kill or to stand quietly by doing nothing while the weak are oppressed and killed, then, of course, we must kill. I agree. But there is always a third option. We can always prayerfully and nonviolently place ourselves between the weak and the oppressor.”

Notice what Sider did? He agrees with Gandhi in suggesting that if the only choice were to kill or stand idly by while others are killed, then we must kill. Just as surely, though, those are not the only two choices. Another way, a third option (of perhaps many others) is to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed. This reminds me of a recent sermon Michael Binder of Mill City Church preached about how Jesus confronted others. He speculates that Jesus may have placed himself directly between the woman caught in adultery and those who would stone her when he challenged them to throw the first stone if they were without sin, so that if they did so, he would be directly in the line of fire. Indeed, as I keep learning, what we would-be Jesus followers these days lack perhaps more than anything else is a good “Christian” imagination. We can’t resign ourselves to accepting the choices the domination system gives us. We can’t accept the boxes or categories we keep getting placed in. More often than not, Jesus calls us down a different path.

There are many, many more gems to be mined below that I could go on about, but I want to let Sider speak for himself, after I highlight one final thing. Sider says:

“We must take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha. We must be prepared to die by the thousands. Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions. Why do we pacifists think that our way — Jesus’ way — to peace will be less costly?”

That bears repeating: We must be prepared to die by the thousands. How can we who would make peace nonviolently be less courageous than those who think they can do so violently? This is a hard teaching, but no less of a true one than that which caused so many would-be Jesus followers to leave his side in Scripture. In that passage from John, Jesus foreshadows his own willingness to stand in the path of violence for our sake as he tells his followers that his very flesh is the bread of life which alone can sustain and fully satisfy us. This is a hard teaching, indeed, but we can be no less courageous than our leader, Lord, and master, Jesus.

Then, as I was reading another Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove book which I would highly recommend, The Awakening of Hope

…I came across this page:

This actually came in a chapter about fasting. There’s a whole other chapter titled “Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill.” I don’t want to delve too deeply into atonement theories here, as they’re not the focus of this post. What was so startling about this little bit above though was the re-framing of Jesus’ work on the cross as the ultimate, even salvific, act of non-violence. Among the many things the cross no doubt represents, it also shows us how not only does the end of our story as Jesus-followers (when God’s shalom and his reign of love and justice finally and fully come) interrupt us in the middle of it, but also how God acts in Jesus to interrupt the cycle of violence that has been at work since the fall. Wilson-Hartgrove writes about our inability to stop the perpetuation of retributive violence (see: the Middle East from time immemorial through the present day, or the “war on terror,” or our system of capital punishment) and holds up Jesus as the model of God’s willingness to interrupt the cycle of retributive violence for us. Jesus absorbed the world’s violence on the cross without retaliating. We are called to do likewise.

So, given that Lent was just beginning, I realized what I needed to do. I needed to once and for all do my best to give up violence- and violent entertainment- not just for Lent, but for life. It was the next step in the many ways Jesus has been “interrupting” my life and that of my family over the last little while. So this became our family “focus” for Lent:

…and these are the books I’m reading in preparation for Easter:

Missing from this stack is Ron Sider’s “Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried,” which I will read too.

In the meantime the call of “that preacher of peace” in my life has given me the opportunity to get “smaller” and simplify my life even a bit more. The Star Wars and Dallas Cowboys memorabilia I had accumulated over the years is gone, and the time I would have spent consuming violent entertainment has been redeemed, along with a little more, I hope, of my own violent soul. Thanks be to God.

Rich Mullins Sings About the Secular Politics of Our Day

Hit play on the video above and give Rich a listen as he sings prophetically about the days we live in. All the words below are his, from his classic song While the Nations Rage, which draws from Psalm 2. Some of the pictures below show the church rising up in Jesus’ name to love and serve those around them. Some of them, sadly, juxtapose Rich’s words (“the church of God she will not bend her knees…”) with an image of the church doing just the opposite. I’ll let Rich take it from here…

 

"Why do the nations rage?  Why do they plot and scheme?"
“Why do the nations rage? 
Why do they plot and scheme?”

 

"Their bullets can't stop the prayers we pray  In the name of the Prince of Peace "
“Their bullets can’t stop the prayers we pray 
In the name of the Prince of Peace “

“We walk in faith and remember long ago
How they killed Him and then how on the third day He arose
Well, things may look bad
And things may look grim
But all these things must pass except the things that are of Him”

"Where are the nails that pierced His hands?  Well the nails have turned to rust  But behold the Man  He is risen  And He reigns  In the hearts of the children  Rising up in His name..."
“Where are the nails that pierced His hands? 
Well the nails have turned to rust 
But behold the Man 
He is risen 
And He reigns 
In the hearts of the children 
Rising up in His name…”

 

"Where are the thorns that drew His blood?  Well, the thorns have turned to dust  But not so the love  He has given  No, it remains  In the hearts of the children  Who will love while the nations rage"
“Where are the thorns that drew His blood? 
Well, the thorns have turned to dust 
But not so the love 
He has given 
No, it remains 
In the hearts of the children 
Who will love while the nations rage”

 

"The Lord in Heaven laughs  He knows what is to come  While all the chiefs of state plan their big attacks  Against His anointed One"
“The Lord in Heaven laughs 
He knows what is to come 
While all the chiefs of state plan their big attacks 
Against His anointed One”

 

"The Church of God she will not bend her knees"
“The Church of God she will not bend her knees

 

 

"To the gods of this world though they promise her peace"
“To the gods of this world though they promise her peace”

 

 

"She stands her ground  Stands firm on the Rock  Watch their walls tumble down when she lives out His love"
“She stands her ground 
Stands firm on the Rock 
Watch their walls tumble down when she lives out His love”

 

 

"Where are the nails that pierced His hands?  Well the nails have turned to rust  But not so the Man  He is risen  And He reigns  In the hearts of the children  Rising up in His name"
“Where are the nails that pierced His hands? 
Well the nails have turned to rust 
But not so the Man 
He is risen 
And He reigns 
In the hearts of the children 
Rising up in His name

 

 

"Where are the thorns that drew His blood?  Well, the thorns have turned to dust  But behold the love  He has given  It remains  In the hearts of the children  Who will love while the nations rage  While the nations rage"
“Where are the thorns that drew His blood? 
Well, the thorns have turned to dust 
But behold the love 
He has given 
It remains 
In the hearts of the children 
Who will love while the nations rage 
While the nations rage”

“Well, where are the nails that pierced His hands?
Well the nails have turned to rust
But behold the Man
He is risen
And He reigns
In the hearts of the children
Rising up in His name
Where are the thorns that drew His blood?
Well, the thorns have turned to dust
But not so the love
He has given
Oh, it remains
In the hearts of the children
Who will love”

 

"...while the nations rage..."
“…while the nations rage…”

 

Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

The Jordan River in Palestine (ht here)
The Jordan River in Palestine (picture courtesy of this site)

My typically 30 minute commute into work took 90 minutes today. I spent the first part of it listening to MPR as the pledge drive winds down toward its conclusion tomorrow. I tuned in to hear a little about the weather and traffic since there was just enough snow overnight to make for a rough drive this morning. I also wanted to hear just a little about Trump’s speech last night, which I did. As time, and my commute, wore on, I decided to redeem both by listening to a podcast. I had downloaded some speeches, talks, and interviews given by a hero of mine, N.T. Wright. This was a 30 minute or so interview he gave several years back in which he discussed a number of topics, including creation care, which was how the conversation started. It’s interesting that the questioner began by posing a question that went something like this (this is a very rough paraphrase): “since the gospel is mostly about (individual) people getting saved, what links then can we make between this and how we care for creation?” Tom (Wright, as he seems to prefer to be called), immediately gave a corrective, that again in a very rough paraphrase went something like this: “The gospel is about the kingdom of God. While this has to do with (individual) people being ‘saved,’ those people are connected to others…” in a complex web of relationships that extend not to just to other people but to the places they occupy and the very earth itself. Wright asserts that a “theology of place” has been lost in Western Christianity and is only just now being recovered. This echoes so much of what I’ve been reading of late from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and others, who reminds us that the gospel is very particular (but not strictly individualistic). The good news of and about Jesus is a story about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their physical and spiritual descendants. It’s good news for Israel first, and then by extension it’s good news for the rest of us too, for Israel was “blessed to be a blessing,” (and so are we).

This particularity, I think, is meant to root us both in a people, in a community, but also again to a nearly forgotten extent in a place, for, as Wright reminds in that podcast, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and creation itself “groans” anticipating its own redemption along with the people of God. So place, and the earth itself, matters. These are reasons to care about creation, for starters, but this only takes us so far. He speaks of eschatology, and as I listened I was reminded of something else Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith that I read recently: “More than anything else, eschatology teaches us to see that the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added). I can think of no better way to get at the idea that we live “between the times,” when the kingdom of God is “already” upon us, but “not yet” fully realized. As Wright spoke of eschatology in the podcast, he said something else that I found very helpful. He said: “All our language about God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a fog.” He added that while the truth the signposts point to may indeed be very true, we just don’t see it very well yet, and, by implication, even our best and most well thought out language just can’t speak of it very well yet. We have clues, to be sure, but we should tread lightly and give equally good thought, I would add, to what such language is for. It may have been in that podcast or perhaps I’m conflating various things I’ve heard or read from Wright, but at some point he mentions the eschatological language regarding the sun “turning red” and the moon “being darkened” and says that this “is not a primitive weather forecast.” Rather, this is an effort to invest what may be very “real” concrete events with their theological significance. The overall thrust of Wright’s point in the podcast and elsewhere is that God doesn’t come from heaven to earth to take us back there. Instead, again in a very real sense God comes from heaven to earth to join the two.

Thus, to those who read Scripture and interpret some of its language to mean that “it’s all gonna burn” before the “new heaven” and the “new earth” are brought about- which they therefore take to mean that we don’t have to worry about what happens to the earth in the meantime- to those folks I think Wright would suggest they’ve seriously misread Scripture and therefore missed the point. While there is “fiery” eschatological language, I think Wright would say it’s more in keeping with the rest of what we find in Scripture to think of this is a “refiners fire” that burns away the dross to reveal what was already there, but hidden. Thus, again in a very real sense it is this earth to which Jesus will return and which will be revealed to be “new” at his coming, just as a “new” heaven is brought to this earth when Jesus returns, all of which means that, just as always, in him “all things” really do “hold together.” So then what we do to this earth matters, for eternity even. I, for one, find this to be very good news indeed.

I finished the podcast and was still sitting in traffic; so I listened to a little Rich Mullins. I’ve written before about why he remains important to me, why I keep talking about him. I listened to a couple of my favorite songs that he sings before “Elijah” came on shortly before I arrived at work. In that post I just linked to I talk about this song, but some of what I said bears repeating. First, here’s Rich himself again singing it:

 

The song is so incredibly poignant not only because it so clearly foreshadows Mullins’ own death, including the way in which he died, but because of the way it so clearly exemplifies what a (not devil, but) God-may-care attitude looks like. Various definitions of “devil-may-care” describe such an attitude as “carefree” or even “reckless,” and the faith Rich sings about in this song I think could be characterized as both carefree and reckless. Here are the lyrics again:

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

CHORUS:

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

CHORUS(2x)

 

I think this is a song for all times, but it’s especially a song for this time for myself and my family. In the video above of Rich performing the song, after questioning why anyone would listen to “contemporary Christian” music, he describes the song as being about one of his “weirdo heroes of the Bible,” Elijah:

The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)
The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)

The song touches on themes from Elijah’s life, but also certainly does so in regard to themes from Rich’s own life too, even in ways that Rich himself couldn’t have known, like when he says he wants to “go out” like Elijah “when he leaves” (dies), which he certainly did, having died in a fiery car crash. More than that, though, I think this song represents Rich at his vulnerable, truth-telling best. The song begins with Rich singing that “The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.” He’s referring of course to the Jordan River.

The Jordan River is an image rich with symbolism in Scripture and in Christian thought. It often symbolizes the boundary between life and death, between salvation and destruction, perhaps even between this life and the next. This site alludes to some of this in describing the very real role the Jordan has played in Israel’s history, including in the life of Rich’s “weird hero,” Elijah:

– The Israelites feared the people of Canaan. As punishment for their lack of faith, God did not allow any Israelite over twenty years old to enter the Promised Land, including Moses. The Israelites wandered for forty years, and despite begging God to allow him to enter, Moses only viewed the Promised Land from a distance. (Deuteronomy 1:21-32; 3:23-28; 34:1-4.)

– Elijah warned King Ahab of Israel that there would be a drought in the land because of Israel’s evil deeds. After Elijah gave his prophecy, God told him to cross to the east side of the Jordan and hide from the king. The river became a barrier of protection for Elijah. (1 Kings 16:29-33; 17:1-6.)

– Absalom, David’s rebellious son and the leader of Israel’s army, schemed to kill King David and everyone who was loyal to him. David was forewarned and crossed the Jordan with his people during the night. The river became a barrier of protection for David and his people. (2 Samuel 17:15-22.)

– Before being taken up to heaven, Elijah struck the Jordan River water with his cloak. The water parted so that he and Elisha could cross. After Elijah ascended, Elisha again parted the waters with Elijah’s cloak so he could return to Israel. (2 Kings 2:1-2, 5-15.)

 

What that site just quoted only alludes to is that after Moses died, the people did cross the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. Wikipedia discusses this and further details that the Jordan is the scene of several miracles in Scripture:

In biblical history, the Jordan appears as the scene of several miracles, the first taking place when the Jordan, near Jericho, was crossed by the Israelites under Joshua (Joshua 3:15–17). Later the two tribes and the half tribe that settled east of the Jordan built a large altar on its banks as “a witness” between them and the other tribes (Joshua 22:10, 22:26, et seq.). The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2 Kings 5:14; 6:6).

 

Wikipedia further describes the Jordan’s significance in the “New Testament:”

The New Testament states that John the Baptist baptised unto repentance[10] in the Jordan (Matthew 3:56; Mark1:5; Luke 3:3; John1:28). These acts of Baptism are also reported as having taken place at Bethabara (John 1:28).

Jesus came to be baptised by him there (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21, 4:1). The Jordan is also where John the Baptist bore record of Jesus as the Son of God and Lamb of God (John 1:29–36).

The prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Messiah which names the Jordan (Isaiah 9:1–2) is also reported in Matthew 4:15.

The New Testament speaks several times about Jesus crossing the Jordan during his ministry (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and of believers crossing the Jordan to come hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases (Matthew 4:25; Mark 3:7–8). When his enemies sought to capture him, Jesus took refuge at Jordan in the place John had first baptised (John 10:39–40).

 

What’s clear is that throughout Israel’s history and that of Jesus and his disciples, the Jordan very much did indeed mark this boundary between life and death, between salvation/rescue and devastation, between following God’s call and not doing so. It’s a powerful symbol.  So again Rich sings:

 

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

 

In these words I hear Rich saying that whatever troubles and cares have led him to this point, he’s now ready to cross that boundary that the Jordan represents. Perhaps he’s saying that he’s ready to follow Jesus whatever that may mean, whatever it may cost him, wherever Jesus might lead. Rich says that his “heart is aging,” and I can relate. I’ve seen so much and been through so much in my 40+ years that I have a very real sense that my time is short. I too am ready to follow Jesus perhaps in a way that I never have, to wherever he might lead. I’ve written about this of late as I’ve described our efforts to get “small,” to listen to and learn from and engage with those on the margins of society because that’s who the Bible was written by and to, because Jesus commands us to let those on the margins come to him and says that we must be like them to see his kingdom, and because when we draw near to them, we draw near to Jesus himself. With a few notable exceptions, I’ve largely failed to do this in my life, but no longer. My heart is aging, and I don’t have time to mess around any more. So I’m willing to offer it to Jesus and invite him to take it where he will.

 

 Rich continues in the song:

 

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

 

Rich, I think, is again probably writing a little about his own life while engaging with Elijah’s story, and maybe writing a little about my own life too. We’re mended and torn because life can be hard. Brokenness abounds. When he says his “ground was stony and sometimes covered up with thorns,” he’s hinting at the parable Jesus told of the sower in Matthew 13:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

 

Later, Jesus explained the parable to his disciples:

 

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

 

So the “stony” or “covered up with thorns” ground Rich spoke of alludes to a heart ready to hear the good news, but which lacks depth or in which the good news is crowded out by the cares of this world. Rich sings that while this may have been true, “only you can make it what it had to be.” Kirsten and I had new friends over the other night, and we were talking about the new ways we’re learning to follow Jesus, all the ways we’re working to get “small” by simplifying our life and building capacity in our hearts, minds, and budget for what God is calling us to. I alluded to my life to this point and said that for whatever reason I just don’t think I was ready yet. Despite everything I’ve been through and all the hard lessons already allegedly learned, somehow I just wasn’t ready to follow Jesus like I’m trying to now, recklessly, with a carefree heart. Even the readiness I’m experiencing now is by no virtue of my own. Only Jesus could make my heart “what it had to be” too.  

 

Rich speaks of this, of this reckless, carefree faith, when he says that “if they dressed me like a pauper, if they dined me like a prince, if they lay with my fathers, if my ashes scatter on the wind I don’t care…” In Philippians 4 Paul says that he has:

 

…learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

 

Rich seems to be hinting at this. As a would-be “Christian music” star, Rich had access to fabulous wealth, but wrote into all his music contracts that he would receive whatever the average U.S. salary was for that year and the rest that he earned would be donated to charity. In part I suspect because he realized that even this act of generosity, given that the U.S. is the richest country in the history of the world, did not suffice to make him “small” enough (to use the language I’ve been using for myself and my family). So at some point Rich gave it all up and moved to a Native American reservation. I wrote about this again in my last post about Rich. My point now is that I too hope to move ever closer to a place of solidarity with those who are not the beneficiaries of all this fabulous wealth our country enjoys, and I hope to learn to be content “whether well fed,” as I obviously am now, “or hungry,” as so many will experience as they go to sleep tonight.  

 

After going through the chorus the first time Rich sings on:

 

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

 

I can relate to this too. I’ve known a lot of “friendly” people in my life who turned out not to be friends, certainly not a friend “who sticketh closer than a brother.” I’ve known more than my fair share, I’m sure, of broken, fractured relationships, and sometimes the ending of those relationships- or what felt like the ending at the time- has more than once “bent me to the ground.” Still, when I look back at them, usually I realize that I can probably place the blame for the lion’s share of what went wrong in those relationships at my own feet. I am the worst of sinners, and my own worst enemy. In any case, I sense in this that Rich feels the freedom to move on from his own brokenness and broken relationships in order to focus on what matters most. For Rich, music is both an end in itself and a means to end. God clearly gave him a gift for it, and he used it as best he could. All the while, Rich seems to recognize that he’s caught up in a song that is larger than his contribution to it. He sings on:

 

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

 

The Jordan, this boundary between death and life, between salvation/rescue and destruction, beckons on. He says he’s “never seen the other side,” but knows “you can’t take in the things you have here.” “You can’t take it with you when you die” is a truism rooted in Scripture, and has been a major theme in our life of late. We literally have been “storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal and moth and rust destroy.” So as a family we’ve been redoubling our efforts to “store up treasure in heaven” instead, for we well know that “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” Abandoning the ways of Empire and getting as “small” as we can despite our education and privilege is hard, subversive work. It’s reckless work too, perhaps something akin to hitchhiking along the road to salvation, along the way with Jesus, as Rich sings above. When we get moving along the way, we begin to hear “his music” as we too get caught up in a song that is larger than what we contribute to it.

 

“Elijah” builds to an end with this final bit before the chorus again:

 

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

…when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

 

Rich says “people have been talking,” that they’re “worried about his soul.” His unorthodox approach to a life in the “Christian” spotlight and his unwillingness to spend the decades amassing millions while churning out the cliched feel-good musical tropes that his record label may have liked sometimes landed Rich in “trouble.” His move to the Native American reservation only magnified these “concerns,” I’m sure. If you read my last couple of posts, I echoed Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in speaking of Mark 10 and the stories of Jesus and the little children and then Jesus and the “rich young ruler.” In that passage Jesus says that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” I spoke in my last post about how somehow I had always interpreted those verses individualistically, such that if I gave up something for Jesus I would always get something bigger and better in the end, even if only in a “spiritual” sense. I wrote then of my shock to suddenly realize that this too was directed at the community. Hence if Kirsten and I gave up a house to come to MN in part to serve her mother, this passage isn’t suggesting we’ll get a bigger, better house out of the deal. Rather, it’s telling us that we may not need to buy a house again, that as members of God’s family we have access to all the houses wherever our brothers and sisters in Christ can be found.

 

This is a dramatic reversal, I would argue, of the individualistic, consumer-driven “American dream.” As people struggling to better follow God’s dream for the world, we’re working to consume less, not more. We’re working to get small, not big. We’re working to give away power and privilege, not amass it. This flies in the face of the logic of the (U.S.) Empire, and I have no doubt that while our pursuit of God’s dream will bring us “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields” where we had none before, they will also bring persecutions. If so, we are in good company with all the saints and Jesus himself. Thus, Rich can conclude by saying that when he “leaves,” “it won’t break his heart to say goodbye.” His heart is aging, after all. Mine is too.

 

Thus it was that upon hearing “Elijah” just after hearing N.T. Wright talk about how what we do in the here-and-now matters in eternity because when Jesus returns it will be to join heaven and earth and reveal the new creation that is already present, even though we can “not yet” see it clearly,  I soon found myself weeping again in the car, the tears streaming down my face as I pulled in to work. Today is Ash Wednesday. Throughout history Christians have started the season of Lent in preparation for Easter with the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead and the words from Scripture, “(Remember that) your are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time of often solemn reflection on our own mortality, which is a way to find our place, literally to locate ourselves in God’s story. He is the creator; we are the creation. It’s a time to make space in our lives, often by forgoing some pleasure or even some necessity, like food, so that there is room for God to make himself known in a new way.

 

Remembering that we are dust and that we will return to it and looking forward with great anticipation to Easter, to our remembrance of the inauguration not of a new U.S. President but of the King of the Universe as he conquers death and defeats the powers that would keep us separated from God and one another, we are helped to see again how the end of our story interrupts us in the middle. We are helped to see how every act in this age has eternal repercussions. On the Rich Mullins Songs album that I began listening to after N.T. Wright’s podcast and on which “Elijah” is one of the songs, the one after “Elijah” is “Calling Out Your Name.” This is another all time favorite of mine by Rich, as it so clearly evokes the mystery and wonder of creation and you can almost feel Rich’s respect and reverence for the earth and especially its indigenous people here in the U.S. This amazing song speaks of being “wild with the hope” that “this thirst will not last long and it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain.”

 

Wouldn’t you like to be “wild” with hope? I would. I sure hope to be. The imagery of thirst drowning in a song not sung in vain is very moving. In the story of the “woman at the well” Jesus tells the woman that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Those who drink the “living water” Jesus offers find their thirst quenched once and for all. In fact, they find within themselves a “spring of water” that “wells up” to eternal life. This sounds a lot like a thirst that “drowns” in a “song not sung in vain.” Rich found himself caught up in a song that was larger than his part in it, and so are we. We who “drink” the living water Jesus offers can be wild with hope that our thirst will drown in a “sing not sung in vain.” It’s not in vain because despite the extent to which it seems that the peaceable kingdom of God is not yet fully realized, it is nonetheless true that the end of our story (which our language for is only like a set of signposts pointing into a fog) has interrupted us right in the middle of the story. Our actions today echo into eternity. They matter because we have clues about where this story is headed, how this song ends. It’s a love story, and always has been. Though we were made from dust and will return to it, we were made in and for love, and will return to that too. We’re already on our way, some of us more knowingly and willingly than others.

The Jordan has been waiting for my family and I in new ways recently. We’ve known ourselves to be crossing a boundary, moving from an old way of life into a new one. The more stuff we give away, the more we can extricate ourselves from our participation in the systems of the powers that be, the less we participate in the domination system that seeks to marginalize and control and disadvantage all of us in the end, the more we experience a spring of water welling up in us to eternal life. My heart may be aging, but it’s also wild with hope as I’m learning to follow Jesus in a new, carefree, even reckless way. Thanks be to God.

Becoming Children of our Father in Heaven

This isn't the woman I met, but this photo reminds me of her. (HT to Getty Images for this photo.)
This isn’t the woman I met, but this photo reminds me of her. (HT to Getty Images for this photo.)
This post started as an email to the pastors of Mill City Church. I wrote to thank them for the many ways they help us discern what God’s up to and challenge us to join in. The first two sermons in the current series, on “Success and Security,” coming on the heels of the last few from the last series, about Mill City Church’s “Mission Priorities,” have been particularly helpful. They’ve been especially so because they so clearly resonate with what we’ve been hearing God say to us as a family already. I wrote about all that in my last post. The super short version is that as a family we’ve been feeling very called to make ourselves small. We’re learning that we’re not just called to help the poor; we’re called to learn from and be helped by them. We have so much more to learn about interdependence with one another and dependence on God, to which we’re called. Some of this has come from our decision to do the monthly recommended readings for January from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (again, see my post; it’s a resource we’ve been using for years but never in the way we are now). The four books recommended for January have been simply life-changing. We had read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger years ago; so we moved on to the other three. Economy of Love started things off, and was profoundly moving and challenging. Next came God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and I can’t even begin to describe how reading that book is changing us. It’s interesting because of some of the stuff in these books we’ve “known” for a while, but clearly just weren’t willing to do anything about. We were stuck on the “wide road.” Anyway, I’m just now finishing up Sabbath Economics: Household Practices by Matthew Colwell. It’s a follow-up to Sabbath Economics by Ched Myers, which comes from Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries and was one of the books recommended in Common Prayer, but is unfortunately out of print. Sabbath Economics recommends a “Sevenfold Household Covenant,” which looks like this:
image
Basically, the idea is that in God’s economy, Jesus has something to say about all the areas of our life or practices identified above. So, as I recently read in Sabbath Economics:

Solidarity is therefore not a form of disengagement with those who are not poor. It is instead an engagement with the whole world from the vantage point of a deep connection with those who have been excluded, confined to the margins of society, or made poor by the economic systems and structures of that world. It is the practice of aligning one’s hopes with the poor and marginalized by placing one’s self in proximity to those people. (Italics added)

I found this particularly insightful and challenging. I’ve known God has a “special concern for the poor” for a while (though I did little about it). And I’m learning that I understand the New Testament especially, but also Jesus, much better when I attempt to do so as a person on the margins, since it was written by folks on the margins to folks on the margins. It was written from “under,” not “over.” Rod White’s several post(s) about this were very helpful. Moreover, I’m learning again that poor folks have something to teach us, that they can help us just as much or more than we’ll ever “help” them. I’m learning especially that there ought not be a them and us. We must work much harder to make sure there is only an “us.” So our family has been working to get “small.” So far we’ve:
  • given the church the TV and sound bar that are in the Mill City Church Commons now
  • cut cable and just have local channels now, plus Netflix, etc.
  • got rid of our PS4 and a handful of games
  • gave up our smartphones for basic flip phones (this alone we’ve experienced as an incredibly counter-cultural, near revolutionary act)
  • canceled our credit cards and started (another, sadly) Debt Management Program
  • gotten as creative as we can with things we’re bound by contract not to let go of yet. For example, sadly we both have Massage Envy accounts. Kirsten has chronic neck pain that causes migraines (hear the justification?) and I got mine when I was running, which I desperately need to get back to (again, hear the justification?). We can’t cancel these contracts, but I’ve been talking to Mile In My Shoes about donating my remaining massages to them.
  • We’ve also ended our contributions to our retirement plans. In God’s Economy by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (one of the January books, again), which was and is incredibly and amazingly challenging, he makes a compelling case for following Jesus so closely that it’s hard to see how (for us, as far as we can tell, anyway) using those resources in that way is faithful. When we dug in and did the hard work of seeing how Kirsten’s retirement funds were being used by Lincoln Financial (and it was, interestingly, hard work just to follow the money), for example, it became incredibly easy to see that our participation in the plan Kirsten was in is sinful. The money God gave us to steward that we gave to Lincoln Financial is being used to build drones and missiles; to get teenagers to smoke; to oppress poor people with bad mortgages, debt, and financial products; to poison the earth, produce GMO’s, and insure generational poverty among subsistence farmers; and I could go on and on. This begs lots of questions about what it means to “retire” and what we would be “retiring” from or to. We have some ideas about this. It also obviously raises questions around stewardship and whether or not to have, for example, an “emergency fund.” Historically, our family has struggled to do this and has been largely unsuccessful, largely due to selfish financial choices in the midst of a few extravagantly generous ones. Still, our generosity has not been supported by a lifestyle that was consistent with following Jesus instead of Mammon.
We had another idea, too. Wilson-Hartgrove talks a little about basically using the world’s evil economic system from time to time to subvert that very system. So, we attempted to trade in Kirsten’s 2013 Ford Escape that we never should have bought. We owe something like $18,000 on it, with 9% interest. We were hoping to trade it for a much older, cheaper car. We explained a little bit of our motivation to the person we approached to do this, whom we know. He said he wasn’t able to help us, and he told me I should “educate myself” and quoted Mark 14:7 at me, where Jesus says: “The poor you will always have with you…”. However, there’s a second part to that verse: “…and you can help them any time you want.” The first part of the verse echoes Deut. 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land…”. There’s more to that verse too: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” This comes in the part of Deuteronomy that is dedicated to canceling all debts and freeing all slaves every seven years, and can be tied to the concept of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-13, in which debts were canceled, slaves were freed, land was returned to its original owner, and the land itself was to lie fallow, to give it a break from all its labor on our behalf. In the Deuteronomy chapter that Mark hearkens back to, the point is clear:

 …there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today…If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

Moreover, when Jesus says in Mark that “you’ll always have the poor among you,” not only does he follow it up with “…and you can help them anytime you want…” (which perhaps should read: “you can help them anytime you want,” as you should have been doing all along), but he’s making a point. A jar of expensive perfume has just been poured over his head, and “some of those present,” likely including Judas, the betrayer, are upset because this is an act of gratuitous extravagance, and the year’s salary the perfume was worth could have been spent on the poor. Jesus isn’t making a normative statement for all time about poor people (like: “I, God, say there should always be poor people”); he’s making a descriptive statement about the faithlessness of God’s people (like: “you could help poor people any time you want; but you don’t, or don’t do it enough; so you’re likely to always have them around. Therefore don’t use your lack of love for the poor as an excuse for this woman not to do what she just did, which was to prepare me for burial.”)

The weight of Scripture is astoundingly clear: God has a “preferential option” for the poor. We are to help them, and to be helped by them, for they have something to teach us about holding possessions loosely, about being ready to receive God’s good gifts, about relying on God’s provision and not worrying about tomorrow. Moreover, there’s strong evidence for the idea that drawing near to the poor is to draw near to Jesus himself, and that standing in solidarity with the poor requires proximity to them (affluent suburbs notwithstanding).

So, I told the pastors in that email that this is what we’re learning, and what we’re doing. In the meantime, we’re encountering some resistance. I wouldn’t call it a “spiritual attack;” what I would say is that the resistance we’re experiencing helps confirm for us that we must be moving closer to, and perhaps even down, the “narrow path.” In addition to the response I talked about above from the person we approached in an attempt to “downsize” one of the cars we drive, we found that when we traded in my smartphone it had been reported stolen in TN (I bought it “new” here in MN). The police investigator that called me said, confirming an unfortunate stereotype, that the suspect was a “black male” and he knew I was not, but our decision to give up that bit of power and means of control by the Empire/Domination System/”World”/Call-It-What-You-Will got some attention, apparently.

Then, last week I took the other care we drive in for some repairs. As it was being worked on Kirsten called to say the 2013 Ford Escape we were trying to trade in, which she was driving, had a flat tire on I-35. I had no way to go help her. Our car insurance includes roadside assistance (one of the many perks of our power and privilege), but accessing this was made a little more difficult by Kirsten’s lack of a smartphone. She got help, but we eventually “had” to put 4 new tires on it. At the same time we learned that the work on the car that I had in for repairs, which was starting when Kirsten called me to say she was stuck with a flat tire, is going to run about $750 (again, plus the cost of the Escape’s tires). All told, this will run us over $1,100. We don’t exactly have that saved up, but all the work we’ve been doing to get “small” means that we can probably come up with the funds soon, right about when we might need them, I hope. We got the new tires on the Escape already, and the parts for the Focus aren’t in yet and won’t be until close to when we get paid again, when more funds will be there than would have been otherwise if we hadn’t made all the changes we’re making. Kirsten and I have also had a few little health scares recently too, but those seem to be mostly resolved and aren’t worth talking about more now. So, again, I’m not saying all this is any sort of “attack;” I’m just saying that following Jesus instead of the Empire is hard, even if only, so far, in the “white people’s problems”-y ways I’ve just described.

One thing we’ve been thinking about is how individualistically we’ve been (not) following Jesus in terms of money, despite our professed love for all things communal when it comes to everything else. This must change. Thus I’ve been thinking again a little more about Common Change. Common Change came out of Relational Tithe, and is a resource for sharing money to meet one another’s needs and the needs of those around them. We’re thinking that instead of Kirsten and I laboring to build up an emergency fund for the next time we need new tires or car repairs and also to build capacity in our “personal” budget for the kind of generosity we feel called to, if instead it’s not more faithful to join with others we know (including especially, we hope, from Mill City) in opening a Common Change account and committing to contributing to it. We’d have much more capacity together than we would alone, and could again, I suspect, be much more faithful in this way.

Finally, I have a co-worker with whom I largely agree about secular politics. He’s not someone who would say he’s following Jesus, not by a long shot. I have another co-worker with whom I largely disagree about secular politics. He is a professed Christian. I’ve found myself in a position of not having anything helpful, really, to say to either of them. I don’t know that my “evangelical” co-worker and I will ever agree about secular politics, and it has been a real challenge to put to death any hostility between us with Jesus on the cross. Likewise, it’s been hard to find a way to even talk about Jesus with my secular progressive co-worker….until the other day as I was telling the story of all the car issues and what we were trying to do with the car Kirsten drives and how that was connected to all the bigger changes we’re making in our life. As I told him how we got rid of our smartphones and a big TV and were ending our 401k contributions because they were supporting war and environmental degradation and the like and how we were switching banks and on and on; it only made sense to mention that we were doing those things because we were trying to follow Jesus. What I’m reminded of, again, is that we don’t have anything to share, at least in my experience, if we don’t have a story to tell about what following Jesus looks like in our lives as we swim upstream amidst the Empire we live in today. I didn’t have much of a story to tell to my co-workers anyway until recently. I actually have quite a story to tell about my life, but that doesn’t come up in every day conversation unless every day we’re living a life that’s worth talking about. I’m praying now that each day will lead us further into such a life. It’s what we’re here for, after all.

With such thoughts swimming around in my head, I found myself in downtown Minneapolis the other day. I went into the soon to be closed downtown Barnes and Noble. I like bookstores, sadly even the commodified, homogenized, big chain variety. From there I went through the skyway into the soon to be closed downtown anchor Macy’s store. As I reached the threshold of Macy’s and passed into the store, I saw her. It was hard to tell if she was a “her,” actually. What I saw was a person clearly experiencing homelessness, obviously world weary and weather beaten, curled up in a corner, leaning against the wall, asleep. She had a cardboard sign, but it had fallen over and I couldn’t make out what it said. I had Sam’s allowance cash in my wallet, a total of $30 ($20 for this month and $10 we owed him from last month). I walked into Macy’s, stood there for a moment, and then turned around and walked back out. I went to a sandwich shop I had passed in the skyway and bought her a hot sandwich and some chips. I went back and touched on the shoulder, waking her to offer her the food. She thanked me, said she was very grateful, but then explained she had arthritis, and showed me her hands. They were visibly swollen. She said what she really needed was $20 to pay for a room she rents in St. Paul, when she can, presumably. She said she had a bus pass which she would use to get there tonight, if she had the money. She said she had been cold and just “couldn’t take it any more,” and came in to try to sleep for a while. She said she didn’t want to bother anybody; so she put up her sign (which had fallen), and then fell asleep, hoping someone would help her. It wasn’t long before I pulled out the $20 I had and gave it to her. I was reminded, as I constantly am now, of this bit from God’s Economy:

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.

I asked her what her name was, and she told me. Sadly, I’ve forgotten it already; I’m not good with names. She asked me mine, and I told her. She exclaimed that Robert was her son’s name. She asked me for a hug, and I gave it. We parted, and I wandered back in to Barnes and Noble on my way back to the car. I had about $3 left. I bought a cookie for $2-something (just what I need, I know) and walked outside. There, I passed by another person potentially experiencing homelessness who was “signing.” I gave him the coins I had left, and the cookie I had just bought. I walked back to the car, pockets empty, and a little lighter, literally and metaphorically.

Look, I know I did nothing to solve the economic and housing insecurity either of those people I met are experiencing. I know I may very well have perpetuated their “problem” and the systems that create such insecurity. But then again, as Wilson-Hartgrove said, I’m not called to “fix” the poor. They are not problems to be solved. They are people made in God’s image, people God loves, and whom I am called to love. They are folks who have been marginalized, pushed to the sidelines of the economic and political systems of our day. In very real ways they are folks who have less because I have more. Maybe the woman I met has a son named Robert; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she used a bus pass and went to a room that night and slept in a warm bed. Maybe she didn’t. What I do know is that we exchanged names, and a hug. She got lunch, and she knew that a stranger stopped to love her, if only for a moment. Now, the real work begins. Now, my family and I, both my “nuclear” family and church family, must work to not just subvert the system that marginalized those folks, but to build a better one. We must work to live as if God’s kingdom is already here. We must work to build God’s economy, an economy of love. In such an economy, no one has more than they need, and therefore there is more than enough for all. God, help us.