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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Amen.

 

I Thought I Was the Giver Here

Giving to whomever asks….(image HT)

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

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

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

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A part of yesterday’s reading from Common Prayer

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

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

Love for Enemies

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

And here it is in Luke:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Being Small(er), I Can See You Now

 

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I’ll try to describe how it all happened. I have a bit of a story to tell. First, though, let me offer you another song. As in the past, I’m listening and being shaped by it as I write. Feel free to hit play and listen as you read:

 

So the book above, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, has been blowing my mind, and that doesn’t happen very often. A few days ago now, describing to Kirsten what I was learning and how it was changing me, I literally wept on her shoulder, but I’m getting too far ahead in my story. So I guess like so many things in my life this story starts in Philadelphia between 1996 and 1998 where I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know as an acquaintance Shane Claiborne. It was right around that time that Shane and others founded The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community and agent for change in a little corner of Philly that has helped spark a movement of folks who want to live simply and radically, together, while trying to follow Jesus and love and serve those around them, especially those “on the margins of Empire.” Such love, and such a life, is by definition radical because we USAmericans live in the belly of one of the greatest “empires” the world has ever known. Shane and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove are friends and colleagues, having served together in Christian Peacemaker Teams (see my last post for more on CPT) for a while. Notably, it was shortly after the U.S. military bombardment of the city of Rutba, Iraq that Shane and Jonathan’s Christian Peacemaker Team was wounded and experienced the love and hospitality of the very people who their government had just been bombing. This post tells a little bit of that story while describing the founding of Rutba House, the intentional Christian community that Jonathan and has wife founded in Durham, North Carolina. If you know much about me or have read this blog much, you may know then already why I like Shane and Jonathan both so very much. Kirsten and I have lived in a few little “intentional Christian communities” over the years. Mostly we’ve failed at really loving and investing in those we felt called to build community with under one roof for very long, but the ideal of such community, very much rooted in the kind of life Jesus calls us to, continues to spark my Christian imagination.

Anyway, Jonathan would later collaborate with Shane and Enuma Okoro on Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the prayer book/devotional I’ve used for years and continue to be challenged by. In fact, that book has a key part to play in this story. It gives recommended readings for each month, and Kirsten challenged our family to try to read them each month this year. So here (sort of) are the ones for January:

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Having read and been deeply influenced by Ron Sider’s seminal work Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger many years ago, I started off this reading project with Economy of Love. It’s a short little book meant to be used with a video that Shane and others produced. It was very, very challenging, though. Here’s a page from it:

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Challenging, eh? As another hero and, in this case, friend, Duane Crabbs from Akron said, and which I’ve also recently referenced on this blog:

As someone who spends much time among the suffering (nursing homes, jail, inner city, hospitals, hospice) I have discovered that they are each one individually, a rich vein of incredible faith. The main people who I hear debating issues surrounding suffering and doubt tend to be well-educated, relatively young, materially comfortable people. To debate requires us to abstract principles and philosophical ideas form the particulars of actual suffering people. The suffering themselves do not seek life-meaning from philosophical debates. They want to touch and be touched, to care and matter to somebody. Instead of debating, let’s re-enact the incarnation and throw our lot in with the suffering and learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity. Now that is the good news, not just preached, but incarnated…

Another way of putting this is to paraphrase what Eugene Peterson says in the foreword to God’s Economy, “Money impoverishes rich and poor alike.” The poverty of the poor ought need little explanation. The poverty of the rich is another matter.

Speaking of God’s Economy, I should say a little about some of what I found so incredibly profound and challenging about it. Here’s one page that struck me early on:

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Another former pastor of mine often used this quote, I believe by MLK, Jr., which posited that “…it is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” the point being that not only does God call us to something more and better than middle-class society, but we must take stock of just how readily our lives comport with the expectations of that society. If there’s little difference, really, between our “Christianity” and our standing as patriotic USAmericans, then something is terribly wrong. As Wilson-Hartgove put it in God’s Economy:

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“Jesus was born homeless to a family living under Roman occupation and grew up as a refugee in Egypt because the authorities back home wanted him dead.”

Meanwhile, the country I grew up in is an occupying force and supports other such occupying forces, and is currently doing its best to build walls and keep out refugees fleeing genocide, all in the name of protecting the comfort of our middle-class citizens. Thus, in the midst of reading God’s Economy, our family came up with our focus for the month of January:

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Yes, I know I misspelled “implications;” I was writing fast.

Pretty soon we came to terms with the fact that we had accumulated two 40-inch-or-larger TV’s, and we didn’t need one, let alone two. So, with joy we gave our living room TV and sound bar to the Mill City Church Commons (our shared space- the only building we “own,” which is used for meetings, offices, training, and hospitality while as a church we remain committed to meeting for worship and maintaining a presence in the Sheridan School in Mpls.). Other such realizations would follow, but more on that later.

I should pause and talk about another part of this story, which has a lot of threads that I hope you’ll find decently come together at the end. In the midst of all this good reading I’ve been doing in January, I’ve also kept up with the goings-on and writing coming out of the Circle of Hope community, our former church in Philadelphia. First I read this post, titled Doing Theology: Paul’s “Two Tiers” and Social Action, which still has me thinking about the implications of it all. It opens provocatively:

The big temptation for Jesus –followers who want to make a difference in this troubled world is to join forces with the very powers that be who make the world troubled — all in the name of getting something done. In the name of tolerance, acceptance, mutuality and humility (and maybe fear or shame), they shelve their faith or make it “personal” and dig into world-changing according to principles they can share with the world. All too often, they join the endless cycle of history and just repeat the same old damned things in the name of love, hope, and goodness.

In describing the “two tiers” of the post’s title, Rod White, Circle of Hope’s Development Pastor, says: “What I mean is that there is a general, universal, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it.” I should mention that this “doing theology” piece is the result of something they actually “did.” They got together, face-to-face, and worked some of this theology out. That’s what they do. Rod elaborates on the two tiers like this:

Romans 12

First tier:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. – Romans 12:3-5

Second tier
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. — Romans 12:6-8

The first tier starts with God, who distributes grace. The second tier is more about us who variously receive it. One could start with the second tier and celebrate the “diversity” of it and easily miss the first. God’s distribution is the essence of our oneness and what dignifies our diversity.

Trying a second example from Romans 12, I rearranged the material to make my point. Some people wondered if it was accurate enough.

First tier:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. – Romans 12:21,17,19

Second tier:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” — Romans 12:14-21 (minus the verses above)

The first tier is a word from the Lord, a basic new thing that Jesus reveals. It is the heart of the new humanity the Lord is redeeming from their bondage in evil.

The second tier is a brainstorm of how one does that, what it means to keep revealing this in the world. It is a list of actions to take. Like in the Lord’s metaphor, the first tier is about good trees, the second about good fruit. Paul could have said more about action in Romans 12, and he does elsewhere, because he continues to apply this truth. He doesn’t try to sum it all up because Jesus is his heading. He is describing something that is living. Our actions are more like the traits of our character, like an aspect of Christ culture than like an ideology we apply or a law we follow.

These two tiers become especially useful in dealing with some of the more challenging of Paul’s writings. Here’s how they apply the two tiers to Paul’s writings about women:

Paul’s writings about women, as revolutionary an application of his revelation as they were, have been the source of much oppression by the men who eventually came to dominate the church. Circle of Hope is alternative to so-called conservative and liberal churches in how we deal with the “issue.” We are acting out Paul’s two tiers.

First tier:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:23-29

In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. — 1 Corinthians 11:11-12

Everything comes from God. We receive it. Our faith makes us children of God, and we go from there. Relatedness, love rules.

Second tier:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved…. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. — 1 Cor 11:4-5, 11-16

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. — 1 Cor 14:34-35

Head coverings, long hair for women, not men (although Jesus probably had long hair), women not speaking (elsewhere they are forbidden to teach men) although he encouraged them to keep their head covered while prophesying in the meeting – these are all inconsistent and specific applications. Paul was not trying to write the Bible as the modernists saw it. Surely he did not expect his writings to be collected. He is not a professor writing a book about a topic. He is working things out as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, “in Christ.” You can make your own discernment in Christ, but it looks like we should apply a principle of Bible interpretation that says the closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day, the more likely it is to be culturally bound, and the more counter-cultural it is the more likely it is to be universal in application. It’s not an ironclad principle, but a useful guide. (*italics and bold print added*)

That not-ironclad principle alone is incredibly helpful, but this “two tier” approach to Paul is especially important, and important to the larger argument I’m making, in regard to slavery. Rod takes the work Circle of Hope did in “doing theology” and riffs on it over on his blog in a post you’ll find here. I’ll let him speak for himself again:

One of the places where we could see Paul’s two-tiered thinking was when he related to slaves. In this day, when people are into the idolatry Trump preaches, in which young people are chained to their survival jobs and debt, when white supremacists are trying to re-enslave African-Americans, and in which we are all tempted to bow in fear before the Tweeter-in-chief, we may need to think about freeing the slaves more consciously than ever.

Be small

First, if we want to get anything out of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, we have to remember that when he speaks to women, Gentiles and slaves seriously as members of the church, his respect is subversive. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

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.

Slaving

Once in Paul’s shoes, we can see what he is talking about. 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. Here’s just one example of how he thinks:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – Colossians 3:23-4. That last clause should read: “It is for the Lord (master) Christ you are slaving.”

Everyone who is thoroughly trained in democratic equality and the centrality of human choice (the general God-free zone of Western thought these days) is likely to think those lines are heresy; it might even feel icky to read them, taboo. Slaving?! Paul has none of those qualms. He finds it an honor to be a slave in Christ’s house as opposed to being a ruler in a house of lies. God is a “master” beyond anything Hobbes, Rousseau or Ayn Rand could imagine.

So when he goes on to talk to slaves, locked in their situation with masters, benign or despotic, Paul has a variety of options for them. His first tier thinking makes him completely free to do the best he can with what he’s got in the day-to-day, passing-away, fallen world. So he says to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” — Colossians 3:22, 25

Elsewhere, of course, he 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.

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.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I wanted to include it all because it’s central to how I and my family are being shaped and formed right now. I don’t think I could re-state much of what Rod says any better than he did, but I want to pull out a few quotes that I find terribly important:

  • “We often forget, as we turn our ‘imperial gaze’ on the ‘others’ who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those ‘others.’ He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the ‘others’ in their towns and villages. So he writes from ‘under’ not ‘over’.”

This language about Paul being “small” is crucial. Relatively rich white male U.S. citizens like myself are at the height of power in what is again one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Though Paul was a Roman citizen, “he has become small,” as Rod said. He gave up persecuting as a Roman in order to be persecuted as a Jesus-follower. He has become one of those “on the margins of society.” If I am to better understand what God might be trying to teach the church through Paul, I need to become “small” too. More importantly, if I am to follow the same Jesus that led Paul to become “small,” the chances again are very high that I must do likewise. I must give up some (maybe a lot?) of my power and privilege. As 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.”
  • “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” (italics added).

Rod isn’t arguing, I don’t think, that those experiencing modern-day slavery shouldn’t get free, if they can, nor that we shouldn’t be a part of helping make that happen. What he is arguing is that:

  • It is a “delusion (to think) that law makes (anyone) free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering.”

So if we want to understand Paul, we powerful rich white Westerners have to become small. Paul, a person-on-the-margins-of-empire for Jesus, wrote to other people on the margins who also met Jesus there. If we want to meet (and understand and follow) Jesus today, perhaps we should look there too.

So then last weekend our family experienced a very meaningful Mill City Church Winter Get-a-way during which Kirsten and I were honored to have been asked to share a little (I posted my talk recently; you’ll find it here). The weekend ended with an impassioned plea by one of our pastors, Stephanie, which she summarized helpfully on Instagram:

Less than a year ago a Missional Community from @millcitychurchmpls welcomed a refugee family from Somalia. The team spent months preparing, praying and training before the family arrived. When the family got to Minnesota they got to see their own relatives who they’d been separated from for years. It’s heartbreaking to me that the ban ordered by President Trump means that so many teams will not meet the family they have been praying for. Not to mention that families will continue to be torn apart. As followers of Jesus, we can have different political opinions about HOW to welcome refugees, but there is little nuance in the call as gospel people to allow and to welcome the foreigner. This is an opportunity to unite across party lines as people who pledge allegiance first to the Kingdom of God. (Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Exodus 23:9, Malachi 3:5, Matthew 25:25-36, Luke 10:29-37 – and many more…)

Then, on our way home, we listened to the live stream of that morning’s Mill City worship service back in Minneapolis. Another of our pastors, Michael, gave this sermon, the final in the just finished series that introduced our church’s “mission priorities” for the year:

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In talking about how to engage with the marginalized, Michael used Mark 10:13-16:

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms,placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Michael makes it clear in his sermon that the interpretation of this story that many of us grew up with simply misses the point. Many of us grew up thinking that what Jesus meant is that we have to have an innocent, child-like faith in order to enter God’s kingdom. Michael says that while simple, child-like faith might be helpful, what’s notable about this story is that in the economic and political system of the day children were absolutely without power. They had no status or standing. Thus, when Jesus acknowledges them, makes time for them, receives them, and says that you have to be like them to enter his kingdom, he’s saying something about power and status. He’s saying that if you don’t receive the kingdom of God like one on the margins of society, like one without power or privilege (like a child), you won’t receive it at all. Just as importantly, Michael reminded us that the mission priority he was focusing on was “engaging with those on the margins,” not “serving” them or even loving them, though that’s obviously important too. Michael notes that it’s important that we work to engage with those on the margins and not just try to do things for or “rescue” them because, put simply and as he said, “we have something to learn from the people on the margins: the poor, the widow, the foreigner, the fatherless, the oppressed. They have something to teach us about what it’s like to receive from God the good news of Jesus Christ.” He adds that engaging with the marginalized is meant to be reciprocal. He says, “I think that God is easier to find on the margins…because when you’re not on the margins it’s easier to value self-sufficiency and fight off dependence and lose your sense of trust in something bigger than yourself.” He adds: “The heart of the good news of Jesus Christ is about receiving; the whole point…is that we couldn’t do anything to earn God’s grace and God’s love in our lives;…so it makes sense that people on the margins might understand that better on a daily basis.”

On the heels of all that, I read a little more of God’s Economy, and lo and behold very soon Wilson-Hartgrove is also talking about that very same story of the “little children and Jesus” from Mark 10:

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Wilson-Hartgove likewise describes the household economy of the day and details how trade was conducted household to household and therefore the head of a household, especially a large one, was something like a corporate CEO. Thus, when Jesus is inviting the children to come to him, and when he says you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom, he’s again saying something about worldly power, about worldly “success and security” (more on “success and security” below). In other words, Jesus is inviting his followers to make themselves small, to put themselves on the margins of society, to give up their (worldly) power. It’s a theme Paul would later echo, as we learned above.

Wilson-Hartgrove, though, makes a point to show that the pericope with the story of the little children and Jesus very much sets the stage for what happens next in the Biblical narrative, which is detailed in the “story” of the “rich young ruler:”

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 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.”

With deep conviction that everywhere I turned God was inviting me to become “small,” to find him on the margins of society and there perhaps to understand Jesus, let alone Scripture, in a way that my power and privilege had prevented me from up to this point, I was simply stunned as I realized for the first time in my life, at the age of 41, what this verse (Mark 10:29 and following) might really be all about: ” ‘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 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’.” I know someone who thinks this is saying something along the lines of this: because Kirsten and I gave up a modest (by U.S. standards) home in OH in order to move back to MN in part to help my mother-in-law as her health declines, if that act can in any way be construed as having something to do with following Jesus, then this passage means we’re going to get a much nicer, bigger, better house here. In fact, I now know that quite the opposite is promised by this passage, and it has everything to do with we, the church, actually “being the Church.”

God’s Economy puts it this way:

Jesus is no less concrete in enumerating the abundance of the new (God’s) economy that the disciples are to receive. Where they had a home, they will have homes with fields aplenty. Where they had siblings, parents, and children, they will have brothers, sisters, mothers, and children- but notably, no fathers. No heads of household. In this new economy there is only one Father, and his abundance is enough for everyone…..Jesus says that those who follow him will receive a new economy here and now. We have access to a global network of people who, with us, have devoted themselves and all the resources at their disposal to the way of subversive service.

I’ve long known that many of the “you’s” in the Bible that describe how to follow Jesus were plural; they’re directed to you, the Church, because we can’t do this alone. Yet somehow it never occurred to me to quit interpreting this passage individualistically too. The point of this passage isn’t that I’m going to get a bigger house because I left a smaller one to (arguably) follow Jesus. The point is that I don’t need one, because together, we, the Church, already have everything we need. This was startling to me. Some would-be Jesus-followers exhaust themselves pursuing worldly economic and political power, thinking that somehow they can do more good by participating in the structures of the “principalities and powers” of our day. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has already given us, the Church, absolutely everything we need to follow him closely and well. He’s given us each other. Could it be that we really are the answer to our prayers, that we really are the ones we’ve been waiting for?

It was this realization that had me weeping on Kirsten’s shoulder, and doing so all the more because of this line from God’s Economy: “Most of us would rather listen to our iPods or blog about hunger than cook a meal for people we know and love,” the implication being that we should know and love people who are hungry, and if we don’t, we’re not doing it- following Jesus- right. Naturally, I am promptly blogging about this, but when I read that I was- and am- devastated.

Even so, God wasn’t- and isn’t- done with me yet. After the crying session on Kirsten’s shoulder I saw this post on Instagram:

Mill City Church posted this as a preview for the new sermon series that started this past weekend. They said:
Mill City Church posted this as a preview for the new sermon series that started this past weekend. They said: “New conversation starts this week at @millcitychurchmpls. Success and Security – Questioning What Matters. Many of us want to be successful. We want to feel secure. Yet we often find ourselves struggling to feel like we have achieved success or attained security. Jesus consistently redefined success and security by inviting people to question what matters most in their lives. This series will look at the ways Jesus redefines success and security.”

So we went to yesterday’s worship gathering having more than an inkling of how this conversation might go, as it seemed more than likely that we would be invited again to meet Jesus on the margins, to give up our power and maybe even some of our stuff so that we might have even just a slight chance of receiving the goodness God has for us instead of clinging to and trying to create our own. Prior to attending this past Sunday’s worship gathering, Kirsten and I began taking some concrete steps to get just a little smaller ourselves. After just a little conversation, we gave up our smartphones and went back to basic flip phones. This certainly “costs” us something in terms of convenience, but honestly having been without a smartphone now for all of three days I can tell you that I’m receiving so much more than I gave up. Obviously this frees up some money (we cut our cell phone bill in half) and is part of a larger financial strategy that includes once more starting a debt management program, all of which will, Lord willing, put us much more readily in a position to live out the oft-repeated Mill City Church truth that “generosity is something God wants for you, not from you.” We hope to much better be able to be generous like we believe we’re called to in the very near future. Even more importantly, perhaps, we’re receiving a little freedom from the constant bombardment of news alerts about every offensive posting by the tweeter-in-chief and the inundation of our social media feeds. We’ve now gotten rid of one big “screen” in our life and several smaller ones, and we’re finding it easier to resist the temptation to think that we’re responsible for and must respond to everything that’s happening in the world all the time. We can now have just a little more ability to choose when to be informed about things and by whom, and we’re reminded that if something happens when we’re not paying attention to it, God is still working all the while to love and save us all.

This theme of how to use the (technological, in this case) tools we’ve been given would come up in J.D.’s sermon yesterday (J.D. is another of Mill City Church’s pastors). In what could only be a providential act, J.D. picked up right where Michael had left off the week before in Mark 10, with the story of the “rich young ruler” and Jesus. I’m paraphrasing him here (and didn’t have a smartphone to snap a picture of the slides he showed during his sermon!), but essentially J.D. said as he was setting the stage for this sermon series on just want constitutes “success and security” in God’s kingdom that he wanted initially simply to ask a number of questions. Among them were:

  • Does what you have, have you?
  • Is it easier to give than to receive? (A related question for me comes to mind: what does God want to give us, and does our “stuff” prevent us from receiving it?)
  • This isn’t a question but J.D. wanted to really highlight verse 21 from Mark 10, in which we read that Jesus looked at, and loved, the rich young ruler.

That first question, “does what you have, have you?” is one that it should be clear I’ve been wrestling with for some time now (probably decades, but in a new way over the past few weeks). Therefore I need to report that I think the answer was absolutely “yes!” In the relationship between myself and my stuff, one of us was a tool, and I’m ashamed to report that it was me. It has become very clear that I was a tool, not my smartphone. Having given up my smartphone, I had a remarkable experience on Saturday (even before J.D.’s sermon). We went to my mother-in-law’s for breakfast on Saturday, as we’ve made a commitment to do most weekends, and I found that the dynamic in my relationship with her had changed. I won’t go into needless details publicly, but I found that I suddenly had more capacity to love her, to really see her, to quit (I’m again ashamed to admit) judging her and simply be open to taking her for who she is, another sinner in need of grace. I’m still slightly dumbfounded at the love I found myself a conduit of.

After J.D. preached, the closing song the band sang was the one I opened this post with, Broken Vessels by Hillsong. Hopefully you’ve been listening to it as you read this. I still am. The lyrics are:

All these pieces
Broken and scattered
In mercy gathered
Mended and whole
Empty handed
But not forsaken
I’ve been set free
I’ve been set free
Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
You take our failure
You take our weakness
You set Your treasure
In jars of clay
So take this heart, Lord
I’ll be Your vessel
The world to see
Your love in me
Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I seeOh I can see you now

Oh I can see the love in Your eyes

Laying yourself down

Raising up the broken to life

Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
[2x]

Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life

Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
[2x]

Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
[3x]

Some lyrics stand out: “Empty handed, but not forsaken, I’ve been set free…I’ve been set free…” As I tried to sing that song yesterday I thought of my empty hands, no longer clutching a smartphone, and all that this entailed. I thought of how much more present I hoped to be to those around me. More importantly, I thought of what it meant to go without Google in my pocket, to be not willfully ignorant but consciously aware that even with the benefit of Google I can’t possibly know, respond to, and solve all the problems I’m daily confronted with, but I know someone who can.
Finding myself just a tiny bit smaller than I had allowed myself to be before, I sang the next bit in the song: “Oh I can see you now, Oh I can see the love in Your eyes.” Stunned, it hit me again that I am the rich young ruler, whom Jesus looked at, and loved. Gratefully finding myself a little closer to the margins of society, I hope, I found that in a new way just as Jesus was looking at and loving me, I could really look at and see him: “Oh, I can see you now….” I can see the love in Your eyes. I sang a little more:
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life
You take our failure
You take our weakness
You set Your treasure
In jars of clay
So take this heart, Lord
I’ll be Your vessel
The world to see
Your love in me
I pray for the courage to keep making myself ever smaller, to keep giving up my power and privilege so that I can better understand Scripture, and more importantly, Jesus; so that I have capacity to receive the goodness God has for me, the success and security he wants to give me not through independence but through the interdependence and mutuality that comes as a result of really being the Church. I pray to be a vessel through which God keeps pouring his love. I pray that I will be part of a movement, a Church that eschews political power and prestige and that uses instead the incredible resources God has already given us: each other. Could it be that Jesus meant what he said? Could it be that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for? Lord, let it be so.