Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter 2018

Sleep eludes me this night forcing me to keep an Easter Vigil I did not choose. I find myself musing on St. Mark’s passion and resurrection story, odd as it is (though terribly characteristic of this gospel writer). One of its oddities is that it is pagan Roman centurion who announces Jesus’ death boldly declaring the last thing I’m sure he ever expected to be saying at that moment, “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” (Mk.15:39). The emperor was believed to be son of deity; yet here it is one pinned to a cross in a humiliating death that is so acclaimed. What did that centurion see in the dying/dead Jesus that evoked such a profession? We’ll never know, of course. And perhaps that’s the point. Against all expectation and probability this death, in all it gruesome horror, spoke to the centurion the last thing he expected to hear: a word of divine love and even victory.

I can’t get the words of Paul in 2 Cor.4 out of my mind (especially vv.10-12):

 “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Can’t say that I really understand Paul here. But his connection of our bearing the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus is manifest is us makes me think of the centurion’s confession in the gospel. I need to keep chewing on that!

A second oddity I can’t escape this night is that the voices of those nearest and most faithful to Jesus in Mark, the women, are shut by fear. Of course, they finally found their voices because the story does get told. But I’m wondering if there’s not more to it than lack of faith?

-Jesus died dashing their hopes. Now he is alive and already back in Galilee at work. No wonder those women were afraid and reluctant to tell the disciples this news. He’s never who or where we expect him to be, even those of us who know him best. Is that what we/I need to hear this Easter? To keep our/my mouth(s) shut but Jesus is not who or where we expect him to be? Might not a good disorienting of our faith and perception of Jesus be salutary for this Easter? Even necessary? Is there more integrity in that Easter response, especially in the confused and confusing times we live in in North America, than in a full-throated “Hallelujah”? I don’t know. Maybe.
-Perhaps the women feared because they realized that death, the death of Jesus and our deaths in witness to him are comprehended within the plan and purpose of God – and that scared them to silence. I think it would me. Not sure I’d be quick to share a message that implicated me in that sort of prospect. Not sure I am quick to do it. Is a time of reflective silence mulling the implications of and our/my readiness to take up the Easter witness before we launch into the “Hallelujahs” a proper response to Mark’s account? Again, I think of Paul’s words quoted above.

The birds are starting to awake and chirp outside my window. Darkness will soon flee. I don’t know whether these ruminations of mine amount to much. I think there’s something in them, though I don’t quite know what. And maybe that’s just what Mark wants – to leave us silent for whatever reasons before the wonder of this day that the mystery of cross may more deeply inscribe itself and mark our lives so that the life of Jesus becomes manifest in us. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Palm Sunday: Satire and Civil Disobedience

I tend, on occasion, to get bored with Christianity. And I wonder sometimes whether Christianity really, after all, has any relevance to the unfolding of social history, with all its violence and hostility.
Then Palm Sunday rolls around.

Let me ask you to think that Palm Sunday exhibits two “disciplines” too seldom considered as fundamental to being human in the world:

satire |ˈsaˌtīr| noun
the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize stupidity, particularly in the context of politics
civil disobedience |ˈsɪvɪl ˈˌdɪsəˈbidiəns| noun
the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest

The context for Jesus’ so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, remembered on Palm Sunday, was the celebration of the Passover. Jesus and his disciples were preparing to participate in this annual feast, and this annual feast was a sort of paradigmatic anti-imperialist celebration: to again become a people who had seen the horse and rider of Pharaoh cast down, his warriors thrown into the sea, and themselves delivered from the bondage of slavery.

And by Jesus’ day, of course, Pharaoh had been replaced with Caesar. There is always another pretentious power quick to fill the vacuum left when the most recent one bites the dust. So now it was Rome. And the natives in Jerusalem would often get restless at Passover time, ready for this God who had promised deliverance to act again in a great display of magnificent power to overthrow the powers. And this Jesus seemed to be a good candidate as the newly anointed one to accomplish such a deed . . .


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Reclaiming Jesus

A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis

We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.

It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

When politics undermines our theology, we must examine that politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

It is often the duty of Christian leaders, especially elders, to speak the truth in love to our churches and to name and warn against temptations, racial and cultural captivities, false doctrines, and political idolatries—and even our complicity in them. We do so here with humility, prayer, and a deep dependency on the grace and Holy Spirit of God.

This letter comes from a retreat on Ash Wednesday, 2018. In this season of Lent, we feel deep lamentations for the state of our nation, and our own hearts are filled with confession for the sins we feel called to address. The true meaning of the word repentance is to turn around. It is time to lament, confess, repent, and turn. In times of crisis, the church has historically learned to return to Jesus Christ.

Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession. It was central for the early church and needs to again become central to us. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was not—nor any other political ruler since. If Jesus is Lord, no other authority is absolute. Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God he announced, is the Christian’s first loyalty, above all others. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.

The question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history? We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what “Jesus is Lord” means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.

What we believe leads us to what we must reject. Our “Yes” is the foundation for our “No.” What we confess as our faith leads to what we confront. Therefore, we offer the following six affirmations of what we believe, and the resulting rejections of practices and policies by political leaders which dangerously corrode the soul of the nation and deeply threaten the public integrity of our faith. We pray that we, as followers of Jesus, will find the depth of faith to match the danger of our political crisis.

I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. We, as followers of Jesus, must clearly reject the use of racial bigotry for political gain that we have seen. In the face of such bigotry, silence is complicity. In particular, we reject white supremacy and commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate white preference and advantage. Further, any doctrines or political strategies that use racist resentments, fears, or language must be named as public sin—one that goes back to the foundation of our nation and lingers on. Racial bigotry must be antithetical for those belonging to the body of Christ, because it denies the truth of the gospel we profess.

II. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. When we fail to overcome these oppressive obstacles, and even perpetuate them, we have failed in our vocation to the world—to proclaim and live the reconciling gospel of Christ.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God. We lament when such practices seem publicly ignored, and thus privately condoned, by those in high positions of leadership. We stand for the respect, protection, and affirmation of women in our families, communities, workplaces, politics, and churches. We support the courageous truth-telling voices of women, who have helped the nation recognize these abuses. We confess sexism as a sin, requiring our repentance and resistance.

III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not “good news to the poor,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, who are being made into cultural and political targets, and we need to remind our churches that God makes the treatment of the “strangers” among us a test of faith (Leviticus 19:33-34). We won’t accept the neglect of the well-being of low-income families and children, and we will resist repeated attempts to deny health care to those who most need it. We confess our growing national sin of putting the rich over the poor. We reject the immoral logic of cutting services and programs for the poor while cutting taxes for the rich. Budgets are moral documents. We commit ourselves to opposing and reversing those policies and finding solutions that reflect the wisdom of people from different political parties and philosophies to seek the common good. Protecting the poor is a central commitment of Christian discipleship, to which 2,000 verses in the Bible attest.

IV. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition, whose vocation includes speaking the Word of God into their societies and speaking the truth to power. A commitment to speaking truth, the ninth commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16), is foundational to shared trust in society. Falsehood can enslave us, but Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The search and respect for truth is crucial to anyone who follows Christ.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. Politicians, like the rest of us, are human, fallible, sinful, and mortal. But when public lying becomes so persistent that it deliberately tries to change facts for ideological, political, or personal gain, the public accountability to truth is undermined. The regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society. In the face of lies that bring darkness, Jesus is our truth and our light.

V. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule. We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger that threatens democracy and the common good—and we will resist it. Disrespect for the rule of law, not recognizing the equal importance of our three branches of government, and replacing civility with dehumanizing hostility toward opponents are of great concern to us. Neglecting the ethic of public service and accountability, in favor of personal recognition and gain often characterized by offensive arrogance, are not just political issues for us. They raise deeper concerns about political idolatry, accompanied by false and unconstitutional notions of authority.

VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18). Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. The most well-known verse in the New Testament starts with “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children. Serving our own communities is essential, but the global connections between us are undeniable. Global poverty, environmental damage, violent conflict, weapons of mass destruction, and deadly diseases in some places ultimately affect all places, and we need wise political leadership to deal with each of these.

WE ARE DEEPLY CONCERNED for the soul of our nation, but also for our churches and the integrity of our faith. The present crisis calls us to go deeper—deeper into our relationship to God; deeper into our relationships with each other, especially across racial, ethnic, and national lines; deeper into our relationships with the most vulnerable, who are at greatest risk.

The church is always subject to temptations to power, to cultural conformity, and to racial, class, and gender divides, as Galatians 3:28 teaches us. But our answer is to be “in Christ,” and to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable, and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The best response to our political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries is the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:38). As to loving our neighbors, we would add “no exceptions.”

We commend this letter to pastors, local churches, and young people who are watching and waiting to see what the churches will say and do at such a time as this.

Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair. If Jesus is Lord, there is always space for grace. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ—to whom be all authority, honor, and glory. It is time for a fresh confession of faith. Jesus is Lord. He is the light in our darkness. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

·    Bishop Carroll A. Baltimore, President and CEO, Global Alliance Interfaith Networks

·    Rev. Dr. Peter Borgdorff, Executive Director Emeritus, Christian Reformed Church in North America

·    Dr. Amos Brown, Chair, Social Justice Commission, National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.

·    Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary

·    Dr. Tony Campolo, Co-Founder, Red Letter Christians

·    Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference

·    The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church

·    Rev. Dr. James Forbes, President and Founder, Healing the Nations Foundation and Preaching Professor at Union Theological Seminary

·    Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary Emeritus, Reformed Church in America

·    Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, Senior Pastor, Ray of Hope Christian Church, Decatur, GA

·    Rev. Dr. Richard Hamm, former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

·    Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter, Faith Community Organizer and Chairman, Community Resource Network

·    Rev. Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent Emerita, The Wesleyan Church

·    Bishop Vashti McKenzie, 117th Elected and Consecrated Bishop, AME Church

·    Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., Co-Convener National African American Clergy Network

·    Dr. John Perkins, Chair Emeritus and Founding Member, Christian Community Development Association

·    Bishop Lawrence Reddick, CEO, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

·    Fr. Richard Rohr, Founder, Center for Action and Contemplation

·    Dr. Ron Sider, President Emeritus, Evangelicals for Social Action

·    Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Founder, Sojourners

·    Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, Director, NCC Truth and Racial Justice Initiative

·    Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Co-Convener, National African American Clergy Network; President, Skinner Leadership Institute

·    Bishop Will Willimon, Bishop, The United Methodist Church, retired, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School

God’s BHAG and a Bigger and Better Gospel: Trinity and Incarnation

Jesus, God in human flesh, is the ultimate expression of God’s BHAG – his Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Such a goal is “clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort” that engages people in their “innards” and is “tangible, energizing, highly focused.  People ‘get it’ right away; it takes little or no explanation” (Collins, The thing God wanted from forever, the divine BHAG, is for God and humanity to live together in friendship and love on this world he created for it. God desired this so much, to be so close to us, as close as he could possibly be, in fact, that he decided to become one of us!  His coming as one of us was always God’s plan. That was enormously complicated after humanity sinned and rejected friendship with him, to be sure. It now included the necessity to deal with sin and its effects in order to reclaim and restore humanity and creation to God’s intention for them.
Do you realize what this means? If Jesus was to become human anyway to fulfill God’s BHAG, then his reason for coming was not our sin or even to forgive our sin. Despite what many of us in the West have been taught it was not human sin that required Jesus to come die and be raised from the dead for us! He incorporated that into his coming as a necessary prelude to doing what he originally intended to do. But what he came to do is far bigger and better than that (as wonderful and necessary as forgiveness is).

Monday, March 19, 2018


For most of my Christian life, I never questioned it. Even in the last 5 years, I did it without reservation. As I reflect on why I used to do it, my reasons were always social, political, and cultural. They were never theological or ethical.
So as of a year ago, I stopped doing it. I no longer pledge my allegiance to the nation that I’m living in. And, to be consistent, I no longer look down upon my African, Asian, European, and Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ who also find it hard to pledge their allegiance to the nation they are living in.
We're all citizens of another kingdom which is fundamentally at odds with other kingdoms seeking to rule the world, or part of it. We are outposts of heaven living as strangers and foreigners among the nations. And we need to be reminded of that identity every single day.
Christians too often ignore questions related to national allegiance, or they get mad when people raise them. Try blowing up your next Bible study by asking the question: Should Christians stand for the national anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance? You might just start a brawl.
The first Christians, however, would have gladly wrestled with these questions . . .

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The World Is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?

Earlier this week, I went to a lecture given by Steven Pinker on his latest book, Enlightenment Now. I’m a huge and longtime fan of Pinker’s, and his book The Blank Slate was, for me, a revelation. He’s become a deep and important critic of the visceral hostility to nature and science now so sadly prevalent on the left and right, a defender of reason and the Enlightenment against the “social justice” movements on campus, and his new book is a near-relentless defense of modernity. I sat there for an hour slowly being buried in a fast-accumulating snowdrift of irrefutable statistics showing human progress: the decline of violence and war, the rise and rise of democracy, the astonishing gains against poverty of the last couple of decades, the rise of tolerance and erosion of cruelty, lengthening lifespans, revolutions in health, huge increases in safety, and on and on. It was one emphatic graph after another that bludgeoned my current depression into a kind of forced rational cheeriness. There were no real trade-offs here; our gloom is largely self-imposed; and is entirely a function of our media and news diets.

At the same time, I was finally reading another new book, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen. If you really want a point of view that is disturbingly persuasive about the modern predicament and yet usually absent from any discussion in the mainstream media, I cannot recommend it highly enough. A short polemic against our modern liberal world, it too is relentless. By “liberal,” I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean (and Deneen means) the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions. Deneen doesn’t deny any of the progress Pinker describes, or quibble at the triumph of the liberal order. It is, by and large, indisputable. He does something more interesting: He argues that liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded.

As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument, and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.

Pinker’s sole response to this argument — insofar as he even acknowledges it . . .

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Death Clarifies What We Love

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Christmas Morning, 2017
There is a kind of theology that is not written in words, but written in lives. It is a type of religious reflection, not the reflection on religion of lettered men and women, but the reflection of religion through the performance of active love. If both are indispensable to the Christian tradition, it is also clear that they are neither equivalent nor, perhaps, equally important. It is the latter task: the daily, difficult, and often unremarkable practice of being in the world as a Christian that is the material of Christian life.
Rosemary Therese was that kind of Christian. The oldest daughter of a Polish father and an Irish mother, she grew up in an age when that arrangement was not yet unremarkable nor, amidst cultural and financial pressures, unremarked upon. By certain lights her life was a humble one. As the oldest child, she was not to go to college, but to care for her parents, which she did until the end of their lives. (She once told me she thought she would have studied English.) She married and had seven children of her own. They in turn, signaling further indications of further changes, were given away in marriage to other Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and one son to the Church. They had children of their own, and now those children have begun to have children themselves. Across her heart, and that of many a homemaker, ran the crossroads of one world, with its local communities, values, and corner bakeries, and its strange successor . . .