Remembering Sister Margaret Gaines

Friends: I got some sad news a few minutes ago. Sister Margaret Gaines was found dead in her home this morning. She was 85. I have long referred to her as my spiritual grandmother. She was the person who most shaped my faith. To be in her presence, was to be saturated with Jesus. 

In tribute, I wanted to post a section from my first book, Prototype, in which I wrote about her at length: 

The week after Christmas, I was sleeping on the sofa hide-a-bed in Pell City, Alabama, when the delicate sounds of 80-year-old Sister Margaret Gaines working quietly in the adjacent kitchen slowly woke me.  I was still in the hazy shadowland between dream and reality when I began to hear the pots and pans and her voice softly humming a hymn.  She was trying not to wake me, but it was hardly a bother.  When I’m at Margaret’s house and she’s making fresh Arab bread and hummus, the old Church of God campground doesn’t seem nearly so out of reach.  And when I share a meal with Sister Margaret, I always recognize something that gives me a reason again to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead after all.  I wasn’t able to handle the wounded body of Jesus, and now I can’t touch the body of my grandmother either.  But in Sister Margaret, I’ve got a stand-in. 

The claim though is not just that the resurrection changes people—but that resurrection has already changed the world.  The problem of course is that there are so many ways that the world is yet living in protest to its deepest calling.  We do not have to look very far to see how much suffering and evil and injustice is still at work in the world around us even still.  And yet when people really come to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead and start to live their lives accordingly, we are able to see demonstrated what this new resurrected world looks like.  As strange as it might sound, through our very lives in all of their ordinariness, people begin to experience the reality of resurrection.  People who live such a life in a real sense begin to “take responsibility for God” in the world.  For most people, this is where faith in God starts. Rowan Williams says that belief in God

starts from a sense that we ‘believe in,’ we trust some kinds of people.  We have confidence in the way they live, the way they live is the way I want to live, perhaps can imagine myself living in my better or more mature moments.  The world they inhabit is one I’d like to live in.  Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in. [1]  

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            ...Years after my grandmother died, I came to know this feeling again for myself through Sister Margaret, whom I call my spiritual grandmother.  So I’ll take you back long before that morning I described in Pell City, Alabama, a few months ago.   I didn’t know her well until I was in my early 20s.  I knew of her because she was famous in my denomination as a missionary.  The first time Amanda and I got to be with Margaret, we literally cried for three hours as we talked, still so overcome by the time I left her that I staggered drunkenly to my car.  It wasn’t anything in particular she said.  It was her presence.  I had never been around a person who was as tender and gentle and good as Margaret Gaines.  It was as if to be with her was to feel the presence of God Himself.  And I’ve never gotten over it. 

            I know much more of Margaret’s story now.  She grew up in Pell City, Alabama.  When she was 19 years old, she felt like God called her to be a missionary, but she couldn’t get any support because everybody said it was too dangerous for a pretty single girl to go to Tunisia on her own.  But she went.  And years later, she felt like God called her to the Palestinian village of Aboud.  She never married, saying that she is married to Jesus, so it wouldn’t be fair to a husband since her heart belongs to Him.

Margaret’s life was greatly shaped by the hospitality and generosity of the Arab people, who received her as a gift to their community.  She established a church and a Christian elementary school that continues to this day, though in recent years serious heart ailments have forced Margaret back to her home in Pell City.  Currently, five Muslim villages surrounding Aboud send their children to the school.  With few resources, Margaret developed the curriculum and created almost all of the visual aids herself when she founded the school in 1970. Many of the Muslims there send their children to the school, knowing full well they will be taught about Jesus as part of their educational program.  A leading Muslim cleric in Aboud commented that “Sister Margaret shaped and changed the entire character of this village.”  A delegation of Muslim leaders told her on her last visit that they wanted to build a library in Aboud in her honor, as a monument to the love she brought there.

            There are so many astounding stories from the life of my 80-year old spiritual grandmother.  In 2006, I had the extraordinary privilege of going with her to Aboud.  To see firsthand the places where she experienced remarkable miracles of biblical proportions has forever marked me.  There are so many times she experienced supernatural provision from God while living among her people through multiple wars and astonishing oppression.  But rather than telling you any of those stories that would most enthrall you, there is one small story she tells me that sums up for me best just how odd the resurrection can make a person different in a hostile world. 

Margaret was in the village market one day when everybody was out, and a man accosted her.  Taking out his apparent frustration with western military interference in the region, he began cursing her.  He cursed the grave of her father, the grave of her mother, the grave of her grandparents, her God and the God of her parents--everything he could think of to curse.  She felt the eyes of the entire village watching.  As he hurled abuse on her, she quickly prayed for wisdom.  When he was finally done, Margaret responded “I am so sorry I hurt you.   I never had any intention of hurting you.  God loves you and I love you.  He loves this village and he wants to bless you.  When you get over being angry, will you remember I’m still your friend?”  Perplexed, he turned and walked away.  In words that have forever marked me, Margaret told me that “Satan doesn’t know how to respond to the gentleness of God’s Spirit.”  Discouraged, she went back to her room to pray.  “Oh, God, what was the meaning of this? Everybody in the village who could walk was out on the streets.  What was this all about?”  She heard God say, “That was your pulpit.  Those people will never come to the church.  But you preached my gospel by demonstrating my Spirit.” 

Margaret recalls that there were many such situations that “were unpleasant to the human heart…but if we can be God’s person of peace in any given situation and a witness—a living witness—to the unseen Lord…live out his word and live out his teaching in everyday life as he expects, then over time it makes a total difference.”  Margaret broke down in tears as she said “Oh, if every village had a living, breathing Spirit of Christ walking in its midst, there would be a lot more peace.   You are not going to Palestine perhaps.  But you have this one little corner of the world.”  She taught us that when we run into human cruelty and rage, “the sweetness of the Spirit will eventually dissolve the acidity of the spirit that is coming against you—and He will bring peace.”

It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand why I cry so much when I’m around Margaret.  Even though I had already started following Jesus and was even stepping into ministry, there was something about the peace, clarity and simplicity about her that made me ache for a life that I had not yet lived, and yet seemed strangely familiar.  Being around her helped me to understand that my name was not legion.  I didn’t yet entirely know what my name is or what becoming human would really mean, but I knew I had a name as God’s beloved son.  I knew I had another identity.  When you’re living in a violent world full of zombies and you meet an authentic human being, you remember. 

The last time Sister Margaret stayed at our house, I got up very early one morning to find her staring out the back window into our yard.  I will never forget the look I saw on her face.  It was lit up with wonder as she watched the birds and squirrels and rabbits.  It was a look of such awe and contentment.  When she saw me, she began to talk about the simple things she was seeing in creation so far that morning and how beautiful it all was.  At 80 years old, Margaret still hears the music.  Resurrection has made her a child of wonder, even now.  I know now that this is what resurrection does to a person—it doesn’t make you “religious,” it makes you attentive to beauty on an unprecedented scale.  Margaret has been to some difficult places and in some dark situations, but she doesn’t see them the way that other people do.  She sees “Earth crammed with Heaven,” a world forever altered by resurrection. 

What if people like us could become so intoxicated with the beauty of God that we, like Margaret, could help other people begin to see “a world they’d like to live in?” 

 

 

[1] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp. 21-22.

the sweet freedom of losing your shirt, & finding yourself.

Today, I feel the need to testify. Will you let me?

*major disclaimer first: As far as I know, I’m in the healthiest place I’ve ever been, spiritually & emotionally. I’m still here! I’m very much alive! I’m grateful. So please don’t read any sense of playing the martyr or victim here. Nothing could be further from the truth.  I share this only as testimony to the faithfulness of God; only because my cup feels so full, not because it is empty. 

The journey I’ve been on as of late has been a difficult one, but difficult in a different way than the journey just before it. I moved halfway across the country & attempted to reboot my life—broken, full of fear & self-loathing. There were so many moments I thought I would not make it. But Spirit seemed to keep me afloat, despite my best attempts at drowning. The experience has changed me so much. I’m a fairly sensitive enneagram two (if that means anything to you). I always needed folks to like me/love me, a little too much. And in the process of dying & being reborn, a certain fearlessness came. A need for integrity (not as sinlessness, but integration-to have all of me moving in the same direction), for wholeness. I could be in or out, loved or hated—but had to find a way to be true. So I started trying to live that way. I was saying the same kinds of things I’ve always said, in a way but maybe a little bolder and clearer—in a moment that is much more hostile to these ideas than when I started talking about them 20 years ago. I started to learn to live with a level of opposition and criticism that would have surely wilted me before.

An interesting thing happened in the midst of all this: I had expected to experience a certain kind of rejection, because I felt like my life had become such a failure. To my surprise, people were gracious. I’m forever grateful for this—for all the grace I’ve found. But the more outspoken I became about what I saw as a hijacking of the Church by what I believe to be a nationalistic, latently white supremacist agenda, I experienced much greater pushback than I ever did for anything else. I found that people are much more graceful to failure, than they are when they feel you are attacking a sacred cow. You can fall—so long as you do so on the right side of a party line. You can be forgiven for crossing any boundary, but the boundary of your American soil. I don’t mean to judge this harshly. I would have been just as defensive, in another phase of my life. 

Here’s the irony—and I’ve seen this play out in the lives of so many around me, across a few closely related categories: you speak out against the prevailing, dominant narrative…& ironically, some will say you “sold out.” You lose your shirt, & they say you did it to get more clothes. You lose your inheritance, they say you did it for the money. You lose your reputation, they say you did it for the fame. To be perfectly clear, none of these things have been remotely serious compared to the real suffering others endure for the sake of Christian convictions. I don’t want to make too much of that. But of course any act of obedience comes at some price (no more so for me than for anyone else, of course!). When you say that the house has become too small or the table too restrictive, or when you contend for those on the margins—the powerful will attempt to marginalize you. All of the most painful personal attacks I’ve experienced—viciousness, vitriol, threats, the trolls I’ve encountered that didn’t just seem annoying but dangerous—have come in the aftermath of this outspokenness. The character attacks didn’t come after my divorce, but after naming principalities & powers. Only then did people want blood. 

On the one hand, it’s not fun losing some of the speaking gigs, or being labeled—quite frankly, losing money; or going from a relatively comfortable life, to feeling like you’re always scrapping something out. But here’s the thing: when you do the best you can out of a desire to be obedient (not right)…and you don’t fight fire with fire, but trust God to be your provider & sustainer...God really does show up. The amount of times I’ve been beyond broke, & some random person showed some me some extravagant hospitality; or felt wounded, & some random person gave me just the right word in the right moment? I can’t recount them all—the ways God has given me the grace I needed, in just the right moment (or maybe what seemed like the moment after that, sometimes).

Yet there have also been many moments of feeling like a parody of myself, speaking words that seemed to carry some sort of authority somehow, but feeling ridiculous for saying them out loud. Playing the fool, a joke, a jester. “Who do you think you are?,” they say, & the truth is—no one in particular. Maybe less than that. You look in the mirror, & see yourself starting to age, the lines & white coming in, & really… what have you built? You don’t have a pot to piss in, just a lot of frequent flyer miles. 

But then...new lanes start to open up that you could not have imagined before. Old doors close, but new doors open. Certain windows close, but now other ones open you had not even noticed before. Old community walk away, but God sends you new friends. The brook dries up, God sends you to a river. You get kicked out of the restaurant, God sends you the ravens. You lose your tribe, you find a people. You seemingly misplace your heritage, but go out and find out your true name. What is this strange new world? Where did this provision—this manna—come from? It’s not always tasty, but it’s keeping me alive; and there’s something new every morning. 

Ah, but sweet freedom!  To not be a slave to the Christian industrial complex. To not need the blessing or approval of anybody in particular, but the people who know me best, & love me most. To not be on the familiar path—but on a trail that Spirit seems to be carving out, clearing the brush seconds before it would seem to hit my face (well, & sometimes it does just hit you in the face!) I so often feel not just vulnerable but exposed, like I don’t ever know what I’m doing. Yet there always seems to be just enough lamplight, for one more step. I realize I can’t make anything “happen.” I can’t manufacture wind, nor waves. Now I’m not striving, I am just...surfing. Most things simply aren’t up to me.

I am not impenetrable. I am not impervious. I limp, for more than one reason. Oh, but sweet freedom! Sweet wind, sweet breath of God. I feel it in & on me, even as I write this now. Freedom to be small or large, to run or to just rest. Freedom to be whole, but unimpressive. Freedom to be the buffoon, the punchline, or to be the straight man. Freedom to choose a new adventure, or stay back, & take a nap. 

For all the things that discourage me in the world, I keep seeing new lanes open. I hear a new choir of bedraggled saints in the distance, a little off key, but there’s soul in the music again. Sons & daughters struck mute by a generation before, are making awkward, beautiful new sounds. The world may go to hell, yet. But in the wind, I hear another sound. A low rumble, getting louder. A sound-not brash but humble-yet, the volume is rising. People who have been trapped in very small spaces, are coming up out of their cages, & finding their dance, & their shout.

It’s a disaster out there (and in here), sure. I don’t know where it’s going. I don’t know where I’m going.

But I’m so glad to be right here, right now. I’m so glad to be alive. I would not choose to be born in any other time nor place, than this one. I know I’m not going alone, because there are way too many people who are feeling the stirring, and they are finding each other, more by the day. 

God is doing something new. A movement of the Spirit is coming that cannot be stopped, something bigger than all of us—right in the thick of the darkness. I do not presume to have any particular part to play in it. But to be here now, & be a witness? Angels peer their necks over the ledge for just a glimpse, of the beauty God will bring up out of these ashes. 

Let it shake. Let it burn. Let this small & blood-red screaming thing, be born into the world. 

Chaos swirls. Spirit broods. Something new crawls out of the black, covered in gore, & grace. 

In garbled speech, she speaks in new tongues. 

Her groans are rife, with praise.

Hallelujah. 

a buried treasure of mine from Stanley Hauerwas

Today I was re-reading Stanley Hauerwas' brilliant and beautiful commentary on Matthew in preparation to preach in Tulsa tomorrow, and it got me feeling nostalgic. I still remember the day I finally got up the courage to knock on the door of his fourth-floor office at Duke Divinity School, after pacing around it for 40 minutes from sheer intimidation! I wanted to take his class on Catholic Moral Theology, but it was full--so I had to get permission directly from him.  We had not met.  

Never one to mince words, Hauerwas asked me outright: "What does a Church of God, Cleveland, TN boy have to learn from Catholic Moral Theology?" I mumbled something about Catholicism and Pentecostalism both, at their core, being holiness movements, and he let me in. The truth is, I had the world to learn from Stanley Hauerwas in particular, and am still learning from him, to this minute.  Later that year, when his commentary on Matthew came out, he came and spoke at the church we planted in Charlotte. That memory is still one of my favorites. It meant so much to me--though at the time, I could not have known what all it meant to him. He wrote about it in his memoir, Hannah's Child, but that entire chapter ended up not making it into the final edit :( 

Sometimes though, I just need to revisit it, and today was one of those days. So I thought I would pass this buried treasure along to you: 

"The good news, moreover, is even as I grow older the young seem attracted to the work to be done.  The work they think needs to be done, moreover, they think has at least been partly indicated by my work.  I give as an example Jonathan Martin.  Jonathan is a student in the Divinity School who pastors a church in Charlotte, North Carolina with the unlikely name of “Renovatus.”  The name is even more unlikely because Renovatus is a church of the denomination in the Pentecostal tradition of the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee.  Pentecostals are not known for Latinizing the names of their churches.  For those who might be curious, the designation Cleveland, Tennessee is necessary because without that geographic locator the church might be confused with the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana.  The Church of God, Anderson, Indiana is not a Pentecostal church.  

            I was not sure what to make of Jonathan on our first encounter.  What are you supposed to think about a pastor from the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee who thinks it is crucial for his work that he be able to take my course in Catholic Moral Theology?  I have the view that the ecclesial convictions that shape the understanding of the church in Pentecostal churches share much with Roman Catholicism, but that is a view peculiar to me.  I do not expect members of the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee to share that view.  But Jonathan was so sure it was a course he needed.  I let him in.

            Having grown tired of taking students through the debates between the conservatives and liberals in Catholic moral theology, I decided to have students in the course actually read Thomas.  So I began with Pinckaers’, Sources of Christian Ethics, to give them a background to read Thomas.  I set the course up to climax with McCabe’s work.  Jonathan seemed to drink up everything we read and, in particular, McCabe.    What a strange world.  A Pentecostal studying at a Methodist seminary located in the center of a very secular university writes a paper utilizing the understanding of language, developed by one of the most interesting Catholic moral theologians of our time, to illumine the apocalyptic character of the work of the Holy Spirit.  Is God great or what?   I could not help but be drawn to such an interesting young man.

            Renovatus is a “church plant” that meets in a public school in downtown Charlotte.  Jonathan had a number of his people read the commentary I had written on Matthew.  He asked if it might be possible for me to come to the church one Sunday during the summer to respond to questions his congregation might have.  I am always ready to reinforce the idea that it is a good thing to buy and hopefully even read one of my books, so I was happy to accept Jonathan’s invitation.

            I did not know what to expect.  The church meets in an auditorium.  A band, a quite good band, plays on the stage.  The service consists primarily of prayer and singing.   The words of the hymns are projected on a screen.  The way the people at Renovatus worship is a long way from the Church of the Holy Family.  How they worship at Renovatus is not my style.  But these people were so genuine I almost forgot my feelings of not knowing how to join them fully as they praised God. 

            We then came to the point of the service set aside for me to respond to questions.  Before I began Jonathan read some remarks he had prepared to introduce me.  I was stunned.  He got it all just right.  It is a moment you think, “I can die and go to heaven.”  That this Pentecostal in Charlotte, North Carolina so clearly “gets it” means others now know how to go on.  The end seems really to have come giving us a new beginning.  This is what he said.   

    An Introduction to Stanley Hauerwas

By Jonathan Martin

I am a third generation Pentecostal preacher.  My grandfather grew up just a couple minutes away in a little house on North Davidson Street and attended Duncan Memorial Methodist as a child.  He didn’t become a Christian until well into his 20’s.  He had met a pretty girl named Nellie who said she wouldn’t date sinner boys.  Next thing you know he was converted in the sweaty fervor of the 15th Street Church of God, and his life was never the same.  A Charlotte police officer, he came into the station one day and turned in his badge and gun, saying he had been called to preach—though he hadn’t yet booked a single revival. 

He has been dead for 27 years now, and I am a product of the same tent revival kind of fervor, planting a church with an extraordinary group of folks here in Charlotte 2 and half years ago.  I am thankful for my heritage, thankful for all I have been taught.  But found myself lacking in many ways to articulate what it is we most deeply believe about the church (pretty important to establish as a young church planter).  I have found myself spending countless hours reading the work of a Methodist theologian from Duke University’s Divinity School.  And as the product of a renewal movement—I have found myself renewed, like no other time in my adult life, from the remarkable work of this theologian.  How does one make sense of this?

After grappling plenty with how to explain the significance of Stanley Hauerwas for myself and this young church, I was almost agitated to see this influence explained so concisely by Samuel Wells in his book on the theological ethics of Hauerwas, Transforming Fate Into Destiny.  Where I was born the son of a Pentecostal preacher in Lincolnton, NC, Wells, now the dean of Duke chapel, was born in England and became a fourth generation Anglican preacher.  The impact of Hauerwas’ work so mirrored my own it took me aback.  Let me read a section from his introduction:

“Since my father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Anglican clergymen, few expressed surprise when I sensed a call to join the family business.  As I began to work out the implications of this vocation, I realized that I had lost confidence in the capacity of the church to follow Christ today.

The loss of confidence was expressed in three ways.  First, in an obsession with apologetics: I became one of those whose concern to see all come to faith had, in MacIntyre’s phrase, given the world less and less in which to disbelieve.  Second, in an uncritical commitment to social action: since the Church was not bringing the kingdom, I sought to join anyone who looked like they might be.  Third, in a quest for personal experience: the habits of the Church seemed to hamper as much as help my soul’s search for a direct experience with the living God.

When I read Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom I realized what had happened.  Reading Hauerwas made me see that God genuinely intended the Church: and that the resources for its renewal lay in the habits and practices it had neglected.  The theology that I hoped would help me change others had succeeded in changing me…I have written this book because I believe that the writings of Stanley Hauerwas offer the Church an invitation to renew its confidence and restore a true sense of identity.”

That is exactly the trajectory I found myself on.  First in hoping to become an educated Bible thumper, a fundamentalist who could intellectually wrestle people into the faith.   As a good Charlotte boy, where our greatest export is Nature Boy Ric Flair, I think I had something in mind of a spiritual/intellectual figure-four leglock that could force the infidels to submit to belief.  Finding these approaches (“Ten ways to prove the Bible is true without ever using a Scripture” as I was once taught) ultimately unsatisfying, I too became restless with the apathy and indifference of the church to transform the world through acts of social justice.  Uncritically then, let’s just find something good to do and get busy—without any context or framework to make “good works” intelligible.  Finally, I came to believe that any shortcomings in my faith were surely do an impoverished experience—so being a disciple became a matter of chasing down the Spirit, running frantically and chaotically from one campmeeting or revival to another trying to hunt down God.

For Stanley Hauerwas, being a Christian is not a matter of believing the right ideas or propositions about God, nor a matter of simply being nice to the neighbors and co-workers, nor chasing down the thunder and lightning of Mt. Sinai (the place where Moses met God).  For Hauerwas, to become a Christian is to learn the practices of a faithful community, what he would call a community of character, from a people committed to worship Jesus Christ in all things.  This is a truthful community, a disciplined community that has a shared tradition, a faithful story that guides them and ultimately transforms them into people of virtue. 

The language of virtue in Hauerwas’ work has captivated me.  Growing up in the church tradition that I did, they taught me that God didn’t just want to deliver us from self-destructive behavior, didn’t just want to save us from sin, but that God wanted to change “your want to.”  If I remembered that sanctification language at all, I think it was with a bit of condescension.  For Hauerwas, that is exactly what this truthful community will teach us how to do—to live lives of virtue and holiness that come from the inside-out.  But this is not an abstract or mystical act.  It is as real, sweaty, earthy and practical as learning how to lay brick, a craft Hauerwas learned from his own father.  Through learning the practices of a faithful community committed to follow Jesus together, disciples become so deeply embedded into the story of the community that it becomes their own story, that their practices become their own practices, its language becomes their own language. 

This church so elegantly and yet so plainly described by Stanley Hauerwas is not a conservative fundamentalist church that has taught us to retreat from an evil world into the “soul,” where the primary objective becomes the conversion of the inner self.   Nor is this church the activist church, who would blandly reduce the gospel to nothing more than calling the world to social change through acts of kindness, without any context or story to make those acts intelligible.

This church is a radical alternative to both the left and to the right, a church “that exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief.”  It is a living, breathing visible community of faith, a particular people with a particular story, the church that is in itself God’s gift of new language to the world.  This is the church that has understood that salvation is not static, but life on the road.  This church, to quote from one of my favorite essays of Hauerwas’, a moving theological reflection on Richard Adams’ classic Watership Down, is a “story-formed community.” Like the rabbits of Watership Down, Christians depend on a narrative to be guided.  As the rabbits learned to rely on the oft-repeated story of their famous prince, this Christian community “depends on the narrative of a prince who was defenseless against those who would rule it with violence.  He had a power, however, which the world knew not.  For he insisted that we could form our lives together by trusting in truth and love to banish the fears that create enmity and discord.  To be sure, we have been unfaithful to this story, but that is not reason to think it is an unrealistic demand.  Rather it means we must challenge ourselves to be the kind of community where such a story can be told and manifested by a people formed in accordance with it.” 

You know, I think I finally figured out how a Pentecostal preacher’s kid could resonate so much with the theological project of a Methodist bricklayer’s son from Texas.  Men and women like my grandfather read the book of Acts in the New Testament, and were seized by this vision of what it meant to be the church, empowered to be Christ-like disciples full of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.  They read these ancient words from Acts 2 about the sound of a rushing mighty wind, they read about tongues of fire that descended onto the early believers.  They read about the gift of new languages, a gift that both captivated the crowds but also confounded them—they saw these disciples spilling out of the upper room, their speech and behavior so affected that they assumed they were drunk.  The gift of God’s new language was at first unintelligible to the world because it came in such a violent, catastrophic, we might say apocalyptic way. 

As Peter got up to preach the first sermon of the Spirit-empowered church, he said “These men are not drunk as you suppose, seeing as it is only the thirdhour of the day.  They have been filled with the Holy Ghost.”  Peter saw this as a fulfillment of an apocalyptic promise from Joel chapter 2,  which envisioned a time when “sons and daughters will prophesy, old men dream dreams and young men see visions, male and female bondslaves speak the word of God.”  The same text that promised this lovely vision is couched in violent, apocalyptic language—the text that promised dreams and visions also anticipated “blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke, the sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.”  Joel’s prophecy, re-interpreted in and through the Spirit, was nothing less than that the Spirit would bring a new way of existence by disrupting our time.  That’s what an apocalypse does, it disrupts time—a phrase Dr. Hauerwas is fond of. 

And if there is anybody who knows what it is to have time disrupted by Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has been used both to bear witness to God’s new language to the world called church…and also a man who has provoked crowds and brought controversy and bewilderment, it is Stanley Hauerwas. He is not drunk as you suppose. Like those early disciples and like my grandfather, his time has been disrupted by the Spirit of God. And he continues to call us to put down our badges and our guns to speak the word of God.  About as subtle as the apocalyptic imagery of Joel, he has been stirring up the holy imaginations of sons and daughters of the church, young and old, to dream dreams and see visions. I don’t know if this is good news to you or not, Dr. Hauerwas—but it turns out you are quite Pentecostal. 

It is my honor to welcome to Renovatus a faithful witness to the peaceable kingdom of Jesus Christ—Stanley Hauerwas.      

            Hearing Jonathan narrate his life through the story he had learned from me could not help but remind me all that has happened in my life because I am Hannah’s child.  It has been more than fifty years since I said to Brother Zimmerman I would do what God wanted me to do.  That declaration has brought me to places I did not know existed, or could have even imagined might exist, when I made that fateful commitment at Pleasant Mound Methodist Church.  Even more important I have been drawn into the lives of others who have enriched my life beyond my wildest expectations. 

I was writing Hannah’s Child when I came to Renovatus.  I was flooded with gratitude for the life I have been given as I listened to Jonathan.  I am from the working classes.  I had a mother and father who loved me and God enough to make it possible for me to leave their world.  I went to college to be mentored by a man as if I were his son.  I have been sustained by academic institutions without which the narrative of church life Jonathan finds so hopeful would not have been made articulate—at least by me.  I have been surrounded by friends who have upheld me through hard and good times.   I have been officially and unofficially a member of churches where I have, however hauntingly, learned to pray.   I have been given good work to do.  I have a son and a wife who love me.

            I know quite well that many find stories like mine (and Jonathan’s) bizarre.  Even worse, some under the influence of modern accounts of what makes us human may think that our lives can be explained.  We come from classes that could not know enough to know being Christian makes no sense.  Christianity makes no sense intellectually.  What about science?  Christianity makes no sense economically.  You really are not to want “more?”  It makes no sense socially.  Christians do seem to come from the “not well connected.”  Those shaped by such explanatory modes assume, given the story I have told, they can understand why some of us are Christian.  We are Christians because given “where we came from” being a Christian worked out pretty well for us.

 

a charge for the sons & daughters of the Charismatic movement

I am burdened for the sons and daughters of the Charismatic movement in North America, many of whom are attempting to navigate an impossibly difficult in-between space, in this complex season. 

After preaching a few days ago, I felt led to pray over a particular friend of mine in ministry. But that particular prayer surfaced a number of things I've been feeling/discerning more broadly, for others who find themselves in similar spaces. It has been a strong, clear, consistent enough image as to feel worth sharing with some of you--to submit to your own process of prayer and discernment. 

I come from a slightly different side of the railroad tracks of the "Spirit-filled" movement than those who are in the new Charismatic stream, but we share much in common. There are so many good gifts in the contemporary Charismatic Movement. In particular, the emphasis on prayer & intimacy with God in the former generation of Charismatics has yielded revelatory clarity on the goodness of God in general, and revelation of the Father heart of God, in particular. God longs to be known by his sons & daughters, and delights in making his heart known to us--this is very much a move of the Spirit!

Yet as it was even in the early Christians communities in which the apostles themselves preached, the light of God shines to the world through cracked & broken vessels. The gifts of God are gifts of grace & thus, testify only to the goodness of the giver & do not "prove," authenticate or validate the recipient. These fathers & mothers have made room for the creativity of their sons & daughters in so many ways, and have taught them how to listen to the Spirit. Yet this particular generation of fathers and mothers, in the name of Christian "influence" has been especially blind to certain principalities and powers--actually, we might say a principality OF power. In the kingdom, the means are always the message, and this generation has failed to see the ways in which an uncritical pursuit of power has compromised the content of their message. Thus well-intentioned fathers & mothers yielded too much to right wing political ideologies, because the power-brokers offered platforms for their messages in exchange for their voices (and sometimes for their silence).

This compromise does not compromise their place in God's kingdom. It is not for us, like the sons of Noah, to expose them to shame or embarrassment. But in some ways, these leaders exposed themselves, & in doing so disenfranchised a generation of their spiritual heirs. Yet because no man or movement can trademark the kingdom of God, the work of the Spirit is not thwarted, and still the hearts of many fathers/sons mothers/daughters will yet be turned to one another! In the meantime, some degree of schism is sadly inevitable. The catalyst for this is not sons and daughters rejecting the witness of their elders, but elders rejecting the prophetic witness of their sons and daughters. 

The house some of you built for your sons & daughters is too small for the God you introduced them to. So some of them will go--not out of rebellion or dishonor, but out of reverence for the Spirit you taught them to follow. God will take them to places you could not have gone, to the far ends of God's goodness. They will carry the revelation you passed on to them into the places you could not. They will honor the good work God did in your past, even if doing so means offending you in the present. They will disappoint their elders for the same reason you disappointed yours when you obeyed the voice that called you--because the Spirit compels them.

The task for these sons & daughters is to not lose heart, be bold, prayerful...& most of all, deeply humble. The principality of power is as intoxicating in its progressive form, as it is in it's conservative one. The revolution must be as tender as the God who calls it forth. The revolutionaries do not sever, shame nor mock their fathers & mothers, even when they themselves are rejected. You are given strength to endure their rejection, precisely because the love of God shed abroad in their hearts has already been mediated from them to you by the Spirit! Thus you can be secure enough to love them in their insecurities, even the insecurities that cause them to reject you. Ironically, you will demonstrate the strong, emotionally mature, secure love of God the Father, to these spiritual fathers and mothers. You can and will do this, because God will father/Spirit will mother you in all the places you are cracked and bruised. 

Go in the might of the Spirit to carry the weight of God's love further, into all the broad places.  Show us how to bridge the distance between grace and power, between signs and wonders and justice for the oppressed. We have attempted to tear apart that which God has joined together. But all of this and more is joined together in you, beloved, standing whole in Christ's love.

The kingdom of God is within you. As you allow yourself to be broken open on his behalf, may his kingdom come and his will be done in us, too.  

a tale of two suppers (how the Eucharist heals what is broken in us, and what is broken between us)

I woke up alone at 2am Saturday night, to the sound of my own sobbing.

I went to bed thinking about my friends in Houston, in the middle of the hurricane.  And then I dreamed that I was actually in Houston, in the home of a man I did not know, who was giving me a tour of his home after the storm.  His red and white house was bright and beautiful, had already been almost completely repaired.  On the wall, I saw several pictures of a beautiful big dog, and I asked my new friend about him.  I watched tears fill his eyes.

“Oh,” he said, looking down.  “That’s Doctor Jay, my dog. We lost him in the storm.  Somehow he got out, during the flood, and must have got swept up in the current somehow. We never saw him after that night. That dog was the light of my life. As grateful as I am for everybody’s help rebuilding this old place, I don’t know if I’ll ever get over losing that damn dog.”

Reality, after divorce, flicks and flickers, in and out. And it was if that moment, in the dream, sucked me into another place: the feeling that I let my whole old life out into the current, never to see it again. The feeling of not seeing my beloved little dog Cybil—who seems to kind of symbolize everything innocent and good about the life I had before—in over two years. I let her out into the night, like Doctor Jay, never to return, a casualty of the storm that was in me at the time.  

That’s when I woke myself up, sobbing hard into the pillow.  

I couldn’t go back to sleep after that.

When I first went to bed the night before, I was excited to have a rare Sunday off from preaching anywhere, looking forward to going to my home church in Tulsa, Christ Church, and then to go hear my friend Chris Green preach at my former church, Sanctuary.  But by the time the morning rolled around, my heart was jagged from my dream and subsequent sleeplessness. I walked into my beautiful little Episcopal Church in South Tulsa, limping.

I liked the service there. I always do. But it didn’t make me feel any better. Finally, when it was time to come down to the front, row by row, to kneel and receive the Eucharist, I gathered the fractured pieces of myself, and laid them down at the altar as I opened my hands to receive the body of Christ. I ate the bread. I drank the wine from the common cup.  The medicine went to work inside me, immediately. His body, broken for mine, mending my own brokenness—fragments, softly, melding back together, making me one again—if for a moment.  

This is one thing the Lord’s Supper always means to me: mending, within myself.

I went from there to Sanctuary for their late service, where I served as Teaching Pastor for just under 2 years.  It’s a wonderful church, full of wonderful people. I still love the folks there.  And I love to hear Chris preach, so was happy to be there in support of him.

About halfway through the sermon, still feeling hungover from my short night of sleep, I felt myself becoming agitated.  There was a couple sitting in my line of sight to my right, whom I never got to know well—but harbored some ambiguous feelings for.  I have no judgment of them. I never got to spend time with them, really.  All I knew was this: the limited interactions I had with them when I was on staff, felt chilly. And then I preached a sermon last summer, after Terence Crutcher was shot in Tulsa, from the lectionary text that day—on the rich man and Lazarus.  I called the sermon “the great divide between us,” and talked about the reality of racism in our city, in our country, and in our hearts.  This couple stormed out midway through the sermon, apparently offended—as I was told later, at the notion of systemic racism, at the idea that we are all complicit in the world we have created.  Evidently, they took this as some kind of blame, though I recall at the time feeling like I intentionally tried to preach from a posture of repentance, owning my own complicity in the world I had helped to make.  

A few months later, after I announced I was leaving the church to speak and write full-time, the couple came back to church the following Sunday, and was there the last few weeks until I was actually gone.  The timing of this, was clearly not incidental :) I was the reason they left; my leaving was the reason they felt they could come back. 

So I’m sitting there, and start to mull this over, and feel the acid rise in my belly. I start to seethe, a little, almost certainly over sensitive from my lack of sleep. And in the deepest part of me, in that place where sometimes I know things I have no way of knowing and hear things I have no way of hearing, I heard that voice, soft but clear: “you are going to receive communion from them today.”

I bristled.  In fact, I thought “you have to be $%^&ing kidding me!?” so loud in my head, I’m surprised I didn’t accidentally say it out loud.

I try to ignore this whole inner-conversation. They always have four couples serve at every service.  The thought that somehow they would happen to be serving the section I was sitting in was sleeplessness, not the Spirit. I shrugged it off.

And of course when it was time to receive the elements, and four couples came down to the floor to serve, they walk down center left of the stage ahead of where I’m sitting.

I cussed in my head again.  

“God—this is why I love you. And also why I don’t appreciate you at all, sometimes,” I thought. It would one thing to SERVE to someone I feel estranged from--I feel I could serve the meal, to anyone. But for them to serve me?! 

And I came forward, and received Christ’s body through this couple I harbored petty resentment toward, and felt the blood of cross melt my hard heart, without my consent.

The first communion that day, mended the division in me.  The second communion that day, mended the division between me and someone else.  I know good and well that I have no right to hold on to some ridiculous feelings towards these folks I barely knew, whose story I do not fully know.  I know good and well such things only stoke the fire of a dangerous self-righteousness in me, and should not be given a place.  But I do not have the power to change such things in me—only the Eucharist is able to change any of that.  

I tell this whole story, to tell you two things:

  1. The Lord’s supper mends, and heals.
  2. The Lord’s supper calls us to repentance.

You cannot have one, without the other.  In my long piece yesterday, I wrote toward the end about how the Lord’s supper is the antidote to all of our rage, sin and division.  The Eucharist isserious business.  I am not exempt from the conviction it brings, anymore than I am exempt from the comfort it brings. It works for me, and works in me.  I believe it will work for you.  

It is central to the mystery—somehow the broken body of Christ binds us up in our own broken places, and his brokenness mends our own: both what is broken within us, and what is broken between ourselves, and others.  

Thanks be to God.  

our resistance, is repentance (on the Nashville statement, and most everything else)

Paul and Silas were on their way to “the place of prayer,” when a demonized slave-girl, exploited by the townsfolk for financial gain, began following them around. The evil spirit that possessed her gave her power to tell people’s future, and a cottage industry had been built up around her dark “gift.” She was a slave not only to this spirit, but to the real-world powers that had turned a daughter into a commodity.  As she followed Paul and Silas around, she cried out in a loud voice, “THESE MEN ARE SERVANTS OF THE MOST HIGH GOD, WHO PROCLAIM TO YOU THE WAY OF SALVATION.”  The words that she spoke were technically correct: Paul and Silas were in fact servants of the most high God, and they were in fact proclaiming the way of salvation. But this text contains a crucial revelation: the wrong spirit can say the “right” thing. Her words, which surely sounded theologically correct to many who heard her, was actually a demonic distraction, sent to hinder the word of the gospel Paul and Silas proclaimed that was to set the captives free.

When he had finally had enough of all the noise, the Apostle Paul, skilled in the ways of discernment, turned around and promptly ordered the evil spirit to come out of her. He discerned the true intentions beneath her holy sounding rhetoric, and did not engage her in theological discourse—but spoke to the thing beneath the thing, the foul spirit that animated her righteous sounding speech.  

The townspeople were incredulous at this. Everybody is fine when folks preach the gospel, so long as it doesn’t touch their money or their wars—our two primary sources of meaning.  This exorcism was going to cost them money, which is why these people who were fine with the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, changed their minds: it finally got to close to their pocketbooks and checkbooks.  For in Acts, as it is in John’s Revelation—the forces of empire/Babylon, are economic powers.  These early apostles had the wisdom to know the difference between elegant theological posturing, and demonic distraction, and thus knew the difference between when the moment calls for theological discourse, and when it calls for an exorcism. Sometimes, as it was when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, the devil comes quoting Scripture, in a guise of theological rightness—even quoting chapter and verse.  

If only the so-called apostles of our time were as discerning.  This is a historical account of the life and ministry of Paul, but it is also an allegory for our time.  

 

***

 

With the 4th largest city in America underwater, in the midst of a daily assault on basic civil rights from the President of the United States, a group of largely white—to be more specific, white male evangelical (to be uncomfortably specific, largely white male Reformed/white male Baptist) leaders tried to change the subject to genitalia.  Framers of the Nashville statement have clarified that the date of it’s release was set many months ago, which makes the decision to move forward with it given the timing only more disconcerting. I would contend that it is not newsworthy that conservative evangelicals in the mold of John Piper and John MacArthur still hold a traditional view of marriage, only the disastrous timing of the statement that has given the story traction in the news cycle.  That is to say, the calloused timing of the statement generates far more heat than the theological convictions, which are not in themselves new or newsworthy at all. It should be noted that this statement comes from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which historically speaking, has served mostly as the de facto “keeping women in their place” coalition, and has been willing even to tweak the Church’s teaching on the trinity to do so (how to know you are getting into idolatry 101: you have to re-write the Church’s teaching on the trinity in order to underwrite your beliefs). Still, the timing is troubling. 

So what do we make of this?  Issues of human sexuality are deeply complex, deeply personal, and can be thus deeply polarizing.  The debate within the Church about the nature of marriage as sacrament—who the Church should marry—is an internal conversation, a discipleship issue.  Any serious-minded Christian would agree that what we do with our bodies must surely matter in the life of faith, so understandably these are weighted conversations.  Like the early church at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 debating over gentile inclusion, we must take Scripture/tradition seriously, as well as the testimony of our brothers our sisters, who bear the witness of the Spirit.  As it was for them, these conversations must take place in the context of community, as opposed to devolving into a string of individual pronouncements.  As it was for the early church, these conversations are often heated, and test the boundaries of Christian community.  Questions of sexuality and discipleship are real, robust, and necessitate passionate prayer and conversation.  I do not wish to minimize any of this—especially when what is at stake is more than “issues” of doctrinal fidelity, but the fate of real human beings, sons and daughters of the Church that we know and love.  There are no shortcuts or easy answers to these weighty matters of discernment.

Many people feel conflicting impulses, wanting to embrace LGBTQ sons and daughters who have been wounded by the church—lives already subject to so much hardship, including the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth, which surely qualifies as a pastoral emergency—and yet struggle with how to work all of this out theologically, in a way that would be faithful to their understanding of Scripture. At the risk of offense to both my affirming and non-affirming friends that I call brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, I want to suggest that public dispute over this internal matter of Christian discipleship—as important and weighty as it is—could keep conservative and progressive Christians from having a unified public witness around that which we ought to be able to agree, right now.  I am not minimizing the stakes of this conversation, nor the real lives who are threatened by it. 

I merely want to place this conversation in a larger context:  For anyone who has missed out on the prior season of the series life on planet earth, Americans elected a petulant man-child to the highest office in the land on a near consensus vote from white evangelical Christians.  This same season has seen a demonstrative, measurable rise in hate crimes against minorities and a spike in activity among white supremacist groups, culminating in a racially-charged showdown in Charlottesville where a peaceful protester was murdered in cold blood. The monumental insensitivity of the man-child, who rode into power on a lily white (resentment) horse, has fragmented our national discourse even more deeply, creating an environment of fear and suspicion so ominous, you could almost believe we were on the heels of some new Civil War. Which is ironic, since the powers that be are shockingly empathetic to those who fought on the wrong side of the actual Civil War.  Televangelist Jim Bakker actually went so far last week to say that if Trump were to be impeached, Christians “would rise up” to fight one.  

I make no claims to be a prophet, but you need not be one to discern the ominous signs of these times.  America is in need of nothing less than an exorcism from a 400-year old demon of white supremacy, and the principalities and powers that have lurked in the darkness are being repeatedly exposed to the light.  Howling, irrational, self-destructive, they act out as the demons did in the man possessed by a legion, just before they were cast out, and the land itself quakes beneath this cosmic conflict.  We have stirred up ancient principalities that seek to divide, and to devour.  Fear of anyone/anything that we deem “other” is not a peripheral feature around the Trump phenomenon, but is rather it’s central, galvanizing energy—the very character of this demonic force is blame and accusation.  The very reason that old racially charged markers of “history and heritage” are suddenly in the limelight—that signs of our oldest conflicts are smack dab in the middle of a contemporary conflict—is precisely because we are in the midst of a decisively spiritual battle.  

In light of all this, we might reasonably ask why evangelical leaders are not leading the way in opposing hateful, demonizing rhetoric, and leading their communities in demonstrative repentance for underwriting the campaign of a dangerous megalomaniac in such a wholesale manner?  What would explain the tone-deafness? The consensus support of Trump in white evangelical churches has already decimated the church’s standing among it’s own sons and daughters, and will haunt it for generations.  Even if the statement was finished months ago, how it is possible that “leaders” did not grasp something of the gravity of the moment we have been entering, even then?  These are apocalyptic, cataclysmic times, where the true hearts of men and women are being revealed.  For all the battles we are fighting, why is this moment in history that was chosen to make a strong stand around traditional marriage—when the whole tone and tenor of this administration poses such a clear and present threat to to our neighbors, and to ourselves?  

I would propose a few reasons for this. Beyond convictions about marriage as a sacrament of the Church, there is a strong thread among prominent signers of the Nashville statement that is not only anti-women in ministry and functionally anti-ethnic diversity, but anti-charismatic.  There are a handful of exceptions to this, of course: signers, for example, include Stephen Strang, the founder of Charisma, who sold out the radical peace church roots of his native tradition to peddle the ecclesiastical porn that is Charisma News, a Breitbart clone in Pentecostal drag.  There are a few token charismatics on the list, that mirrors it’s ethnic and gender tokenism.  (Beyond the list—there are of course some prominent, albeit fringe, charismatic leaders who have been carried away by the Trump train, i.e. Paula White and Rick Joyner)

But many of the most conspicuous and intentionally advertised signers, like John MacArthur, have a long history of RESISTANCE.  It’s just not a history of resistance to the principalities and powers, but resistance to the Spirit of God, over the course of an entire ministry career.  It is resistance to the liberating force of Pentecost, which empowers slaves and daughters to prophesy, and sets the captives free. Perhaps his mockery of the gifts and work of the Spirit, alongside his bearing false witness against Charismatic Christians over a lifetime, could explain the tragic spiritual blindness on display in a clip I saw from him just a few weeks ago, in which MacArthur, remarkably told a black student from his college that what happened in Charlottesville had “nothing to do with racism.” A far step down even from Trump’s “good people on both sides” equivocation, MacArthur is so given over to his depraved thinking—even to a blinding principality of “whiteness”— that he cannot even acknowledge white supremacy as one of two sides!  Whiteness is considered neutral, normative, and “culture-free,” independent of any particular history or story. It is is comprised of two convictions: 1) We chose our own reality and 2) it ain’t my fault. Whiteness cannot accept the narrative of an oppressed person, because whiteness, above all, is supreme confidence in one’s own discernment.  And MacArthur, who considers himself an expert in discerning everyone else’s issues, has no resources by which to discern his own. 

I can’t help but wonder if the number of “Holy Ghost deniers” in this crew (you’ve heard of “holocaust deniers or climate-change deniers? Well I just made this one up) doesn’t play into the perpetual lack of discernment—both because the wisdom of the Spirit is lacking, as well as the kind of sensitivity to the margins that Pentecost brings by its proximity to those on the margins.  People who have minimized and in some cases even mocked the Spirit, are understandably not in sync with the One who sighs with groans too deep for words, for the restoration of all things.  They are out of touch with what God is doing in the broader body of Christ.

I use the word “Pentecostal” in a broad, inclusive way—not to define a sect over/against the larger body of Christ, for indeed the entire Church is Pentecostal, though she does not always fully realize her potential in this way.  People can be Baptist, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, or Anglican, and be deeply Pentecostal in their practice—when they embrace walking in the Spirit!  And indeed the future belongs to such people. Already, the average Christian in the world is not male but female, not white but brown or black, more likely third world than first world—and by an overwhelming margin globally now, yes, Pentecostal.  All around the world, throughout all Christian traditions, people are awakening to the liberation of Pentecost—in which sons and daughters prophesy, principalities and powers are opposed and resisted, and captives are being cut loose.  

The “average” Christian in the world today is a 22-year old black or brown female.  She has not been to a Passion conference; she has not read Desiring God or Christianity Today, she has not read your blog, nor mine.   People like me are merrily moving chairs around the Titanic, while the entire hijacked project of American evangelicalism comes to a merciful end.  We debate each other on Facebook with competing C.S. Lewis quotes, listen to Coldplay, drink lattes, and some of us feel liberated enough to have a drink and smoke a cigar while raising a toast to “the good old days.” Whether you think it is providence or natural selection, the world has moved on. The Holy Spirit, I would contend, has moved on. 

I truly don’t intend this as a judgment—or at least, not as a judgment that does not fully include myself—but this is precisely the kind of fading evangelical establishment, an establishment that is rapidly passing away, that has shaped this declaration.   How else might we explain the consistent tone-deafness of principal figures behind this statement (people like Trump apologist Jack Graham, R.C. Sproul, James Dobson)—but a complete obliviousness to the Holy Spirit? I don't mean to demonize all who signed it. Some of them are more nuanced than others—people like Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, and James MacDonald have made great contributions to the body of Christ, even where we would have disagreements. But there is no getting around, again, the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly Baptist/fundamentalist-Reformed character of the list. (I will not even take time here to address the many ways in which John Piper, in particular, has repeatedly gone to dizzying heights of pastoral insensitivity in making increasingly reckless public statements, perhaps only rivaled in our time by Pat Robertson.  The hubris long ago crossed the line into pathology.)  

Several of these leaders have publicly criticized Trump, to be sure—though many powers that be in the SBC have attempted to marginalize Russell Moore’s voice, in particular. But there is no getting around the ways in which the religion of these signers has shaped people in such a way as to make the Trump phenomenon possible.  The fact that some individuals on this list have criticized Trump in some capacity does not counter the reality that on the whole, this is precisely the sort of crowd that empowered the Trump phenomenon—white evangelicals who have been so conditioned by their preachers to blame all of their problems on someone who is “other” than them, that Trump’s message of white resentment sounded consciously like the “gospel” that had been preached to them.  Because so many of these signers live in a world in which Pentecost has not happened and the world has not changed, they forever perpetuate the same old framework—their dualistic world of liberals and conservatives, white hats and black hats, in which the most consistent feature is that they themselves, more so than the Lord of the Church, always play the role of the persecuted martyr.  

 

***

So we find ourselves in this curious place, where the would-be prophets of the church, endlessly preoccupied with sin and genitals, cannot muster a strong, demonstrative stand against our most conspicuous sin.  The people who are best known for articulating a doctrine of original sin, are not rallying against America’s most original, founding sin.  The threat against black and brown bodies from white supremacists—even the state-sanctioned violence of Joe Arpaio, does not warrant nearly the level of outrage as a statistically tiny percentage of people entering gay marriage—who pose no existential threat to their heterosexual peers.  

To be clear, I care deeply for my LGBTQ friends, and am sorry for any pain this statement has caused them: sons and daughters of God, in whom the Father is well-pleased.  I do still care too for my conservative evangelical friends—and I know many of them who maintain a belief in a traditional view of marriage, in a more humble, gentle manner.  I would prefer to be a bridge builder, where bridges can be built. All human sexuality is complex; there are endless conversations to be had about sexuality in the Church, and I’m here to participate in them. But I’m telling you—right now, the Nashville Statement is an elaborate distraction: so that instead of conservative and progressive Christians uniting against that which we ought to be able to agree is conspicuously evil, we step back onto the endless merry-go-round of internet conversation on how to interpret 6 or 7 texts.  I am not opposed to those important conversations, I am just not willing to spend all my time in theological debate, when there are more conspicuous spirits that need to be named, and cast out!

Whatever one believes about the sacrament of marriage as a matter of Christian discipleship, should not keep them from being opposed to flagrant white supremacy, scapegoating the poor, demonizing the immigrant, and state-sanctioned violence against black and brown people—for that matter, violence in general.  Nor should convictions about marriage keep us from publicly repenting for the tangible harm the Church has caused to her LGBTQ sons and daughters historically, NOR SHOULD IT KEEP ALL OF US FROM TAKING UP FOR THE MOST BASIC RIGHTS OF LGBTQ PEOPLE.  Trump has cynically rode on the backs of conservative Christians he cares nothing about for crass political ends—what does the inflammatory edict/stunt to ban transgender people from the military have to do with Christians’ differing convictions on marriage as a sacrament?  There was no mandate from military personnel for such a thing—in fact, it appears to be precisely the opposite.  It is divisive, cynical, and vile, like this entire Presidency. 

I’m quite certain I do not have the power to get some of my readers to not look at certain folks who are “other” than them as an enemy. I can only appeal to this: Christians have no other reason in the world to identify their enemies, than to figure out who Jesus is calling them to bless.  The most basic terms of loving our neighbors as ourselves does not require theological degree—but a restoration of the sacrament of footwashing. If you deem Muslims as your enemy, your call as a disciple is to wash their feet. If you have thought LGBTQ folks are your enemy, your call is to wash their feet. If you think fundamentalist Christians are your enemy—and I am especially sympathetic to this view in the moment—your call is to wash their feet.

The other antidote I would suggest to what ails the Nashville statement, is a higher view of the Eucharist.  The much-talked about, most bombastic article of the declaration is article 10, which explicitly states, “we deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”  This statement appears to de-legitimize any and all those who differ on this issue as being part of the household of faith. They say they they have a strong biblical view of sexuality—I say they have a low view of the Eucharist. It is at the table of the Lord that the way of Christ is made possible, where there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.  The practice of the table is more constitutive of our faith than beliefs on any particular social issue.  It is possible and necessary to go to the table with brothers and sisters, even who we might think are in deep error, without disfellowshipping them.  This is possible because it is ultimately not just the table of the Church, but the table of the Lord; and it is his guest list, not ours.  

Trumpism is a dark, demonic, near mythic embodiment of our collective ego that has infected the church.  With the public witness of the Church already shattered, now is not the time to distance ourselves from others even with whom we have serious disagreement with.  Instead it is time to feast with them, listen to them, learn from them, pray and cry with them.  We have not rightly discerned the body of Christ. The trend toward further schism is not from the Prince of peace, but from principalities and powers who oppose his peaceful rule. I reject the conservative-liberal continuum, as those are not gospel words nor theological categories.  The only war I acknowledge is between the advocate and the accuser.  The dangers of the Trump phenomenon transcend partisan politics.  But thankfully, so does the rightful Lord of the Church.  

I will have prayerful, earnest, hard conversations with my brothers and sisters about all the hard things—I will stay at the table, late into the night.  But I will not have the terms of those conversations dictated to me by whatever was drafted in the smoky backroom by people who are mostly just mourning the loss of a civil religion I believe Christ came to overthrow, or from people who don’t know the devil when he’s kissing them hard on the mouth.  I am not for disfellowshipping or un-Christianizing anybody, only in favor of us having more Pauls who are willing stand up against Peter, in the midst of brazen hypocrisy. 

It was also Peter who was on the wrong side of Jesus, when he told him he would not have to go to the cross.  Jesus’ response to this sincere, well-intentioned disciple was the same as I believe it may be to us in this moment—“Get behind me, Satan.”  For truly, we have not discerned the purposes of God, but instead colluded with the accuser of the brethren.  Our resistance now, is not merely with theological rhetoric. 

Our resistance, must be repentance. 

in case you spot the laughter in my eyes

I write these words trapped behind the wall of a screen that keeps us safe from each other, & that keeps us from healing each other. 

I am sorry that this is a one-way conversation.  I hate that you can see me, but I can’t see you. These are intimate things, not the stuff you discuss with perfect strangers…and the last thing you need is another sermon, or a monologue.  I wish you could tell me all about it—about the girl or boy that broke your heart, or your catastrophic failure, or the doubt that has simmered just beneath the surface, for as long as you can remember.  I’d love to hear all of your reasons, for breaking up with God. 

I wish we could sit down for coffee—or a stiff drink, if that’s what such a conversation requires.  It would be okay to show me your scars, safe to expose, your angst.  It would be okay to tell me about the kid who was abused in the church you grew up in-maybe it was you?  Or tell me about the place you lost your true love, or show me the picture of the one who died. You could speak your private doubt.  You could let your disillusionment transform into words, like wine into water, and let them flow out of you, like the water that flowed from Jesus’ side on Golgotha.  You could say it however you wanted, for as long as you wanted. 

As the waitress pours us another glass, you could tell me all about the hurt.  I promise, you’ll would no hint of judgment in these weary eyes.  I’m sorry for all that is broken, and for all that broke you.  I’m sorry your faith feels now like such a tired and tattered thing. 

I know my heart would break, underneath the weight of all your pain.  And my own faith might well have snapped, like a fragile twig, long before yours did.  I promise, I would not laugh at you, or at any of the pain that terrorized you on the night road where you are now out walking.  But if you did detect just a hint of laughter, in the crinkles around my eyes, or felt just a teeny bit of comedy, in the midst of such heavy talk—I’m not laughing at you, or at your story.

What does make me stifle a laugh, however, is the anarchic Love that walks the long night road with you, with or without your consent, the clandestine God hiding amidst your sorrow. 

I don’t want to lecture you on why you ought to believe, or how you ought to change, nor come to God’s defense, like a low-rent lawyer.  I won’t try to argue, that you cannot, or must not leave the house that feels too small for you, now. 

Like the father to his prodigal son, you are given your inheritance early, and have permission to spend it however you think that you must.  I’d not try to keep you from leaving Jerusalem, or the temple therein, nor the people that raised you.  I wouldn’t ever try to keep you, from walking the long, dark road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. 

It’s not that I would not worry, about you walking any dark roads alone.  It’s just that I know that no matter what road you take…you’ll never be alone on it, no matter how hard you try.

do what you came here to do (for Holy Week)

The King comes riding into Jerusalem, on the back of a borrowed donkey.  The man rides like an apology, a slapstick parody of power, a send-up of pomp and circumstance.  The man rides under the weight of all our collective loneliness, as well as his own.  With no stallion, no army, and no pretension, Love himself rides solo in the parade of powerlessness.  Royalty, at last, has no entourage.

            With apologies to Dante, this is the original divine comedy, a moment more Mel Brooks than Michelangelo. Yet the man of sorrows is not a shtick.  He is the embodiment of all our dreams, and the incarnation of all our wounds.  He is love personified.  He is not quite the lone rider of some apocalyptic Johnny Cash song—He is the song of songs, he is music itself.  He is the only one to ever actually bear the weight of the world on his sagging shoulders.  There is a fire in him, a flame of love.  But there is also a terrible tenderness—eyes as big and black and open as the face of the sorry beast that carried him. 

            Christians call this scene “the triumphant entry,” but the man makes triumph into a joke, because the parade is the beginning of a death march.  If this is triumph, this scene radicalizes the term—evidently, triumph must look an awful lot like being triumphed over.  As his body jiggles on the donkey, fumbling through the stone streets of the holy city, the people wave palm branches, and shout “Hosanna in the highest!”  Palm branches flail in rapid motion, a mid-eastern forest of Hallelujahs.  And yet underneath it all, runs an ancient sadness. 

            God is on his way to die, as vulnerable to the elements as any other man or woman has been.  His chest, like his heart, is open—the hen with her breasts exposed, her wings extended, longing to gather her chicks under her wing.  But soon, her sacred breast will be wounded; her open chest taken as an invitation for her ripping. 

            But love does not protect itself from spears or spit or swords. His ribs, like his eyes, are exposed.  Rods and whips and nature itself will have their way with him, nails driving into dirt olive skin like an animal.  His body will be bent and twisted like a rag doll, like a puppet. 

            Still he rides into Jerusalem, vulnerable. He keeps on coming the way love always comes—defenseless.

 

A few days later, the man of sorrows walks the solid ground of the garden, but he is all liquid now.  His bowels are water, his sweat is blood, his heart melted wax.  He has prayed to escape his fate, but he hears fate coming for him in the low rumble of Roman boots on the ground.  All he wants is the same thing anyone of us wants when the pain is too deep for words---someone to share it with.  But as he turns his head towards the gathering storm, he sees his friends crumpled in the grass, sleeping.

            He sees a familiar face in the middle of the platoon, the only face he can find as haunted as his own.  The man’s eyes are empty, but his lips are full as they graze his face—kissing him. His kiss, perhaps like most kisses ultimately, is a betrayal.  Still he speaks softly to Judas, a word full of laughter and play and shared experiences, “Friend.”  He says it without a trace of sarcasm.  “Friend.  Do what you came here to do.”

           He does not reach for control, or surge at him in retaliation.  Love would rather be seized, than to seize.  But Peter, his hot-blooded disciple, will have none of it.  He has not yet learned Master’s way of terrible tenderness.  He, like so many of us, is a practical man, needing to grasp for control of the chaos around him.  Instinctively, he wraps his tense fingers around his sword, unsheathes it—and swings, wildly in the direction of a man named Malchus, the servant of the high priest, hacking off his ear in a single stroke.  The man screams in terror, the little red-soaked lump of cartilage lying on the ground. 

            The man of sorrows, all water now, speaks yet with the strength of many rivers: “Put away your sword.  For those who live by the sword, die by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”  Love stoops then—like it always does—and picks up the gory lump.  Malchus hears nothing as the man approaches him, conscious only of the searing pain, his hands pressed hard against the hole in the side of his head.  Gently, Jesus moves his hands, presses the ear firm to the gaping wound—and he stops screaming. 

            A disciple of Jesus cut rather than healed, and Jesus had to come behind him to clean up the mess made by one of his own.  He’s been doing it ever since. 

 

Jesus’ humble ride into Jerusalem shows us the way of the kingdom, for it is the way of the King who inaugurated it.  Peter’s rabid act of fear, fear of his God being taken from him and naked fear for his own life, shows us the way of the kingdoms of this world.  One is the way of vulnerability, humility and sacrifice, one is the way of violence, retaliation and retribution.  One is the way of being seized, one is the way of doing the seizing.  One says “friend, do what you came here to do.”  One takes matters into it’s own hands.  One is the way of the kingdom, one is the way of the empire.

            Peter, well-intentioned, wants to protect Jesus and protect himself.  But the One who has been raised from the dead, and long before had legions of angels at his disposal, is in no need of our protection.  He is in no need of our passionate displays of piety.  Jesus is not looking for anyone to stand up for him.

            And yet, throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, we see him standing with others.  We see him standing between the accused and the accuser, when the men came for the woman who had been caught in adultery.  He stands with despised tax collectors and for the woman at the well.  While the Son of God is in no danger, people on the margins of our societies are in great danger indeed—and Jesus asks us not to stand up for him, but to stand with him.  Jesus asks us to stand alongside him, by standing with them.

            Still today, the choice is ever before us, to go the way of the king or the way of the kingdoms of this world.  It is often obscured, because the way of the world often comes packaged to us in the language of piety, devotion, self-righteousness, common sense, and self-protection.  It often comes cloaked in the language of blame and scapegoating of someone who is other—and it is a kind of righteousness indeed, the righteousness of cleansing one’s self at someone else’s expense. The energy of such violence is primal, tribal, and does in fact have a kind of raw, explicitly religious power.

            But it is an energy rooted in fear.  Peter’s posture of defense, is a posture that love (self-giving in nature) never takes.  It is this kind of fear that perfect loves comes to exorcise. And make no mistake—fear is a demon that love, and only love, can cast out. 

on the art of preaching (or, on Russell Westbrook, stand-up comedy, and getting to the inner yes)

           I rarely write about the art of speaking/preaching, for a few reasons: a) I’m a streaky communicator who still misfires from the stage on a regular basis, and, b) my own approach to speaking is too mystical, intuitive, almost shamanistic to explain easily, and, c) speaking is intimate soul connection to me, and thus seems about as appropriate to talk about at dinner with strangers as making love, for similar reasons.  But it dawned on me recently that I preached my first sermon twenty years ago, this Spring. 20 years! So even if my sermons still hit and miss, and my methodology is still suspect, it is in fact my methodology at this point, and I have a few things to say about it.

            I think there are few abstract “principles” that can be easily universalized about preaching, but then again, very little can be easily universalized about anything, responsibly.  There are many styles and methodologies of communication I can and do enjoy and appreciate, but as it is with many things, I have strong, wildly subjective, largely peculiar opinions about all of this. 

            First though, to understand the kind of preaching I’d aspire to, you don’t necessarily have to know anything about any particular preachers.  It would be helpful, however, for you to understand my all-time favorite basketball player—Russell Westbrook, the combustible point guard of my Oklahoma City Thunder.  For the basketball illiterate, Russell Westbrook is a nuclear bomb in a jersey.  He is volatile, explosive, dangerous, disruptive—also, better than almost anyone, ever.  I don’t want to overstate his savage side, because his basketball IQ is high—but the savagery is a big part of what makes him what he is, a trait he shares with a handful of the greats, including Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

            But as basketball fans know, this man who is the most likely to give you a triple double every night will also give you 15 turnovers on occasion, when the wild stallion runs a bit out of control.  Far from holding it against Westbrook, I love this about him.  There is a risk to his game, a willingness to relinquish control and thus, usually to transcend the game, and occasionally to fail it miserably.  Russell Westbrook is my patron saint of not-playing-it-safe.  This is of course is somewhat a personality thing—there are other kinds of players who are useful, more restrained, also important.  But I would offer a hearty apologetic for Westbrook-style preaching, because even if it’s not the only way to get it done, it is a way, and a way I wish more preachers would go. 

            When a woman or man steps behind the pulpit, and fully embraces the stark-raving foolishness of preaching, there is at least some possibility that the magic might come, and that God might show up.  If God does not appear, there is at least a strong chance that a genuine, real-life human being might show up, which is the next best thing.  Like Russell Westbrook’s game, it is combustible and risky. It is the Apostle Paul himself who acknowledges the foolishness of preaching.  Speaking for God is an unstable and often ludicrous enterprise, full of unstable and outright lunatic people.  And if those who aspire to speak for God don’t start off crazy, taking the task seriously for long enough will almost surely drive them there.

intuition in preaching: more animal than artful

            My philosophy of communication in general, and certainly preaching in particular, is that it is a task more animal than it is artful.  Great preaching comes from the stomach, not the head; more bone and bowel than it is brains.  Hunger, desire, heat, and blood are more necessary than technical skill, which is not to say that technical skill is not important.  I love seminary and training and academia—I have just learned very little about preaching from any of those places.  Preaching involves a deeper drop from head to heart, than most any institution will prepare you for. 

            Intuition in preaching matters more than almost anything, in two different directions—it is as much about being open to what is happening between you and the people, as it is what is happening between you and God.  There is simply no way to discern what is happening with either, without feeling your way through it. Feelings are of course fickle and unreliable of lovers, so they do have to be trained in ways that require time and discipline.  But they are necessary.

            To say preaching mostly requires intuition may sound like a way of saying it can’t be taught, but that is not entirely true. Yes, there are some people who have such morbidly deficit instincts that they will never learn to preach well no matter how hard they try, but I think that mostly overstates the case.  The trick is that it has less to do with learning about preaching per se, and more about learning how to pay attention—to God, to people, to art, to your own life.  People who learn to listen to the world both around them and in them can be excellent preachers, with or without great technical training. 

            Preparation for preaching does have a lot to do with immersion in Scripture, and training does help a ton with that.  You do have to be saturated in Scripture, and hopefully, bathing yourself in language in general, to preach well.  You do have to have the basic chords down well enough to improvise when the time is right.  Scripture renews the mind—poetry, fiction, and music sharpens it—and the mind has an important role in preaching.

            But the mind has less of a role in preaching, than the soul.  Getting your soul to the right place, is more crucial than getting your head there.  That means getting yourself to a place past ego, a place past awkwardness, self-consciousness, and pride.  That means getting to a place of surrender.  In short, that means getting to a deep, inward yes, to the Spirit. 

            There are a lot of ways to get to that yes—all of them involve prayer, some with words, and some without them.  But the definition of prayer here, is very broad.  For my purposes here, I speak of prayer as kind of vital, vibrant soul connection with God, that transcends ego and intellect.  There are a lot of different ways to get there, and unfortunately none of them work all the time—because the process is more organic, more dynamic than that. It is more like surfing, than it is arithmetic. 

            Sometimes I prepare for preaching by fasting, because it sharpens my intuition, and helps me listen to what I need to hear both from God and (inaudibly) from the people when I get into the room.  Sometimes I prepare for preaching by finding a familiar, comforting (or occasionally interesting and unfamiliar!) cafe, because it can get me more relaxed.  Sometimes I prepare for preaching in silence, to create an inward space that is focused on God.  Sometimes I prepare for preaching by talking to others, because it gets me out of my head a bit.  Sometimes I prepare by resting (almost always by going to bed early the night before, if possible); sometimes I prepare by running or working out just hours before, to clear my head.

            The point of any of it, all of it—the only point, the only thing that matters—is getting to that yes.  Getting to that place of letting go.  Arriving at a place called surrender.  There are no other goals.  There are no other destinations.  This is everything.  And whatever gets you there, from wherever you are standing, no matter what route you have to take—is wholly good, and right, and appropriate.  Unless of course it’s not, in which case you need to preach humble and repentant and probably incorporate it into the sermon--but really, we are always supposed to preach from a humble, repentant place.  

my only die hard rules for preaching

            I only have a few die hard, inviolable rules for preaching.  One is that preaching should always have a sort of tenderness running through it, like a beam underneath the sermon from start to finish.  Even if it is bold, wild-eyed and prophetic, it still has to be tender.  Anger is occasionally useful in preaching, even if often misused—though the only way you can channel anger well in the pulpit generally, is if you tap into the heartbreak beneath it.  One of my mentors, Dr. Rickie Moore, says you know God is speaking because his is the voice that “always breaks your heart,” and I find that a sermon preached from a place of heartbreak is almost guaranteed to be a sermon worth preaching. 

            The second rule is that you have to a reverent posture toward the essential holiness of the people you are preaching to—less humble and reverent than your posture towards God,  of course, but only slightly and by degree.  All preachers are required to believe, or at least want to believe, that persons (if not crowds per se) are essentially smart, decent, open, and want to do the right thing.  You are allowed to not think this in moments of extreme hurt, but you must be careful not to preach from that place.  People are holy, created in the image of God, and your heart has to bow to them, even if your words must challenge, provoke or incite them. 

            A little bit of swagger and bravado is only allowed if it’s the swagger and bravado of a fool, fully aware of the ridiculousness of what you are trying to do and how foolish you look, glorying in the absurdity of the cross.  There is a swagger that is actually a half-step past ego, when you know what a fool you are, but you are high enough on love and God’s goodness to fully own the moment you are in.  That kind of confidence is demonstratively different than pride and bluster, and people will know the difference.  It is the confidence that lies beyond self-consciousness, only found again in the land of the yes, the place of total surrender. 

            Here is my only bit of technical advice: some of you have been in schools of preaching where someone has told you to tell an audience exactly what you plan to teach them at the beginning of the sermon, and then take the next 30 minutes to explain your points.  Everyone who has ever told you to do this is disastrously wrong.  I would tell you to take those preaching books swiftly to the used bookstore, but someone else might read them—so build a bonfire for them instead, like a fundamentalist burning their AC/DC records at youth camp. 

            It is communication suicide.  It violates every sane instinct in any medium of storytelling.  Noele Jones, speaking at a seminar on preaching, once differentiated between white preaching and black preaching this way: white preachers get up and tell you what they are going to say, and then they say it.  To illustrate black preaching though, he told about how he was a boy watching the tv series The Fugitive.  Every week, he said, they watched the show on the edge of their seats, even though they all knew that Dr. Richard Kimble would find a way to escape by the end of the episode, instead of getting caught.  But every episode attempted to get Dr. Richard Kimble in as much trouble as possible, before he would escape. And in the same way, Jones said, the people in your congregation know that Jesus is going to escape by the end of the sermon.  But the task of the preacher is to see just how much trouble you can Jesus into, before he gets out in the end.  That, my friends, is the most genius thing I have ever heard on preaching, and the notion that most underwrites my own.  Preaching should be narrative, high drama, full of suspense.  Don't tell them exactly where you are going to go.  Just put them in the car, tell them to buckle their seat belts, and take them somewhere.  Sometimes, to borrow words from Jesus to Peter, you may even need to take them to places you yourself "would not choose to go."  

            This is most everything constructive I know to tell you about the art of preaching.  Although, as the organist comes, and you stand to your feet, and the kids are getting restless in the nursery by now, I will close with a handful of things you must avoid in preaching, at all costs:

Please--in the name of all that is holy, avoid these three things like the plague, and facebook debates: 

Faux vulnerability: You know what I’m talking about.  Pastor Bob tells a story, about how even he, yes even he, as called man of God, found himself raising his voice in the car with his wife and kids the other day.  Pastor Bob is a real-life flesh and blood human being to be sure with demons that haunt him, but this story does not illumine them, or much of anything.  That’s not vulnerability, that’s an attempt to appear vulnerable, to sound like one of the boys.  I’m not saying to open up a sewer that should only be opened by another priest or therapist, but if you’re going to risk being human in front of those people—you’ve got to go deeper. (For the record, I use a gendered/male example because I find women preachers are frankly less likely to attempt this nonsense)

Preacher funny: The reason you have to avoid “preacher funny,” is because there is no such thing.  Something is either funny, or it is not.  What is almost never actually funny is some anecdotal Reader’s Digest/cute tale from a 1952 sermon book.  If you want to learn how to be funny, don’t try to learn it from other preachers—only a handful of them, and I do know a few—are really, really funny in the pulpit.  Watch stand-up comedians instead, and try not so much to imitate their content as to internalize their rhythm.  When it comes to communicating with humor, jokes are not everything—timing is. 

Condescend to the crowd: If you, on a regular basis, condescend to the people you speak to, you are a danger to yourself and others, and need to check yourself out of the game immediately.   Let life give you a thorough beating again before you return to preaching.  If you are the sort of person who says something like, “Well, it sure sounds like Paul condescended to his audience sometimes,” you both: 1) prove my general principle that no one should be allowed to interpret the Apostle Paul without a license, and 2) prove that you don’t need to be doing what you are doing, or your pompous ass would not be comparing yourself to the Apostle Paul. Get out of the pool, now. 

            With every head bowed and every eye closed, not looking at your neighbor—this moment is between you and God.  Is there a preacher under the sound of my voice who has been guilty of these sins?  Yes, thank you…I see that hand

             

 

 

 

 

Hey Tulsa! Announcing THE TABLE, a new weekly worship gathering starting Wednesday, February 22nd

THE TABLE is a simple, Spirit-led worship gathering for people who are looking to make more room in their lives for God and for others.  We gather to orient ourselves around the teachings of Jesus, and to eat and drink from the big table of grace he has spread for us.  There’s room enough at the table for everyone—you, especially. Weekly worship with Nichole Nordeman, Ben and Noelle Kilgore, and teaching from me. 

Wednesdays at 7pm

First Lutheran Church

1244 S. Utica Ave.

Tulsa, OK 74104

FAQ:

What can I expect from THE TABLE?

Pyrotechnics, killer light show, full band covers of Lady Gaga songs, occasional live acrobatics.

Kidding.

We sing a few songs, pray a few prayers—some spontaneous, some written; if anybody is having a hard time, we pray for them.  We confess our sins. We talk about Jesus.  Then anybody who wants is invited to come and kneel to eat the bread and drink the wine.    

Why Wednesdays?  

The catalyst for THE TABLE is that we (Jonathan, Nichole, Ben and Noelle) are all in full-time ministry that demands we travel a lot on weekends/Sundays.  So, we needed space to follow Jesus in a community of friends for ourselves, outside the context of weekends.  You are welcome to join us.  

What is your denominational affiliation?

None.  We honor and represent a number of Christian traditions, and are especially grateful to First Lutheran Tulsa for allowing us to meet in their space.  But THE TABLE is not a church, and has no formal ecclesial affiliation.

What sort of programs/ministries do you offer?

See above—we are not a church. We are a worship gathering, and look forward to sharing meals soon around an actual table with each other and our homeless friends, before or after worship. 

Is childcare provided?

Not yet, but children are welcome. 

Who exactly is welcome at THE TABLE?

We are comfortable with the guest list Jesus made—which is his, not ours.  In short, everyone. 

Okay great…but what do you really mean by everyone?

By everyone, we mean EVERYONE.  Nobody is left out. 

This simple Eucharistic prayer is the heart of our worship gathering:

This is the Table, not of the church, but of the Lord.
It is made ready for those who love Him and for those who want to love Him more.
So come, You who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often and you who have not been here long,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, because it is the Lord who invites you.
It is His will that those who want Him should meet Him here.
Come to the Table.

What do you guys believe, exactly? 

See the Apostles’ Creed.

The creed.  Cool.  But more specifically…?

That’s all we’ve got.  Seriously. 

after all, it’s only theater: on Trump, wrestlemania & evangelicals

The first time I remember seeing Donald Trump on television, I was 9 years old watching Wrestlemania.  It was many years before Trump ever took part in a wrestling storyline, “feuding” with WWE founder Vince McMahon—he was just a fan and wealthy patron of professional wrestling, then…going on soon after to host Wrestlemania IV and V at his casino.  These were the days of the villainous Honky Tonk Man smashing his guitar over the heads of unsuspecting opponents, of George the Animal Steele eating the stuffing out of the turnbuckle, of Macho Man Randy Savage delivering the flying elbow off the top rope, and of the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase attempting to “buy” the WWF title.  Jake the Snake Roberts carried his python to the ring, Koko B. Ware had his parrot on his shoulder, and Brutus the Barber Beefcake carried scissors to cut the hair of his opponents whenever he rendered them unconscious with his sleeper hold.  In short…Hulkamania was running wild.

It was entertainment, then, the closest thing we had to the Roman Colosseum.  Stereotypes abounded, from the “redneck” Hillbilly Jim to Virgil the black subservient; Kamala the “wild savage” cannibal from Uganda to Akeem “the Dream” (a white man with an affected “brotha” accent”), to the nationalistic storylines between foreign nemeses like the Iron Sheik against patriots like Hacksaw Jim Duggan or Sgt. Slaughter. But wrestling was a glorified cartoon then.  However problematic some of the characters would be now, it had a light touch by today’s standards. 

The content became darker and more hyper-sexualized in the years after my childhood, taking the mythology of Wrestelmania into more disturbing places in our collective consciousness.  But all along, professional wrestling dramatized our search for meaning.  The mythology that emerged was an important one for white America.  From Chris Hedges’ underrated, brilliant masterwork of prophecy, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle:

The bouts are stylized rituals. They are public expressions of pain and a fervent longing for revenge.  The lurid and detailed sagas behind each bout, rather than the wrestling matches themselves, are what drives crowds to a frenzy. These ritualized battles give those packed in the arenas a temporary, heady release from mundane lives. The burden of real problems is transformed into fodder for high energy pantomime.  And the most potent storyline tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin, desperation, and enslavement to a heartless, tyrannical corporate employer. For most, it is only in the illusion of the ring that they are able to rise above their small stations in life and engage in a heroic battle to fight back.

 Indeed it may be that professional wrestling is the only thing that might make sense of the three-ring circus that is Donald Trump’s first week in office.  Professional wrestling is a world that succeeds only insofar that it successfully blurs the line between truth and reality.  Fact and fiction are not categories in wrestling—it is a colorful entire alternate universe that brings back viewers every week eager to suspend reality.  There is no true or untrue; the only test that matters is whether or not the wrestler can sell the gimmick.  A popular “face” can turn into a “heel” at any moment, or a “heel” into a “face,” but even those categories—of good guys and bad guys, matter less than they used to. 

Yes, some of the familiar tropes are still there that pull on populist stereotypes—where the good guys are American patriots, and the bad guys may still be one-dimensional cartoon characters who are seen as evil precisely because they seem unlike us.  But this is the era of the heel, the antihero, in which often those who behave the most badly may be the most celebrated.  We learn to love roguish antiheroes who were not hemmed in by the “rules.”  Hedges notes that “the referee, the only authority figure in the bout, is easily disputed and unable to administer justice…The failure to enforce the rules, which usually hurts the wrestler who needs the rules most, is vital to the storyline…The system of justice in the world is always rigged. It reflects, for many who watch, the tainted justice system outside the ring.”

 This is the world that gave birth to Donald J. Trump—not the real estate mogul precisely, but the entertainer.  He puzzles people who attempt to care his speeches—in style, content, cadence and character—to other political figures.  But Trump speeches self-aggrandizing speeches and manic feuds are no mystery at all to anyone familiar with professional wrestling…it’s not Ronald Reagan’s speeches that illumines Trump talk, but Ric Flair’s pre-match interviews.   This is where “The Nature Boy” would strut and “WOOO” and talk about all the ladies lining up to take a ride on space mountain, or say “to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man!”  “I’m Ric Flair! I’m the stylin’, proflin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss stealing son of a gun!” 

  Traditional American politics do not account for the open bluster and bravado, nor the seeming randomness of Trump’s feuds, nor the speed in which he can make an alliance or bury the hatchet if the feud no longer serves his purpose.  But professional wrestling fans understand—they understand all of it.  They understand the drama of the interview outside the ring, the hype and emotional connection that always turns out to be far more important than the actual matches—because it is in the flamboyant interview with Mean Gene that drama is kindled, tension is heightened, and stakes are raised.  Trash talking is not an impediment to success inside the squared circle; it is the key to it.  Wrestling fans have seen Hulk Hogan make an alliance with the Macho Man Randy Savage, to become the MEGA POWERS, only to have a nasty falling out and vicious feud. 

 This surely, at least in part, explains why Trump survived the gauntlet of would-be contenders in a protracted, contentious primary: Trump was doling out knife edge chops to the chest, like the Nature Boy; flexing like Lex Luger, preening around the ring like the Million Dollar Man.  His opponents set out to win the debate, while Trump set out to be the last man standing in the Royal Rumble. 

 While others in the primary were playing more or less by the rules of the collegiate wrestling team, Trump was hitting opponent in the nuts, insulting their wives, sneaking in the foreign object and grasping for the steel chair. If a blow landed, he bled hard and from the scalp, like the American Dream Dusty Rhodes.  Even watching the way he absorbed them was entertainment—like when Flair would be thrown into the turnbuckle in the corner, stagger three steps back toward the center of the ring, then flop on his face like a drunk. 

 As it is in professional wrestling, all the foreigners are simple-minded bad guys who are easy to understand.  You can speak in generalizations about Mexicans as murderers and rapists, just like you can speak of the savageness of “the Wild Samoans.”  Trump stirs up fears of refugees, the same way wrestling made us fear "the Iranian" Iron Sheik.  The only plot twist is that professional wrestling is a world in which the red scare never ended, whereas now it feels like Putin could be part of an alliance of rule-breaking, devil-may-care badasses we love to hate—like when the ultimate face Hulk Hogan became Hollywood Hogan and turned heel to join the “New World Order.”  Like any good wrestler, the heel is not afraid to give up the cheers, so long he doesn’t have to give up the crowds.

 I fear that this could read like some kind of a clever running metaphor for the Trump campaign, when I mean it much more on the head, much more literal than that: professional wrestling is precisely the world in which Trump really learned how to create a character broad and exaggerated enough, to capture the heart of the fan on the back row of the Pontiac Silverdome.  These fans, historically comprised of disenfranchised whites, are precisely the people he came to win over, and the exact people who put him into office.  And because in professional wrestling the best way to respect the fans is not to cater to them directly per se (the heels cater to no one), but to preserve the integrity of the story that gives their lives meaning. Trump is right to believe there is no character too broad, too loud or too large for us to believe in—the only rule is that you never break character

 Trump understands you don’t fill the stadium at Wrestlemania by playing small—they come to cheer or even boo larger than life warriors that emerge from the depths of our collective psyche.  He understands the cocktail of simmering rage in America’s heartland, our adolescent wet dreams of power.  He heard our cries, for a people’s champion.  He reached out and touched us, with well-manicured hands.  He made the long walk down to the squared circle, with Hulk Hogan’s theme song “I am a real American” playing in our heads, and he let us touch the hymn of his garment when he passed.  

 “Don’t worry,” the preachers told us.  “It’s all just theater.” 

From professional wrestling, to reality television

For Hedges, wrestling is our culture’s way of assuaging our fear of death, of holding out hope that we might, too, come out from among the unsung masses and triumph with the grace and fortune of our celebrities. Thus we “happily pay for the chance to suspend reality. The wrestlers, like all celebrities, become our vicarious selves. They do what we cannot.”  We believe in their mythology, because it gives us permission to create our own.  I will let the wrestlers be as large as they want, because deep down I believe that one day I, too, might be the next American idol—that one day he, might be me.   

 Professional wrestling then, in turn, gave birth to reality television as we know it—and thus to Donald Trump, reality television’s undisputed chief gladiator—it’s Goliath, it’s juggernaut.  Trump owns reality television the way Jimmy Swaggart owned a stage, prowling like a cat with a cordless microphone, sweat dripping from his brow.  He owns reality television with the confidence of Jerry Fallwell in the days of The Old Time Gospel Hour.  While faith never seemed to play a prominent role in his life historically, Trump intuitively understands that celebrity culture doesn’t need to battle religion for supremacy—it too easily co-opts religion, tames it, absorbs it.  Celebrity culture, according to Hedges, is “a hostile takeover of religion by consumer culture.”  The promise of celebrity culture is nothing less than immortality, utilizing the epistemology of deceit.  It is a culture based on sleight of hand and parlor tricks; like a leg-lengthening charismatic faith healer or again—the professional wrestler, selling his punches.     

 Hedges does not write of Trump in particular in 2009, but of reality television in general: “The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television show, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality tv show.”  Such a culture plunges us “into a moral void” where “no one has any worth beyond his or her appearance, usefulness, or ability to ‘succeed.’”  Now the “highest achievements in a celebrity culture are wealth, sexual conquest, and fame. It does not matter how these are obtained.”

 In turn, our endless fascination with the idiosyncrasies, failures, foibles, and triumphs of our celebrities become, in Hedges’ useful turn of phrase,  “pseudo-events” that we call news.  The movement, for Hedges, is that as reality television reigns supreme, literacy declines precipitously.   “Functional literacy”, Hedges writes, “is an epidemic.” The Roman circus distracts us from what is really going in the world, and without developing the critical thinking and intellectual curiosity derived from long form reading and thinking, we soon cease to care enough to even raise critical questions.  Hence Trump himself famously doesn’t read books, so much.  Trump, like a wrestler, is an expert in making and sustaining myths—a task for which reading, quiet and reflection would inhibit his native skills, rather than enhance them. 

 One might think that if times become hard enough, the illusion might be broken.  But as Hedges demonstrates, the pain of reality serves to underwrite the illusory, rather than to undercut it.  Thus,

The worse reality become—the more, for example, foreclosures and unemployment sky-rocket—the more people seek refuge and comfort in illusions.  When opinions cannot be distinguished from facts, when there is no universal standard to determine truth in law, in science, in scholarship, or in reporting the events of the day, the world becomes a place where lies become true, where people can believe what they want to believe.  This is the real danger of pseudo-events and why pseudo-events are far more pernicious than stereotypes. They do not explain reality, as stereotypes attempt to, but replace reality. Pseudo-events redefine reality by the parameters set by their creators.

 The trivialities of these-pseudo events bombard us every waking second, events that have nearly nothing to do with what is actually happening in the world around us; making it nearly impossible for us to think critically about what happens outside this tightly-constructed, largely chosen alternate reality.

    high stakes performance art

I still have plenty of nostalgia for old school professional wrestling. It was an alternate reality that I loved.  Back in Charlotte, I used to get my hair cut at the same place as Ric Flair—where he would get that platinum blonde hair freshly dyed every two weeks.  I geeked out at every glimpse of him.  Once he walked into the neighborhood deli, with his pretty young newest wife, and I talked to him for a good while.  The Nature Boy slips in and out of character as naturally as breathing in his real life.  “WOOO!!!” As he puts the four horsemen sign in the air, while we wait to pay for our sandwiches.  When I told him what I did for a living, he turns to the pretty young wife and says, “You see there?! HE GETS IT. THE MAN OF THE CLOTH, HE GETS IT.”  He points to her and says, “Just like SHE gets it!” And promptly pulls a Ric Flair action figure out of her purse, and again the famous “WOOO!”  It was hilarious, and surreal.

 Now 67, I don’t know whether or not he was ever able to separate himself from the mythology that was created around him.  If not, that would make me deeply sad.  He never seems to fully retire, because through and through, he will always be a professional wrestler.  But what we have in the Oval Office right now, this particular love child of George Orwell and Vince McMahon, is not a fading entertainer, but the ostensible leader of the free world.   However business savvy he claims to be, he seems dangerously unable to sort fact from fantasy in the legend of his own making.  There is an unhinged quality that belies all the initial analyses, that it’s all just performance art.  It is indeed a kind of performance, but the stakes are much higher than that of a steel cage match.

 And yet I continue to hear the same kinds of things I heard during the campaign, “that a lot of this is just theater.”  As I write this now, President Trump has just signed the order to ban Syrian refugees entirely from the United States for now, and we are actually having to have a public conversation as to whether or not it is okay to offer preferential status to Christians over against Muslim refugees.   This is in the same week that we are having an actual conversation, as to whether or not torture is unethical.  This is a man voted into power by a wide, overwhelming margin among white evangelicals. 

 Making this move the same day that we remember the Holocaust—and the same day that Trump spoke supportively of the pro-life march—only underscores the cynicism at the heart of the entire enterprise.  Trump knows how to throw conservative Christians a bone, how to say shibboleth, while simultaneously introducing legislation that rightly makes womb-to-tomb pro-lifers scream.  It is brash and cynical exploitation of people who are motivated by sincere Christian convictions.  Those of us who have worked in the Middle East among refugees, especially with Syrians, know these are the most despised, victimized people in the world.  In the words of Bono, “I’m not dangerous…I’m in danger!”

The protest movement that almost was…and yet could be

The kind of Christianity I believe in—the kind of religion I aspire to—theoretically exists as radical protest movement to this kind of madness.  It is a religion of the cross, a religion not of escapism but of reality, a religion of the real—in short, a religion for the suffering.   Instead, many white evangelical church leaders have largely lined up with the prophets of Baal instead of with the prophets of God, leaping to the defense of a world they co-created.  We are more well-suited these days to rule than to begin a resistance; we exemplify these broader movements in popular culture more than we are exempt from them. 

Lacking any real spiritual formation, we continue to replace any semblance of Christian faith with the pragmatism of the empire.  Of course we believe torture can be useful—we have spent far more hours being discipled by 24’s Jack Bauer, than we have Jesus Christ.  We understand that in the real world, you have to make certain compromises to get things done—whether that is win a war, get the job, or growing a church.  We read the Sermon on the Mount, wink wink, nudge nudge, but anybody with our folksy homebrewed made in the USA God-given common sense knows well enough, you can’t actually live any of that out.

We are, after all, as beholden to all the same television as everybody else, as well as the same bad habits. We are shaped by the same pornography.  No wonder we so easily acquiesced to a leader who intuitively understands that news, in an illiterate, pornographic society—is not something you read, but something you get off on. News is not something to know, but something you feel

 The most egregious examples of the Church’s capitulation to Trumpism would seem to come from nationalistic evangelicals, whose beliefs are so synchronistic with the doctrine of AMERICA, as to raise the question as to whether or not it can rightly be called the same religion.  And yet I somehow find all of that less disturbing than that of the allegedly more enlightened white North American Christians who, have, in the way that privilege and comfort affords, been “above the fray” in a time of cataclysmic crisis for the most vulnerable people in our society.  These are the voices who have no word to offer in such apocalyptic times, other than “now, now…let’s just all settle down.”  They roughly have the same demeanor as Reverend Lovejoy on the Simpsons. 

We do not question those who use to any means necessary to rise to power— we study them and adapt their “leadership principles” into our sermons.  White evangelical church culture is not trained to resist leaders with narcissistic personality disorders, but to reward them.  We know the secret truth, hidden from generations of Christians before us who lived in less auspicious times—that Jesus is for winners.   

I come from the Pentecostal tradition, a radical peace church movement, that at least with regards to its historic witness and global character, could seem to be the Christian expression most well-suited to resist such principalities and powers.  But many North American Pentecostals have largely abandoned the scandals so central to our early history—of women preaching, multi-ethnic worship, the anarchy of the Spirit working in whosoever will through tongues, prophecies, and healing—for a seat at the evangelical table, which is now becoming the king’s table.  And we have waited far too long for this seat, to give it up just now. 

Many of us, like our evangelical brothers, now lack the apocalyptic urgency that gave birth to our movement, the cataclysmic fire of Sinai, of Pentecost, of the Azuza Street revival.  We are now bemused at the alarmist prophets of doom among us, because we have heard many so-called seers who cried wolf.  When we were on the underside of history, we longed for the day that Jesus would come and make things right.  But Jesus did not come, and is probably not coming anytime soon—after all, we just got comfortable, in the world as it is now given to us. 

  Why, the world is not coming to an end, child. After all Caesars come, and Caesars go.  We have the faith of the past and a hope of a future, a faith that does not allow us to get all mucked up with the pain of the moment we’re in.   We say all of this, with the faux-elegance of the nouveau riche—as a people too wealthy to be trampled by any Caesar, no matter how boorish he might be.  We, perhaps rightfully, have rejected much of the juvenile apocalypticism of the dispensationalists, in which we believed a beast would one day rise out of the ruins of Babylon, to make war with the lamb, and those who follow the lamb.  We know better than to think, that a man of lawlessness might deceive us with an deception so profound that “even the elect, if it were possible, would be deceived.”   We know better than to think God would ever let the world be destroyed as a natural consequence of our neglect and abuse of creation.  After all, we don’t believe in judgment anymore, we believe in grace! We are none to eager to “go to heaven,” or like MLK and the prophets of the civil rights movement, have heaven come to us—because we like the world well enough the way it is.

 Christians in the west have access like never before to the witness of practitioners of their own faith who have told them an alternate story from the ones we’ve heard on tv: stories from the black church, from Christians in the Middle East and Latin America and Africa.  We are perhaps peripherally aware that others are experiencing the world right now differently than we are—immigrants, refugees, Muslims.  In my quarter of Christianity, we all once sat at the same table—blacks, white trash, latinos, the poor—at the freaks’ table, left outside the gate like the God we crucified.  We know something of such people now, not because we know their faces—but because, like professional wrestlers, we have seen them on TV.  We casually appreciate their novelty, like the high-flying lucha libre, from Mexico.

 White American evangelicals can in fact appreciate some of the stories heard from Christians who are in some way “other,” for the colorful and innocent faith in them.  It is very cute, every so often, to see the unadorned faith of the disenfranchised.  But you see that is where this gets hard to talk about in public, in this “politically correct” world in which we live—many of us don’t trust the “carrying on” we hear right now, especially from women and minorities.  We’d all tell you that we love women—(maybe chuckle and add, smiling, “My own mother was a woman! HA!”) We love black and brown people (“I have a black friend at work” or “I practically grew up on the Cosby show!”).  But we don’t love them as much as we love the status of a people who finally feel like they don’t have to sit at the loser’s table anymore.  That, it seems to many of us, is the trouble with those who say the sky is falling right now—these people talk like they are victims, when we discovered in Christ we are victors!  A lot of them are poor, when we know God wants us to be rich!  These times are not so dire, really—we have read of other hard times, in history books, drinking a glass of red wine and smoking a pipe like C.S. Lewis.  We are cultured, now.        

We came far enough to know, that everyone is going to be fine—because we are fine.  We know that nobody gets in trouble with the authorities, so long as they tuck their shirt in instead of dressing like a hoodlum, and so long as they are respectful—because it has never happened to us.  This wisdom is old, too…passed down from one generation of white men, to another. 

You will know we are Christians by our good manners, sitting refined and unruffled, as becomes men of our good standing.  We have the dignity of the unaffected, the luxury of those who can afford to say, “stop being so sensitive…it’s all THEATER!”  And in a sense, that is true—for some of us, this is our very own high stakes version of Hamilton.  Because for us, the lives of those that are other, are all part of a show we have paid to watch from the balcony.  (We worked hard for that money like anyone else, mind you. “Nobody gave me a handout!”) And while on some level, we may even enjoy the spectacle of spirited women and minorities dancing around on the stage as they do—we appreciate their passion!  We take in the dread and drama of the real lives of men, women and children who are not like us with detachment, as one would watch the WWE—because we are in on the joke.

 For some, these are matters of life and death.  But some of us will keep our cool and stately demeanor, while the most vulnerable people in the world “freak out”—unless they start to get too rowdy, in which case we will solemnly remind them to be polite, no matter what little perceived slights they may suffer.  We aren’t children of the disinherited after all, but children of the inheritance!  We know nothing of hope, only of presumption.  We have no need of revelation—because we have good common sense.  

 We came here for a show, not to have our victorious Christian lives imposed or inconvenienced by the indignity of grief, nor the interruption of protest.  We came a long way from where we started, to become powerful enough to afford indifference.  This isn’t the end of democracy or the collapse of western civilization, here—this is a hell of a good episode of WWE’s Smackdown. 

It is not fair to say that we have no appreciation for our brown and black brothers and sisters, nor for anyone else’s culture.  We appreciate culture plenty—like we appreciated the Junkyard Dog, or when Tito Santana hit his opponent with “the flying burrito.”   It is hard for us to understand, now, what all the fuss is about.  This is not the end of world as we know it—this is just pay-per-view.  

daily office meditation, January 20th: God must still be sleeping.

(to pray the daily office along with us in its entirety, click here)

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, 'Let us go across to the other side.' And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still!' Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, 'Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?' And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, 'Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?'

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

The winds picked up, turning the world we know inside out. The air itself swirls with saltwater, the waves just keep on pounding, and pounding, and pounding. The sea howls, like Leviathan. 

Waves attack without mercy, without feeling. Waves attack endlessly, like an army of the undead. The wood creaks and cracks and splinters; even the boat has sense enough to cry uncle. The familiar sea, that once brought comfort, now brings terror.

And still he is just lying there, curled up, face serene, in the unencumbered dreamless sleep that surely only fools, drunks and princes ever know. The lightning comes again as a doomsday prophet, to remind us that our end is near. 

I'll be damned...the man is still sleeping.  I'll be damned...long before the sun comes up.

And so I shake him and shake him, as a child would shake a rag doll. I shake him with the possessed frustration of a man incredulous, that his very own teacher doesn't grasp the severity of the situation.

Don't you see? Don't you know?

Don't you care?

He stretches. He yawns. He wipes a little of the crust off his eyes. He speaks to the wind, only once. "Peace be still." 

The wind and waves stop, like my heart. And I just stand there, staring.

Lord, we your disciples knock on your door once again, afraid you still do not grasp the gravity of our situation. 

 

daily office meditation, January 19th: on making music and being filled with the Spirit

Ephesians 5.18-20

Do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

            Since I have an addictive, all-or-nothing personality, I’m glad there are some things I am never in danger of getting too much of.  We are never in danger of getting too much music into us, or out of us.  And we are never in danger of getting too much Spirit.

            That’s remarkable when you really think of it, because the Spirit is the fire at the center of all things.  The Spirit is the source of all creativity, all light and all life.  Everybody is living in search of Spirit, whether they know it or not.  Spirit is where all the beauty comes from, the open secret at the bottom of the other mysteries.  To say it is possible to be filled with the Spirit is to say it’s possible to be chock full of love and poetry and music, to actually have dance itself on the inside of you.  And it is possible to drink as much as you want, of this new wine?! 

            These are of course times when people are finding plenty of reasons to medicate with anything but Spirit. I am not unsympathetic.  Spirit makes you alert, alive, hyper-aware of your surroundings; and when the world gets hard we are far more inclined to want to numb ourselves to the real than awaken ourselves to it.  I want to choose numbness sometimes too, anything to keep me warm, to keep me having to think or feel too deeply. 

            But the more you experience the Spirit, the more you find there is nothing as intoxicating nor as good as drinking deeply of God’s fiery love, Spirit’s hot beauty.  You find that it gets down in all the pores and crevices, into your depths.  And the way the Apostle Paul encourages us to stoke this fire in us and in each other, is not with lectures or theology or arithmetic, but with music.  Music is largely how the Spirit gets into us, and out of us. 

            So we sing Psalms---the achingly human songs that are also achingly God songs, the joy songs which are also lament songs, the presence of God songs which are also the absence of God songs.  We sing and pray the actual Psalms, the David Psalms, which is the source from which Latin chants, robed choirs, black gospel and the blues all find their origin.  We sing hymns, songs that tell the story of God—the story of the Exodus, the story of the incarnation, life, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus; the stories of the saints and the stories of the Church. 

            And then, we sing spiritual songs.  Boy, the back catalog on this one is deep.  Because spiritual songs can be a little melodies you sing from your own private tryst with God, simple songs that say God’s name over and over.  Spiritual songs can be simple expressions of the heart in your soul’s own native language.  But spiritual songs can also be the songs that come up from the places language simply cannot go, songs from the unspeakable—songs of loss and love and longing.  Spiritual songs are the songs from a joy too ecstatic and a heartbreak too profound to have words for.  Spiritual songs are transcendent songs, for things too sacred to be named with ordinary words.  Some refer to this practice as singing in tongues. 

            But to put it all on the table—and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to tell you this—songs about making love or making cookies can also be spiritual songs.  James Brown, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, U2, Bon Iver, and J. Cole all write spiritual songs, and a whole bunch of people are making spiritual songs, accidentally.  So this category is pretty vast.  Soul songs have kept slaves alive and taken empires down.  They connect us to God and to each other, they protest principalities and powers that be. 

            So in these soulless times, this is our strategy to stay full of God, full of love, full of fight—in short, full of the Spirit: we have to make more music, discover old music, invent new music.  We have to sing for God, each other, and for ourselves. 

            Hope comes again, like it always has—in a melody. 

 

daily office meditation, January 18th: assemble yourselves, survivors!

(To read and pray the daily office in its entirety along with us, click here)

Isaiah 45.20

Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations!

I must admit, this is the darkest I've been in a long time. 

I love the Church. I believe in the Church. Through my highs and lows, fumblings and failings, my belief not only in God but in the people of God has been unwaivering. Even when I have failed, my faith has not failed me.

But in this season, I confess: my faith has been shaken. I have not known how or if I should say much about this, because I find myself in the role so often in the role of trying to encourage others, trying to keep someone else's spirits up. I'm thinking about the beautiful black couple that drove down from LA to hear me in San Diego last weekend, who said it was the first time they had been to church since the election. I felt their story so deeply. I haven't wanted to come, either. I don't feel like there is any whining in that--it has nothing to do with not getting my way, or my faith not being strong. My faith was strong when my whole life was blowing up. It's been more an almost clinical sense of, "if this is what we are producing/becoming, check please." I just don't know how to be part of something I don't truly believe in, and there is a lot about the Church in North America right now, I really don't believe in. 

I don't think I'm a random angsty millennial. I have not been sitting around listening to "mummy-I-wet-myself-again" grunge rock (in Elvis Costello's great phrase) and crying in my beer. I'm active. I'm on the move. I'm still trying to do what I essentially feel like God has called me to do. But the limp has become harder and harder to ignore--the nagging, wake me up in the middle of the night, bone-deep sense of futility....what does any of this matter? And what difference could it possibly be making?

So I haven't known how to say that disillusionment has eaten a hole inside of me. I've been tempted to a lot of things in my life, but never this much tempted to despair. I've never been more suspect of the institution, even where selfishly it has been good to me. I've never come this far in questioning the entire mechanism. I have been a cocktail of suspicion, doubt, distrust, and outright rage. 

I checked out of evangelicalism a long time ago. I can't recall the last time I've self-described my journey with that word. But I've retained my identity as a kind of anarchist hillbilly Pentecostal, believing in God as a fire that burns. I've certainly retained my identity as a follower of Jesus, however disasterously bad I may be at it. But this last stretch of the journey? Yeah, I've been unsure of what it's worth, and what it all means, and my books and ideas and even experiences of God in the past have not exactly kept me warm in the cold of it. 

But reading these words this morning, on my way to gather with a group of friends who I know will fan the flame in me--I'm feeling reinvigorated. The prophets tells the "survivors" of the nations, "assemble yourselves! Draw close! Come together!" And there is something in the drawing close, the assembling, the coming together--that mends us. When all the folks from the margins, the rebel forces living isolated in the shadow of the empire, get back in the room again and remember that none of us are alone. 

I had a soul-restoring experience on Monday night, when a group of twenty-something guys in Tulsa invited me over to talk about MLK's legacy and witness, and what it means for them. 15 guys in a house, no formal church affiliation--just guys who love Jesus and love each other, and want to be prophetic witnesses where they live. No platform or honorarium or whatever...just sharing my story about how the Holy Ghost has used Dr. King in my life, what it means to me now, and then hearing their own stories. 

I've felt so much, like so many things I loved were coming to the end all over again. I didn't know if I had the heart or stomach for it.

Until I remembered again what starting over looks like. Until I felt the sting of the sweet wine that is new beginning, all over again.

This is what hope feels like. This is what life on the other side feels like.

This is what it feels like, to not go quietly into the night.

And I don't know what to tell you, if you're fighting your own despair in this moment...except assemble. And instead of doing the heavy lifting of hoping for yourself, let someone else God has sent do it for you. 

daily office meditation, January 14th: the desires of your heart

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It seems like such a trope by now, somebody will surely say that I'd be better off to avoid it: "God will grant you the desires of your heart." Ooh, or better yet, Psalm 20.4 is rendered "grant you your heart's desire, and prosper all your plans." So now we get to add PROSPERITY on top of this. And the Psalmist won't stop prattling about such things. In our second Psalm for today, here it is one more time, for the people in the back: "You have given him your heart's desire, you have not denied him the request of his lips (Psalm 21.2)."

I know, it's fodder for televangelists, and magical thinking in which God becomes little more than a genie in the bottle here to fulfill our wishes. I hear the voice in my head, that says God is not interested in your happiness, God is interested in your holiness. I am aware that even when we are talking desires of the heart, that heart matters are tricky business, per Jeremiah 17.9, "The heart is deceitful above all things." My inner Hauerwas rightfully reminds me that the desires of American Christians are far too corrupted by dominant culture to be trusted, that they are the desires of a people who have not been habituated in the gospel. 

I hear truth in much of that, and yet feel like being a grace contrarian enough this morning, to put in a good word for desires. I am fully aware that there a lot of things that I want--that in fact advertisements have told me to want--that are not good for me. I am quite in touch with how much of my wanting is self-oriented, self-destructive, neither in the best interests of my neighbor nor even really my own life. I would even say I've never been more aware of these realities. I have spent plenty of time confused, in a forest of entangled wants. But I would also say, boldly and brashly, that these desires are not the desires at the bottom of me. That however deceitful my heart has been, it's a heart made in the image of God, even still, a heart that has dirt-floor longings for the things God wants for me. 

It's not that desires cannot be trusted--only the ones that are not in the depths of us. You have to get to the want underneath the want, the desire underneath the desire. This is my experience even praying through the daily office--it's not that God annihilates my desires and replaces them with new ones, per se, but that my heart is aligned with my own deepest, truest desires. These are desires that are intuitively in sync with the heart of God, desires not only for myself but for my neighbors, for the world that I live in. They are in there to be discovered, to be unearthed by prayer. My deepest desires, are always the ones that I can trust. My deepest desires, are the ones that never fail to lead me home.

So I'm reminding you today that happiness and holiness need not be mutually exclusive. In the ancient sense of the word, happiness is not a fleeting, temporal emotion (as I have often heard from pulpits) but a deep, abiding, full-soul kind of contentment, a kind of happiness that is in fact good and right to pursue.  Remember what we read yesterday, "In your right hand, are pleasures forevermore."  Even if we need to re-align some of our wants, I'm not willing to yet give up hope just yet, on our desires. 

Ultimately, while discerning our own hearts will put us on track to discover our deepest desires, the trust isn't in the goodness of our hearts at all, but the heart of God.  It is an aching, abundant heart, endlessly moved to please, fulfill and satiate the most raw and real needs of God's sons and daughters. The deep, unwaivering goodness of the heart of God cannot be taught, it can only be revealed. Thus my prayer for you is the prayer of Paul for his friends at Ephesus, also from our reading today: "I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."  

It is an un-knowable thing, but I pray that you may know it by the revelation of the Spirit. And I pray that you will buy no lesser gospel, that sanctifies, glorifies, or elevates emptiness for emptiness' sake, when the God who hovers over you now actively longs to make you full. 

daily office meditation, January 13th: burst.

(To read and pray the daily office along with us in its entirety, click here)

I started writing these devotionals, in the spirit of how Frederick Buechner describes preaching as "whistling in the dark"...as a way of keeping my own spirits up. Perhaps also as a way of, as an untethered man living in an untethered time, trying to find something to keep my own feet on the ground. The format thus far, has been intentionally simple--as I read through the Scripture texts for the morning portion of the daily office, I take note of something that strikes me, inwardly, and I document it here. Simple as that. Yesterday, I recalled I have many wonderful commentaries that might enrich these :), but thus far they have been more guttural and reflexive than that, more in the moment--a conscious attempt to keep these simple and human.

So this morning I took a little bit more time than usual to reflect, not wanting to get caught in a cycle of reading too quickly for the sake of strip mining the text for a treasure (a familiar trap for professional Christians), and honestly felt like I stumbled into some kind of wonderland. Some days it can feel hard to find any fruit on the tree at all, perhaps less indicative of what the text is than where I am--but today I felt like fruit was raining out of the sky, assailing me with goodness. Rich fruit, ripe fruit...a garden paradise, vivid with color and sound and texture.  

I was struck by the unembarrassed, unself-conscious bodily nature of the words, of all the words.  In Psalm 16.9, it's not just my heart and my spirit that are rejoicing but "my body also shall rest in hope." The God who inspired these, is evidently a most sensuous God. Psalm 16.11, "in your presence is there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand pleasures for evermore." I can be much more bashful, about seeking pleasure. But not the Psalms.  God is to be tasted; there is wine to drink, and laughter and sorrow so deep that you feel them in your very bones. 

In Isaiah 42, God is casting off the old restraint, and constraints, and cutting loose of decorum: "For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant." And in the gospel reading from Mark 2, in language that also strikes me for its sensuous character, Jesus tells us that "no one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."

We need new wineskins to be sure, but in the meantime, in the drab and frightening world we live in now, the only thing the wine of God's presence could do in such a place is "burst" it open. Perhaps that is precisely the experience you need today--to burst, to explode, to stop holding in both your inexplicable joy and unexplainable sorrow. Our sensuous God is into fullness and pleasure and gasping and panting; colors that burst and sounds that shatter. Stop holding in, your lament, your melody, your primal beat. Let everything real and alive and tender and scary come bursting out of you, and in doing so--the Spirit of God comes bursting into the world, too. If there's a river in your belly, and you don't know where it's going or where it comes from--what else can you do, but let it out? 

Don't be ashamed to be the new thing God is doing, that springs forth into the world, today. 

daily office meditation, January 11th: don't be afraid, little bug

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Isaiah 41.14

"Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel! I will help you, says the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel."

I am no fan of how certain segments of Christianity have referred to human beings as "worms." It has been used as an expression of human sinfulness, depravity, and inherent nastiness. While I do believe that, in the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans, "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God," I do not believe in "total depravity." All humans are created in the image of God-an image that is marred by sin-but never lost. I find such language dangerous, because it does not provide a basis for the essential human dignity conferred on all created beings, just for existing.

I don't believe that God looks on sons and daughters, however wayward, with contempt or condescension because he sees them as somehow too morally compromised. And I certainly don't believe in nonsense like, "God cannot even bear to look at us in our sin, God can only look at Jesus." The primary function of the story of Jesus of Nazareth is to show us that we in fact have a God who looks us eyeball-to-eyeball. The remarkable proclamation of the gospel, is that God looks at us with the same perfect love and delight with which the Father looks at Jesus. So in this regard, humans are not mere worms or wretches. Love has already dignified us too much for that. 

Yet in this context, I utterly adore the playful way God, through the mouth of the poet, refers here to Israel as a worm, as an insect: "Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel!" The expression is familial and affectionate, like a pet name. The language of worm or insect does not gesture toward our infinite moral impurity, but to our smallness.

This is at least part of the liberating word of the gospel, to a people who are living under the tyranny imposed on us everywhere from our advertisements, to our social media, to yes, even our therapeutic pulpits--the tyranny of largeness. The proclamation implicitly preached to us on all sides is that the world revolves around our whims and preferences, that we are bigger than we really are. At first, it sounds like we are being conferred significance, importance.  But of course significance is far too heavy a weight for us to bear.  We are given something much better: created to be ridiculously small, and yet infinitely loved. Being small, being worm-like, is grace indeed.  

I'll never forget the moment when, on a life-altering spiritual retreat in San Diego a few years ago, my spiritual director Sister Anne told me that all of my finest achievements, any book I would ever write, was like a two year-old's drawing that a parent lovingly puts on the refrigerator--not appreciated because it is good, but because I made it. And that my biggest failures were no more surprising, nor more frustrating, than when a two year-old soils their diapers. The scale of our problems is directly correlative to the scale of our lives. For most of us, we don't need our lives to be magnified into wide-screen, but shrunken down to the small screen.

We are not nearly as large, as we think we are. And this is great grace.

And so our playful God tells us, "Little bug! Little bug! don't be afraid, insect-friend! I will help you!"  

daily office meditation, January 10th: weightless grace for weary souls

(To read and pray along with us through the entire morning entry in the daily office, click here)

Isaiah 40:25-31

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The prophet said that even when the youths faint, those who wait on the Lord would be renewed. He said they would run and not be weary, walk and not faint. But I've got to tell you, friends: I get weary a lot these days. The world, as its ordered right now, makes my soul weary. I get discouraged by my own weakness. I get discouraged by the state of the Church in my home country. I fight disillusionment with all of it. Maybe like never before. I'm just old enough, and banged up enough, to be almost all out of youthful optimism.

And yet I tell you, I am more convinced than ever before that real hope doesn't come my way, unless the Spirit brings it on the wind. I don't have it in me, to muster or to work up. It connects to something in me, but it comes from beyond me. I don't have reserves of native hope to pull from. I need the real power of a real Holy Spirit, or I faint, I collapse, I crumble.

It's so easy, isn't it, to be constantly swept up in the tide of the world and its demands of us, trying to be the change, and take the stand, and do the right thing? Until you're so tired and discouraged, you don't want to get out of bed. Some of you know what I'm talking about. Not just a tiredness in your body, but in and underneath your very bones--a weariness of spirit, that you don't know if you'll ever recover from. 

"They that wait on the Lord." And you want to wait, but don't have the luxury to lay in the sand like a beached whale, waiting for God to come. The day asks too much of you, for that. Your life asks too much of you, to sit and wait for anything. I get it.

And yet wherever and however you have paused to read these words, at a stoplight in a bed at a desk or on a toilet, I am praying you will mount up with wings like an eagle, even now--that grace will descend to where you are; that you will feel a lifting that comes from outside yourself. That love will surprise those, who say they have no time to wait, because God honors the hunger of your soul even while your limbs can't stop moving. 

God is coming. Grace is coming. Renewing, sweeping, pick-you-up-off-your-ass-and-carry-you-through-the-day-sweet-Holy Ghost-grace--she's coming. You can't stop her from coming. 

Don't get to thinking, that you can build the kingdom, be some agent of peace or change or justice or hope or reconciliation, without letting this grace come and carry you. We've seen it too many times before--in the name of some good cause, people try to bring the kingdom to the earth, without inviting the King. And whenever we try to build a peaceful, just world without that central, galvanizing life-giving energy of Spirit blowing into our sails--the weight of the world just buries us.

So give up on any delusions that you have the strength within yourself to fight one more day. Give out, give in--just for a moment--long enough to let the flame of love light you, the wind of Spirit blow into you, to let weightless grace to overtake you. 

Weightless grace, where you don't carry it anymore. Weightless grace, where you are floating, not flailing; letting Love Himself pick you up on his shoulders, like the cross he carried for you so long ago. 

There's not a thing in the world, that you must do for the next few seconds--except to let yourself be lifted. 

daily office meditation, January 9th: remember who you are

To pray along with us through this morning's daily office in its entirety, click here. Otherwise: 

Mark 1:1-13

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,"' John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, 'The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.' In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.' And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Ephesians 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

John the Baptist came preaching to folks who had been exploiting the poor, going the crooked way, telling them to straighten up--because the Way himself ,was coming. 

This would be a man unlike any other man, because no other person had ever been so fiercely grounded in the truth of his own identity. No other man before had been so fully convinced of who he was, of who God said he was. When he came bobbing up out of the water, slick brown skin in the Galilee sun, his father announced "this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." And Jesus believed what his father said about him. And unlike anyone who lived before or since him, Jesus never forgot who he was. He seemed to live every moment always remembering, the thing we are always forgetting. 

Then later came folks like the Apostle Paul, who were punch drunk on the love of God; captivated by the possibility of living life with the same kind of power, purpose, and deep-seated sense of identity that Jesus did. So in the text from Ephesians, Paul says we are adopted as children through Jesus Christ. He says this was our destiny all along, what we were created for. He says God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ. He says we have an inheritance in him, and that we've been sealed with the Holy Spirit. As some translations render it, we now "sit together in heavenly places with Christ."

Now, that's a different, aerial perspective, a different point of view than the one you or I woke up with this morning. So the task now, before we attempt to stand for this or that, walk here or run there--is to sit. To sit, to be still, and to remember who we are, and who we belong to. We have to come apart, and come up higher. Because already there's been a bad dream, a tense conversation, a news show or a tweet that made you forget who you are again--since yesterday, or perhaps long before yesterday.

So can I remind you just for a second, of who God says you are? Can I remind you that you are God's beloved son...God's beloved daughter, more so than you are anything else, to anyone else? That you are beloved, beloved, beloved, all the way down to the bone? You are the source of God's pleasure, and the object of God's delight. Love dances over you, and calls you by your true name again. 

Let everything else pass away, for a moment. Sit above it, in the heavenly places. 

Know that you are not a disappointment or a failure, that nothing you have said or done has caused your Father to stop taking pleasure in you. This coat of many colors cannot be taken from you. No other label assigned by anyone else can negate his name for you, can negate the sweet truth of your belovedness. 

Remember who you are.

Remember, remember, remember. 

Whatever else you need to do or be this day, for Christ's sake, remember your identity. 

Live from this place. Love from this place. 

daily office meditation, January 8th: being brought low enough for saving.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

I have not always had the sense to know that the gospel is only “good news” depending on where you are standing.  If you are in the valley, God is coming to lift you—and this is good news, indeed. But if you are on the mountain, God is coming to bring you low—which does not seem like good news so much.  Except that of course, when you are brought low, you will be ready for God to lift you again!

The world is such an uneven place. And those of us who are currently residing on the mountain, we have such legitimate reasons to fear a God and gospel that always equalizes us.  God coming to bring us low, is our greatest threat.  God coming to bring us low, is our only hope. 

The cycle continues on and on, with or without our consent—of elevating ourselves, and of being brought low, for a lifting that is beyond our reckoning.  Whether or not we are low or high, God is coming—even now—to save us.  But it can be a hell of a long way down, for us to be brought low enough for the saving.