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

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

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

To read and pray through all of the morning portion of the daily office with us, click here

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. 

daily office meditation, January 7th: If God removes our lampstand

To read & pray along with this morning's daily office in its entirety, click here. This morning, my reflection is on the New Testament reading from  Revelation 2:1-7:

'To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

I've come a long way from where I started. I don't believe in a God who is out to get me anymore. A book like Revelation makes me wonder at the beauty of God now, instead of making me wonder about the security of my personal salvation. There are so many ways now I read this magnificent book differently than I did. 

But this text is still disconcerting to me, if for different reasons than I had to be disturbed when I was young. I still remember preaching this passage at Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Shelby, NC, my second sermon. It was a young man's fiery hot sermon, about the fiery hot love for God I was always trying to find inside myself but could not sustain. It had to do with flames of emotion, a flame I probably still believed I needed to work up in myself,  then. It had a lot to do with feeling, which would have been the only way I would have known how to speak of love at the time. Now it strikes me as ludicrous that Christ would admonish us to somehow find a way to keep our emotions for God running hot and high, as if that had anything to do with the life of faith. I'm sure at that point, I was still reading a text like this in fear that having my lampstand removed would be synonymous with having my salvation revoked-a consequence for letting the flame of my feelings for God burn to low.

It's still just as sobering now to think about having my lampstand removed, but I don't think that's synonymous with salvation--I think it's about light and influence. This scenario strikes up a kind of fear in me now, not for the sake of my own soul per se, but for the sake of the world. What happens if the salt loses its saltiness, if the light of the world seemingly "goes out" insofar that it was once inside of us? I see now that this was never really about "personal" witness to begin with, per se--but words addressed to a church, to a body of believers, about the real possibility of compromising a corporate witness. 

I can't help but wonder, as a product of the Church in North America, if these aren't the days in which our lampstand is being removed. I can't help but wonder if it's not the devil nor the world that is putting our light out--but God. I wonder if, in an odd way, this too might not be a kind of mercy, for a light that does not burn true to be removed rather than cast a sickly florescent glow onto the world. 

If any of that is true--what might repentance look like? What does it mean to say we might have abandoned the love we had at first, and what might it mean to "do our first works over?"

Surely it has nothing to do with feeling for God. Surely it has nothing to do with emotion. 

Evidently, it has everything to do with that word Protestants dread so very deeply--"works."

And what kind of works, has Christ ever looked for, if not works that embody his care for those on the margins? What kind of people are the works of God extended to, except for those outside the gates of the city? 

What kind of option would a God of perfect love be left with, for a people that not only refuse to care for the poor, the alien, the stranger, the refugee--but actively vilify and demonize them? Might the only merciful thing be to remove their lampstand, to extinguish their "light?" 

Perhaps God loves the world too much, to allow a church that is not based on works of love to continue to burn any longer. Perhaps removing our lampstand, is the only way God can save the world from us.

I hope it's not yet too late, for us to do our first works over. 

daily office meditation, January 6th: the light is never out, and the gates will never shut.

Friends,

As I'm committed to try to pray the daily office, I decided to do a little experiment here where I'd record some reflections on whatever Scriptures are assigned in the morning prayers. These are simply devotional reflections on whatever strikes me from the texts. I hope they can be of some value to you. This first one is perhaps a little meatier (as in, longer!) than most of them will be. If you would like to join me in praying and reading through the office with me, today's morning prayer in full is linked here. Thanks for reading--I plan to post more of these as often as I can. 

Meditation one: upside down, inside-out time

Psalm 46.1-4

1 God is our refuge and strength, *
a very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

3 Though its waters rage and foam, *
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

4 The LORD of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

            These are upside down, inside out times.  I am tired of elaborating about these times, attempting to explain or account for them.  It is not just that political structures that are trembling, but ecclesial structures.  It is not just our bodies that quivering in the tumult, but our very souls.  It is not just culture that is shifting, but the ground beneath our feet.  Angels and demons are at play in this, and not just demographics. I feel it in my bones; I experience it inside each breath. 

            There are no explanations that are useful; there are no platitudes that comfort.  There is this, and only this: that in such inside out, upside down times, the kind of time when the mountains are toppled and thrown into the sea—the Lord of hosts is with us.  Our own experience of being turned upside down and inside out creates space in us to be immersed into another reality, a reality in which Love rules over all, despite any evidence to the contrary.  

            This does not explain where God is present, or how God is present, anymore than it explains the mountains being cast into the sea .  The Psalm washes over me this morning, delightfully free and unencumbered by the explanations and machinations of logic, sociology, and psychology, the unending hamster wheel I’m always running inside my brain.  It instead only offers me an audacious proclamation: God is here. God is with us.  God is our stronghold.

            I have all the reasons in the world to be afraid, and yet the audacity of faith is to tell me I don’t have to be afraid, anyway.

 

Meditation two: the light is never out, and the gates will never shut. 

Revelation 21:22-27

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

            I never cease to marvel at the brilliance of John’s apocalypse—the brightness and vividness of his visions, the elegance of the literary structure.  Revelation is a linguistic cathedral in which no word is wasted.  One of the most arresting details is John’s use of “ the nations” and “the kings of the earth”—the exact phrases he uses repeatedly in Revelation 12 and following to describe those who make war against the lamb.  And yet in Revelation 21, we see “the nations” and “the kings of the earth” coming into the new Jerusalem.  We know that “nothing unclean will enter there,” so whoever is entering into this city has apparently been cleansed.  But however you work any of this out, it seems that John wants to see that at least some of these now friends of God were numbered among the enemies of God in the story thus far.  Curiously, they would seem to be utterly deposed of in chapter 19--but here they are, entering the new city. (note: I had never seen this movement in the text before reading Brad Jersak’s wonderful book, Her Gates Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope and the New Jerusalem)

            As a simple meditation on only one text, I have no desire to put some kind of stake down here on any big ideas about universal reconciliation.  I don’t find anything much about either this life nor the afterlife to be simple, but to the extent I have thoughts about such matters that are too deep for me, I’d point to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s excellent little book Dare We Hope that all Men Be Saved?  Von Balthasar essentially claims that we should hope for all to be saved, pray for all to be saved, and are given reasons to hope—but also no assurances, which is why we should not be presumptuous about it.  For myself, I am as punch drunk on the love of God as I could be, and do in fact believe in a Love wide and strong enough to redeem anyone.  But I also find repeatedly in Scripture a sort of dogged determination on the part of the Creator to not override human choice; a God too committed to our freedom to drag anyone kicking and screaming even into bliss.  I do not feel inclined nor competent enough to resolve this tension prematurely. 

            For while I don’t believe the God revealed in Christ condemns anyone, I absolutely do believe there is a kind of hell that can be willfully chosen.   Consider the words of Dylann Roof this week, the young man convicted for killing nine black worshippers in a Charleston church last year: “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”  If that is not a description of self-chosen damnation, I do not know what is.  Of course I do not believe that Dylann Roof or anyone else is unredeemable—only that hell is to be stuck in such a place, choosing hate over love.  Love cannot melt us, until we say yes to it. 

            And yet in contrast to the seemingly unending opportunities we have to choose violence, selfishness, and cruelty—here is this city where the light never goes out, and the gates never shut.  The light is always on, no matter how dark it gets.  The gates are never closed to us, no matter what other gates are slammed in our faces.  The night can seem neverending; but so also is the city of light and of love, ever open for us to choose it.  This is the city in which one days Caesars and popes and presidents will one day line up to bring their gifts to worship the One who is Love embodied, just like anyone else. 

            So today the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city that comes down, is teaching me how to exist.  And it is not complicated, no matter how complex the world might seem to me in the moment: I’m too keep my light on, and to keep my gates open.  I don’t get to go dark, or shut the gates of my heart.  I get to choose to imitate God by taking on the character of the home God makes for us—wide, wide open, 24/7.  I also have the opportunity to trust that no matter what wounds may come my way in the staying open, or in what ways I may yet wound another—that this too, in the words of the Derek Webb song, shall be made right.  

announcement: going on the road (& new book!) in 2017

Friends,

I'm getting ready to go into 2017 feeling feistier and more focused than ever in my life (perhaps more vulnerable too, but okay with that).  Sensing a lot of grace in this new season on my creative pursuits, I'm leaning hard into them--working on book 3 (due out from Zondervan this year-more on that soon) and...hitting the road to travel and speak full-time!!! I'm no tent revivalist, but feel like I've got the fire of one in my belly, ready to come to your town talk about God, beauty, wonder, love, loss, and every aching thing that makes us human. 

There will also be a LOT more new content here on the new and improved website (many thanks to the incomparable Cody Jefferson for both the design and photography) and on social media, so be on the lookout for that. It feels like in so many ways that I'm finding the sound of my unfiltered voice for the first time in my life. It feels like a time to be a little rowdier, a little more tender, a little more open, a little less guarded. It feels simultaneously liberating and terrifying. But there is this big world out there, and an even bigger God, and you get this one little life. I want to use mine to dream and howl and crackle and instigate louder than I have dared to before. 

For all the friends who have supported me on the ride thus far--from my heart, I can never say thank you enough. It is such grace to be able to explore new territory with you. I am especially grateful for the extraordinary community of Sanctuary Church, a life-saving place and people for me in the most fragile season of my life. I am forever grateful for her and her leaders. Tulsa, Oklahoma and my friends there will still very much be home. Your love and belief in me continues to mean everything.

Now...what do you say we make some sacred mischief in 2017? Shall we?  

If you are interested in hosting me at your church, conference, retreat, university/seminary, community event, pub, bar mitzvah, whatever--fill out the form here, and we will get back with you shortly. I'm excited about meeting more of you guys, sharing some meals, stories and hopefully our souls in 2017.  It's going to be fun.

grace and peace,

jonathan martin  

some thoughts on my friend Jen and The Walking Dead

Last Sunday night, I started flipping through stations after the adrenaline finally crashed, post-preaching…when I stumbled onto The Walking Dead. I long ago swore off of the show.  Like all good post-apocalyptic fiction, The Walking Dead at it’s best is not about zombies, but about what it means to be human.  I agree with the show’s premise, that the real terror is not in the things we are ostensibly most afraid of, but what the things we are afraid of can turn us into. Perhaps precisely because I have lived long enough to cause real hurt and experience real hurting though, I lost my appetite for the show.  The graphic violence, not just to the undead but to the humans, became too much for me.   I know enough about trauma now not to need it simulated.  

            But I couldn’t look away from what I saw.  The small band of survivors at the heart of The Dead’s narrative were in a circle, where the new villain, brandishing a barb-wire baseball bat, was monologuing threats to kill one of them to make an example.  The conceit is that he actually ends up killing not one but two characters, including the most beloved, altogether “good” character in the seven year run of the show.  Not only does he kill them—but he kills them slow and relentless, the camera unblinking as he grinds them into meat. THWACK. THWACK. THWACK. The show’s lone guileless character, the familiar and comforting face, disfigured and crushed. It was horrifying.  I was mad at myself for not changing the station.  It took me hours to go to sleep.  I felt like I couldn’t wash the awful images out of my hair.  For me at least, it was not entertainment, but emotional torture.  It unnerved me to watch something like it on prime-time cable television, the kind of thing that makes you feel less good about the world the next morning. 

            The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach was precisely the same one I had deep in my belly in the days that followed after the publication of this interview with my friend, Jen Hatmaker.  In a violent world where I do in fact have moments where I feel surrounded by mindless zombies, Jen is one of those people who over and over models grace, radiates goodness, emanates peace.  As a writer and speaker, devoted mom and friend, she is everything offstage you’d want her to be—deeply kind, gracious, an enormous heart for God and for people.  Her witness for the peaceable kingdom of Jesus has been clear and consistent.  Jen brings grace into every room she walks into large, or small.

            The backlash to her remarks in support of the LGBTQ community was swift and furious.  I was not surprised there was heat—the issues Jen talked about in the interview are among the most sensitive in Church and culture.  What I was not prepared for was the sick splat of THWACK THWACK THWACK.  A serious disciple of Jesus known to bring so much light and love to the body of Christ and to the world, not just disagreed with but mocked and marred, a public image forged from years of loving real people in the trenches, disfigured beyond recognition.  We are often ambiguous in the North American Church as to what we believe about the body and blood of Jesus, but quite certain of our appetite for cannibalizing our brothers and sisters.  The Church too often mirrors the brutal dehumanization of our culture’s politics and pornography, rather than exist as a protest movement against it. 

            It is more sickening than a TV show.  Part of why we love our screens is because they give us power to dehumanize an other, to reduce woman and man to parts, son and daughter to mush, like the scene in The Walking Dead.  A couple of days before that, I was sitting across the table with Jen and Brandon and a few other friends after a night of the Belong tour in St. Paul, MN, sharing much life and laughter.  That was the last time I saw Jen’s face, before the unrecognizable version that kept popping up in my social media feed.  And once again, the next morning the world felt much darker for it.  It is the depravity of this Roman circus we call an election infecting Christ’s Church. I am over it—the sanctimonious, self-aggrandizing, carnivores who do it in the name of Jesus. 

            I understand that sexuality matters, and that the weight of how to work out these most sensitive issues of human existence in a way that is faithful to Scripture, Christian tradition and the experience of the Spirit within the Church is difficult to parse.  I know that for many of my brothers and sisters, they sincerely believe they are at war for the truth and for people’s souls over these issues.  I am in deep relationships with people for whom I love on all sides of these conversations.  Like the Christians I just referenced, I too believe these are high stakes times, that there is a battle with cosmic implications of which we are a part. 

            That battle, however, is not between conservatives and liberals, but with principalities and powers—forces of wickedness in high places.  It is the struggle between God in Christ who is the advocate, and Satan who is the accuser.  Creedal faith, the faith of the apostles, gives us both a lot of room to disagree, and parameters.  It is possible to be an orthodox Christian and to have severe, serious disagreements about weighty social and theological issues.  It is okay to have robust arguments.  But the degrading, dehumanizing rhetorical bludgeoning has its basis in the spirit of the age, not the Spirit of Christ. 

            The global Church, like the early Church in Acts 15, is in a volatile time of upheaval, change, and challenge.  Like those believers, we have inspired texts, the witness of the Spirit, and the testimony of the saints to guide our discernment.  We do not have a spirit of slavery again to fear, but the Spirit who casts out fear, the Spirit by whom we say “Abba, Father.”  The questions with which we are wrestling are important questions, but I am convinced they are not the ultimate questions.  Sexuality matters, justice matters, the role of Christian tradition matters.  But the particular questions are not as weighed as the larger, overarching one: What do we believe God is like?  What is the character of God?  If we are called to be ambassadors of the kingdom, what does the heart of this king look like?

            I am committed to wrestle with the particulars in ways that are hopefully faithful.  I am in the late night conversations.  I am not a spectator but a participant in the nitty gritty of work of being the Church.  I need the wisdom of the Spirit, the resources of Christian tradition, the experience of brothers and sisters who are “other” than me.  I do not claim to have all the answers.  I am an open failure, on the road like anyone else.  I am committed to remaining at the table with people whose convictions are deeply different than mine, because I believe that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is more powerful than any ideas that divide us. 

            What I know for sure is that the heart of this God is love and mercy.  What I do know are the fruit of the Spirit.  What I do know is that I see them in abundance in the life of Jen Hatmaker, publicly and privately.  I see a lot of sincere people standing up for Jesus, believing themselves to be standing for the truth.  Jesus, however, is not in need of anyone’s defense—He’s already risen from the dead.  I see Jen’s consistent witness of standing with Jesus at the margins.  If you disagree with her conclusions, I cannot imagine how you can disagree with the heart of cross-shaped love which clearly animates her.  Because she is humble and operates in the Spirit of Christ, I know that no matter the THWACK THWACK THWACK, she will get up tomorrow and work to bring grace to bear in the morning all over again. 

            These are contentious times, the days past civility.  I will be glad for them to be over.  I have considerable ambiguity about this election.  I am unambiguous about my friend Jen Hatmaker: I’m with her.   

 

a prayer for Tulsa.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God

You know what it is, to be in exile

You know what it is, to be a stranger

You know what it is, to a pilgrim

You know what it is, to be homesick.

 

Teach us then, Lord Jesus Christ

How to be faithful, but not pious

How to be restless, but not agitated

How to be loving, but not sentimental

How to be trusting, but not certain.

 

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God

You know what it is, to hold a city in your chest

As your heart broke for Jerusalem

May our hearts break for Tulsa

For all her wounded sons and daughters.

 

Creator, Father, always tender God over all

we lift the people of Tulsa, Oklahoma up to you

our artists, our addicts, our children, our childless

in suits & ties & tattered t-shirts; with badges, with scars

tend to their troubled minds, sick bodies, & broken hearts.

 

*********

 

Spirit of truth, Spirit of life

breathe your breath in North and South Tulsa

your wind to Jenks, your fire to Bixby

your peace & justice to Broken Arrow

until every inch of this city is flooded with you.

 

and as you descend like a dove to us here

send the comforter to Haiti, now

come quickly to our friends in Florida

where the waters and the body count have risen

oh God, send your peace, & send your people.  

the place where Christ lives.

There is a fragile place in you that shatters on a Tuesday morning, when all you are looking for is a pair of socks—instead only to find one that is not yours, an artifact of the life you had before the death or the divorce.  In that moment, it feels like you are inhaling glass with every breath.  Reality is the jagged corner of the table you hit your head on, and all you can feel is disorientation.  This is the place where Christ lives, in the agony.

There is a space, not at the bottom, but a little lower than that, after you’ve finished the bottle, after you roll out of a foreign bed.  In a way you don’t feel like you are you at all, but the mirror doesn’t lie—the damning evidence that this is unmistakably you, down here again.  You have no excuses, and you have no alibi.  Everything in your five senses says that you are over.  But in this place that is lower than you’ve ever been, something inside says that this is not all there is.  Already past hot, sticky shame, whatever is still alive inside of you feels numb and indifferent.  Feeling guilty would require you to feel, and that is more than you are capable of.  You are lonely, but something in you says you are not yet abandoned, as if a soft voice calls out to you from the other side of the mirror.  This is the place where Christ lives, the hope that comes without your consent, when hope is no longer possible.

There is a moment between sleeping and waking when reality has no jurisdiction over you. You are not awake to the pain; the sharp cold of loss hasn’t been poured over your head like an ice bucket.  You are every version of yourself, and yet not tethered to any one version in particular.  This space is something like the place that you knew before you came here, the existence before heartbreak.  This is the place you somehow sense you might go, after.  You don’t exactly where you are or when you are, only vaguely that you are loved, and that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Held in this in-between place, you are at home in your yearning.  This is the place where Christ lives.  This is the field that is ripe with resurrection. 

            Not just in hope, not just in heartbreak, but in the place in-between, Christ happens, over and over. 

unprovable

unexplainable

undeniable.

I believe in the story of Jesus’ birth, and life, and death, and resurrection, to be sure.  The particular language of that story is essential to me.  But deeper than any language, every cell of me believes that Love keeps on finding us where we are, long after we are past being found.  And that is the story I believe the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus ultimately tells, and keeps on telling, in and through us.  

For Charlotte & Tulsa, the only cities I've ever loved & lived in

For Charlotte and Tulsa, the only two cities I’ve ever loved:

I have only really loved and lived in these two cities—Charlotte for 37 years, Tulsa for the last 15 months.

In some ways, they seem galaxies apart from each other—the ornate beauty of Charlotte’s endless trees, versus the sparser beauty of Tulsa’s flat landscape and her big sky; the eastern edge of the country versus the dead center of it; the home of America’s banks versus the home of Woody Guthrie.  Yet in so many ways, they are alike.  Jim Bakker on one side of the chasm, Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin on the other.  Both cities are crowded with steeples, chock full of Baptists and charismatics, wall-to-wall with holy rollers—from robed Episcopal choirs to strobe lights and the grinding guitars of God.  We are not only more religious than other Americans; we are more religious than Moses and Paul.  We live in “the Christ-haunted landscape,” the well from which your favorite televangelist drew his holy water.

The thing is, the last time I heard of a televangelist who sold holy water, he got in trouble after his late-night flock started getting sick off of it. They hoped there was a panacea at the bottom of the vial, but there turned out to be trace amount of feces there instead.  And this, it seems, is the other thing Charlotte and Tulsa have in common: both towns have shit in their holy water.

Just because our cities have a lot of churches, does not mean they don’t have racial divisions and systemic sins.  Under our stack of dusty old Bibles, all sorts of things have been growing in the darkness.  And somehow now, it seems, the hard bright light of cable news is shining into it.  Whatever faith we thought kept us from speeding tickets and got us better parking spaces, was not big enough to abolish the walls that separate us from ones we would call brother and sister. Both towns have their own historic demons of racism and injustice, demons we’ve evidently been exercising, rather than exorcising—they seem bigger and stronger now, than ever.

But surely it is not just the light of video cameras that shines into our darkness; but something of God’s light in it—the light that exposes, all that God wants to heal.  Surely there is Love that brings hope to the darkest of our shadows, even the long shadows of our steeples.  Surely. I have nothing novel or clever to say about any of this. I don’t know what to say, to my black brothers and sisters. I don’t really know what to say to the white ones, for that matter. My mouth is dry, my eyes are red; my hands are shaky. And yet somehow, I do believe God wants to heal the open wounds of hate and of history—the open wounds that we pretended were long-healed scars.   If we will name them. If we will own them.  If our churches lead the way not in external acts of piety and religious kitsch, but in humility and repentance.

This starts now. This starts with me.  I admit I am complicit, in the racial divisions that tear at the fabric of both my two beloved cities. I confess my own part, in the crucifixion of God. The things I fear in my neighbor, are only a projection of the things I fear in me.  I have been so very afraid. I have not attended to the cries of my brother, or the sounds of my sister.  I’ve been lost in my head, and in my own life, dear Tulsa.

I am so, so very sorry.